Written by: Chad Archibald (story by), Jayme Laforest
Directed by: Chad Archibald
Starring: Elma Begovic, Annette Wozniak, and Denise Yuen
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
This may sting a little.
Bite has one of the best fake-outs in recent memory, and I’m not even referring to a plot twist or even a jump scare. Initially, it looks like you’re about to be saddled with yet another found footage movie: you watch as a group of friends live it up on vacation, blissfully unaware that their idyllic existence is about to be shattered. Obnoxious “editing” and “corrupted media” tics interrupt the already shrill proceedings that naturally climax with the three women taking the advice of a shady stranger. “Shit,” you think to yourself, as you resign yourself to another one of these things.
But then something cool happens: one of the girls is bitten by an unseen underwater creature, leading to a natural freak-out that she soon shakes off. “It’s only a bite,” she says nervously before the film slams into its title card. I breathed an audible sigh of relief when it then turned out that Bite isn’t actually a found footage movie at all. Seriously: the first five minutes or so are pretty rough, but it’s not at all indicative of the rest of Bite, which is otherwise one of the most disturbing, squirm-inducing body horror exercises from the past few years.
When the film settles into its more traditional style, it focuses Casey (Elma Begovic), the bitten girl who comes home from vacation to a world of hell. She’s a week away from marrying what should be the man of her dreams in Jared (Jordan Gray), a successful businessman who seems sweet enough; however, she has cold feet, much to the dismay of his domineering nightmare of a mother. That she doubles as her landlord and lives just down the hall only makes matters worse, especially since she hasn’t finished wedding preparations. These are perhaps the very definition of first world problems, but things take a legitimate turn for the worst when her bite winds up being super infected. As in “growing to abnormal, horrifying size, spitting out a constant stream of pus, causing severe vomiting and resulting in bodily transformations” sort of infected.
Generally speaking, I do not consider myself a squeamish person. Like any other seasoned horror fan, I take a certain pride in seeking out and enduring the most notorious gross-out movies—hell, as I type this, a barf bag for Zombie Holocaust sits to my right. So when I say Bite had me squirming and often looking away from the screen, you know this one is the real deal in terms of body horror. Watching Casey’s body degenerate is positively agonizing: her festering sores and boils grow in size and begin to spread all over, leading to melting flesh, thinning hair, and exploding pus. Oh god, the fucking pus is practically everywhere—shooting from her sores, dripping from her face, pouring out of her mouth. Imagine how queasy you get when you have to remove and replace a band-aid for a festering sore and magnify it exponentially.
Both the top-notch effects and Begovic’s performance (which becomes increasingly twitchy and erratic) work in tandem to create an ultra-convincing portrait of a woman’s body betraying itself over the course of several days. Director Chad Archibald and his obviously talented effects team aren’t content to only transform Casey’s body during this hellish ordeal, either, as her apartment similarly deteriorates into absolute squalor. It becomes less a quaint home and more a filthy insect’s den, overcrowded with goo and larvae eggs. A triumph in production design, this set only amplifies just how gross Bite is; it should also instill some appreciation for what Begovic suffered through in the service of this film. By this year’s Oscar standards—which rewarded Leonardo DiCaprio for gritting and grunting his way through cold weather—sh deserves some kind of award for performing under mounds of latex and goop.
Whenever the film pulls back from the apartment to check in on Casey’s friends and family, it does so to advance the meager plot forward. As if watching her body fall apart weren’t enough, Casey has to endure some tawdry, almost manufactured drama involving her vacation. Whispers and innuendoes follow her trip when she returns home, as she and her friends cryptically discuss what she may (or may not) have done with a guy down in Costa Rica. Archibald does resort to the friends’ video recording of the trip in order to reveal the truth in piecemeal fashion, but there’s no real vested interest in these characters or events beyond their function as gore fodder. Eventually, everyone is maneuvered into a position that merely adds them to the heaping pile of goop and guts, an approach that’s fine but perhaps limits the film from being anything other than a splatter display.
The tacky drama also steers Bite towards some uncomfortable gender politics. While you’d think Casey’s condition makes her naturally sympathetic, the film seems rather hesitant to completely portray her in this light. Given some of the revelations about her vacation, it’s tempting to read her horrific transformation as an awful, karmic form of slut-shaming, meaning the film is pretty thematically icky as well. Some later twists and turns attempt to reverse course in this respect, but its ultimately callous treatment of Casey is too ghastly to ignore: even though body horror films are meant to, well, horrify with their dehumanizing transformations, Bite disposes of a victimized female protagonist in a staggeringly impersonal manner. No measure of sympathy is reserved for Casey, whose ultimate fate is just another effect and all but forgotten by the time the film closes with a glib punchline.
Granted, you could read this treatment as a condemnation of how women are often treated as disposable playthings in our society. It’s perhaps wise not to read Casey’s ordeal as an endorsement, even if Archibald’s sometimes playful manner results in some uncomfortably tone deaf moments. I don’t think Bite is overtly misogynistic, but I do think it has trouble determining if it should be an affecting body horror movie out of the Cronenberg mold or simply a vehicle for gross-out effects. In its hesitance, it perhaps leaves you with the impression that it’s not sure either way, resulting in a film that’s unseemly in more ways than one and a bit too shallow to boot. With such a rich premise at his disposal, Archibald almost bumps into an allegory about a woman’s experience in a society with preconceived notions about her role. Casey’s genuine anxieties surrounding her impending marriage reflect as much, though this thread is eventually lost in all the face-peeling and the skull-smashing.
As such, you’re certainly left with a film that can be described as repulsive, disgusting, disreputable—you know, basically all of the words that either sound like condemnation or praise depending on your persuasion. It's the latter for me, but not without some reservations.
Bite comes home to Blu-ray on August 2nd courtesy of Scream Factory. Special features include a make-up featurette, a behind-the-scenes look at the apartment set, footage of the film's premiere at Fantasia Fest, a discussion with Archibald about his wedding, a look at the process of filming in the Dominican. Archibald also headlines an audio commentary with his producers, Cody Calahan and Christopher Giroux.
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