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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

‘Man Bites Dog’: The Controversial Mockumentary is Still a Disturbing Masterpiece 30 Years Later

It can be said that our fascination with serial killers began long before the term was even coined, with famous murderers like Gilles Garnier and Jack the Ripper paving the way for more recent monsters like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy. It seems like we only get more obsessed with these deranged killers as time goes on, which is what motivated a trio of Belgian filmmakers to get together nearly 30 years ago and produce one of the most daring and controversial mockumentaries ever with Man Bites Dog.

Originally titled C’est Arrivé Près de Chez Vous (which translates to “It Happened Near Your Home”), Man Bites Dog is the infamous brainchild of Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde. Presented as a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a charming serial killer played by Poelvoorde himself, the film follows “Ben” as he carries out his sociopathic urges on everyone and everything, engaging in multiple murders, pretentious monologues and ultimately compelling the documentary crew to also take part in his sick antics.

In some ways, this so-called “black comedy” can be described as the Spinal Tap of horror, parodying classic documentary tropes as Ben goes about his gruesome day-to-day business while also accompanying innocent interactions with his loving family. The crew even loses sound technicians much like the band kept losing drummers in Rob Reiner’s classic, and there’s no denying the inherent humor behind Ben’s irrational hatred of postmen. However, this comedic façade soon gives way to some of the most violent and disturbing imagery ever put on film, ultimately leading to a bleak finale that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Found-Footage production.

Man Bites Dog obviously generated quite a bit of controversy during its original release, being banned in Sweden and Ireland after a successful premiere in Cannes and receiving the dreaded NC-17 rating in America. Even the film’s poster wasn’t safe from scrutiny, with the original artwork (which depicted Ben shooting at an unseen victim) being altered to feature blood-splattered dentures instead of a baby’s pacifier. Of course, what several of critics and enraged audience members didn’t get at the time is that most of the picture’s horrific subject matter isn’t actually gratuitous, with most of these terrible acts serving an important narrative purpose.

Not exactly Discovery Channel material.

The whole point of this grueling experience is to put audience members in the documentary crew’s shoes, asking us exactly how much horror we’re willing to put up with in order to be entertained. Ben’s unprovoked murder sprees and general disregard for the human condition become so intense that it feels like the directors are actively trying to keep us from enjoying the movie as it assaults our senses, especially once the filmmakers themselves descend into depravity as murderous lackeys. By making viewers uncomfortable, Man Bites Dog expertly questions our fascination with the macabre and makes us wonder at what point should we stop having fun with all the extreme violence and start running for our lives.

Gore and disturbing imagery in film may have reached grisly new heights since the 1990s, with audiences being subjected to everything from the Saw franchise to A Serbian Film, but Man Bites Dog somehow feels much more visceral than any traditional horror flick due of its commitment to realism. Everything from the convincing documentary presentation to the nonchalant comments about murder (like Ben insisting that it’s more profitable to kill the elderly since they have more money saved up) makes you believe that these terrible events could have happened near you, much like the original title ominously suggests.

Of course, what really ties everything together is Benoit’s genuinely unnerving performance as one of the all-time best (or maybe worst) cinematic psychopaths. Ben’s soft-spoken charms and artsy demeanor clash with his intimidating presence, resulting in extremely intense scenarios like an awkward family dinner where everyone is just anxiously waiting for another one of their host’s monstrous outbursts.

The rest of the cast is also generally relatable if not always likable, with the ensemble being mostly comprised of the filmmakers themselves alongside their own extended families. They even use their real names in the credits, lending further believability to an already-convincing project. This makes things even more chilling once the documentary crew decides to partake in their subject’s nasty habits, becoming monsters themselves during their attempts to observe one.

One of Ben’s cruelest moments.

The gritty photography also helps to hammer home the film’s brutal realism, with the hard shadows and lack of color making the Belgian setting look hopeless and dreary as Ben goes about his nihilistic shenanigans. I particularly appreciate how the deaths themselves are never romanticized or even stylized like you might see in a Slasher flick, with the filmmakers always choosing to depict them as sudden and messy, making the entire experience feel like one excruciatingly long snuff film.

Looking back on productions like Cannibal Holocaust and The Legend of Boggy Creek, it’s clear that Man Bites Dog didn’t invent the horror mockumentary, but I’d argue that it almost certainly perfected it. From watching an old lady be killed by a scream-induced heart-attack to receiving in-depth advice on how to properly weigh down a corpse so it won’t float after being dumped, there’s no denying that the film’s disturbing dive into a psychotic frame of mind will stick with you long after the credits roll.

That’s why it’s no surprise that the movie directly influenced future mockumentaries like Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, What We Do in the Shadows and even Joe Lynch’s underrated contribution to Adi Shankar’s Bootleg Universe. Hell, even the legendary Blair Witch Project owes a huge debt to Belvaux, Bonzel and Poelvoorde, with that film featuring its own low-budget documentary crew that becomes fatally involved with their subject.

Even thirty years later, it’s hard to recommend Man Bites Dog to general audiences due to its uncompromising depictions of murder and sexual assault, but the film has an undeniable place in horror history as proof that the most effective scares are the ones that hit close to home. It may not be an easy watch, and I certainly don’t revisit it all that often, but I still feel that hardcore horror fans should give the movie a chance. Despite all the graphic death and cruelty, the film’s exploration of sensationalist media and the potential monster that lurks inside all of us is what really makes it a disturbing masterpiece.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3675068/man-bites-dog-controversial-mockumentary-still-disturbing-masterpiece-30-years-later/

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