Thursday, 10 February 2011

Blu-Ray Review: I Spit On Your Grave (2010)

Directed by: Steven R Monroe
Starring: Sarah Butler, Daniel Franzese, Chad Lindberg, Jeff Branson, Andrew Howard, Rodney Eastman
Jennifer Hills (Sarah Butler), hires an isolated cabin so she can complete a novel with no distractions. Her naturally carefree attitude is picked up upon by some of the locals – a Neanderthal group with little to do but hunt and drink, who see her as a plaything and citing her “city ways” as an excuse to break into her home, brutalise and attempt to murder her. Her mind almost breaks during a prolonged and humiliating gang rape, but not before she manages to escape by throwing herself from a bridge into a river. The gang try to find her, eventually giving up, hoping that her corpse will wash up on the shore, and they can finally get rid of all the evidence. Just as they relax and get on with their lives, they are picked off one by one as Hills becomes a vengeful killing machine.

If I’m honest, I had little interest in this movie when it was announced and then released last year. I saw it as just another hyped horror like A Serbian Film that had normally reasonable horror movie fans acting as if aliens had landed and produced the best movie ever made. Well, guess what? It wasn’t. The original I Spit... didn’t do anything for me but I was intrigued as to how and why a movie with such an infamous history would be remade: But, then the notorious Last House on the Left had also been remade in a glossy well shot movie with quality actors. Despite it having one of my favourite actors currently - Garrett Dillahunt - I couldn’t get into it. So, armed with a double barrel shotgun of anti-trash prejudice, I played a movie that surprised me.

With A Serbian Film, the cry was that it was a well made film. I agree that it was well shot and that’s where the story ends, but with I Spit I found the cinematography, acting, score, in particular, to be top notch. I wasn’t expecting this at all.

The movie opens with Jennifer Hills driving to find the cabin that she’s rented. We get a glimpse of the vibrant, casually pleasant woman that she is; the polar opposite of what she will become during the course of the movie. A playful accident at a remote gas station will trigger the horrific events that follow. I wondered what Jennifer could have done differently and one of the main things was to have kept quiet about where she was heading. I mean, come on, a lone petite woman in an isolated cabin surrounded by “good ole boys” at every turn? What could possibly go wrong? Seeing the cabin and its location, as a five foot ten male with a background in martial arts, I wouldn’t spend a minute there without either automatic weapons or a bunch of Special Forces as bodyguards but then that’d be a vastly different movie.

The motive behind the attack, initially, seems to be down to the frustrations of Johnny, played by Jeff Branson. He’s the alpha male in a bunch of slackers and wasters. All it takes is some constant ribbing from his mates that he couldn’t bag a “rich, city girl” and events precipitate into the horror that befalls Jennifer. The odd one out, if I can say that without being accused by the thought police of prejudice, is Matthew (played by the ever reliable Chad Lindberg. Some of you may know him as Ash, in the TV show Supernatural). Matthew is mentally disabled but fully capable of plumbing. When he is hired to fix Jennifer’s plumbing (yes, the innuendo is used at some point in the film) she gives him a big hug and a kiss because it’s in her nature to do so. She’s quietly naive and we get an idea of how much so when one of the guys reads out her writing during their harassment of her; it’s standard “city girl” stuff.

Hearing that Matthew got to get a kiss from the new girl in town is what finally causes Johnny to band the group together and go visit. The first scenes of Jennifer’s stay at the cabin are quite tense because you know that something will happen, but you don’t know when it will happen. When the group arrive the movie shifts into the uncomfortable torture of Jennifer. Things go bad to worse when the very person you think will help, turns out to be the biggest screw up of the lot of them. This is where the movie truly becomes difficult to watch and I found myself wanting the killing to begin. To be fair on the movie makers, they don’t try and titillate the audience with the abuse of Jennifer. The guys behaviour is totally abhorrent and would only appeal to those of a similar nature. Sarah Butler must have gone through a difficult time as an actress with those scenes, ending up totally nude for what must have equated as hours in filming time. She does a great job. There are subtleties in her performance that are more obvious when she becomes a kind of angel of death.

Looking at why Jennifer became this killer, I believe that her mind fractured after the constant rape. We see her walking to the bridge and before she makes the decision to jump off we see the blankness in her eyes, a retreat. Butler plays the scene with her right arm twitching loosely at her side as if a part of her brain had disengaged. I like this and it makes for a more believable experience despite some of the obvious trappings of the horror genre.

Once Jennifer seemingly commits suicide and her abusers clean up the evidence of their crimes, the group of men go back to their lazy lifestyles. Of all of them, only Matthew seems to be genuinely affected by what he has done. He dreams, almost predicts Jennifer’s return. It’s unclear as to whether he is truly sorry for what he has done, or that he initially fears her return and then fears the consequences of her real return. We as the audience can’t help but feel a measure of sympathy towards him before Jennifer returns to get him.

In the first part of the movie we follow Jennifer’s journey to the cabin and her initial stay there and get to know her. The horror happens to her, she jumps from a bridge and her abusers become the central characters. This story and tonal shift is clever because Jennifer then becomes, in a way, the antagonist. We might have been shocked at the guy’s behaviour, but apart from one of them, would we wish the outcome on them? I’d say not.
The make-up effects work is very good and especially grisly. There’s nothing worse in this film compared to what has been shown before but the way it is shot and set up is very brutal. Because as the viewer we are detached, we have the moral high ground and don’t necessarily see that this method of punishment is appropriate.

As said earlier in this review, Sarah Butler’s performance is exemplary and I hope to see her in more movies. Her shift from sweet young woman to an almost insane killer is remarkable even given the time that she’s off screen before she returns. The rest of the cast are all excellent too. Jeff Branson is suitably menacing and this role must have been far removed from his normal roles. Andrew Howard, a fellow Brit, switches from red neck thug to loving and doting father to almost a comedic level. His final scenes are uncomfortable, although we don’t have too much sympathy for the character he plays. Tracey Walter, who has had a distinguished career (some of the more eagle eyed action fans among you might recognise him as Malak, from Conan the Destroyer), shines in the few scenes that he has and puts the character into character acting. As mentioned earlier, Chad Lindberg turns in a great performance as the mentally challenged Matthew.

For a film of it’s type it’s well made. I can’t get too excited at rape/revenge dramas but there’s a lot of good stuff in this movie that I’ve tried to explain about. I look upon this as a lesson to some filmmakers. For example, had a movie version of The Punisher followed a similar format it might have made for a better movie. To illustrate, Frank Castle could be seen living with his family, enjoying retirement. We see the crime organisation, how they live. All parties end up in Central Park . Blam! The Castle family are in the middle of a gang war and get shot. Frank Castle disappears and becomes The Punisher – six foot of vengeance, picking off the crime syndicate. I Spit shows an interesting transition. Ironically, it deviates from the female empowerment themes that were evident in the original and why it was called “Day of the Woman” in the first place.
If you’ve got a strong stomach, both for physical and mental torture on screen, then this is for you.

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