I Spit on Your Grave: Ultimate Collector's Edition

It'll make you want to tear your eyes out... And that's just the Blu-ray disc itself!

Confession time: Before getting started on this review, I had never seen Meir Zarchi's notorious 1978 rape-revenge shocker I Spit on Your Grave. Despite being a child of the 'video nasty', having spent the latter part of the '80s and early '90s building up an extensive VHS library packed with titles like Nekromantik, Cannibal Ferox and Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, for some reason I had never actually bothered with the film that - for many - was synonymous with this controversy-baiting collection of movies.

Yes, I found the subject matter distasteful, but I've seen plenty of other films in this particular sub-genre and am still a huge admirer of Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 (aka Angel of Vengeance) - so that can't be why I avoided the film for so long. It seems that there was just something about it that didn't interest me. But, that was the past. Skip forward to today, and I'm no longer an I Spit on Your Grave virgin (come to think of it, that sounds so wrong on so many levels), and I have to admit that this Ultimate Collector's Edition Blu-ray both shocked and appalled me. But not necessarily in the way you might be expecting...

Courting controversy
Originally titled Day of the Woman, but better known by its re-release title, I Spit on Your Grave tells the story of New York magazine writer Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) who rents a secluded cottage by a lake in the middle of the countryside so that she can work on her debut novel in peace. Targeted by a quartet of men, she is abducted while canoeing and subjected to a series of horrific rapes and left for dead. However, Jennifer survives the ordeal (physically, if not entirely emotionally), and embarks on a plan of violent revenge.

From this synopsis it's easy to see why the film continues to court controversy. That said, it's also generated some spirited support over the years, and I still have fond memories of reading American film studies professor Carol J Clover's measured and rational defence of the movie in her seminal 1992 book about the horror genre Men, Woman and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. But personally, I can't bring myself to side with either the film's harshest critics or staunchest defenders. Yes, it's an unpleasantly brutal experience, but it does have some interesting things to say about gender and presentations of femininity. The problem is that ultimately, it's a bit of a bore. The narrative crawls forward at a snail's pace and is completely lacking in logic, and excepting Camille Keaton, the performances are uniformly awful, with the actors portraying the rapists doing material so broad that even directors of silent melodramas in the 1920s and '30s would have rejected them for being too over-the-top.

Trouble with the BBFC
Now, at this point it's worth pointing out that although the packaging for this release correctly states that this is the 'Most complete version ever released in the UK', I Spit on Your Grave still ran into a spot of bother with the British Board of Film Classification. According to the BBFC website and its latest entry for the film, dated July 13, this year...

'This work was cut. The cut(s) were Compulsory. To obtain this category cuts of 2m 54s were required... Company was required to make cuts to scenes of sexual violence in order to remove potentially harmful material. Cuts required in accordance with BBFC Guidelines, policy and Video Recordings Act 1984.'

As I've never seen the film before, it's impossible for me to comment on the differences between this latest UK release and any of the previous (cut or uncut) versions that have been released around the world. Suffice to say that this Blu-ray runs for 100m 21s and features enough obvious edits and clumsy shot substitutions during the rape scenes to make you instantly aware that changes had been made.

The horror, the horror
However, all of this talk of censorship is ultimately rendered completely moot by the quality of the Blu-ray encode itself. I feel confident in saying that I Spit On Your Grave: Ultimate Collector's Edition's AVC 1080i 1.78:1 imagery is the worst I've ever come across in four years of reviewing hi-def discs. Going in I expected a grainy, rather grungy image given the film's origins (and I should make it clear, that there's nothing wrong with that). What I didn't expect was something that, for all the world, looks no better than a standard-definition up-convert. Discussing fine detail is completely redundant because the picture is so heavily pixelated that images as simple as tree-lined roads (as seen below) become a blocky mush of greens rather than anything you could remotely called clearly defined. Meanwhile, every single edge in the film suffers from ridiculous amounts of aliasing - seriously, there are jaggies  everywhere in every shot of this flick. The overall effect is like watching an endless cut-scene from a Commodore Amiga-era videogame rather than something that was once shot on film.

While it doesn't exactly prove anything, here's a screengrab from Sony Pictures' upcoming Blu-ray release of the 1981 cult horror smash The Evil Dead, followed by another grab from the Blu-ray of I Spit on Your Grave. Isn't it odd that a film originally shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm for theatrical distribution can look so good in hi-def, with such delicately resolved grain and fine detailing, while I Spit on Your Grave looks like so atrociously pixelated and riddled with aliasing...

Thankfully the audio is a bit better than the imagery it supports, but here it's clearly the limitations of the original elements that hold it back. All three of the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono mixes sound incredibly artificial, with large parts of the dialogue sounding completely disconnected from the film and suffering from some much echoing that you'd think that they were being spoken by somebody off-screen standing in a small tin shed. In terms of dynamics there's little to choose between them as well. - with the whoops and hollers of the rapists sounding flat and mushy and Jennifer's screams sounding terribly shrill no matter which mix you opt for. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix does make some occasional use of the rears for atmospheric effects (crickets chirping, that kind of thing), but for the most part it's so focused on the front of the sound-stage that it just comes across like a slightly cleaner rendered version of the lossy stereo mix.

Lack of TLC
As for the rest of the package, despite being clearly modeled on the packaging fan-favourite Arrow Films has been using for its recent wave of cult classics (City of the Living Dead, Dawn... and Day of the Dead, Inferno and Caligula), don't expect the same kind of loving care to be evident here - as demonstrated by the uncertainty about what the release is actually called ('Ultimate 2 Disc Edition' and 'Ultimate Collector's Edition' both appear on the slipcase, while the sleeve itself simply calls it 'Ultimate Edition') and the odd proofing error (like calling the film 'I Spit on You Grave' on the back of the slipcase and the sleeve).

Where this scores reasonably well is in its supplementary material. The entertaining and enlightening commentaries from director Meir Zarchi and cult film fan Joe Bob Briggs have been carried across from the 2003 R1 Millennium Edition DVD of the film, and are joined a new 35min interview with Zarchi presented in 1080p. Also on offer are four trailers, three TV spots, three radio spots, a gallery of sleeve art (for I Spit... and Don't Mess with My Sister) from around the world, a gallery of Zarchi's own on-set photos (and some more personal snaps of his as well), an interminable 82min audio-only transatlantic phone interview with the director seemingly conducted by now defunct magazine DVD Monthly, filmographies (unsurprisingly, Camille Keaton is the only actor of the five listed to have done any more work in the industry), and a even a 50-page PDF booklet collecting together excerpts from books, articles, letters and reviews covering the controversy that surrounding the film.

I ain't afraid of no ghosts
This Ultimate Collector's Edition (or whatever it's supposed to be called) also includes a DVD containing the film as well as all of the extras that appear on the Blu-ray disc. Unfortunately, when it comes to image quality, this is every bit as problematic as the hi-def version, albeit in different ways. The anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer judders consistently and suffers from obvious ghosting (see above) that makes me believe that it's a not entirely successful NTSC-to-PAL conversion. This is compounded by the fact that it runs for 45 seconds longer than the Blu-ray - despite being the same cut of the film and that it should also take into account the 4 per cent PAL speedup we should be seeing. Audio on the DVD comes in the form of Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono mixes. And just like the Blu-ray, there are no subtitle options.

And just for the hell of it, here's a comparative grab from the Blu-ray (top) and the accompanying DVD (below) to show how little difference there is in picture quality between the high- and standard-definition transfers...

Rounding out the set is a 24-page booklet by Calum Waddell - who has done this sort of thing for plenty of other horror titles in the past. Sadly, while interesting, it seems that even the usually reliable Mr Waddell can't muster up too much to say about the film, resulting in more than half of the booklet being dedicated to the production of the recent remake instead. And, still following in Arrow's footsteps, it's all finished off with a double-sided A2 poster, one side showing the iconic poster for the original version of the film, the other featuring a couple of posters and some stills from the remake.

101 Films, Region B Blu-ray/R2 DVD, £20 approx, On sale now