On one side, I see why most people don’t hold kindly to “torture porn”, the infamous phase of the horror genre that started in the early 2000s, which combines elements of splatter and slasher film. There have been many movies that have illustrated this often maligned category of cinema, including Hostel, Saw, A Serbian Film, and The Human Centipede series that detailed rape, mutilation, nudity, disembowelment, and even necrophilia, quite graphically. However, the other side of me thinks that there is some serious overreaction to it all, especially films that have been given the stamp of disapproval make a lot of money. I guess many movie goers do get their kicks with these films. Either they see them as fake and unlikely (which make them fun), or they see the realization that sometimes fiction and reality can blur in very savage ways. How do I feel about them? Well, some can be over-the-top gruesome to the point of parody, but the best ones can reveal how low humanity can go, meaning that they can show the ugly truth of things that many try to remain oblivious about. Both are the case with director Lucky McKee’s 2011 Sundance extreme succes de scandale, The Woman, which for better or worse, dares to depict the dark side of the American family, but with a big, bloody slap in the face.
Adapted by McKee and author Jack Ketchum, who wrote the novel that the film is based on and whom Stephen King once called “the scariest man in America”, the plot introduces a supposed Cleaveresque family, headed by successful lawyer Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers), his properly submissive wife Belle (horror icon and McKee mainstay Angela Bettis), troubled teen daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter), sexually adolescent son Brian (Zach Rand), and loyal youngest child Darlin’ (Shyla Molhusen). However, things are not always what they seem, because Chris believes to be losing his power over the rest of the family. So one day while hunting, he encounters “The Woman” (Pollyana McIntosh), the last remaining member of clan of cannibals. He captures her, brings her home, and chains her up in his shed, in order to “civilize” her. At first, the family is understandably horrified by the situation, but figuring that they don’t have a say so, they start helping him with this “experiment”. They feed, bathe, and clean her up, but Chris takes matters further by going into the shed, where he rapes her. Obviously, things go awry, and the women finally stand their ground against him, which starts a brutal chain of events that eventually leads to the Woman’s escape. In this case, they soon find out that you can take her out of the woods, but you can’t take the woods out of her.
There are moments that McKee seems to revel in the all the bloodshed, and piles on so much that the viewer can become numb to it. He forgets the cardinal rule of a horror director, to keep some violence hidden, to allow the audience to use their imaginations. But for some reason, he decided not to show certain details, especially with a squirm-inducing scene involving Brian and a pair of pliers that you have to see for yourself, that actually has a sense of real chill to it, where it’s not incredibly excessive. That’s a first for this film. Also, the more satirical elements, which there are a few, could have been extended to help soften the blow from the more disturbing parts of the film. I’m not knocking McKee, and I love him and his filmmaking style, but he could have toned down the violence, especially to make it more real. I do enjoy my fair share of blood and guts, but sometimes I love a little subtlety with horror.
There is a very distasteful streak of misogyny, especially courtesy of Bridgers and newcomer Rand. The characters of Chris and Brian (who admires him) are definitely jerks to the highest degree, so I couldn’t wait for them both to get their timely comeuppances at the end. However, they both play there parts creepily well, so that does create a conundrum. There is also a level of feminism throughout, where Bettis stands up to Chris, and McIntosh kills him (in a grisly satisfying way), that could likely put smiles on the face of female viewers, if there are any. For all its mistakes, there is a sense of sneaky complexity that McKee allows us to consume (no pun intended). Maybe I’ll appreciate that with a few more watches.
Of course, the people of Arrow outdo themselves yet again, with plenty of special features that could further that appreciation, or anyone else’s. They include:
- New commentary with McKee, editor Zach Passero, sound designer Andrew Smetek, and composer Sean Spillane
- New commentary by McIntosh
- New commentary by critic Scott Weinberg
- Archive commentary by McKee
- Dad on the Wall, a new 75-minute documentary filmed by McKee’s father, Mike
- Being Peggy Creek, a new interview with Carter
- Malam Domesticam, an archival making-of featurette
- Meet the Makers, a short featurette on the making of the film
- Deleted Scenes
- Mi Burro!, a short film by Passero
- “Distracted” music video by Spillane
- Frightfest Total Film Panel Discussion, a 2011 onstage chat about the future of American Indie horror, featuring McKee, Andrew van den Houten, Larry Fassenden, Adam Green, Joe Lynch, and Ti West
- Theatrical and teaser trailers
- Image Galleries, including behind-the-scenes and film premiere pics
Arrow provides a reversible sleeve with original artwork and new artwork by Vanessa McKee. There is also a booklet with new essays by Ketchum expert Kevin Kovelant, film programmer Michael Blyth, and critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, notes on the transfer, and cast and crew info.
For me, this was a love-it or slightly loathe-it. I admired the ideas, but I wish that they could have been executed a little better. But then again, what do I know? I’m just an amateur reviewer, so please don’t take my word for it. If you actually ‘enjoy’ this film, then this release is a must own. If you don’t, then stay away. I just hope that McKee doesn’t hate me for this review, if he unexpectedly happens to come across it some day.