auteur theory, battle of the sexes, British comedies, British horror, Christina Cole, cinema, Daniel Schaffer, Danny Dyer, Doghouse, Dogwitch, Evil Aliens, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, graphic novels, guys' weekend, horror films, horror-comedies, isolated communities, Jake West, killer women, misogyny, Moodley, Movies, Neil Maskell, Noel Clarke, remote village, Stephen Graham, Terry Stone, the battle of the sexes, violence against women, zombies
Ah, the battle of the sexes: that (presumably) eternal struggle between men and women for understanding, equality and empathy. As with most cultural/societal issues, the battle of the sexes has been fodder for popular entertainment since practically the time that men and women could walk upright…and probably before that, to be honest. In all of this time, we’re not in sight of a resolution yet, although there have obviously been numerous individual victories along the way. From George Cukor’s classic Hepburn/Tracy vehicle Adam’s Rib (1949) to Mamet’s misogyny (In the Company of Men (1997), Oleana (1994)) to the world of horror (Season of the Witch (1972), Donkey Punch (2007), Witching and Bitching (2013), the battle of the sexes continues to rage on in movie theaters and on the small screen.
Any film (or book, for that matter) that attempts to take on the battle of the sexes has quite the tightrope to walk. On the one hand, battle of the sexes stories are essentially universal (I’m willing to wager that in societies where it’s not part of the context, it’s an inherent part of the subtext of daily life) and can (theoretically) appeal to just about anyone. In reality, of course, battle of the sexes films (or other forms of media/entertainment) are just as beholden to the realities of a largely patriarchal society as any other forms of entertainment. One need only reflect on Shakespeare’s far from “enlightened” Taming of the Shrew or classic romance/comedies like Adam’s Rib and Pillow Talk to see just how much of the humor/entertainment is filtered through a decidedly male-oriented point-of-view.
The notion of the battle of the sexes gets even iffier, however, when one grafts it onto horror films, which have tended to be even more male-oriented/patriarchal than other genres (with the possible exception of the glut of late-’70s/’80s sword-and-sandal barbarian flicks). In slasher films, for example, the concept of the “male gaze” is so inherent to deeper readings of these works that it’s inseparable: there’s a reason that you can’t intelligently discuss either Friday the 13th or Halloween without going into a detailed discussion of the concept of the “final girl.” Horror films that explicitly take on the battle of the sexes, such as the aforementioned Donkey Punch, Witching and Bitching or I Spit on Your Grave can be rather tricky: while the films may attempt discussion on weighty issues like violence against women, the role of women in a predominantly patriarchal world and the unfortunate prominence of “rape culture” in our modern world, this all comes filtered through sensibilities that are targeted at primarily male viewers. The end result, in many cases, are films that combine serious issues with old-fashioned, stereotypical and, in some cases, outright misogynistic attitudes.
Into this existing goulash of existing “battle of the sexes” films comes Jake West’s Doghouse, a film that posits the battle of the sexes as a real, honest-to-god, knock-down-drag-out fight. While the film operates from the same starting point as Louis Malle’s experimental Black Moon (men and women are actually fighting each other in open, armed conflict), it’s intent is actually much simpler and more “laddish,” as it were: take a bunch of guys, drop them into an isolated village full of blood-thirsty zombie women and see what happens. As can be expected, the results are bloody, comic and just un-PC enough to appeal to the genre fans that flocked to West’s outrageously over-the-top debut Evil Aliens, although it’s doubtful that the film will have anything of value to add to the actual battle of the sexes. As 90 minutes of mildly offensive, early-Peter-Jackson-esque gore, however, Doghouse quite ably fits the bill.
In short order, the film introduces us to our core group of “blokes,” with just enough individual characterization to prevent them from being distinguished solely by descriptors like “the bad boy” or “the nice guy”: We have our hero, Vince (Stephen Graham), the newly divorced one. We’ve got the “bad boy,” of course (Danny Dyer); the “nerd” (Lee Ingleby); the “token gay friend” (Emil Marwa); the “consistently late friend” (Neil Maskell); the “married friend” (Noel Clarke) and the “self-improvement-obsessed-friend” (Keith-Lee Castle). We’ll also get introduced to a stereotypical “aggressive, meat-head, military” guy later on, for a little variety. The friends have all come together to help Vince get over his recent (and painful) divorce with a “guys-only” weekend at the isolated, female-dominated town of Moodley. Enlisting the aid of bus-driver Ruth (Christina Cole), the lads make it to Moodley but discover something sure to give them that ol’ sinking feeling: all of the women in the town have become murderous “zom-birds,” weapon-wielding, rage-possessed, man-hating (and eating) creatures with only one coherent thought in their heads: if it has a penis, kill it.
Soon, the guys must pool their resources and attempt to make a desperate stand against the legions of possessed women, a situation made worse by the discovery that the infected women are still changing, evolving into bigger, faster, more lethal and infinitely more monstrous versions of themselves. When Ruth becomes infected and turns their bus into her lair, the guys seem to be trapped and doomed. Will they survive the worst stag party in history? Will Vince keep his sweet disposition, despite the long odds? Will Neil ever treat women like human beings? And what, exactly, does the military guy have to do with everything? The answers won’t surprise but they will entertain.
Overall, Doghouse is an extremely well-made, energetic, fast-paced and clever film, with a genuinely funny script and some unique little additions to the well-trod zombie genre. The acting is uniformly good, especially from Danny Dyer and Stephen Graham. Dyer, in particular, is perfect: he plays the part of the womanizing, smarmy bastard to a t. Dyer’s been one of my favorite British genre actors for some time now, possessing the quick-witted delivery and roguish good looks of a more tolerable Colin Farrell, and Doghouse is my favorite performance of his with the exception of Severance, which bears the distinction of being one of my favorite modern horror films. Graham, as usual, is incredibly likable and, for most of the film, comes across as the distinct voice of reason, particularly when paralleled with Dyer’s unrepentant misogyny. It’s doubly unfortunate, then, that the films makes its only real missteps with the transition of his character from “reasonable, normal guy” to “kind-of/sort-of misogynist” by the film’s end. That his “attitude adjustment” is viewed as necessary to his survival is, in the end, quite troubling: the film seems to be saying that any male attitude short of misogyny is not only passe but hazardous to one’s health.
Let me be clear: I don’t find Doghouse to be a sexist film, although I do think it unnecessarily muddies its intent with a bit too much sexist humor and that aforementioned need for male characters to become misogynist in order to ensure their survival. As Graham, the film’s sole gay character tells Neil, at one point: “Now is not the time to stop objectifying women!” In fact, Neil’s softening of his initial stance on women almost gets him killed several times, while Vince’s eventual adoption of Neil’s earlier misogyny ends up saving his life…talk about a conflicted sense of equality. Furthering the issue, there really aren’t any women in the film that aren’t (or later become) zombies, leaving the guys as our only actual points of entry into the film. At first glance, it seems that Ruth may end up as a tonic for the “boys-only” attitude but her quick transformation into a zombie effectively takes her out of the game: at the end, the only “humans” in the film end up being the guys, which seems a bit reductive.
Ultimately, however, I didn’t find the film’s male perspective to be any more offensive than Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch, another genre film that purported to be about female empowerment, yet saw fit to dress its female leads up like fetish models. At least Doghouse doesn’t claim to be more than it is, whereas Sucker Punch’s disingenuous male-gaze seems distinctly more obnoxious thanks to its supposed intent. At the very least, Doghouse doesn’t end up being radically more offensive or unenlightened than any number of similar genre offerings and is worlds away from the rape-revenge fantasies of films like I Spit on Your Grave or Mother’s Day. At its heart, this is a silly, splattery horror-comedy and doesn’t seem to have pretensions to more. The dialogue is quick and funny, the acting is excellent, the effects are really quite good (and very, very gory) and the whole thing has a shaggy-dog-esque likability that goes a long way towards out smoothing over some of the more potentially misogynist material. While Doghouse doesn’t break any new ground, it stands the very real chance of making you break out in a big smile. Sometimes, that’s all you can ask for.