Dear Horror Fans,
As you’re already painfully aware, we’ve been living through troubled times for the past decade and a half, as regards theatrical horror films. First came the post-Scream revitalization of the genre, which had the unfortunate side-effect of reorienting horror from the aesthetics of fringe cinema to that of mainstream Hollywood. Then came the remakes. Then PG-13 remakes. Expectations changed. It became nearly impossible for independently financed films to give audiences the slick look and recognizable actors they now expected. Not so long ago, the noticeable difference between a studio backed movie like Friday the 13th IV and an independent movie like Re-Animator was negligible. In the 00’s the class division became nearly insurmountable. Indie horror was pushed to the DVD market, which I suppose was all well and good, until the DVD market imploded that is. The burgeoning online market offers new horizons for original and inexperienced horror filmmakers, but the theatrical system still drives the money machine and ‘the Biz’ in general; obviously filmmakers want a theatrical film, as it brings studio attention and can lead to bigger and better things. And, you know, some of us still prefer to see a good horror movie in the theater anyway.
This brings me to Lucky McKee’s (May) new film, The Woman, which hits theaters this Friday in a limited release. If you like horror movies you should go see it. Why? Well, reason numero uno: it is good. Very good. I’ve seen it twice now. I liked it a lot the first time around, and was ecstatic to discover that it only improved on the second viewing, as further nuance and details revealed themselves to me.
The story focuses on the Cleek family – father, Chris (Sean Bridgers), mother, Belle (Angela Bettis), oldest child, Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter), middle child, Brian (Zach Rand), youngest child, Darlin’ (Shyla Molhusen) – who live in a nice big house on the outskirts of suburban Massachusetts. Chris is a classic 50’s dad, who firmly wears the pants in his family. His fetish for exuding control over his surroundings is brought front and center when he spots a grime-coated feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) living in the woods. He sets his family on the task of cleaning out their storm cellar, then promptly abducts the Woman and restrains her. So far this sounds like a fun idea for a horror movie, with Chris secretly keeping a full-grown woman captive in his own family home. What makes this movie more than just a little fun is that Chris immediately tells his family. The Woman, Chris tells his bewildered wife and children, is the family “project” now. They’re going to help her. It’s like My Fair Lady crossed with Misery crossed with, let’s say, Nell, if Nell had been a badass cannibal.
The Woman has an unusual background. Technically it is a sequel to 2009’s Offspring, directed by Andrew van den Houten. Offspring was written by genre author Jack Ketchum, adapted from his own novel (itself the second book in a series), and features a clan of feral cannibals as the villains. Long story short, McKee and Ketchum decided to do a sequel together, focusing on McIntosh’s character, known only as “Woman,” and implanting her is a very different scenario. MckKee and Ketchum worked out the story together, then split off to make a movie and novel, respectively. Ketchum’s novel is out currently, and unlike Michael Crichton’s The Lost World, the book isn’t wildly different from the film (or so I’m told). I can’t speak to the book’s quality, but McKee crafted a rather brilliant work of provocative horror. Easily his best film. And don’t let this sequel talk scare you off. The Woman is more of a spin-off. You need to see Offspring to watch The Woman about as much as you needed to see Cheers to watch Fraiser. The only puzzle piece Offspring fills is giving the existence of a feral woods woman some context. Which I’ve now just given you! Hurrah!
The film made a big stink at Sundance this year when video of an irate audience member (raving about how offensive the film is) hit the interwebz. This was of course the best thing, marketing-wise, that could have happened to the film. It was great press, though also kinda sad that that’s what it takes to get something on the big screen. This hype might oversell things a bit for those looking to be pushed to the limits, expecting something like A Serbian Film or Martyrs. The events and characters in The Woman are indeed disturbing, but it isn’t torture porn, and for the most part it isn’t even that visually graphic; the film’s most unpleasant bit of mutilation happens off camera. Many of the offended parties have called the film misogynistic, which I suppose is true in an incredibly stupid and missing-the-point kind of way — like calling Schindler’s List anti-Semitic. It’s particularly ignorant considering that the film’s only two male characters – Chris and Brian – are both extremely extremely unlikable. Brian in particular is an awesomely unlikable little shit, completely lacking even the demented charm his father has. Far from misogynistic, I think McKee has crafted an interesting commentary on chauvinism. Chris Cleek is basically a monster, hiding behind a good job and vacant suburban smile. He is kind to his wife and daughters but doesn’t respect them as people (and becomes less than kind if they defy his wishes). Whereas Brian is being groomed to give women a similar lack of respect — something that is demonstrated early on when Brian gets minor revenge on a female classmate for beating him in basketball. This attitude resonates through the entire film, and leads directly to the film’s explosive ending, which has a certain hos before bros sentiment. There is a metaphor happening in The Woman, which is that the females in the Cleek family as just as much prisoners as the Woman, they just don’t know it.
The driving force of the film is Sean Bridgers, giving a career re-defining performance as the simmeringly happy-go-lucky Chris Cleek. By the end of the film, Chris will completely erase thoughts of Johnny Burns (Al Swearengen’s dipshit bartender from Deadwood) from your mind when you think of Bridgers. He is such a glorious prick. McKee’s muse, Angela Bettis, does her Bettis thing here, and is a good ball of nerves like she always is. Pollyanna McIntosh as the Woman is the other big gun in the film. Her look and the horrible noises she makes instead of speaking leave an indelible impression. Broad shouldered with a slumped posture and heavy features, she’s kind of caveman sexy, which is perfect for the character, as having her be out-and-out attractive would diminish what is going on in the film — turning the image of a her tied up in the cellar into something too kinky. McIntosh makes a great and believable beast.
For a film with only minimal characters, locations, and events, there is a lot going on in The Woman. The film boils and boils, moving closer to the ending, when you just know that the Woman is going to get out of that cellar, someway, somehow. And the ending is marvelous. Unexpected, tense, messed up, exciting, and featuring an iconic shot that will surely elicit a cheer from your audience as it did mine. McKee said his goal with the ending was to give the audience something think/talk about while driving home from the theater, which brings me back to my overall point here — go see the movie in the theater.
The Woman isn’t the horror movie to end all horror movies, but it is exactly what horror fans say they want. It isn’t a remake. It isn’t starring pretty kids from The CW. It doesn’t have glossy cinematography that makes it look like an expensive car commercial, or feature Black Eyed Peas songs thumping on the soundtrack. It is a small movie with big ideas and great execution. Attack the Block was great, but it more easily conforms to what studios want to gamble on — something full of action and snazzy FX. I loved Attack the Block, so I mean none of this negatively, but The Woman is the kind of film that never seems to get any kind of notable theatrical release. It is too small, too bizarre, too messy, too fucked up. God bless Bloody Disgusting’s new distribution scheme for getting us this far. Now it is up to y’all. I know movies aren’t cheap these days. I know finding a theater and getting there can be a pain in the ass when Netflix Streaming’s warm embrace waits by the couch. I flake on more movies in the theaters than I care to admit. But a year from now, complaining about all the horror remakes and unoriginal dreck flooding the theaters if you didn’t go see The Woman is akin to complaining about who is elected President if you didn’t vote. You’re letting people who have very different tastes than you dictate what kind of content production companies, studios and distributors get behind, simply because they went to the theater and you stayed home (possibly even stayed home to illegally watch something like The Woman online, instead of at least waiting for it to hit Netflix).
I’d like more movies like The Woman to hit the big screen, and I’d like Lucky McKee to have an easier time finding money to make such movies. Let’s do this gang.
Oh, and make sure to stay through the credits. Nick Fury doesn’t show up, but some animated weirdness does. Though now that I’ve said that, I think the Woman would’ve made a better addition to The Avengers than Black Widow.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars