“An army of pissed-off man-hating feminist cannibals” DOGHOUSE (Jake West, 2009)

Doghouse is a British slapstick / splatter movie. The danger of mixing genres like that is that sometimes neither one will work, and this is a good example of just that. A bunch of young men head off for a weekend to cheer up one of their friends who has just been divorced. The film introduces them one by one with a placard showing their name (hoping vainly that we will thereafter remember them). They are all being verbally abused by their partners for leaving them, a condition sometimes known as being “in the doghouse”. They diagnose their situation as suffering from what they call “social gender anxiety” and plan to do male things like, you know, drink and smoke a piss on trees. They think they are recapturing their animal essences, whereas in fact they are just being dicks.

They head for a little town where, they have heard, the women outnumber the men four to one. Their minibus driver tells them that it is the middle of nowhere, and hey, there are worse things than divorce.

They are expecting

“an entire village of man-hungry women, waiting to jump the first band of desperadoes rolling up from London.”

Turns out that’s exactly what they get (yes, such subtle irony) because the women have all been infected with a virus in a biological warfare trial intended to turn one half of an enemy population against the other, and isn’t that a decent summary of human history? This virus turns them into what these guys call

“an army of pissed-off man-hating feminist cannibals”

Each woman is a caricature of her womanly role – a bride, a hairdresser, a grandma, etc.

While this is a remarkably silly film, it does illustrate quite nicely the themes of abjection and the monstrous feminine. Monsters are by definition outsiders, but more so when their appearance and violent activities are in a female form, because we are reminded of the archaic mother – the authority figure of early childhood who toilet trained us, dominated us, exemplified adult sexuality and offered us both nurturing and the threat of Oedipal competition with the father and ultimately castration or reabsorption. Just so, the women of the town represent female roles: the crone (one of the men’s gran), the bride (in virginal white), the hairdresser, the barmaid, the traffic warden. Freud might have enjoyed this film – the women carry castrating weapons – knives, scissors, axes, teeth, a dental drill. Even stilettos. One woman represents voracious appetite and therefore body dysmorphia (obesity) – she has an electric carving knife and kneels in front of her victim in a recreation of every fellatio-gone-wrong castration nightmare, cutting off his, well, his finger. But you know, symbolism.

In case the symbolism is still not clear, the local shop, with a mummified penis in the display case, is called

The men plan a violent exit, declaring “Today is not the day to stop objectifying women”. This gives the film an excuse to answer the women’s cannibalistic violence against the men with some very nasty misogynistic attacks by the surviving men, the ones who were the most obdurate male chauvinists, using ‘male’ weapons like fire and vehicles and sporting equipment, resulting in women being variously burnt, having their teeth knocked out, beheaded and beaten to death with golf clubs. At the climax, one of the surviving men growls “give me a wood” – yeah, you get the picture. There would be a certain section of the audience cheering those scenes, I suspect.

The movie managed to stumble to a surprising 48% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the Guardian reviewer summing it up as:

“misogyny and creative bankruptcy in Jake West’s Brit gender-wars comedy horror about a bunch of hen-pecked blokes stuck in a village of cannibalistic women”

If I still haven’t dissuaded you, the full movie can be watched (when I last checked) on YouTube.

Harvesting hitchhikers: UNDER THE SKIN (Book: Michel Faber, 2000) (Film: Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

“We’re all the same under the skin.”

The philosopher Thomas Nagel claimed that we are unable to understand the point of view of another being, giving as examples the difficulty imagining what it’s like for a human to imagine being a bat, or for a blind person to imagine being sighted. J.M. Coetzee in the guise of his character Elizabeth Costello thought differently – it’s about being, seeking, feeling, and of course eating. We all do those sort of things. We can sympathise, no matter how alien that other may be.

The movie and the book of Under the Skin feature a ‘real’ alien – a being from another planet, disguised as a human woman, here to harvest human flesh for food. They both ask – what’s it like to be an alien? In the book, the aliens are quadrupeds, looking something between a horse and a sheep apparently, except for the protagonist, Isserley, who has been surgically mutilated to make her look like a ‘human’ of earth. I say ‘human’ in inverted commas because her people, like many clans interviewed in the reports of anthropologists, believe that they are the humans, and so everyone else must be aliens or subhumans. To Isserley’s people, the denizens of Earth are “vodsels” (Dutch for “food” – the author Michel Faber is originally Dutch) – dumb animals that can be captured, castrated, fattened up and then slaughtered for meat, which is exported back to the home planet.

Isserley is a hunter. Her weapon in the book is a small car which has anaesthetic needles in the passenger seat. In the movie, it’s her appearance – she looks like (because she is played by) Scarlett Johansson (identified in the credits as “The Female”).

Men get in her car and eagerly accept the offer to come home with her, but at home, they disappear into a pool of black ectoplasm.

She stalks her prey, driving around the roads of Scotland and picking up hitchhikers, asking them questions to draw out whether they will be missed and, if they are loners, losers, tranquilising them with a drug called icpathua and taking them back to be processed. The film took an audacious decision to use real men, not actors (most of them), many of whom were offered a lift by Johansson, and recorded by secret cameras in her van. They don’t recognise Johansson as a movie star, just as their unwitting “characters” don’t recognise her as an alien hunter. In the book, Isserley is not portrayed as any kind of Scarlett Johansson, but does have huge breasts, the prototype for the surgery being based on some questionable magazines sent back to the home planet by the advance crew.

The story in both media is not just about being alien (which she is in several ways: as a woman, as an alien, and as a hunter) but about how difficult it can be to sympathise with the other, the stranger, the prey, and how dangerous it can be when one finally does so. In the book, Isserley is purely interested in whether they will be missed, and is unconcerned about what is done to them, which is described in graphic detail: they are shaved, castrated, tongues removed and fattened up. In the film, she will go to any lengths to capture her prey, at one point dragging away a man who had tried to save a drowning couple, leaving their baby crying on the beach.

But what happens when the hunter starts to identify or at least sympathise with the prey? Isserley is made to think through the implications when she needs to convince the aristocratic scion of the ruling family of her planet that the vodsels are just dumb animals, and their feeble attempts to beg for mercy by scratching in the sand of their cages are just gibberish (he is unaware they can speak, as their tongues have been cut out). He is a believer in animal rights, and frees some of the captives, whom Isserley then has to hunt once again, this time with a shotgun. Isserley never really challenges the morality of hunting, mutilating, fattening and slaughtering the stupid vodsels (us) although she is horrified at the suggestion of eating sheep, serene animals who look like the children of her species, unlike the “brutish cunning of the vodsels”. Her morality, like so much of ours, is based on similarity. Her challenge comes when she picks up a man who (we know, although she doesn’t) is a serial killer, sedates him, then realises she has left his dog to starve in his van. She heads back to where she picked him up, frees the dog, and decides to quit, try to make a life as an Earthling, even though she cannot even eat our food.

The Female of the film has a different challenge. She picks up a man with severe facial deformity, who admits that not only will no one miss him, but that there has never been anyone who might have.

She takes him back to the black pond, but rescues him at the last moment, and then flees. Then she ceases to be the hunter, and becomes the hunted. Both the film and the book have a vicious rape scene when the prey, the desperate from among men she collects, turn on her.

The story may be interpreted according to many discourses of our times. It can be interpreted as the struggle of immigrants against the racism and resentment of those whose territory they enter. It is more widely interpreted as a feminist narrative, in which the standard horror trope of the sexually active female being stalked by the monster is turned on its head – the males walking alone at night are the prey, the woman is the molester and murderer. It is also a comment on economic class distinctions: the men she picks up are the strays, the unemployed who are exiled, isolated and vulnerable. She is culling those whom society has expelled, like a lion preying on the old and weak of a herd of antelopes. They are the aliens from this planet. 

The book in particular is a metaphoric condemnation of modern factory farming. The vodsels (that’s you and I) are considered “vegetables on legs”.

“The thing about vodsels was, people who knew nothing whatsoever about them were apt to misunderstand them terribly.  There was always the tendency to anthropomorphise. A vodsel might do something which resembled a human action; it might make a sound analogous with human distress, or make a gesture analogous with human supplication, and that made the ignorant observer jump to conclusions. In the end, though, vodsels couldn’t do any of the things that really defined a human being. They couldn’t siuwil, they couldn’t mesnishtil, they had no concept of slan.”

Aren’t these the same arguments thrown at vegans on social media every day? “Humans” are intellectually superior, and therefore the only ones worthy of moral consideration. And to these aliens, we are not the humans. Isserley and her crew are the embodiment of John Harris’ famous quote (usually misattributed to George Bernard Shaw):

Suppose that tomorrow a group of beings from another planet were to land on Earth, beings who considered themselves as superior to you as you feel yourself to be to other animals. Would they have the right to treat you as you treat the animals you breed, keep and kill for food?

The film is less distinct in its message. Glazer said in an interview that he wanted

“to make a film representing, as purely as possible, an alien view of our world.”

How do we step into another’s consciousness, be it a man or woman or bat, be it a predator or prey? How is it to be an outsider, an alien, a stranger in a strange land? It is difficult to comprehend, and yet sometimes it is easy, because we have all felt like aliens at one time or another. Think of your first day at a new school.

The brilliance of this story is that we see humanity (us, that is) through the eyes of an alien. In the book it’s Isserley’s thoughts and feelings about the vodsels, Earthlings, to whom she feels both contempt and grudging admiration. In the film, it’s images – the dark streets of Glasgow, the crowds jostling and threatening, the shopping mall that suddenly seems like an alien landscape.

In other words, we get to feel how it is to be an alien, proving the truth of Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello when she says: “there are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination”. But this insight is not accessed through rational contemplation, which tells us we can do whatever we want if we have the power and the will, but rather from the heart, “the seat of a faculty, sympathy, that allows us to share at times the being of another.” We sympathise with this alien, as she begins to sympathise with us.

Matt Zoller Seitz, the critic from RogerEbert.com, interprets the story’s message as saying:

“Here is an experience that’s nothing like yours, and here are some images and sounds and situations that capture the essence of what the experience felt like; watch the movie for a couple of hours, and when it’s over, go home and think about what you saw and what it did to you.”

The film earned a very respectable 84% on Rotten Tomatoes, The Guardian called it a masterpiece, but it was a box office flop. Let’s hope it, and the book, continue to ascend into the realms of cult texts. They are both highly recommended for your consideration.

Cannibalism as female empowerment: JENNIFER’S BODY (Karyn Kusama, 2009)

Jennifer’s Body is classified as a comedy, even though it’s rated R for sexuality, bloody violence, language and drug use. Well, all those things can be funny. Even cannibalism is sometimes the butt of jokes (well, quite often), and a lot of people get eaten in this movie.

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The story does not start with Jennifer (Megan Fox) but with her nerdy bestie Needy (Amanda Seyfried), “short” for Anita, although no one calls her that. Needy is revealed to be an ultra-violent resident of an asylum.

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The rest is flashback. Jennifer is the popular girl, the sexy girl, the one no one can believe is friends with the boring Needy, but she is bored in their little town of – wait for it – Devil’s Kettle. Jennifer wants to get off with the big city band in town, Low Shoulder. At their gig, Needy hears them arguing about whether Jennifer is a virgin, and leaps to her friends defence

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Jennifer later tells her that’s not even close to the truth.

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Now, when men are looking for virgins, there are only two possible explanations, depending on whether they are of a metaphysical bent, and these guys are very bent. So telling them Jennifer fits their shopping list turns out to be a very bad idea. Jen gets in the band’s truck as the venue burns down. Needy is distraught.

But she meant well. And later that night, here’s Jen, looking quite sanguine, in both sense of the word.

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Jennifer has been a virgin sacrifice to a demonic force, which promised greatness to the band. However, not being a virgin (even backdoor) means that the sacrifice, instead of killing her, left her possessed by the demon, a succubus.

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Yeah, OK, but the audience needs a good reason for a woman to start eating her dates (even if, after 100+ blogs, you and I could think of a dozen good ones). So she is possessed, and eating people. When she’s hungry, she’s weak and unhealthy, but when she’s fed (and cleaned up) she’s the life, or undeath, of the party.

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This is a really good film, with all the ingredients of greatness: the cast are excellent, the director, Karyn Kusama, is in her element (she made Destroyer with Nicole Kidman recently) and it was written by Diablo Cody, fresh from the triumph of Juno, for which she won an Oscar for best original screenplay. But the film bombed at the box-office, the accepted wisdom in those days being that successful films were made exclusively for 14-year-old (white) boys. This one wasn’t, it was about strong and often violent women, and has been gathering a cult following in the decade since its release.

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There have been many horror movies about women, often (e.g. Carrie or Teeth) involving revenge for something done to them. This fits with the cultural expectation that men will be the aggressors and the monsters, and from this fetid swamp arose the slasher movies, including most cannibal films. Jennifer herself has been sexualised by most of the men and boys who appears in the plot. She is kidnapped and murdered by the band, despite begging for mercy.

But Jennifer is not seeking revenge on the band – that will (but not until the credits) be Needy’s job.

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Jennifer is a monster for all the males who have objectified her.

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The film plays with the assumptions about male power and appetite. The boys Jennifer eats are gentle and considerate, not violent or aggressive – the huge line-backer she tears apart after her return is seen first crying for his friend, who died in the fire.

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Everyone assumes, of course, that his killer is male.

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But the body when found is being eaten by a gentle fawn.

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Despite widespread cultural beliefs, female monsters are not rarities.  Earliest mythology tells of the Medusa, the sight of whom “made the spectator stiff with terror” (much to Freud’s amusement) and even earlier, there are claims that Lilith, Adam’s ex before he met up with Eve, was, or became, a succubus. Jennifer is an ideal example of what film scholar Barbara Creed calls “The Monstrous-Feminine”, a concept of monstrosity that depicts not a female version of male monsters, but a cultural force defined by male fears about the feminine. These fears include being castrated (Freud’s favourite explanation), as well as confronting “the monstrous womb” – a terrifying image of a “black hole which threatens to reabsorb what it once birthed” (Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine, p. 27). As the writer, Diablo Cody, says, it is an unashamedly feminist horror movie.

Jennifer’s Body was before it’s time. In an article explaining the woeful critical reaction to the film, Vice summed up:

‘Jennifer’s Body’ Would Kill if It Came Out Today

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