Leaning against the window, picking idly at the paint all flaking and peeling on the underside of the sill, Talbot clears the throat and recites: “This woman has just cut, chopped, broken and burned five men beyond recognition… but no jury in America would ever convict her.” He tilts the head back, purses the lips a time. “Knife in the hand,” says, “bare-backed and bloodied. Tattered garment pulled down o’er the right shoulder. Arse half out. Daylight through the trees up ahead, and yet the full of every night that ever was it is that she’s prowling…”
I nod, fishing from the corners of the pouch in the paw the last few tendrils of Golden Virginia tobacco. “Aye,” saying. “An image and a half, is what it is.”
“Is what it is, is right. And one that the picture itself could never hope to live up to, whatever the number of its merits. And a fair few, I suppose, is the number of them.”
Camile Keaton, granddaughter of Buster, is the woman, and Meir Zarchi’s infamous – and iconic - I Spit On Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman, I Hate Your Guts, or, simply, The Rape and Revenge of Jennifer Hill) the picture in question.
“For as grubby and sleazy and begrimed a thing as it was, there’s no doubting that a thing in possession of A Point it was, also.”
Four nights prior, Talbot and I are sat shivering afore a screen on the suitably dank ground floor of The Horse Hospital – “a three-tiered progressive arts venue in London providing an encompassing umbrella for the related media of film, fashion, music and art” – listening to Bizarre Magazine’s Billy Chainsaw, sleazepert of some renown and one-time P.A. of Siouxsie and the Banshees, introduce what will henceforth be known as ISOYG 2010, director Steven R. Monroe’s game attempt to wrench something halfways relevant to the Here and Now from out the guts of what Roger Ebert once famously described as “a movie so sick, reprehensible and contemptible that I can hardly believe it’s playing in respectable theatres.”
“You know what you’re getting with a film like this” says Chainsaw. “I don’t really need to say anything.”
That the crowd do indeed know what they’re getting, or at least what they hope they’re getting, is confirmed by the low murmur rising then from the cobbles, wafting about the Morbid Angel pendants and the Suspiria tattoos and the facial accoutrements of those present, ascending to the rafters as a great plume of excitable, anticipatory babble flush with misremembered atrocity. Giddy accounts of bits out Deodato’s House On The Edge Of The Park, or Vibenius’s Thriller: A Cruel Picture, or indeed Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left zigzag about the room, fragments of savage scenes now attributed to Zarchi’s “vile bag of garbage” (Ebert again), and with little in the way of rebuttal or riposte for that.
For it’s been a long time since any of us have seen I Spit On Your Grave. Reminiscing as we are now, we’re mining a shadow that by this point can boast very little in the way of any real connection to its source – squinting at a nexus, by God, where intersects and interweaves the memories of a plethora of late-night viewings of any number of similarly-themed, and similarly reviled, features, and those in turn tainted by proximity to the myriad of shocking and sickening scenarios native to nowhere beyond our own discoloured and infected imaginations.
“Christ! Do you remember when she bait your man about the jaw with the orphan’s ankles, and then bites the ballbag off him, and then shoves it up the arse o’ the horse?! And then she takes to the horse next wi’ a sander – no, tell you a lie, a half-dozen hammers! A half-dozen hammers she took to the bloody horse then that had this man’s scrotes up in its arsehole, do you remember?!”
“God almighty I remember it well! And when she forced the twenty live bees up your boy-o’s pish-hole?! And then made him nut them out into your other man’s hair?!”
“God’s chuff! Some squealin’ I done at that, boys!”
And so on.
What we can say about ISOYG 2010 is that, even though a man at first had to squint to see it through the miasmic funk of all this foul and fevered thought-muck, the sights and sounds it delivered were of a class despicable enough to soon have banished all but the most stubborn shards of collective memory from the skulls of those assembled. What grotesque reverie of ours could compete with the sight of a man tied to a tree, puking and shaking, with eyelids held open with fish-hooks and crows picking and poking away at the whites? None, is the one that could.
The plot of ISOYG 2010 is identical to that of Zarchi’s picture. A novelist, Jennifer Hill, leaves New York City for to do some writing in a secluded cabin in the country. She’s no sooner arrived in the area than she’s attracted the attentions of a group of local men – one of them mentally-disabled – who will, in time, orchestrate a gang-rape depicted in such unflinching and sickening and harrowing detail that it’s all a fella can do to keep from taking to the screen with a blowtorch.
The last third of the picture revolves around Jennifer’s revenge, each of the assailants tracked down, tortured and killed in a series of spectacular and often near-unwatchable vignettes. Strangulations, castrations, mutilations…
“Yes,” I say, addressing Talbot’s assertion of a few paragraphs ago. “A Point, Zarchi’s film most certainly had, is right.”
For the (doubtlessly part-apocryphal) story is this: From out the bushes on the edge of a particular park in a particular quarter of New York City on a particular night in October, 1974, there emerged a particular woman battered and naked and bleeding and pleading for assistance. Presently, Meir Zarchi encountered her, and learning that she had been raped, decided to take her to the local police station for fear that the assailant/s might still be stalking the area. Appalled by the treatment the woman received therein – subject to dismissal, disinterest and interrogation in roughly that order; forced to answer at length a bewildering array of questions even though she could barely speak on account of a broken jaw; repeatedly denied medical assistance – Zarchi came away incensed. I Spit On Your Grave (the original Day of the Woman was, and remains, his preferred title) was his response. An uncommonly vicious, excruciating picture that, as Michael Kaminski writes in an excellent analysis, serves as both “personal expression and wish-fulfilment.”
Jennifer Hill does “what the girl Zarchi rescued could not: she exacts justice… Law enforcement cannot help her, so Zarchi’s heroine heals her wounds herself and then embarks on a quest of vigilante justice.”
I Spit On Your Grave is not in any way misogynistic or nihilistic or misanthropic. It’s raging and abrasive and anguished and defiant. It’s a lopped-off cock and a snarling “fuck you.”
“And that,” says Talbot, “is where this Monroe fella falters, is when it comes to Having A Point. Or a point of his own. Certainly he’s very eloquent when addressing the matter of how much win there is in a pair o’ fish-hooks through this one’s eyelids, or a shotgun up thon one’s hoop, but you’d sooner teach an otter’s pubes to whistle, I’d wager, than you’d get him to utter a single intelligible word about a solitary damn thing else.”
“Maybe,” I say, sweeping the fag-ash from the copy of Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws now balanced precariously on my thigh, “but then again, perhaps it’s point enough that he absolutely refuses even for a second to be glib about rape. Maybe that in itself is justification for the thing’s existence.”
“Pfft. Christ’s toes, it’s hardly a revelation. That rape is abhorrent. It’s hardly ‘Charlie Sheen done 9/11’ or whatever the fuck that bloody thing was about. We hardly need told.”
“You’d think that. But then you think another thing about maybe Zack Snyder and his moronic, speed-ramped sexy-glam approach to the subject, or about Nimrod Antal’s comedy rapist, or even about how nobody seems to think twice about dropping rape jokes into casual conversation anymore – “You got FRAPED!!! OMGLOL” – and afore you know it there’s thoughts for a fleet on the go all about how maybe we do need to be told. Maybe we’re not as empathetic and intelligent and just, y’know, grown the fuck up as we might like to think.”
That said, what we probably don’t need at this particular point in time, necessarily, is a subsequent series of ridiculously exhilarating – and ridiculously elaborate – punch-the-air revenge sequences that not only kind of trivialise what went before, but also stir up all sorts of wholly undesirable and discomfiting impulses: the sort that send otherwise good and sane and beautiful people racing to the Facebook for to Like the stoning of this one, or the hanging of that one, or the cutting, chopping, breaking and burning of these five men or the next.
For in 2010 this all feels a lot less like feminist wish-fulfilment and a lot more like Denzel Washington shoving that bomb up your boyo’s arse.
“And this,” saying, “this is the thing that strikes a fella when he’s sat afore ISOYG 2010, or Dennis Illiadis’s undeniably powerful and artful take on Last House on the Left, is that something has happened, some break has occurred. For the American horror film of the past five or six years – particularly the sort dismissed as “Torture Porn” by David Edelstein and Jenny McCartney and a million other literal-minded sorts who could no more read a Saw III or a Hostel or even a Borderland than they could drop the kecks there now and pish a puddle of sparrows or crows – has certainly been preoccupied with notions of revenge and punishment and comeuppance to a most overwhelming degree. But those pictures – with the possible exception of Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes, another remake of a relentlessly bleak and despairing Wes Craven number, and the one closest in spirit to ISOYG 2010 or Last House 2009 – rarely, if ever, invite us to direct our aggressions towards, or to feel any kind of cathartic release from the destruction of, some monstrous antagonist. Some readily identifiable Other.”
“Films about the sins of the self,” says Talbot. “By our own malefactions damned.”
“By that. Anyway. Certainly effective, and as brutal and visceral and nigh-on unwatchable, even after the BBFC’s been at it, as most any other rape-revenge picture you care to name, real or imagined. And certain of the threads Monroe gets to weaving about this most archetypal of narratives – particularly those fed into and through the viewfinder of a much-utilised camcorder – suggest that somewhere amidst all the Sturm und Drang of the problematic final act there is indeed a point, and that his objectives are roughly consonant with those of his more adept and, aye, fearless peers. But where Zev Berman, say, or even Eli Roth, hollers and rages and curses and spits, Monroe’s content to mumble through a mouthful of sawdust and soot, and always ready to grant a reprieve. If we don’t like what he’s saying about us, it’s alright, we don’t have to listen, drown it out with the slaughter of a mentally-disabled man, and if our reactions to that should trouble us, it’s alright, here, climb down off that hook, it’s not what you thought, even though the real issue is that, until the last few minutes of the picture, you did think it was what it wasn’t, and you still cheered like a bastard.”
Talbot wanders to the freezer, takes from therein the can of Super T he’s been trying to neuter since yesterday afternoon. “Well,” he says, sifting through the stack of flicks on the kitchen table. “Whatever. I’m fed up as shite thinking about it. Where’s this thing about the hoor in a box?”