August 16, 2010

Doghouse (Review) -- Toronto After Dark 2010

Doghouse (2009)

Director: Jake West

4 / 5 zedheads

At Toronto After Dark, Jake West's Doghouse was introduced to us as a thoroughly politically incorrect film, and that it most surely was. Despite the fact that the premise is based on a sexist foundation, I found that the film's gender commentary cut both ways. Besides that, on the level of zombie films, it was a highly enjoyable and gory romp through zombie splatter with some of the most visually unique and memorable zombies I've ever seen in one film.

A group of male friends, who are all on the outs with their partners, take a trip to the remote English village of Moodley for a weekend of drinking and paling around. In Moodley, it is said, the women outnumber men three to one. The trip has been arranged by Neil (Danny Dyer), a sexist scoundrel, for the benefit of his recently divorced friend Vince (Stephen Graham). Neil feels Vince has had his masculinity destroyed by women, and this trip will make Vince the alpha dog he once was. Along for the trip is the affable man-child Mikey (Noel Clarke), self-help addict Patrick (Keith-Lee Castle), comic book nerd Matt (Lee Ingleby), the perpetually late Banksy (Neil Maskell), and the only homosexual of the group Graham (Emil Marwa). When our carousing protagonists get to Moodley, however, they find it deserted of men and all the women have been turned into raging cannibalistic creatures hell-bent on hacking, slashing, snipping, and rending male flesh from the bone.

Doghouse takes time to set up its characters before the kills get rolling, but it moves at very good pace with a fine balance of action and character moments. Unlike other directors, West knows how to work with an ensemble cast, and he makes the most out of the isolated setting. I don't think there was a moment or movement I didn't enjoy. Every actor is funny and has his shining moment. Just on the level of casting and script, Doghouse is an achievement.

Then there's the zombies. In Doghouse, the zombies recall to mind the creatures from the obscure film Neon Maniacs, in which 12 uniquely designed monster warriors terrorize some teens. Every female zombie in Doghouse is a unique character. This is not a faceless horde. There's the axe-wielding bride, a leather-bound and buxom witch, the Snipper (a sexy hair dresser), the dental surgeon, the equestrian, etc. Looking more like gaunt deadites than traditional zombies, these fatal femmes stagger around on stiff joints but lash out brutally with their claws or weapons of choice. Partway through the film, the women undergo further mutation, making them even more deadly. Gore fans are going to love seeing these women feast on intestines and carve off some very literal finger food. The female zombies in Doghouse are some of my favorite movie monsters from the last year.
It really was bad luck to see the Bride before the wedding
But what of the film's sexist tones? After all, the villains are manifestations of that horribly irresponsible stereotype of women as mindless, irrational, and man-hating (yet man-craving). The violence is directed, ostensibly, against women.

While I have mixed feelings, the film strikes me as less offensive than I expected. For one, the masculinity of the heroes does not go without critical comment. Graham, Patrick, and Matt continually remind the rest of the group of their sexist comments or irresponsible behavior. Unfortunately, it is the most misogynistic characters who know the least about women who end of surviving, as Vince later observes. So why do the most irresponsible and misguided of men survive? It would be easy to say they survive so the film can champion "true masculinity" and reinforce misogynistic views. Yet, when the characters embrace their gung-ho, excessive tough guy personae at the end of the film, it leads to a very funny yet fatally irresponsible mistake that leaves the film's resolution open to the question of whether or not our boys actually survive.

In horror films, it is common for characters to be terrorized by the things they most offend or transgress against. Bad parents are terrorized by children. Those who harm the environment are attacked by nature run amok. In Doghouse, the men offend against women and it is women who deliver some bloody payback. The most misogynistic characters are also the least sympathetic. Had the film not been self-reflexive and self-critical of the misguided masculinity of its heroes, I would have been very disturbed by the narrative. As it stands, I liken Doghouse in some ways to South Park. It plays with very politically incorrect notions for humour to push boundaries of the taboo, but it's not mindless. It subverts itself as it exploits stereotypes. I think its responsibly irresponsible.

What started as a foursome turned into more of an all-you-can-eat buffet
The only portion of the film that offended me was the humour at the expense of a large female zombie. Predictably, the rest of the female zombies are fit, thin, or very busty images of monstrous femininity. Yet, there are whole sequences featuring fat jokes about a very large woman who captures Neil. These fat jokes are offered up without commentary and without examination. They are crude and thoughtless. While the gender humour cuts both ways, it still seems acceptable in society to present people of large size unanimously as food-obsessed and sexually perverse monstrosities. This is a critical shame.

Doghouse is a fun movie. Full of gore, great zombie makeup and design, and a strong ensemble cast, the film's gender commentary is bound to spark debate. For me, I felt that although the men embrace an irresponsible male culture and are the film's protagonists, they were not presented as heroes. Doghouse walks a fine line between reinforcing gender stereotypes and subverting them.