Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Very Uncomfortable Third Row Valentine's

Welcome back for another delightfully awkward edition of The Third Row's Valentine's Episode.

I have to admit, this year threw me for a bit of a loop.  I mean, after last year's wonderfully uncomfortable installment of Love, Fundamentalist Style, where could I take this year?

In thinking, I started going through the archives.  This made me realize this was a prime opportunity to make good on something I'd promised the better part of a year and a half ago now (I realize most of you weren't bothering to keep score, neither was I, but hey...)  So this Valentine's, we're gonna celebrate by revisiting not one, but two wonderfully inappropriate films, one of which I'd already promised for a while now.

With that, this preamble should have given enough time for anyone who felt so inclined to skim through the archives to get back up to speed, and now find themselves going "...oh dear God, no."  That's right, folks.  We're kicking off this year's commemoration of a massacred saint with that most Hallmark of horror films, Meir Zarchi's revenge tale I Spit On Your Grave.

[NOTE - While not AS bad as last year's review of Salò, this one may be light on screencaps from the film.  I mean, it's a pretty tough film to get really relevant screencaps from that are still work-safe.  Plus, as Brad Jones once said it best, "How do you riff a 40 minute rape scene?"]

That said, I suppose we should start this by recapping what was already known from the last time we discussed this.  The movie, also known as Day of the Woman, is a 1978 revenge horror film by writer-director Meir Zarchi.  Coming to the country for some quite time to write a novel, Jennifer Hills (played by Zarchi's wife, Camille Keaton, who's a MAJOR trooper for what she goes through in this from) gets a...less than warm reception by the locals.  Which is about the most polite way I can say she's attacked by a group of local men, repeatedly raped, and then left for dead.  Despite being run through this vicious wringer, Jennifer is actually still alive...and justifiably mad as Hell.  Over the course of the second half of the movie, she wreaks vengeance upon the men who attacked her, taking them down one by one.

This shot from Frisky Dingo is a pretty good representation of what the first half of this movie feels like to watch.

I just want to start by saying, the first half of this movie is still one of the most uncomfortable experiences I've had in film to date.  Yes, even more than Salò, and I'd even say moreso than Eraserhead (and thanks to the conditions I watched THAT in, it's got a rather personal place in my nightmares.)  In some ways, this is actually something to the film's credit, actually.  I mean, just based on the name, you'd expect this to be, for lack of a better term, a trashy, exploitative picture.  Now, granted, some DO still see it that way-the movie is pretty divisive by its nature.  But the thing that really surprises me about the first half is the fact that the movie really doesn't pull any punches with how it handles the assault.  It's harsh, it's vicious, and it's downright visceral.  There isn't anything in this long, painful sequence that looks as though it's designed to excite or tittilate.  It's a straight-up horrifying scene to watch (as it should be, really.)  The credit for this really comes down to both the way the scenes are shot and the acting.  Most notable in the latter regard is Keaton as Jennifer, whose reactions are part of what really makes this so uncomfortable to watch.  It doesn't feel overly dramatized and we genuinely feel bad watching her responses.  Even when the group tries to get their mentally challenged friend Matthew Lucas (Richard Pace) in on the action, the scene doesn't really lose any of its sense of horror.  Further adding to this is Nouri Haviv's cinematography.  Where many other films would opt to cut away, this film, unless you opt to fast forward (and I can't rightly say I'd blame you) keeps you there for the entire time.

...OK, so I was able to say more about the first half than I expected.  But really, it all comes down to two main points:
-they set out to make a horrifying sequence of assault, rape, and attempted murder, and to their credit, they succeeded with flying colors
-as a result of this, the scene is INCREDIBLY hard to watch.  As of this review, I've still only watched this part twice...and that second time I had to do a lot of mental preparation to get through.  It's that kind of a movie.

Of course, the second half is where the movie rewards you for the sights you've been subjected to in the first.  This is, of course, where the revenge part of the movie kicks in.  This part's also where the film really kicks in in general.  I mean, outside of the assault before, the first half has a couple of small bits of developing its characters that are decently handled.  Though on a rewatch, I have to say the lighting in the scene where Jennifer's attackers first start planning their deeds is darker than I remembered, sometimes problematically so.  In the first half, we only really have loose sketches of all the players involved to work with before the film throws us screaming with concrete floaties into the deep end of the pool.  Once the dust settles we really start seeing more of the characters - between Jennifer's new push for revenge (and her refusal to let things like seeing one of her attackers have a family stop her) and the mix of guilt and confusion that arises among the men as they realize she's not dead.  While the latter group remain largely remorseless, there's still one moment in the aftermath as they each debate what they've done with varying degrees of concern over whether or not they'll be caught.  It doesn't wash what they've done by any stretch, but it is interesting to see the fact that some of them are at least having second thoughts, even if they come far too late.

For anyone who hasn't seen this before, try and guess what order these guys get bumped off.  Then watch the film and compare.  Comment and tell us how well you did!
(...yeah, still getting the hang of the user participation here.)

Part of what makes the revenge part of this film interesting is the escalation factor involved.  Both in terms of the roles of the attackers and the severity with which vengeance is visited on them, starting from the somewhat unwilling Matthew Lucas, whose death, while harsh is actually kind of on the tamer side compared to what's to come, to the movie's gratifyingly brutal double-kill on the lake, there's a greater and greater sense of each member of the group getting what they have coming to them.  Of course, in the middle of all of these comes one of the biggest moments of internal conflict any male moviegoer is bound to encounter - without giving too much away, there's one scene in the film where, as a man, you can't help but squirm in pain, but at the same time...the guy DID have it coming.

"Look, lady, I'll tell you what.  Between you and me, I'm just gonna look the other way on this one.  So just...just go to town."

Speaking of that gender divide, we come to another one of those attempts to integrate some video into this site (which may or may not be more frequent in the future, as need calls for it and depending whether or not copyright breaks my knees.)
With a film like this, gender perspective is going to be a factor.  Like it or not, it WILL come up.  So, in the interests of getting a balanced view on some of the film's controversial subject matter, I've asked for a guest speaker, my proofreader and girlfriend, Liz.  Take it away:

Yeah, it was a bit free-form, but still, that extra perspective really did help here, I hope.

All in all, on a second watch, I still find myself kind of ambivalent on this movie.  I can honestly say I don't hate it.  At the same time, it's not one I'd watch that often because...yeah.  Still, it's a movie I can certainly see some merit behind - the acting, while not award-winning, is decent.  The script doesn't really make or break this one, but the fact that it isn't riddled with plot holes or that much bad dialogue (outside of the occasional choice nugget or two) is at least worth something.  Alongside the acting, the cinematography is the other area where this movie gains an edge.  It's close, it's visceral, and it doesn't really give you a chance to step back too much from what you're watching unfold.  Given the subject matter of this movie, I'd call that a strength, but from an entertainment perspective...yeah, that can be a punch in the gut.  On a quick aside here, one other thing I will give the cinematography for a lighter note - the nature scenes, when they aren't focused on brutal sexual assault, are actually quite nice.  The film makes good use of its location filming in Kent, Connecticut in that regard.  Of course, in a film like this, that's kind of a minor note to really go into.  Anyway, back to the main point - this is definitely not a movie for everyone.  To say it was, while sickly entertaining from a schadenfreude perspective, would be grossly irresponsible.  Still, if you have any interest in the film as a revenge feature or as a controversial little bit of film history, it's worth the 100 minutes of time it asks of you.

Huh...that didn't turn out so bad.

Of course, next comes another wonderfully uncomfortable film for the follow-up on this.  Where this film is burying Valentine's Day this year, the next film will be by to dance on its grave.

So look forward to it soon!

Also, I'd just like to say as a closing note - oh, how I would have LOVED to be a fly on the wall when Zarchi was working on this and explaining some of the things his wife was going to be doing in this movie.  They would either be some of the most memorable disputes I've ever seen or proof that Keaton has some INSANE guts.

Alas, such a chance to see these discussions can probably never be.

Ah well...

Anyway, till next time!

 I passed up making the I'm On a Boat joke about the finale last time.  Not again!

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