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Having whipped up a storm of controversy on its travels round various festivals, including an amusingly over the top reaction from a Sundance patron who called for the film to be burned, Lucky McKee’s “The Woman” finally arrives on DVD so that viewers can make up their own minds. Although McKee has primarily been known for the quirkily macabre like “May” and “The Woods” rather than the out and out gruesome, the fact that the film sees him joining forces with splatter nihilist author Jack Ketchum (whose other works “Red”, “The Girl Next Door”, and “The Lost” have recently made the journey to the silver screen) should give a pretty good idea of its intent. The film is actually a sequel to another Ketchum adaptation, “Offspring”, with actress Pollyanna McIntosh reprising her role, supported by McKee regular Angela Bettis (“Toolbox Murders”, “May”) and Sean Bridgers (“Deadwood”).
McIntosh plays the titular woman, the last surviving member of a cannibal tribe, living wild and feral in the woods. Bathing in a stream, she is spotted by lawyer Chris Cleek (Bridgers), who captures her and takes her home, chaining her up in his cellar, much to the surprise of his wife (Bettis) and children. Announcing to his family that he intends to civilise the woman, he sets about a campaign of increasing sadism and cruelty, shedding light on the evil side of his own nature.
Even if accepted at face value, it’s quite hard to imagine “The Woman” being taken seriously as a piece of misogyny. Certainly, it’s clear from the start that McKee and Ketchum have far more than mere exploitation on their minds, using the setup to explore the dark secrets lurking behind the normal façade of the all American family, and in particular to attack the hypocrisy of a patriarchal society and the need of men to control and tame women. As such, although the film contains a catalogue of abuse, it’s quite obviously designed as a reflection of the world, working as a metaphor rather than as titillating torture porn. At the same time, the film is frequently weird enough to muddy the waters, with a third act which really ups the Grand Guignol by throwing in some near surrealistic craziness. Thanks to this, whilst the plot is predictable, inevitably moving towards the empowerment of its victims, it leaves many unanswered questions, and it’s in this ambiguity that much of its power to disturb truly lies.
This having been said, the film does to an extent suffer from being a sequel, with viewer interpretations being certain to vary according to whether or not they have seen the fairly obscure “Offspring” or read any of Ketchum’s source novels. This is definitely an important distinction, as the film gives the woman herself no back story and aside from a few instances of biting, no real indication of the fact that she one of a family of psychotic cannibalistic killers. As such, viewers unaware of this might take her character as a representation of mere wildness or even as some sort of primal female earth mother, instead of seeing the film as a clash of wills or a battle between two essentially brutal and evil forces of nature. This comes through in the excellent performances between the two leads, McIntosh and Bridgers, both of whom are on very fine form indeed, all of their scenes together fairly crackling with hostility and barely suppressed anger and violence. In a way though, it’s Bettis whose character is the most fascinating, being caught in the midst of the rapidly degenerating situation, and herself being both victim and complicit.
All intellectual musings and gender skewing aside, the film is a gripping affair, with McKee skilfully escalating the tension throughout and keeping things interesting through an intertwining series of subplots. In terms of violence, the film is very much a slow burn affair, with much of its earlier nastiness taking place off screen or being hinted at rather than shown. This works very well and fits perfectly with its theme of slowly revealing its real horrors, making the intense and gruesome scenes of its final act all the more effective. The film’s content is just about extreme enough to make its reputation justified, and it’s certainly one for viewers with stronger stomachs.
“The Woman” is far more than the sum of its gore and torture scenes, and will hopefully be seen for what it is – a brave and challenging film which both works within and subverts the genre to powerful effect. Destined to be argued over and quite possibly vilified for years to come, it serves as a great reminder of what horror cinema is capable of in the hands of craftsmen like McKee and Ketchum.
Lucky McKee (director) / Lucky McKee, Jack Ketchum (screenplay)
CAST: Pollyanna McIntosh … The Woman
Carlee Baker … Genevieve Raton
Marcia Bennett … Deana
Angela Bettis … Belle Cleek
Sean Bridgers … Chris Cleek
Lauren Ashley Carter … Peggy Cleek
Zach Rand … Brian Cleek