Coralie Fargeat’s thrilling bloodbath, Revenge, is one of my favorite movies of the last few years. It felt like an evolution of this particular genre. I remember turning to my wife once it was finished, and her grinned response was simple: “Can we just watch that again?” A rare request if you know her, and a testament to that film’s incredible power. It was thrilling. And stylish. And satisfying. And with just a few clever tweaks, injected an inspired twist into established formula.
I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu kind of does that too. It’s no Revenge, and that’s okay. I don’t compare the two for any reason other than to say I admire both pictures (at different measures, sure). Deja Vu clocks in at a staggering 148 minutes and that certainly makes it a tough sell. I made light of its self-indulgent length on Twitter, but I was also intrigued by what it might offer. Writer/director Meir Zarchi hadn’t made a film since 1985’s Don’t Mess With My Sister, and now suddenly this? His big return is to craft a supersized sequel to one of the most infamous grindhouse pictures of all time?
This is where I’d insert that Leonardo DiCaprio “you had my curiosity…” gif if I had it.
I of course ordered the Blu-ray (which turned out to be burned BD-R, much to my dismay) and carved out some time to take it all in. My wife, who certainly doesn’t shy away from controversial material, spent a few minutes turning the box over in her hands before deciding that she was unwilling to take this trip (and she’s an admirer of the original I Spit on Your Grave). It was the run time that scared her off. I on the other hand knew what I was in for, even if I didn’t know what I was in for.
So let’s be real: I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu is rough-around-the-edges. I suspect even Zarchi’s producers would agree. This thing just doesn’t need to be 148 minutes. But we live in a world where every summer movie is too long. Where movies can routinely lose 15-20 minutes and improve because of it. It’s surprising that we’ve reached a moment in time where an indie revenge flick exhibits these symptoms, but that too makes perfect sense. Is there anything more 2019 than a drastically overlong exploitation sequel?
Because of this, you’re guaranteed to spend some time during Deja Vu thinking about what could’ve been cut. Quite honestly, there’s a lot of it. Early in the proceedings, for example, Jennifer Hills (a returning Camille Keaton) and her daughter Christy (Jamie Bernadette) are abducted by the relatives of the men Jennifer slaughtered. As the Hills women are driven into seclusion, they’re subjected by the film’s villain to an almost endless justifying screed. It goes on and on. A scene that conveys all of its information rather quickly and then keeps conveying and re-conveying, as if Zarchi had written a first draft and decided it was good enough.
But here’s the thing about Deja Vu: As unwieldy as it is, it’s got a novelistic scope that’s pretty fascinating. It asks questions of its characters that aren’t easily answered, and Zarchi seems to harbor some disdain for the way his original heroine, Jennifer Hills, has cashed in on her trauma. She’s published an unflinching tell-all about her assault and subsequent revenge (and the book is buoyed by a hilariously mean-spirited and tasteless title). That Jennifer has grown somewhat narcissistic is an interesting choice–certainly an antiquated one in this “yassss queen” culture, but that’s okay. Exploitation cinema thrives when it’s at its most disreputable.
All the major players in this picture are bound by fate. Christy Hills leads a life of affluence, only stopping off to meet mom for an innocent lunch date when she’s thrown headlong into a situation that forces her to atone for her mother’s past. And the villains are even more aware of their social standings. Deja Vu’s big bad is the wife of the original film’s ringleader (the dude who got castrated in the tub). This wife, Becky, is played quite well by Maria Olsen, a character singularly driven by her need for revenge. Jennifer’s book adorns the gas station counter she jockeys, serving as a constant reminder that Jennifer has profited off her husband’s corpse. Becky has long since accepted that her fate is inexorably linked to Jennifer’s. And even the most obnoxious character is cognizant of his seemingly predetermined fate in this world, pausing amidst the chaos in order to fantasize about an escape to New York City, where it will be easier to start over in anonymity.
If I’m making it sound like Deja Vu is chalk-full of enough literary nuance to fill a college paper, it’s because it is. And I really appreciated Zarchi’s heady approach to a subgenre that doesn’t always have such lofty aims. But it’s not without flaws, so allow me to criticize Deja Vu for its absurd ham-handedness, which sometimes provokes enough unintentional hilarity to threaten its ambition. Dialogue is uneven, often on-the-nose, and some of the villains struggle to get their mouths around it. Because Zarchi has no use for subtlety, characters make it a point to literally *spit* on graves this time around. And the cringiest thing here is its use of stills from ISOYG 1978 whenever we see old “polaroids” of the bad guys. I’m also not sure this sequel’s timeline makes complete sense, as the offspring of original film’s bad guys should be middle aged, and not dudes in their late twenties, early thirties.
Given its nature, I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu is an expectedly unpleasant film. But Zarchi has a few surprises in store (one of which took me by complete surprise). Something that turned me away from Steven Monroe’s 2010 I Spit on Your Grave remake was its decision to take Jennifer out of the picture immediately following her assault. The idea behind it was to transform Jennifer into an omniscient and unstoppable angel of vengeance. And that idea bored me to tears. We had followed Jennifer for roughly half the picture, suffering alongside her only to see her changed into the rape/revenge equivalent of the Grudge ghost. It gave away the character’s humanity and denied actress Sarah Butler any catharsis as a performer. The remake did give us plenty of scenes of terrible men stewing in their proverbial fear, but it was a bad trade.
Like all movies, these pictures work best when they focus on their protagonist’s adversity. And their subsequent triumphs over it. Deja Vu isn’t shy about putting Christy Hills through the paces. In the lead, Jamie Bernadette gives an incredibly brave performance. She’s fearless and vulnerable as a person of privilege who finds herself fighting for her life in the shadows of the sprawling New York metropolis. Bernadette’s transformation into a damaged and hardened killer is given plenty of time to breathe across these 148 minutes and for all the picture’s flaws, Bernadette is kind of a revelation here. This couldn’t have been an easy movie to make, and she’s great in it.
And hey, I won’t lie–there is something perversely thrilling about revenge. And I’m willing to overlook a lot when these pictures manage to get that much right. I’m the one person who liked Monroe’s I Spit on Your Grave 2 (that’s the sequel to the 2010 remake) because it managed its survivor’s journey in a far more emotional manner. Then it delivered some incredibly gruesome vengeance on top of that. Given Deja Vu‘s sprawling run time, the revenge part of the picture happens surprisingly fast. The deaths are no nastier than ISOYG 1978, and I’ll be honest, the sadist in me might’ve preferred watching this part of the film get dragged out a little bit more. There’s also a third act twist that’s eager to expand upon Zarchi’s thematics, and does so in such a weirdo way that I couldn’t help but feel even more positive about this thing.
I think Bernadette is aces in this picture, and Maria Olsen’s performance is kind of a miracle too, given the script isn’t especially supportive of her. While it’s nice to see Camille Keaton again, and she’s one of the nicest celebrities I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, she seems a bit stiff and unnatural once Jennifer has to adapt to the story’s more physical demands. Most of the hillbillies are from the over-the-top school of acting, and you just don’t buy them as real people. Maybe this fits just fine alongside the original film (the actor who played Matthew, specifically), but I think Deja Vu would’ve been stronger had these actors played their roles with a bit more nuance, especially since that’s what Zarchi is seemingly after.
So it’s a mixed bag. Clunky at times, but not without some primal thrills and unexpected surprises. So, I ask: Is that any different than yesterday’s exploitation fare? Zarchi might’ve been hamstrung by a low budget, but Deja Vu actually looks pretty good. The digital cinematography is too clean, and California is no substitute for the lush backwoods of Kent, Connecticut, but this picture features plenty of actual locations, keeps its violence refreshingly low-fi and splattery, and puts a new twist on the genre that Zarchi helped codify. It also features a badass heroine in Jamie Bernadette. So while I’ll never tell you that Meir Zarchi earns every second of these 148 minutes, I will argue that there’s plenty to like about I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu and I’ll even recommend it, should this kind of thing pique your curiosity.