Day of the Woman, better known as I Spit on Your Grave, is not an easy movie to review. This was possibly the most notorious of all the so-called video nasties” and was the movie that cause Roger Ebert to have an attack of apoplexy. It has a reputation as such a vile and misogynistic movie that normally I would not even have bothered to see it, had it not been for Carol Clover’s eloquent and passionate feminist defence of the film in her provocative and fascinating book on the horror movie, Men, Women and Chainsaws.
The story is simple. Jennifer, a woman writer from New York, takes a house in the country, intending to work on her current book. She immediately arouses the resentment of Johnny, who works at the gas station in the town, and his friends. They resent her for being from the city, and for being rich (the two being synonymous as far as they’re concerned). Along with Matthew, a retarded man who delivers groceries, they stalk her and repeatedly rape her. Their ostensible purpose is to help Matthew to lose his virginity. Matthew’s attempt to rape her fails when he loses his nerve. After leaving her unconscious Johnny sends Mathew back to kill her, but he gain loses her nerve. She recovers, and she sets out to revenge herself on her four attackers.
While it’s nowhere near as graphic as its reputation would suggest, it’s still a very uncomfortable film to watch. It does raise some very thorny an important issues though. If you make a movie that condemns violence, but your anti-violence movie itself contains graphic violence, is the movie part of the solution or part of the problem? Does taking revenge empower a female rape victim, or dies it make her more of a victim? Does taking revenge make her as much of a monster as the rapists? I don’t know the answer to these questions, and I don’t claim to, but I do think they’re questions that have to be faced.
I can certainly understand the position of people who find this movie offensive and disgusting, but I tend to agree with Clover that it does confront us with uncomfortable issues in a very direct and very effective way, and that it’s really far less offensive than quite a number of mainstream movies that have a veneer of respectability merely from being big-budget mainstream features (Dirty Harry being a particularly repellent example). While movies such as Dirty Harry and Death Wish glorify both violence and revenge, I Spit on Your Grave takes a much more negative view of violence, and even though Jennifer’s revenge is portrayed as understandable and even justified it’s presented in a way deliberately intended to make us feel some unease about it. The movie also makes it clear that the men involved derive no joy from their crime. The rapes are clearly not about pleasure or lust, they’re simply about male competition, about establishing and maintaining male hierarchies and dealing with male anxieties. As Clover says, “the rapes are presented as almost sexless acts of cruelty that the men seem to commit more for each other’s edification than for their own physical pleasure.”
It’s difficult to imagine a more sweeping condemnation of male group behaviour than the one offered by this movie. Clover also points out that the violence, as in so many American horror movies, is motivated as much by class and regional (city vs country) tensions as it is by tensions between the sexes. I can’t say I’m entirely convinced by Carol Clover’s arguments in favour of this movie (and she herself admits it’s a difficult movie to defend) but I think that its more vehement critics have perhaps missed the point entirely.