Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 99, 2011)
Over the years, 1978’s I Spit On Your Grave developed a reputation as one of the most shocking movies ever made. That would seem to make it an unlikely property to remake, but since the similarly controversial Last House on the Left also got a modern reworking, I guess folks thought Grave might benefit from an update.
Both films share similar stories. Jennifer Hills (Sarah Butler) rents a summer house in the remote country so she can hole up and write a novel. When she gets there, she meets some locals and inadvertently embarrasses alpha redneck Johnny Miller (Jeff Branson).
This sticks with him, so he and his pals decide to terrorize Jennifer. After some general abuse, she manages to flee and thinks she’s saved when she finds local Sheriff Storch (Andrew Howard). He takes her back to her house and hears her story, but it soon becomes clear that he’s not one of the good guys.
Johnny and the others reappear and they broaden their horizons into rape, ostensibly so mentally disabled Matthew (Chad Lingberg) can lose his virginity. He goes first, and then Johnny and the others assault Jennifer in a variety of ways.
Before they can kill Jennifer to remove evidence of their crime, she leaps into a river and disappears. Attempts to locate her prove futile, and she eventually comes back onto the scene to deal with the perpetrators.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that the most explicit aspects of the two films differ significantly. In the original Grave, sex/nudity were the dominant elements. That film’s Jennifer was nude most of the time, and the movie didn’t attempt to obscure this; it’d be difficult to find a non-porn flick with more full-frontal nudity, and the original also focused more heavily on the rape sequences.
Although the remake uses almost as much screen time to depict Jennifer’s torture and rape, those sequences feel less explicit. We see a lot less nudity, and while I can’t say the movie tries to sanitize the sexual violence, it doesn’t seem as brutal.
On the other hand, the remake clearly opts for a heavier gore content. While the original didn’t skimp on blood, it lacked the “torture porn” vibe we get here. I don’t want to ruin the “fun”, but the methods Jennifer uses to get her revenge go well beyond the simple murders of the first flick.
The change from the sex-heavy 1978 film to the gore-centered remake really alters the film’s tone. The original was almost eerily calm in the way it depicted its events. I won’t say the camera was a dispassionate observer, but with its lack of score and most heavy-handed cinematic techniques, it approached a documentary style. Although I don’t really buy the filmmakers’ protestations that the original was a “revenge fantasy” and not just an exploitation flick, the absence of movie hysterics did give that one an unusual feel.
On the other hand, the 2010 remake offers a much more conventional horror film, as it embraces almost every modern genre cliché. Whereas the original abandoned music, this one uses the standard creepy score with loud jolts to attempt to scare us. It follows the bogeyman template as well; it has characters and spooky bits crop up at the expected times for cheap thrills.
I think the graphic nature of Jennifer’s kills also robs the movie of its “feminist revenge fantasy” claim. Perhaps some will argue the opposite; they may believe that the more explicit nature of the violence puts Jennifer’s actions more firmly into the “fantasy” category.
And I can see that point, but I don’t believe that’s why they’re in the movie. Instead, I think the filmmakers opted for the horrible torture because that’s what attracts an audience these days. Horror fans won’t see a flick with the bloody but efficient kills of the original; no, they need to see a guy’s dick cut off and shoved into his own mouth.
I don’t say this to be condemnatory or moralistic, but I do think that too much graphic gore is counterproductive. In this case, I believe that Jennifer comes across as so sadistic that we almost start to feel bad for her “victims”. That was never a concern in the original; we felt none of the baddies’ pain there. But here, Jennifer uses such extravagant methods of torture that you want to tell her “enough already – just kill him and end it!”
The remake also changes Jennifer in that it makes her out to be nearly supernatural. In the original, she escapes her tormentors because Matthew fails to kill her; Johnny commands him to do so, but he’s unable to finish the deed, so she survives. She’s left alone in her cabin for two weeks before Johnny starts to suspect she’s not dead, and we see what she does during that period.
In the remake, we get little explanation for how Jennifer survives after she plunges into the river. Essentially the 2010 flick turns Jennifer into a supernatural creature. For a while, we suspect “she” may actually be a manifestation of Matthew’s tortured mind, but the movie makes it clear that this isn’t the case.
The absence of logic at work here causes problems. I don’t think the movie needs to spell out every second of her existence over that month, but I’d like some better explanation of where she was and how she survived. Instead, we’re left to wonder, and we wonder so much that we lose focus on her actions.
It’s a shame that the 2010 Grave suffers from so many problems, as it does improve on the original in some ways. Production values are superior, and the actors seem more satisfying. Actually, Butler feels too much like a whiny sorority girl for me to buy her as a professional writer, but she grows into the role’s demands once the terror starts. She might become a little too much of an action film badass by the end, but at least she displays appropriate levels of grit and resolve.
I also appreciate the fact that the remake doesn’t literally retell the original. It comes close in a lot of ways, but it does make some prominent alterations, the most significant of which involves the Sheriff Storch character. No such role exists in the first; Johnny, Matthew and the two other guys appear in the 1978 version, but there’s no police at all. I don’t know if this adds anything to the film, but it does create a minor new dynamic and helps differentiate the two.
But it’s not enough to save this tawdry, tired film. Again, I don’t want to leave the impression that I think the original Grave is a great – or even good – piece of work, but at least I understand its purpose better, and I think it maintains a clearer through-line and point of view. Whether one thinks it’s a classic or an abomination, at least it stands as something nearly unique. The remake fails to do anything new or different, however; it’s just another 21st century horror flick that embraces all the standard genre clichés.