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Art or Sleaze? 'I Spit on Your Grave' Remake Straddles Both Lines

From left: Sarah Butler, Rodney Eastman and Jeff Branson star in I Spit on Your Grave, opening today at the Metreon.

As children, we are taught to turn the other cheek, but who can deny the visceral thrill of richly deserved revenge, presented in Steven R. Monroe’s I Spit on Your Grave remake as a dish served well past the freezing point?
 
Anyone familiar with Meir Zarchi’s 1980 original – famously dismissed by Roger Ebert as “a film without a shred of artistic distinction” but hailed by others as a crude testament to feminist fortitude – should recognize the story of Jennifer, the big-city girl beaten and raped by five merciless hillbillies during a retreat in the Louisiana backwoods.
 
That covers the movie’s first half-hour, to the point where Jennifer (Sarah Butler, of SyFy’s Flu Bird Horror) dives off a bridge, presumably to her death. Not so fast – Jennifer returns to exact her revenge on the hillbillies, including the mentally challenged Matthew (Chad Lindberg) and a sheriff (Andrew Howard) whose on-the-job lawlessness goes unchecked in a land that civilization forgot.
 
Whether the savagery of the original begged to be revisited is a topic for a different discussion, but give Monroe and first-time screenwriter Stuart Morse credit for focusing less on the brutal rape sequences than on the cold-blooded retribution that follows. Jennifer’s traps are laughably intricate, as improbably sophisticated as Jigsaw’s puzzles in the Saw movies, but each mutilation seems like rough justice.
 
As with the original, the question Grave raises about itself is a simple one: Is this morally reprehensible exploitation, or a feminist indictment of male sexuality at its most repugnant? The answer is a little of both. Monroe sees its Deliverance-style antagonists for what they are – monosyllabic animals who try to assert their dominance by brutalizing the city slicker and callously leaving her for dead.
 
Indeed, Jennifer is the enduring heroine of this harrowing story, stark in its simplicity and difficult to watch – for all the right reasons, and some of the wrong ones, too.

That Monroe’s version is unrated is a tribute to his fearlessness. At a time when most remakes cynically sanitize the violence to reach wider audiences, Grave doesn’t cloak its wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are irredeemably vicious, and the movie documents their transgressions unflinchingly.
 
If that makes Grave sound like your choice for an evening’s entertainment, so be it. It is repugnant, a series of sadistic acts preceded by a title card, and as such, it is disturbingly effective. Whatever you do, just don’t bring the kids.