Warning: The following review concerns material much more disturbing than this reviewer usually covers. The plots of both movies featured here become crude, as does the review at brief points.
In the 1970s, two low budget exploitation films drew attention to themselves for various reasons, surviving to this day while most of their schlocky peers have faded into obscurity. Both are stories of rape and revenge. Both were covered on Siskel and Ebert and the Movies, one relatively well and one with absolute condemnation. Counters to points on both sides later rose up. Some people like one and not the other, some like both, and some like neither, but regardless, both were remade within a year of each other, with one striking difference: The Last House on the Left, the one Roger Ebert reviewed favorably, was given a wide release and made over 45 million dollars, while the other, I Spit On Your Grave remained a small-time project of no profit, despite a more professional production. Now that one has made it into the mainstream, itâ€™s time to compare them here and see whatâ€™s really behind the legend. (Note: All four movies will be discussed, but the remakes are the movies being rated.)
The Last House on the Left (2009)
The most interesting characters in this surprisingly well-acted remake are Krug, the leader of the movieâ€™s gang of villains, and Justin, his quiet son, who is a victim of circumstance and much too humane to be a part of their crimes. Their interactions allow us to explore Krugâ€™s twisted morals and how they fail to sway the innocent Justin. Itâ€™s a shame the movie failed to realize that its heroes are the characters who needed to be worked out more, and itâ€™s telling that what little interaction they have with Justin builds his character while leaving them in the dark.
Wes Cravenâ€™s The Last House on the Left was a low budget horror film, generally seen as an adaptation of The Virgin Spring. Itâ€™s a straightforward story of a family who loses a daughter when a small gang of rapists and murderers abduct her and her friend after offering to sell them marijuana. By coincidence, after the homeless gang finishes their crime, they ask to stay overnight at the familyâ€™s house, masquerading as salesmen, and when the parents discover their secret, they vengefully take on the gang until each criminal is dead. It isnâ€™t pleasant material, but Cravenâ€™s decision to adapt the story of a man compelled to build a church in repentance for his vengeance was not a casual one: Both with the gang and with the parents, the movie pushes the notion that malice drinks half its own poison, even when itâ€™s near-impossible to resist.
Today, however, horror movies are most popular as endurance tests of gore and death, so deconstructing violence probably wouldnâ€™t bode well. Instead, this movie revels in its violence, sometimes expecting us to cheer for it. Its reputation precedes it, and I expected to have a miserable time. So I was genuinely surprised when it found new ways to keep me invested.
If thereâ€™s one thing this movie deserves credit for, itâ€™s the fact that it understands how a little character building in the right direction can go a long way. Mari, the daughter, is close to her parents, as she was in the original movie, and more time is devoted to building her melancholy-yet-sweetheart personality. It registers that she wouldnâ€™t have accepted Justinâ€™s invitation if not swayed by her friend Paige, and when she and Paige were subjected to their captorsâ€™ disgusting cruelty, I was still more sorry for them than I was for myself at having to see this. I wouldâ€™ve been silently rooting for Mari during her final escape attempt if I hadnâ€™t seen the original movie, in which she is gunned down. But then came a twist on the tale that, so help me, genuinely made me happy: She makes it anyway.
Yes, after the criminals manage to secure the guest house at her parentsâ€™ vacation home, Mari pulls herself out of the lake she attempted to swim away in and just manages to crawl her way home, where weâ€™re â€“ heck, Iâ€™ll say â€œtreatedâ€ â€“ to a scene of her mother and father, a doctor, saving her life. And so, the story of vengeance becomes the story of the parents fighting to get themselves and their daughter out of the house to the nearest hospital. Or at least, so the movie claims.
The problem is that the remake doesnâ€™t forget the parentsâ€™ desire for revenge, and there are points at which you canâ€™t tell if itâ€™s just trying to live up to the horror genre or if itâ€™s something less forgivable and more sadistic. Itâ€™s easy to cheer for the moments in which the familyÂ fights back to save each other and starts to defeat the monsters menacing them. But itâ€™s hard to always see that as the point, whatÂ with the gore the movie dreams up for the criminals, who of course are invulnerable to something as underwhelming as a wine bottle over the head.
I donâ€™t really like the original Last House on the Left, but I do respect it. Itâ€™s a far more competent piece of filmmaking than any distributor could have expected, let alone required, and the final shot of the parents huddled together, not in triumph, but in weary, shell-shocked anguish is a bold and poignant statement. This one is a movie I could actually like if I were only sure about the â€œrespectâ€ part. I wasnâ€™t unhappy with its resolution, but I wondered Iâ€™d had to forgive too much to get there, and I still wasnâ€™t sure if the parents were only supposed to have fought the gang or actively savored their deaths. Then came the infamous final scene, which pretty much answered my question. This time around, that half-cup of poison is meant to be drunk by the audience.
I Spit On Your Grave (2010)
If you donâ€™t know the story of this rape and revenge movie, I donâ€™t need to linger on it long. The rapists are four gas station employees, one mentally disabled, and a corrupt sheriff ringleader added for this remake. The revenge is from their victim, a woman named Jennifer, who decides that only their deaths can bring her back into balance. The purpose, or at least the excuse, is to deliver some sort of feminist moral from the notion of disgusting misogynists who have it coming defeated and punished by a woman.
There is a thin line between violent scenes in a movie that serve a purpose and violent scenes that are exploitative, the kind some have branded as its own category of porn. Itâ€™s a very different effect, and the mindset of the production team is not remotely the same, but when a movie claims to be moralizing the audience with rape scenes, determining what makes it true or false is no simple task. So as I tried to come up with the reason this remake seemed like nothing but sleazy trash using the fear and hatred of rapists as a smokescreen, I began to wonder if I was the one whoâ€™d gone wrong. I respect Cravenâ€™s version of The Last House on the Left, so was anything the victims were suffering in that movie really any different? House focused on how horrific and wrong the suffering of its victims was, and the scene was shorter, but violence is violence, so was I just being biased? Why was I mad at Grave for giving me a sense of the criminalsâ€™ joy, even though this was present in both movies and was a true depiction of such figures? Shouldnâ€™t I be thinking less about measuring how sick the images were and more about what the poor victim must be going through?
Thatâ€™s when I realized that this movie wasnâ€™t trying to make me identify with its victim. Her depiction was limited to the same pleading and crying through the entire sequence, using her merely as a measurement of how hard this sick assault was hitting. The reason we were watching the men torment and humiliate her in various, oh-so inventive ways was to build them up as our villains, not make some type of statement about them or their actions, as the original movie thought it was doing. While both may have the same core problem, the biggest difference between the two is that instead of self-righteous, the new Grave thinks its extended scenes of rape, torture, humiliation, and general sadism are in and of themselves entertaining aspects of a story about a â€œheroâ€ placed against villains. And to that, my response is the same thing I said aloud when the sheriff character held a rifle to the mouth of the pleading, crying woman and forced her to show her teeth and whinny like a horse over and over: Fuck you, movie.
The original had its own bad morals but of a different variety. It loathed the idea of misogynistic rapists, and so it tried (and failed) to deconstruct the mindset of such people in attempt to convince us that their murder at the hands of their victim was â€œright.â€ The only times it seemed to come alive were during the rape and murder scenes, dragging out the former in a misguided attempt to â€œexposeâ€ all the different horrors of rape, serving all the same purposes as violent pornography. (And if you donâ€™t believe me there, read Roger Ebertâ€™s review of it.) Otherwise, it made silly, flat, amateurish attempts to portray the villains as regular guys who were bored and simply didnâ€™t understand that rape wasnâ€™t one of their rights. Between this and the pointless â€œartisticâ€ shots of trees and such, â€œslowâ€ and â€œboringâ€ became another of the movieâ€™s problems. Do I, a young man whoâ€™s never had to fight against such a life-changing threat as rape, credit either version for coming to the defense of womenâ€™s empowerment? I donâ€™t. This is one case where even I wonâ€™t hesitate to say, especially because it appealed to some of the very people it criticized, that nobody should.
Why did Meir Zarchi, the director who started all of this, think the victim sinking to the same depths as her attackers was empowering? Did he think he was moralizing the real-world rapists who would somehow relate to his dense, cardboard impressions of them? If so, where does that leave our impression of Jennifer, who sees her first degree murders as righteous victories that put her mind at ease? (That, by the way, includes the rapistsâ€™ â€œpet retard,â€ who she knows is nothing but their victim, whimpering and refusing when they donâ€™t force him.) Are we supposed to be impressed that a woman can be such a formidable force, winning out through a combination of the director placing her in the advantageous position and the rapists being stupid enough to fall for each obvious trap? Probably, since Zarchi complained that the remake does not portray Jennifer using her sexuality to overcome the villains.
The bottom line is, like Jennifer, the movies themselves donâ€™t want to right wrongs. They want to hit back. Their purpose is to vent, not so much correct. Neither was the first or the last attempt to do so, and the response to such has always been the same: More in kind. This type of thing is one reason that shortsighted men feel the need to throw terms like â€œfeminaziâ€ around. Itâ€™s the inevitable chain reaction of hatred, and I doubt Zarchi himself has realized the chain his product in particular is forming: He allegedly made the movie after aiding a rape victim, while a callous police officer treated her coldly. (I choose not to doubt it, though Iâ€™d want to ask just what it was he learned.) Obviously, it angered him, and the movie was his response. Then came the remake, which channels the anger of Zarchiâ€™s film in attempt to stimulate the grindhouse buffs. Not only does it dream up an even better, lengthier, more disgusting impression of rape, it makes the revenge portion the one in which weâ€™re supposed to imagine the menâ€™s pain and torment, knowing that sadism, not righteousness, is what will really make people cheer for it. Now, last year, the otherwise undistinguished director of the remake made a sequel, which pretty much forgot the notion of gender relevance and focused on what was really at the core all along: A pornographically violent attack in retaliation to another one.
Which version of I Spit on Your Grave is worse? Pick your poison. Personally, I donâ€™t have to, because I can say this about either one and be equally as truthful: I Spit on Your Grave is the worst movie I have ever seen, and I donâ€™t say that lightly. I have seen some bad ones.
And I donâ€™t mean theyâ€™re the most â€œintenseâ€ or the most â€œextremeâ€ movies. Theyâ€™re not. You want something to make you squirm at the pain and fear onscreen? Hobo with a Shotgun beats both versions together. Enjoy yourself. So do I mean theyâ€™re the most â€œoffensiveâ€ movies? They might be, but thatâ€™s not the way Iâ€™d put it, as though Iâ€™m some kind of dumbstruck politician. These movies are pathetic. Altogether, theyâ€™re an otherwise boring, amateur flick that honestly believes its sick scenes are righteous, followed by a movie more efficient as a piece of exploitation that does not believe it but clings to the notion as an excuse. Thereâ€™s nothing else to them. And donâ€™t come telling me that A Serbian Film or The Beast of Yucca Flats were more disgusting or poorly made, because I canâ€™t give less credit than none at all. These two are nothing but an aid toÂ some of the lamest, angriest aspects of humanity, and as far as Iâ€™m concerned, it doesnâ€™t get any worse than that.
The Better Movie:
The Last House on the Left –
– Better acting and character development
– More sympathetic and likable protagonists
– More legitimate â€œthrillerâ€ aspects, with action itâ€™s possible to get invested in
– The sadism counters the effect
– The violence is gratuitous
– Betrays the originalâ€™s message
I Spit On Your Grave â€“ N/A
Itâ€™s a little bit funny how these two have overlapped in the past. Many people attack Roger Ebertâ€™s zero star review of the first I Spit On Your Grave by pointing out that he gave a positive review to the first Last House on the Left, as though itâ€™s a given that the two are equal. So letâ€™s think about that for a second: The Last House of the Left is the breakout film of Wes Craven, who would go on to direct The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, the Scream series, and many more. I Spit on Your Grave is the first film of Meir Zarchi, who would go on to direct exactly one other movie, though Iâ€™m likely the only one youâ€™ll ever come across who knows about it. The Last House on the Left is about how violence is a two-way street. I Spit on Your Grave revels in violence, launching a sadomasochistic attack on the paper thin villains in its imagination. The Last House on the Left was made with surprising, if still limited competence. The amateur production of I Spit on Your Grave would be funny if it werenâ€™t all so pitiful. And The Last House on the Left inspired a mainstream remake because it deserved to. There was something of value to it, something humane that viewers who could accept it were better for gaining. And the remake was not entirely unsuccessful in its attempt to apply that quality in a different direction. I Spit On Your Grave never had anything but hatred and misery to offer. Its remake did not make it out of â€œcultâ€ territory because thereâ€™s no reason it should. It didnâ€™t deserve the remake, nor even its cult following, though it inevitably would have gained some following even if the scathing reviews of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert hadnâ€™t drawn attention to it.
The Last House on the Left: 5/10
I Spit on Your Grave: 0/10
And so, â€œmainstreamâ€ takes round 3 after a very strong demonstration of the ugly side of cult films. Next time, we canÂ hopefully lighten it up a bit