We caught up recently with I Spit on Your Grave reboot series director Steven R. Monroe to garner his thoughts on the polarized critical response to the CineTel Films/Anchor Bay Entertainment release of his feature I Spit On Your Grave 2, as well as on the future of the franchise, and more.
Monroe, whose extensive directorial credits include the genre features House of 9 (2005), It Waits (2005), and the upcoming Cerina Vincent-vehicle MoniKa, as well as the 2010 Sarah Butler-starring remake of Meir Zarchi’s controversial 1978 rape/revenge feature I Spit On Your Grave, proved refreshing in his honesty in regards to what drew him to directing the sequel, as well as his understanding of the polarized response to it, and his exasperation with a faction of the blogosphere, among other things.
Having premiered at London’s FILM4 FrightFest this past August with a subsequent release to Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand on September 24th, the critical response to I Spit On Your Grave 2 (henceforth ISOYG2) was if anything, entirely passionate. Variety offered of the film (which was scripted by Thomas Fenton and Neil Elman, and which revolves around Katie, a young New Yorker kidnapped to Bulgaria and summarily raped and tortured by a male trio), "[It’s] a dreary affair that will thrill undiscriminating fans of torture-porn horror and nobody else," while the Los Angeles Times stated, "Bare glimmers of thoughtfulness can't save Steven R. Monroe's horrendous follow-up to I Spit on Your Grave."
Conversely, Screen Magazine called ISOYG2 "The greatest horror sequel ever made," and while Anchor Bay declined to offer sales numbers, insider industry buzz indicates that sales of ISOYG2 have far exceeded expectations, implying that regardless of the somewhat negative critical response, there is indeed a fanbase for this type of material.
“I knew that the remake would be polarizing, and I knew [that the sequel to it] was going to be as well,” stated the 49-year old filmmaker, whose myriad credits as director, producer, writer and camera operator, indicate a life devoted to the art of film.
“Also,” offered Monroe, “people don’t like sequels in general. They want them to fail, so for me, I knew it was coming.”
As for his thoughts on the response from the blogosphere, Monroe reflected, “When the reviews started coming out of FrightFest, we literally had reviewers so offended that they were physically threatening me. Now, I don’t expect anyone to like a film because I directed it. The only thing that I hold out hope for is that at the very least people are able to separate a film from me personally.”
As revealed in many interviews over the years, the filmmaker has proven to possess a level head and thick skin, having historically demonstrated little ego pertaining to the critical reaction to his work, whether it be positive or otherwise. A portion of the vitriolic (and in this writer’s opinion, entirely unprofessional) response to ISOYG2 however did indeed elicit a reaction.
“If you don’t know me, or anything about me, or my thought process on rape or revenge or any of that, then you really have no right to assume what I was thinking when I made the film, and make that the basis of your review,” offered Monroe of some of the more assumptive personal attacks, “and that’s where I have a problem, and that’s what seems to be happening in this day and age, where anybody can call themselves a ‘film critic’, and they don’t really realize the damage they can do to people personally, and somewhat professionally. I’ve literally given my entire life to the film industry, so I’m passionate about movies, but I’m not going to threaten someone physically, or call them names, because I don’t like a film they made.”
“A prime example,” Monroe continued, “is that someone wrote online, ‘I think this director likes to see men get tortured naked.’ I mean, that’s somebody writing a review about a movie? It’s reminiscent in a way of school-yard bullying, like, ‘Take that, Mr. Director!’ I don’t expect everyone to like everything that I do. I only hope that people leave the theater or turn off their Blu-ray player, and have an emotional response to the work, but leave it to that.”
As for his initial decision to return to the franchise, “Shortly after I Spit On Your Grave was released, a decision was made to do a sequel,” said Monroe. “CineTel came to me first, and it took me a while to make the final decision to direct it, but it came down to the fact that I put so much for two years of my life, emotionally, physically and mentally into the remake, that I wasn’t just quite ready to let go of the franchise, and to put it into someone else’s hands. I felt that there was a little bit more that I could do, and I wasn’t quite ready to let it go.”
“I’m always more attracted to darker, dramatic material,” Monroe continued. “I mean, you can call this film a horror film, a thriller, a ‘rape/revenge’ film or even ‘torture porn,’ but to me it’s simply dark and dramatic. My whole life I’ve been attracted to dramatically dark content, and I find it fascinating, which is why I probably hate romantic comedies. So for me, it’s a double-edged sword, because I’m attracted to it and I welcome it and it feeds me a little bit, but sometimes you are hit with content like this, that has scenes like this, that hits you more emotionally and physically. But for me, if you aren’t going to ask questions, or push buttons, at least sometimes in your career, than I don’t know why anyone would want to be a filmmaker.”
We questioned Monroe regarding CineTel’s decision to move away from the narrative of Jennifer Hills, the vengeful victim portrayed by actress Sarah Butler at the center of his 2010 I Spit On Your Grave remake (initial reaction at this news from horror fans was negative, charging the company with making a simple cash grab).
“I had some thoughts on continuing with the Jennifer storyline,” reflected Monroe, “but ultimately the decision was made to have a new victim and a new storyline, one that was completely separate from the original and remake, and the ball was already rolling on that when I came onboard. So by that point there was already a premise, you I needed to embrace it, and to start to think of how best to facilitate that for myself, the fans and the film.”
Shot over the course of roughly three weeks in Sofia, Bulgaria, following a lightning-fast four weeks of prep on the heels of the delivery of the final script, “ISOYG2 pretty much had the same budget of the first film, and we barely had any money to do anything, just like the first time around,” stated the director.
As for the casting of newcomer British actress Jemma Dallender in the role of ISOYG2’s Katie: “When I saw her audition tapes that came in from London to Bulgaria, I said to Lisa Hansen, the producer, ‘I think we should take a hard look at her,’” said Monroe.
“When Jemma came to Bulgaria to meet with me, I kind of knew right away,” he continued. “I think if Jemma and Sarah [Butler] spent some time together, they’d become very good friends, and clique right away. It was almost like having to say goodbye to Sarah, and move onto the next character, which was kind of hard [for me]. The transition was made a little easier because they’re somewhat similar personally and professionally, and are both completely fearless. They both knew what each film would entail and require, [and] so for that reason it was kind of easy once we got going.”
Undeniably, the narrative of ISOYG2 contains some entirely despicable acts, both in the abuse, rape and torture of the film’s lead, and in her barbaric revenge of such. Given the cinematic brutality displayed, we questioned the director in regards to not only his approach in fomenting audience belief in the proceedings, but in generating sympathy for the protagonist.
“I think we just tried to take something that really does happen, has happened and will happen, and put it into the context of film,” Monroe offered. “In terms of sex trafficking, these things do happen, but in terms of the basement scenes in ISOYG2, they’ve also happened (in reference to the real life crimes of Ariel Castro) in Ohio, too.”
“I said this when we did the remake,” continued the filmmaker, “That I don’t know anyone who if this happened to their mother, wife, daughter, aunt, sister or what not, wouldn’t in their mind go to the place where they’d say, ‘I’ll fucking kill those guys.’ I also tried to have people question, ‘Who is the good guy and who is the bad guy?’ regardless of how much you may sympathize with Katie. There’s that question of, ‘Who’s worse?’”
On generating sympathy for Katie, “I felt very strongly that with this sequel we see our lead, and only follow our lead, through her recovery,” Monroe stated. “You see Katie from moments after her ordeal has finally ended, and through a very physical and emotional recovery, and I think because you see that, and you are forced to sit there through a five to six minute sequence watching her in pain, etc., that there’s a little bit more of an understanding, and subsequently an attachment to her. Because in the original remake, the character of Jennifer disappeared, and we followed her attackers until she came back.”
On depicting the "bad guys" of ISOYG2: “I said to the actors this time around, that you are the ‘bad guys,’ but you have to make people understand you, and if they understand you, they are going to sympathize somewhat,” he offered.
“If they are just a ‘bad guy’ straight out of Die Hard or something like that, then you are like, ‘Okay, there’s a bad guy and I’m supposed to hate him,’” he continued. “That’s fine for an over-the-top action film, but I think horror films do themselves a disservice sometimes by going, ‘Frame one, here’s the bad guy.’ With this sequel, people know the storyline, because it’s a franchise, but I don’t like to point fingers at a character and say, ‘Bad guy!’ Yes, they are bad guys, and they have taken advantage of women before in the universe of this storyline, but it’s not just a group of rapists this time around.”
Commenting on the reaction to the ethnicity of the antagonists of ISOYG2 and the locale in which the plot meters out, “One of things that drives me crazy,” stated Monroe, “is that some people have said of the 2010 film, simply maybe because of the title, ‘The guys in the remake were stereotypical rednecks,’ and with this one they’ve said, ‘They are stereotypical Eastern Europeans,’ but here’s the thing; there are stereotypes in this world, and if you are making a movie about a particular subset, unless the performances and scripts are horrific, you can’t really say that it’s a cliché." [Writer’s note: Unfortunately, Bulgaria does indeed currently boast the EU's highest annual amount of human-trafficking victims.]
As for whether Monroe would be interested in helming a third in the franchise, if such is deemed: “I try to explain this to people that it’s not 1972,” he offered, “when directors were auteurs, and that I’m sitting here with a cigar and a glass of wine for three months saying, ‘I’m going to remake the I Spit On Your Grave cult classic, and I will direct it, and will bring forth a sequel.’ Because that’s not how this business works, because it’s a business, and while most fans of the horror genre hate this, there are sequels, because critically and financially their predecessors did well. That is how any movie is made in the industry, is if they think it will be financially viable.”
“If there is a part three, and there very well could be, and that will be the decision of CineTel and Anchor Bay,” Monroe concluded. “I feel like I’ve done what I could do, and if there is a part three, I feel like it’s time for someone else to take it on, and I’ll leave it at that.”