To close this review section on I Spit on Your Grave, we are delighted to host interviews with Jamie Bernadette and Maria Olsen, two of the lead performers from the recent Meir Zarchi sequel I Spit on Your Grave Déjà Vu. Here, both actresses reflect on some of the key issues raised by David Maguire’s book as well as considering the contested legacy of the I Spit on Your Grave franchise.
Xavier Mendik: Why do you think I Spit on Your Grave remains such an influential but divisive film?
Maria Olsen: Firstly, I think ISOYG remains in the public consciousness because no one who sees it can forget it. The visuals of the rapes that Jennifer Hills is forced to endure - as well as those of the revenge she takes - are just too graphic and disturbing to ever be forgotten. Those who do not understand the film's specific origins, or who choose to concentrate on the violence instead of on the narrative of a woman trying to free herself, will glory in its carnage, thus ensuring its position as one of the most notorious horror films of all time.
Jamie Bernadette: I think that any work of art that causes such ambivalent feelings tends to have an enduring impact on the society for the simple fact that people try to prove the side that they are on and understand the other. People by nature love a good debate.
Xavier Mendik: According to David Maguire’s 2018 book on the subject, I Spit on Your Grave is frequently associated with a wave of 1970s rape and revenge thrillers that were seen as reflecting male fears around the emergence of the feminist movement. Do you see any historical connection to the film and wider social currents of the period?
Jamie Bernadette: I do not believe that Meir Zarchi intentionally made the film to represent the feminist movement. He told me himself how the idea came to him. He said that he saw a woman come out of the woods in New York naked and beaten after she had been raped by two men. He picked her up and drove her to the police station and later he imagined her getting revenge on the men. Thus, the story was born. It just so happens that the film was made during the time of the feminist movement. That is a coincidence I believe. Perhaps Meir later, after thinking of the story, thought about how it coincided with the feminist movement and in writing the script, perhaps he incorporated feminist ideas at that stage.
Maria Olsen: The backstory to the creation of the film is covered elsewhere in much more detail, but suffice to say that Meir, while running a family errand, came across a naked and disoriented woman who had just suffered an appalling attack. Although he took her to the nearest police station, she was not given immediate relief, and he watched while her incredible discomfort was prolonged by police treatment that can only be described as incredibly lacking in compassion and empathy. In order to try and deal with this experience, which impacted him greatly, Meir created Day of the Woman, where his heroine, Jennifer Hills, emerges triumphant from her ordeal.
Xavier Mendik: Film theorists such as Martin Barker have discussed the ways in which the original distributor of I Spit on Your Grave not only changed the the title of the film, but also used exploitative advertising to highlight the film’s scenes of sexual violence. Do think the film’s ‘exploitation’ tag altered the way in which press and critics reviewed the film?
Jamie Bernadette: No. I think they would’ve viewed the film the same way after they saw it because back then, the nudity, sex, and violence were quite shocking. In today’s current age, we see it more often so we are more desensitized to it. Audiences back then saw it as morally debased I believe, so it was very easy to attach the term “exploitation” to it.
Maria Olsen: ISOYG is often seen as an exploitation film and, personally, I think this is too simple a way to categorise it. Its overall aim is NOT to exploit woman, but rather to show how one woman transcends what was done to her and takes power back into her own hands. To my mind, the film does not exploit women, it empowers them, but I will grant that, to the casual viewer, this distinction may be lost. Is the on-screen violence necessary to get the film's point across? Does the film empower or exploit women? Is it a sincere attempt to showcase a problem within society or is it just a way to cash in on others' misery? These are all questions asked about the film, and they give an idea of why this piece of art - because that's what, ultimately, it is - is so influential and divisive.
Xavier Mendik: Given its strong focus on regional perversity, it seems appropriate that the review of David Maguire’s book on I Spit on Your Grave is being published in a Cine-Excess e-journal edition devoted to the theme of rural horror. How important do you think the theme of rural male violence is to the film and American horror in general?
Maria Olsen: From Deliverance and The Hills Have Eyes to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The House of 1,000 Corpses, rural male violence has always had a place in American horror. One interpretation of why this trope has become so important is that the unrestrained rural male could represent everyman's attraction to, and simultaneous fear of, living an unrestrained life, a life where people - men particularly - just take what they want. In any modern and civilized society, it is, obviously, an impossibility to live like that, and, generally, people are brought up to abhor even the thought of such a lifestyle. On the other hand, who doesn't secretly want to be able to do anything they want to do whenever they want to do it? It could be that this mingled fascination and repulsion is one of the factors that make the rural-male-run-amok scenario so very attractive.
Jamie Bernadette: I know exactly what you are talking about when you ask this question, since I grew up in the country myself and the kind of agreement you see between the rural men to rape this woman in the film I have seen agreements like this between country boys to enact their perversions on children. What is it about growing up in a rural setting that can lead to boys and men behaving this way? Or is it just that in the city people are more separated so it doesn’t seem as prevalent but it actually is but it is just hidden? In rural areas, perhaps boys hang together in packs more often than in cities so you see sex crimes more often executed in groups?
I think it’s extremely important to make films like this to bring awareness to this issue. It’s a real problem in our society. So many children are molested and women are raped. I’m from a family of nine and we were raised by our mother without a father. There were five girls in the family and we ran around the little country town that we were raised in without any male figure to scare anyone away. And the perverts were plentiful. So, knowing this first-hand, I understand the extreme importance to making films like I Spit on Your Grave.
Xavier Mendik: The film’s controversial images of rape split the critics, with reviewers claiming that these scenes either glorified violence against women or actually exposed male fears an emergent feminine power. What are your thoughts on these scenes and how they work within the narrative?
Maria Olsen: I think that if these scenes had been shown any differently in the film - and for "differently" read "not as graphic or violent" - it wouldn't have been taken quite so seriously. The viewer is shocked and appalled by what happens to Jennifer Hills specifically because we see everything, and specifically because we see it over and over again. If these scenes had been glossed over, or romanticized in any way whatsoever, they would have lost their impact, and the full horror of what happens to her, and what fuels her desire for revenge, would have been lost.
Jamie Bernadette: I do not believe at all that the scenes are glorifying violence against women. They are traumatizing to watch. I never thought when I first saw the film that they were exposing male fears of an emergent feminine power, but I can see how that could be. I felt like the scenes were exposing perverted men and the horrors that they are able to inflict on women in such a way as to produce change in the society by the sheer rawness with which the scenes are executed. People see this and want to do something about what was done to them. Weak women feel empowered and want to stand up to their attackers. This film can have these types of profound effects on women and I also want to point out—men as well. Men can be victims of sexual violence also.
Xavier Mendik: While much of the coverage of the film has focused around its controversial images, one of the more interesting aspects of I Spit on Your Grave remains the realist mechanisms Zarchi used to frame Jennifer’s plight. I wonder if you have any views on the stylistic aspects of the film?
Maria Olsen: One of my favourite aspects of the film is actually the gritty realism of how it's been shot. At some points it even plays more like a home movie than a commercial film, and this all goes towards planting it firmly in the real world where it cannot be mistaken for anything but what it is: an actual slice of life and not a romantic Hollywood story. Personally, I believe that this is as much a product of the level of filmmaking available to Meir at the time of shooting and that now, 40 years later, the advances in shooting techniques will make ISOYG Déjà Vu a very different movie.
Another aspect that I simply love - and this will be repeated in Déjà Vu - is the absence of a score. I firmly believe that random atmospheric music would have detracted from ISOYG's realism, and this absence went extremely well with the aforementioned gritty shooting style. Whether its repeat in Déjà Vu will fare as well remains to be seen, as, while Deja Vu will obviously benefit from the 40-year technological upgrade, a more glossier film might not pair up as well with the lack of a score.
Xavier Mendik: Central to the impact of the film is Camille Keaton’s compelling performance as Jennifer Hills. What qualities do you think she brought to Zarchi’s original film?
Maria Olsen: I think that Camille's Jennifer Hills brought incredible bravery and heroism to the original film. It is, however, Camille herself who should be commended for taking on the role of Hills, which has got to rank as one of the most arduous in film or television history. Acting is not easy under any circumstances, and the physical and mental strain that she must have worked under to bring Hills to life must not be underestimated. With her performance, which is absolutely unforgettable, she claims her place as one of the most impactful actresses ever on the stage or the screen.
Xavier Mendik: Stephen R. Monroe managed to reboot the original in 2010 with his remake to I Spit on Your Grave and the later 2013 sequel. What are your views on the recent franchise of remakes?
Jamie Bernadette: There is a lot to admire about those films, for example, the cinematography in the 2010 remake is gorgeous. But, overall, I feel the original was more powerful because of the believability of the rapes. They were raw and real and so difficult to watch. I believe that is the best way to depict a rape: not glamorized in any way.
Xavier Mendik: Were you aware of the original film and its reputation when Zarchi approached you to star in the sequel I Spit on Your Grave Déjà Vu?
Maria Olsen: I was definitely aware of the film - I had watched it for the first time a few years before I auditioned for Déjà Vu - but, at that time, I was not aware of the full impact that it had had on the film community and the general population. I was aware that it was considered one of the cult horror films from the '70s, and it was that very fact that caused me to seek it out to watch it, but I was not aware that, for instance, it had been labelled as a "video nasty" or that it had been banned in several countries.
Jamie Bernadette: Yes, I had seen the 1978 film before I ever auditioned so I definitely knew it. I thought it was brilliant. I did not know of the controversial reviews that it had upon its release nor did I know that it had been banned and I didn’t know it was called a “video nasty”.
Xavier Mendik: Jamie, how does the sequel expand upon the thematic focus of the original?
Jamie Bernadette: The film has an older style to it like the original and the story is told how Meir wants to tell it, without heed to the short attention span that so many tend to have nowadays compared to people of yesteryear when there weren’t cell phones, video games, and the internet. So what you are going to see is a similar theme told with patience and depth that delves into real character development and meticulously crafted scenes.
Xavier Mendik: Maria, your character of Becky adds an interesting new angle to the concept of vendetta and revenge. How did you approach this performance?
Maria Olsen: As I do with the great majority of the characters that I create, I made Becky's main motivator love - love for her husband and for her children. Every day, one hears about great deeds committed for love, and Becky is just a woman who is driven to do certain things to try and assuage her feelings of abandonment, loss and immense sadness over the fact that her husband was taken from her and her children's' father taken from them. Johnny and the others are driven by factors just as complex but diametrically opposed to what Becky is experiencing. With approaching the character this way, I'm not trying to say that what Becky does is right - although SHE believes that it is because she believes that Johnny and the others are innocent - I'm just trying to find a point of connection between Becky and the film's audience, which is something that the villains of the original film just could not do given their choices and their behavior. If just ONE person watches what Becky does and thinks that "under those circumstances I might have done the same thing", then I've done my job as an actor.
Xavier Mendik: As well as being a noted horror performer, you are also adding a distinctive production voice to the genre through your company MOnsterworks66. What can you tell us about the project?
Maria Olsen: Although MOnsterworks66 is not operating at present - I've taken the decision to concentrate on my acting career at the moment - the company did co-produce several wonderful films that have gone on to win awards on the festival circuit and obtain distribution. Chief among these features are Brandon Scullion's Consumption, which won both Best Grindhouse Feature and Best Actress (Arielle Brachfeld) at the RIP Horror Film Festival several years ago, Randal Kamradt's Faraway, which has screened at several US and international festivals, and Eric Michael Kochmer's Way Down in Chinatown, which is available to order on Amazon and other platforms. I hope to produce again in future, but I'm not sure exactly when that will be.
Xavier Mendik: To conclude, Déjà Vu’s recent release coincides with a recent wave of female oriented vendetta films including Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge (2017). Why do you think there is this renewed interest in rape and revenge cinema by a new wave of female cinema creatives?
Jamie Bernadette: I think because of the Me Too movement that is happening right now and I also think there’s a monetary vested interest. These films sell well.
Maria Olsen: I think the movement is more illustrative of the feminine stepping up and reclaiming its rightful place in society than it is of a surge of interest in the rape-n-revenge sub-genre of horror. I haven't yet seen Revenge, but The Woman, starring the brilliant Pollyanna McIntosh, and the Soska sisters' American Mary, most definitely come to mind as examples of where the feminine finally decides it's had enough of the masculine and brutally reclaims its freedom. With these types of films, horror is, as usual, on the cutting edge of societal change, and the genre is one of the major areas where we can show pending societal disruptions in their most extreme incarnations. Horror is a metaphor for life, for facing the unknown, for coming to terms with our fears and for naming our demons, and the I Spit on Your Grave franchise, and all its spawn, does so with chilling clarity.
With thanks to Jamie Bernadette and Maria Olsen for their participation in this review section.