Up for the challenge: Sarah Butler makes her mark in I Spit On Your Grave

by Mark Burger

I Spit on Your Grave. The title alone is shocking, conjuring up images of violence and sadism, of cruelty and revenge. It’s not a title that engenders affection, to say the least.

Writer/director Meir Zarchi’s film starred Camille Keaton (whom Zarchi later married) as Jennifer Hills, a young career woman who rents a cabin in the woods to relax, reflect and recharge her batteries. Instead, she is assaulted and raped by a group of locals. Left for dead, Jennifer is very much alive — and very much bent on revenge.

The original film, produced under the title Day of the Woman in 1978, died a quick and quiet death upon its original release. Distributor Jerry Gross rechristened the film I Spit on Your Grave and re-released it in 1981. Reaction was immediate: A critical firestorm and a box-office hit. Siskel and Ebert castigated the film on their television show, thereby giving it even more publicity, women’s groups were outraged, and some territories banned the film outright.

Sarah Butler knew none of this. For one thing, she wasn’t even born yet. She hadn’t even seen or heard of the film. When she read for the part of Jennifer Hills in the proposed remake, “it was just like any other audition,” she said.

But for the talented young actress, I Spit on Your Grave offers a strong showcase. The new version, on which Zarchi serves as executive producer and which is directed by Steven R. Monroe (House of 9, It Waits), retains the original film’s premise, but is better-produced and, as a result, perhaps even more effective.

The “new” I Spit on Your Grave, now available on DVD and Blu-ray in an unrated edition from Anchor Bay Entertainment (which is also re-releasing the original film on DVD and Blu-ray), sees Butler’s Jennifer Hills again subjected to an excruciating assault at the hands of four creeps, played with appropriate creepiness by Jeff Branson, Daniel Franzese, Rodney Eastman and Chad Lindberg.

Barely managing to escape, she encounters the local lawman (Andrew Howard), but as it transpires, he is in fact the unofficial ringleader of the bunch. There is no one left for Jennifer to turn to for help. She’s all alone.

After they think they’ve killed her, her assailants resume their normal lives, only to slowly realize that Jennifer isn’t dead, and that she’s coming after them one by one.

Butler knew this was a powerful role from the beginning, but “because of the nudity and the violence and the difficulty of the role, I hesitated,” she admitted.

After discussing her concerns with her managers (“who have always been very protective of me”) and actor friends (“one friend told me I had to do it because it was such a kick-ass part!”), Butler decided to go for it. The very challenge of so physically and emotionally grueling a role was ultimately a principal incentive for her.

“I was lucky to get this role,” she said. “It’s definitely my first true leading role. Reading scripts, it’s easy to see how it could go either way.”

Once she was on board, Butler went for broke, as did Monroe and her co-stars.

“Working non-stop all day long, and maintaining that level of energy all day long” was, she said, made easier by the trust they had established.

“It was really important to have trust in each other, and I immediately felt good about them.” Despite their on-screen antagonism, “there was a sense of friendship. I was lucky to have such amazing co-stars. They are all fantastic actors. They stepped up the reality in the characters.

“We wanted people to be horrified because it was real,” Butler said. “The fear factor is in the reality of the situation… telling the story in a truthful way.

“Before all the sh*t hits the fan, I can easily identify with Jennifer. She’s committed to her career, she’s a young professional. It’s a little harder to identify with someone as committed as she becomes later. There are so many emotions when you’re filming.”

Yet there’s an unmistakable empathy to the character. Jennifer is a woman who has been pushed too far, whose justifiable rage can’t fail to arouse at least a primal reaction. Controversy or criticism aside, the role offered Butler “an amazing arc… it’s edgy and mysterious.”

Once filming had wrapped, Butler went home to visit her family for Thanksgiving, and promptly came down with the flu.

“I was exhausted,” she said, “but I didn’t have any lingering darkness, just a sense of accomplishment.”

Looking at the film in perspective as entertainment, “I don’t think it necessarily has a message,” she said. “But if I’m prodded and pressed… if nothing else, it opens up the topic of rape. If, somehow, this encourages women to step out and talk, if they can identify… this sort of thing does happen. There is a reality to it.”

Much of Butler’s work thus far has been on the small screen, including separate guest stints on “CSI: New York” and “CSI: Miami.” She also battled feathered fiends in the campy schlock shocker Flu Bird Horror (AKA Flu Birds). Will her lead turn in I Spit on Your Grave have as much impact as Flu Bird Horror?

“I sure hope so,” she laughed. “I wouldn’t change anything,” she said.

“It’s been cool. This has led to more opportunities to making myself known. I’m really, really pleased. I’m looking forward to taking the next step.”

If Butler’s ferocious, star-making performance in I Spit on Your Grave is any indication, it’s probably best not to get in her way!

To read Mark Burger’s review of I Spit on Your Grave, see page 37.