Steven Monroe's remake of Meir Zarchi's infamous rape/revenge flick I Spit on Your Grave has been in the news a lot over the course of the past few days. The film is already sparking controversy, not only after its world premiere at Fantasia (where one person passed out and another hijacked the Q&A session to berate the filmmakers), but also with its poster. Dustin Rowles over at Pajiba was quite upset at the image on the new one-sheet and wrote a lengthy piece about it entitled The Reprehensible Sexualization of Rape.
I think Rowles makes some interesting points in his piece, but I don't agree with all of them. Yes, the new poster for I Spit on Your Grave does attempt to use sex as a selling point. That's not any different from a million other posters, but since the sexualized woman featured prominently in the poster has just been beaten and raped, I can see the reason for his outrage.
Hit the jump for more observations about the remake and exploitation cinema in general.
The new I Spit on Your Grave art does feel cheap. By taking out the wooded background of the original one-sheet, it makes the entire focus of the piece switch to new star Sarah Butler. Minimalist film art seems to be quite popular right now, but it doesn't serve this movie well. I don't think that makes her any more sexualized than the character is in the original, but it does remove some of the context. This removal of context (the woods, the text that gives an explanation for the scene) makes the new poster feel different from its predecessor, even though technically they aren't all that different. The original star (Camille Keaton) is wearing the same outfit (covered up slightly more), appears filthy, bruised, and beaten from her encounter with the rapists, and is brandishing a knife. While one could make the case that Butler is standing in a slightly more provocative pose in the new one-sheet, I think the real concern here is the way that the artwork places the beaten actress on display, front and center.
The greater issue here is why is anyone surprised that an I Spit on Your Grave remake is exploitative in the first place. The original film has been banned and vilified over the years and a remake seems designed solely to cash in on its infamy with an entirely new generation of film fans. It is, after all, an exploitation movie -- a subgenre of film that doesn't always have artistic merit at the top of its list of objectives.
We've seen the exploitation film find wider audiences over the past few years. The advent of DVD led to the widespread availability of titles that were once all but impossible to find outside of grindhouse theaters and Mom and Pop video shops. When filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino started championing the titles and paying homage to them in his own work, it brought one more level of -- I hesitate to say the word respectability -- acceptance to these films. Remakes of movies like Wes Craven's Last House on the Left have found appreciative audiences, but something like Tarantino and Rodriguez's Grindhouse flopped -- seemingly proving that while the exploitation film is being acknowledged by a whole new audience, it's still something of an acquired taste.
Bringing it back to I Spit on Your Grave, there is a certain level of sexualization of the women in these films. Zarchi's movie wasn't the only one to do it -- it stands right alongside Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 and Bo Arne Vibenius' Thriller: A Cruel Picture as three examples of where women suffer horrible sexual abuse yet turn around and become empowered by taking revenge on their tormentors. Perhaps some men can't relate to the "final girl" phenomenon, but women do -- and these films do speak to them in a different way than they do to our male companions. Again, even Tarantino has traveled this well worn path -- The Bride in his Kill Bill films isn't all that far removed from something like I Spit on Your Grave. The presentation of these themes in exploitation films might be heavy-handed and seen as taking a backseat to more sensationalistic imagery and situations, but that doesn't mean it's any less worthy of acknowledgment.
What does all of this mean? Essentially that exploitation films are still a niche subgenre of cinema. While they've gained mainstream recognition and acceptance over the years, they're hardly the kinds of films with universal appeal. Taking something like an I Spit on Your Grave remake to task for featuring a poster that sexualizes its main character -- who's first a victim and then an avenger -- seems at least somewhat misguided. One could argue that maybe the world doesn't need an I Spit on Your Grave remake (and I'd be inclined to agree), but to expect it -- or any other exploitation film remake -- to be something radically different than the film that inspired it feels like missing the point. Don't trash the poster for being "reprehensible" while arguing that the original was somehow less controversial. Trash it because it's just not a very good piece of art.