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'Man Bites Dog': The Controversial Mockumentary is Still a Disturbing Masterpiece 30 Years Later – Bloody Disgusting

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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.
Born Brazilian, raised Canadian, Luiz is a writer and Film student that spends most of his time watching movies and subsequently complaining about them.
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Can you believe it’s already been fifteen years since 2009? I feel older than Jason’s mother’s head. But never mind all that. We’re going to look into the past in celebratory fashion today and take a month-to-month look at what the world of horror looked like back in 2009.
The dreaded month of January kicked things off in usual January fashion with a forgettable title, The Unborn. A David S. Goyer picture that’s not very memorable but managed to be the sixth most successful horror film of 2009 domestically, raking in over $42 million at the box office.
Right behind it on the calendar was Patrick Lussier’s My Bloody Valentine 3D starring “Supernatural” actor Jensen Ackles. This slasher remake took the idea of January horror and embraced it, making a silly and gory slasher that was the world’s first R-rated film to ever use Real3D technology. Anyone looking for legitimate scares was probably pissed (the film has a 44% Rotten “Audience” rating) but genre fans had fun with it to the tune of over $51 million at the box office (on a $14 million budget).
Next up, releasing on January 30 was the sleepy PG-13 horror flick The Uninvited. For the life of me, I’ll never understand the choice to release a movie called The Uninvited two weeks after a movie called The Unborn; to be fair, most of us are unable to remember much about either of them.
The reboot of Friday the 13th was served up to us for Valentine’s Day Weekend 2009. A slasher movie that made a ton of money and had fans begging for a sequel… that never came. The Platinum Dunes reboot may not be universally beloved, but I know a fair share of fans (myself included) who thought the new Jason, Derek Mears, and team made a film that was both fun and brutal. And it was juicy enough to come in as the number three most successful domestic horror film in 2009 to the tune of over $65 million. Friday the 13th ’09 was nowhere near perfect but it was a damn fun time with some underrated Jason Voorhees moments and a sleek plan to tell Jason’s origin story quickly via flashbacks that some superhero franchises could learn from. Oh yeah, and it starred the other “Supernatural” bro, Jared Padalecki. I’m sensing a pattern here.
‘Last House on the Left’
Next up, yet another remake of a classic horror film: The Last House on the Left. Wes Craven wanted to see what his low-budget horror film would look like with a little walking around money and the results were that we, the audience, got to see a dude get his head microwaved. The critics weren’t huge fans but let’s be honest, it could have been a lot worse given the subject matter and lack of nuance in the 2000s. Last House went on to land itself in the top ten horror box office returns of the year.
March would also feature one of the many notches in Kyle Gallner’s horror belt, The Haunting in Connecticut, a movie with maybe too many generic possession genre moments to make a major dent in the status quo but enough to make it memorable. I’d take it over many of The Conjuring franchise spinoffs of today, personally. Though, they’re all very much alike.
April Horror would conjure nothing for audiences but Sam Raimi would bring the loud, scary, and funny back to the genre with Drag Me to Hell on May 29. This film that was somehow still PG-13 even with a cat murder, flying old lady eyeball, and mouth-to-mouth puke action was a blast to experience in the theater. Audiences agreed as the film ranked #7 on the horror box office of the year, cashing out at $42 million thanks to a loveable lead in Alison Lohman, the forever horror victim Justin Long, and some good old-fashioned, Evil Dead II-type fun.
‘Drag Me to Hell’
July would shock horror fans in a completely different way with adoption horror flick Orphan. The ending may have had all of us feeling super uncomfortable and shocked but the movie itself had adoption groups majorly upset at how the film depicted the dangers of adoption. So much so that the studio had to add a pro-adoption message to the film’s DVD. No matter, the performance of Isabelle Fuhrman would carry the film to a $41 million box office run and later spawn a decent prequel in 2022.
Speaking of collecting, The Collector was also released in July 2009 and was a pleasant surprise featuring a shitload of originality and some scares to boot. Yet another horror success that would make $10 million on a $3 million budget and spawn a sequel. We’re still waiting on third installment, which abruptly stopped shooting several years back under strange circumstances.
The fourth Final Destination film graced us with its predestined presence in 2009 as well with The Final Destination; the 3D one with the race car track opening. The film was (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) a financial success, raking in over $186 million (worldwide) on a $40 million budget.
Rob Zombie went Rob Zombie’ing as hard as he’s ever Rob Zombie’d with Halloween II later that month. He’d Rob Zombie so hard that we wouldn’t see Halloween on the big screen again until almost ten years later with Halloween 2018. And nothing controversial ever happened in the franchise again. *Shuts book* Stop trying to open it! NO! NOOOOOOOO!
‘Halloween II’
Another remake in Sorority Row was the first film to follow Rob Zombie’s divisive stab-a-thon with a schlocky Scream-esque slasher flick that had a good enough time and even boasted a few neat kills. Critics weren’t fans of this one but if you were? You’ll be happy to hear that writer Josh Stolberg just announced he’s working on the follow-up!
Sexy Horror September continued a week later with Jennifer’s Body and an all-new, emo kind of Kyle Gallner. Jennifer’s Body didn’t exactly crush it for the critics or the box office but has success in its own right and is considered somewhat of a cult classic thanks to some hilarious writing and leading performances from Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried. Also, shout out to Adam Brody’s band Low Shoulder. Machine Gun Kelly could never.
Part of the low box office for Jennifer’s Body could have had something to do with what came next as Paranormal Activity would rock the horror world a week later. The genius marketing of the low-budget film would feature clips of audiences on night vision cameras losing their minds. Whether it scared you to death or you found the entire concept ridiculous, you had to see it for yourself. Paranormal Activity would bring in almost $200 million worldwide on a 15 THOUSAND dollar budget. I’m no mathematician but I’m pretty sure that’s good. The horror game changer may just be the most remembered of all the 2009 films and it’s one every studio in the world wanted to replicate.
‘Paranormal Activity’
One film’s game changer is another film’s flop as Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster’s space horror Pandorum had the unfortunate scheduling of lining up against Paranormal Activity on that fateful day and in turn, being mostly forgotten.
Spooky Season 2009 kicked off with the beloved horror-comedy Zombieland in October, complete with Jesse Eisenberg’s meta-rules for surviving a zombie apocalypse, Bill Murray, and Woody Harrelson who just wanted a fuckin’ Twinkie. There’s nothing like a good horror comedy and Zombieland proved that all the way to the bank, making $74 million domestically en route to a second film that brought back the entire cast.
It’s only been twelve seconds since I said the word remake, so let’s fix that. The Stepfather remake would follow a week later and be met by an audience getting a little sick of them. Unlike some of the other spirited remakes that surrounded this era in horror (not that they ever stopped), The Stepfather felt like an uninspired retread of the understated but completely messed up 1987 Terry O’Quinn horror cult classic. It’s largely been forgotten over the years.
“Who am I here?” Oh yeah, it’s October in the 2000, there’s bound to be a Saw movie around here somewhere. Saw VI would be released on the 23rd of October and continue the story of Detective Hoffman while adjusting the rates of some shady insurance adjustors. Saw VI would also fall victim to a little bit of Paranormal Activity mania with the film being bested by the continued rollout of its predecessor. Things were looking a little bleak for the franchise at this point. Probably none of us would have imagined that fifteen years later we’d be talking about the same director (Kevin Greutert) returning for the eleventh movie in the franchise.
‘The House of the Devil’
After all these humongous box office successes, sequels, and remakes it would be three memorable indie flicks that would round out October of 2009; the ultra fucked up Willem Dafoe, Lars von Trier sex/horror flick Antichrist, followed by Ti West’s ’70s haunter The House of the Devil and rounded out with some Australian torture horror in Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones. All three movies each make their mark in their own special ways. What a way to end October.
But it was November that would bring the movie that scared me more than any other on this list: The Fourth Kind. A lot of you are assuredly rolling your eyes right now but this one messed me up on a cellular level despite it being a complete and total fake. The Fourth Kind decided to meld a traditional horror film with the stylings of The Blair Witch Project in an opening designed to make you believe it was based on a true story. An embarrassing attempt but the film itself had me afraid to sleep near windows at night after seeing those found footage abductions. It still messes with me, to be honest. WHY ARE THEIR MOUTHS STRETCHING SO MUCH?!?!
December was too busy doing Avatar and Alvin and the Chipmunks-type family affairs for any horror movies but even without it, 2009 was quite a year for horror. I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention some other memorable films that were released either straight to video, limited or overseas that year including Case 39 (that oven opening!), Exam, Daybreakers, Splice, Dead Snow, The Hills Run Red, The Descent 2, Blood Creek, Cabin Fever 2 and [REC] 2.
What were your horror favorites from 2009? Comment below and let us know!
‘My Bloody Valentine’
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