Man Bites Dog

One of my favorite films is David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) a remake of the 50s Vincent Price movie of the same name. Part of the reason I like it so much is how well it holds up as a horror film made in the 80s. Most of the old Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street movies are laughable now, with the old fashion styles and boring characters more horrifying than the actual gore and villains the films are known for. Unlike those films, The Fly still shocks. One sequence in particular stands out in my mind, when Jeff Goldblum and a bar patron arm-wrestle each other to a stomach-churning conclusion

Man Bites Dog was released in 1992 to a chorus of controversy, much of which I believe would be repeated today if the film was re-released in theatres. It is graphic, intense, and horrifying, and almost two decades have done nothing to soften its impact. It’s also one of the most influential and challenging movies ever created.

The film is presented as a documentary. Student filmmakers have chosen to follow around a serial killer named Ben (Benoit Poelvoorde) as he brutally strangles, shoots, and mutilates innocent victims. He is well-spoken and charismatic, and expounds at length about his techniques and his choice of victims with such banal detail that he could be describing how to properly file your taxes.

As the film crew continue to follow Ben, they eventually transform from indifferent observers to active participants, culminating in one scene that probably created the phrase “not for the squeamish.” The brutality and explicitness of this scene is astounding. It’s also shocking, considering the uproar caused by other films released in the same year (Reservoir Dogs, with its infamous ear scene, is downright wholesome in comparison).

Man Bites Dog will never age. Almost  twenty years on and it still can visibly affect the most cynical of viewers with its images of depravity, soot-black humour, and its shameless lack of morality or condemnation. The dark comedy of the film (try and watch the scene where Ben explains the different ballast weights for dumping a man, woman, or midget with a corpse at his feet and not laugh at the absurdity of the situation) is especially disturbing because it’s effective at making light of a horrific situation and person.

The influence of Man Bites Dog can be seen in Pulp Fiction (Ben’s nonchalant explanation of his “craft” and his penchant for mussels is a precursor to the “Royale with Cheese” sequence), Dexter (a serial killer as the protagonist), Funny Games (implicating audiences for blood-lust as entertainment) and countless other faux-documentary films. It’s a worthwhile film to watch, if only to see the effect it has had on the entertainment industry as a whole. Remember to bring Pepto-Bismol though, just in case.

Summary: While deeply disturbing and difficult to watch, Man Bites Dog is an important watershed in filmmaking history, influencing the works of other directors and ignoring the boundaries of good taste. Twenty years has done nothing to lessen its shock value.

Grade: B+

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