It should be noted that the original title of this movie was Day of the Woman, and since this was a more apt title, and – to this day – remains the one that the director insists is the true title, it shall henceforth be discussed under that name, and not the re-titled “I Spit on your Grave”.
Beaten, stabbed, shot, left for dead. Only to rise, strengthen their resolve and seek vengeance against the ones who wronged them. Thematically, this kind of revenge story has been done hundreds of times across the decades, in everything from Hang ‘Em High to Payback. They should have done the genre to death – all the worst things that could ever happen to a guy in this kind of situation have been covered: including raping (Death Wish) or killing (Mad Max) those close to him too. Movies go to great lengths to help audiences sympathise with these protagonists – show the true horror of what happens to them – so that they can then go on to empathise with their response. I mean, who wouldn’t root for the man who will do whatever it takes to rescue his daughter (Taken) or find those responsible for her death (Edge of Darkness)? Whatever it takes.
Rape is a different kettle of fish entirely, but follows the same basic principles. The fourth Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry movie, Sudden Impact, dipped into this territory, only showing it through the eyes of the protagonist, Harry, whose prime suspect in a string of murders was a woman who had been gang-raped. But few movies actually follow a female lead – showing exactly what happens to her in order to turn her into the revenge-fuelled killing machine that the audience can really get behind. It was implied in Kill Bill, but never explicit. You see, how do you come back from that? How do you show your lead heroine repeatedly violated, broken like an abused animal, and left for dead, and then show her get up and take her own revenge on those who did it to her? It’s a tough task to accomplish without alienating the audience. The habit is to have somebody else take revenge on their behalf and, even then, if the depiction of the rape is too graphic, it risk distracting – and thus detracting – from the narrative as a whole. Having the victim take revenge herself was almost unheard of. Back in the 70s, however, one movie went that far... and further.
Jennifer Hill is a young fiction writer based in New York, who takes a trip out to an isolated riverside cabin where she hopes to complete her latest work. Sunbathing in her hammock, or relaxing on the grass, the peace and quiet is exactly what she needs. Unfortunately her arrival has not gone completely unnoticed, as a group of locals who run a local gas station take a fancy to this pretty young thing, and, with little further reason, decide to kidnap her, drag her out into the bushes, and rape her. Then take her to the woods. And rape her again. Then let her crawl back to her house, covered in mud and blood. And rape her again. She’s eventually left for dead by the group, and gradually, over the next few days, puts herself back together. But things will never be the same again. Taking a trip to a church to ask for forgiveness for what she is about to do, Jennifer resolves to seek out the four men who took so much from her, and exact a deadly revenge befitting of the acts that they perpetrated upon her.
As noted, originally the movie was called Day of the Woman (or, The Rape and Revenge of Jennifer Hill), which is clearly a far more apt title when considering the subject matter. From its initial release – and over the subsequent decades – many have lost sight of what the film was about: the justifiable revenge of a horrifically wronged woman. But who can blame them? Like many films both before and since, the controversy surrounding them was a signpost to warn off any potential viewers – or entice the wrong kind (most notably, Scorsese’s amazing The Last Temptation of Christ faced protests against its release which had been organised by numerous religious leaders from around the world – many of whom had never even seen the movie!!). And with Day of the Woman it was easy to point and criticise without even watching it because everybody had heard about the horrendously protracted rape scene – it stood out as a sticking point for critics and censors alike. After watching it, you see why there was so much fuss, but perhaps also understand why it was shown in the first place. Some argue that is goes too far, is too graphic, and exploits the subject-matter somewhat, lingering on the depraved act before turning to the revenge that stems from it. Others think that it is completely necessary – you have to show the true horror of what befalls Jennifer, otherwise you would not be able to justify her subsequent extreme acts of revenge. I tend to fall within the latter category.
Often dismissed as just another 70s exploitation film, Day of the Woman may have all the production values and camerawork of an entry into that genre, and may have the requisite nudity and violence, but the context in which they are depicted is entirely different. The horrors that befall Jennifer Hill are shown from her point of view – her agony, her screams, her desperation to escape the repeated assaults. It is impossible not to identify with her and, on the flipside of the spectrum, it is impossible to identify with any of her attackers: portrayed as nothing more than vile, rabid animals, who need to be put down. And – by the end of the movie – audiences acknowledge that. This is a direct result of having previously seen exactly what happened to the central character. I’m sure that there are those who would ask whether it is necessary to go as far as this movie does to show what happened to her – and it’s a valid question – but it’s much harder to root for the protagonist, and to empathise with her actions, without having seen just how terribly she has been treated. (If anything, the recent remake, which I am also reviewing, goes to show just what happens if you don’t fully address the rape, and instead focus primarily on the acts of torture in revenge).
Of course this subject-matter had been addressed already a few years earlier in Deliverance, the much-lauded John Boorman classic which sees Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds and a couple of friends attacked by rednecks – assaulted (most famously Ned Beatty’s character was raped) – and then desperately try to escape their hunters; but the sex and nudity (both in the rape, and in the revenge) in Day of the Woman left few looking in the direction of Deliverance for comparison – instead regarding it as all-but pornographic. It was labelled as glorifying rape, somehow encouraging men to rape, and furthermore showing how women actually like it, because here the lead is depicted as going back for more. The reality doesn’t matter – that this is a very clever tactic she uses, black widow style, to dispatch her attackers (playing them at their own game, and then hitting them exactly where it hurts the most) – because people had already made their minds up that this is porn. Which is odd because I think it’s exactly the opposite. If you’ve seen the comparatively recent Gasper Noe drama, Irreversible, you will know what I mean. Can anybody describe the horrors that befall Monica Bellucci’s character in that movie as being titillating? As encouraging men to rape and beat women in underground passes?!
Ironically, the same undeniable problem persists with Irreversible as it does with its precursor, Day of the Woman: it’s almost unwatchable. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of making one of the most thematically horrific movies of all time – something which has plagued many noteworthy director’s acclaimed works (like Aronofsky’s bleak and brutal Requiem for a Dream) – and it means that there will always be individuals who will, quite understandably, never want to watch this film. There are then those who watch it, understand its significance and perhaps even its message, but who still never want to ever see it again. It’s that kind of movie. To this day, despite having purchased two different SD-DVD copies of Irreversible, and having owned them for several years, I’ve only ever seen it once, not quite making it through the whole thing a second time round. Requiem for a Dream? I’ve never even thought to watch it again. I can remember too much of it as it is. I’m sure Day of the Woman will fall into the same category; it’s an unfortunate side-effect of this kind of production.
Still, if you can get over the sheer brutality of it, have the stomach to survive the singular acts of rape and violence – which have, for over thirty years, remained exceptionally horrific – and are prepared to look beyond the low-budget, exploitation-style production; you may be able to understand the true intentions behind this production, and even applaud it (albeit silently) as a pro-female exploration of women recovering the mindset and reasserting their power and control over, what must be, one of the most horrendous things that could ever happen to them: rape. With its lack of score (a clever choice by the director, only adding to the realism of the production) and somewhat questionable selection of distinctly average cast members – aside from a powerful and haunting lead performance by Camille Keaton, Buston Keaton’s grand-niece, the otherwise all-male cast are distinctly average, at best – there is plenty to initially put you off accepting the message, and going on this harrowing journey. But, at the end of it all, Day of the Woman paints an undeniably sympathetic portrayal of revenge, and does so quite uniquely – from the point of view of a raped woman.
Always regarded as a video nasty, somewhat wrongly maligned on its initial release, and infamous for its hauntingly long rape sequence, Day of the woman is a dark and harrowing movie that will stick in the minds of most who sit through it to the end, and that has remained a talking point for many movie discussions across the decades. In a way, it is a credit to the director that he has created a movie which leaves such an indelible impression on anybody who beholds it. But this was never going to be a film that has the potential for multiple viewings – one is arguably more than enough. It is not a pleasant watch, to say the least, but that does not mean that it is a bad movie.
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