MAY 12, 2016
Maybe I should have added a "Body Horror" tag to my list? It'd feel weird to add one NOW, but Bite is one of a small but growing wave of new films that are inspired by old-school Cronenberg, joining Thanatomorphose, Strange Blood, and the Contracted films with a story about our protagonist gradually turning into a disgusting monster. I guess it kind of fits in the monster movie vein (hence that's why I tagged it as one), but monster also (read: usually) means an inhuman giant beast of some sort, not a normal 20-something who does something dumb on vacation and ends up turning into an insect/fish hybrid thing. It's... well, it's pretty goddamn gross, really.
You'd think a horror (or any) movie would want to suck its audience in right off the bat for maximum effectiveness, but part of what makes Bite ultimately work is that it kind of sucks at first. We're seeing everything through a video camera, our trio of heroine Casey and her two pals are kind of obnoxious, and it's even got the dreaded/stupid cliche of a friend pretending to be grabbed in the water to scare her friend, only to come back to the surface laughing at her horrible and overused joke. It's like the movie is going out of its way to be as generic as possible, which is smart - even if you don't realize or appreciate it at the time. The back half more than makes up for its earlier lapses, and I have to wonder if it was intentional, making the audience let their guard down so that they're even more blown away by what happens later.
Of course, this is a risky gamble in today's film watching landscape, as 99% of the people who see this movie will be doing so on Netflix or some other streaming service, where it's a lot easier to jump ship and watch something else or, at the very least, grab your cell phone and give the movie (at most) half of your attention. Granted, the plot doesn't get very complicated, especially if you've seen the aforementioned movies (especially Thanatomorphose) as it follows their familiar pattern - the infected person starts feeling sick, then weird bumps/sores appear, then weirder shit happens, and finally they're barely recognizable as human beings. Along the way, accidental (and then intentional) deaths occur as the condition worsens, and a happy ending is not even close to a possibility. But you'll likely miss the little subtle bits that keep it a little more engaging, like the reveal of what happened to Casey's engagement ring, or her horrible would-be mother-in-law (the wedding is in a week, because of course it is) fingering the packaging for a pregnancy test as she wanders around the apartment. The characters aren't exactly multi-layered, but you gotta give the movie your full attention to get what the screenwriters DO offer (which is still more than the average modern gross out horror flick can be bothered with).
What makes this one stand out is how icky it gets. I have mentioned my fear of fish more than once on this site, so longtime readers don't need to be told that a woman turning into a fish monster is gonna gross me out. The key moment is about halfway through, when Casey walks into a surprise party and reacts by dumping thousands of fish eggs on the floor - which her guests proceed to applaud and then stomp on as she desperately tries to stop them from destroying her babies. By now we know we're watching a nightmare scene, but here's the kicker - she wakes up and stumbles around her apartment, which really IS covered with thousands of freshly dumped fish eggs! And while The Fly is a clear influence, she doesn't get Brundle's super strength - she gets his acid puke ability, plus a sort of bluish gummy substance that she secretes from her hand and makes her victim look like she was just shunting with Smurfs.
The apartment itself is (don't say a character, don't say a character...) kind of its own character (goddammit, Collins!), mirroring her own degeneration as it turns into a sort of cocoon/hive/nest thing. It's a marvel of production design that must have been torture for all involved, as it is barely even recognizable as a domicile by the time the climax rolls around - thick layers of what looks like a shed snakeskin cover the walls, tendrils of gooey tar like substances protrude everywhere, more eggs come flopping out of giant sores in the wall... imagine the cocoons from Gremlins mixed with that thing in Possession and you kind of get an idea, except across the entire apartment instead of being confined to one spot. Every shot has things just like dripping or pulsing in the background, and it really helps provide a contrast for the (one too many) scenes of someone knocking at the door asking Casey to let them in, only to finally barge their way inside and get disgusted at what they see. Casey looks right in that environment, these normal looking people are the aliens. It's a pretty neat visual, really.
Also, the hybrid nature of what she's turning into is pretty cool. I mean, her eggs are definitely of the aquatic variety, but she gets a stinger and the fly-like puke thing, giving her more of an insect quality (plus the final shot features the eggs hatching little flying things). Maybe there's some fish that matches up with all of these descriptions, but I prefer my hybrid theory, in the end (yes, that was an intentional dumb joke). We don't see what bit her, but it's something in the water - but then again her friend gets bitten too and she's OK except for a rash. So maybe it was an STD she got from the guy she bangs? Or a mixture? The movie doesn't really spell it out, which is fine...
... but leads into my other concern, which is that I wish there was a little more to the basic structure. Like I said, too much of it just involves people being worried about her and coming by to check up, only to usually get killed for their trouble. There's a go-nowhere subplot with a neighbor whose dog she walks - not that I want to see a dog get turned into a puddle of goo but it's weird how it's just dropped after a scene where the dog is afraid to go near her (at this stage she just looks like she has a bad cold or something). A random subplot about one of her friends trying to steal away her fiancee comes along too late in the narrative to mean much (by the time she makes her move it's not like the wedding is gonna happen anyway), and the cast is too compact to mix things up enough. I assume the budget was small and (rightfully) all went toward the makeup and production design, but it doesn't make it any less cyclical and thus somewhat flat - eventually you're just kinda waiting to see the next gross-out effect. Maybe the dog shoulda came back as a hero? Basically if Casey is a Seth Brundle type, the movie needed a Stathis Borans substitute to throw a wrench in the works. Explaining everything isn't exactly what I'd want, but maybe bringing the guy she banged back into the picture wouldn't have hurt. Look, I'm not the screenwriter, dammit! Just needed SOMETHING to keep it from having that "short film stretched to 90 minutes" feeling.
So a little thin and rough going at first, but if you're a fan of this niche but effective sub-genre, it's definitely worth checking out. And it's another minor win for Chad Archibald, who also gave us the enjoyable (but also padded) slasher The Drownsman and the pretty cool sci-fi flick Ejecta. All of his films have good intentions and are worth watching, but I really hope he can knock it out of the park next time (perhaps with a committed screenwriting partner that can really nail his intriguing concepts), as that's three in a row that I recommend with reservations. Sure, that's better than just making a bad movie, but it's kind of frustrating too - all three could be classics based on their concepts, but they always fall a little short for one reason or another. He's so close!
What say you?