Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Man Bites Dog (1992): Horror posing as a black comedy

Man Bites Dog (1992)
dir: Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, Benoit Poelvoode

A comedy film is genuinely meant to make you laugh.  And, a horror film is meant to frighten you. There is the genre of horror-comedy which gets you to laugh at comedic value inserted into a horror movie, or there is black comedy which is generally used to make the viewer laugh in the face of horrific events.  And then, there is Man Bites Dog.

Man Bites Dog is a horror movie which wants you to think it is a comedy film.  Released the same year as Reservoir Dogs, Man Bites Dog also utilizes dialogue and personality to make the audience laugh while it is also showing you acts of nihilistic violence and brutal murder.  But, Man Bites Dog is a far more morally and emotionally complex movie than Reservoir Dogs both by design and by sheer luck.

When Man Bites Dog was made, it was slapped with an NC-17 rating.  While this was pre-Showgirls, the NC-17 was still rather verboten in more family-oriented cineplexes, and many large video chains like Blockbuster refused to carry NC-17 films unless they were cut.  Mind you, this was the era of VHS, where you only got one version of the film per disc.  So, many movies underwent a censorship process in order to try to attain an R-rating.  Some of the more notorious cuts were movies that had no reason to be rented to kids anyways like Crash (8 minutes cut), Showgirls (mostly alt takes), and The Doom Generation (which had 11 out of its 80 minutes cut for the R-rating).  There was also a great VHS edit of Troma's Terror Firmer which has re-enactments of lost scenes by none other than Lloyd Kaufman.

Burdened with an NC-17, Man Bites Dog had to be censored to try to achieve some shelf space. Strangely enough, Man Bites Dog completely removed the two completely horrific sequences in its middle, but still wasn't able to secure an R-Rating and was released Unrated.  Obviously this was confusing to everybody who assumed that Unrated was code for uncensored.  Thus, the most available version of Man Bites Dog was the censored Unrated version, while the NC-17 was shuffled to some obscure video stores.  Even in Ann Arbor, where they have the great Liberty Street Video, the only version available anywhere was the censored unrated version.  And, it remained this way for a decade until Criterion got their hands on it, and released it only as NC-17.

With the two scenes removed, Man Bites Dog is pure comedy with a weirdly horrific final act that comes out of nowhere.  It is a faux documentary about a jovial serial killer, Benoit who charms the pants off everybody.  He has a stable of women who seem scared of him by degrees, and a family who seem to love him because they don't know what he does.  He isn't a hitman, because he doesn't do jobs.  But, he's not necessarily a psychotic obsessive because he, largely, isn't killing out of some obsession or hatred. He kills to steal money, and he doesn't mind killing people.  So, he's just your every day, run of the mill, charming serial killer next door.  And, he's getting a documentary made about him.  If you're curious about this experience, and have the Criterion DVD, just completely skip over chapters 10 and 14.

So, for a decade, Man Bites Dog was just a pitch black comedy that didn't let up.  But, the uncut version actually reveals a shifting tonality across the chapters, and deals with the process of involvement and horror on a level that the censored version doesn't. In the uncensored version, Man Bites Dog truly reveals itself to be about a monster, and the monstrosities that one can commit when in the presence of a monster and under his spell.

That's not to say this is intentional.  The filmmakers have famously stated that the movie isn't about the serial killer.  It is about film making, and the process of film making.  It just happens to be about a serial killer, and it could have just as easily been about a door-to-door salesman.  I think they're being a little trite and dismissive, especially in the oncoming face of shock and horror that Man Bites Dog would ignite in the viewers.

Really, dude?
That's not to say what they are saying isn't true.  Benoit really doesn't have a character arc.  He is never repentant, he only worries when an outside force is coming for him and sending his family rats impaled on sticks.  Benoit is a racist, homophobic bigot who actively comes at everything from a place of privilege and he doesn't even realize (or, just doesn't care) that he's actively offending everybody with his off-color humor.  He doesn't realize that his friends are more scared of him than they actually like him. However, most everybody acts like they like him, and he is able to charm his way into the apartments of little old ladies when he wants to.  Indeed, he has the ability to fit in as a regular person, even though he's killing a huge population.  As such, Benoit is just a presence that doesn't change.  He is merely the subject of the subject.

However, the filmmakers of the documentary in the movie do have a character arc.  In the beginning, they are stand-offish while filming Benoit kill old ladies and police officers and a whole bunch of people that get blasted away in rapid fire montages in the beginning of the film.  But, they are first asked to dispose of the body of a night watchman.  In a scene that was cut, they suggest aiming higher than the ghetto, and knocking off a suburban house, killing a whole family.  Later, they shoot the film crew following another hit man.  Eventually, in the other cut sequence, they fully participate in the gang rape of a woman, and then her disembowelment.  Yes, that scene is played out as horrifyingly as you could imagine.  Finally, they die with Benoit when they are shot, one-by-one with whomever was trying to kill Benoit.

So, really, the movie is the story of the filmmakers as they get sucked into the world of this serial killing monster and become not just implicit in the acts, but also full on monsters themselves.  By the end, even as their third sound person is shot (a running joke) they are still humbly tied to the monster Benoit because they know they helped him in his crimes.

In the final sequences, Benoit is the one who kills their third sound person, splashing blood on his friends who are horrified beyond belief and too stunned and afraid to even clean the blood off their faces.  Benoit's family and friends are all killed just as he escapes from prison, many with instruments stuck up their ass as a symbol of humiliation.  And, the off-screen spectre of justice and judgement finally catches up with Benoit and the film crew and kills them off, without the audience knowing who actually killed them.

The movie is largely played for laughs due to Benoit's personality.  He's laughing up a storm as he's saying that the black night watchman he just killed probably has AIDS, and he refuses to touch him.  He jovially recites poetry when he is drunk, sometimes over imagery of him prancing naked on some beach.  He'll kill an old lady by screaming at her, then proudly say that he did it to save a bullet, and some headache.  And, we laugh with him because he is the subject.  This is why, without the horrific family murder and gang rape, the movie is much more of a black comedy than a horror movie implicating the audience. These are two of the only scenes where the film is telling us that what we are watching is not OK.  It is horrific and laughing at it is sick.  Even though the filmmakers share that sick sense of humor that allowed the film to get made.

The movie has survived for 21 years, and will survive for another.  It has influenced a fair number of films, most notably The Blair Witch Project, which completely rips off the family murder scene for the whole damn movie, and also steals the final scene straight up.  The creators of The Blair Witch Project recognized the horror within Man Bites Dog and used it to their advantage.  We recognize it, but we still laugh at it because it is hilarious. But, we feel bad about it.  Maybe.

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