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Doghouse (2008)
Director: Jake West

review by Paul Higson
SPOILER ALERT!
The critics really got their teeth into the testicles of Doghouse, the new flicker from Jake West, and from there gave it a right royal ragging. Prior to the press screening, West and cohorts must have thought they were onto a winner this time around. Doghouse was no rush job but a trenchant work that was the result of considerable thought. The production values are good, the delivery impeccable, the laughs frequent and the horror too, unusually effective in a comedy-horror. My Odeon screening numbered an audience of two yet the auditorium did reek of tortured sneakers and I began to wonder if this was an unpublicised Odorama presentation. The film left the Odeon screens after one week. It is difficult to fathom out where it all went wrong. The common criticisms are of a misogyny too far, of "trying to rip-off Shaun Of The Dead" and "Well, it's Jake West, isn't it, haven't you seen Razor Blade Smile and Evil Aliens, more of the same, right?" Well, I disagree on all three scores. Critics and audiences have been unfair to Doghouse and are often speaking from podiums of ignorance or prejudice.

West has previously made films in which the female characters are strong and it is clear that the misogyny in Doghouse is no more than an angle, a dare that has gone awry on them. It is perfectly understandable how it could backfire. The heights of the sexism are difficult to scale, alienating half the audience and sullying the loyal partners if they dare to be entertained. But it is primarily a seized upon angle, a challenge to self, that they simply could not let go of. It is blatantly announced from the start during an opening sequence in which wives and girlfriends (and one partner in a gay relationship) chorus their disapproval of their men as they disappear on a blokes-only weekend. "Bastards!" all of us...

West, and writer Dan Schaffer, want to explore how far they can push it and are exacting and relentless in the task with inevitably provocative results. The decision to offer the audience a likely love interest in Ruth (Christina Cole), their coach driver, immediately re-dubbed 'Candy' by Neil (Danny Dyer), only then to infect her and make a monster of her, is a cold-hearted enough action. Later, the gang try to appeal to monster Candy by addressing her with her real name, to appeal to her residual humanity, and it appears to work, but the lads aren't waiting to see if it takes holds; she is immediately whupped in the moment of weakness so they can get past her. It is a moment of unparalleled cruelty in a film which is consistent only in how badly it treats women. Surely, this should make the film even unlikelier to like, but its sexism is a creation and the exactitude of its delivery, and the success of its impact, is a skill that is to be weirdly admired. It is not the only element that West is playing dangerously with. West plays on the common dislike to Dyer to wind his audience up. They will be wishful of his character's demise, and West will taunt viewers with his imminent destruction only to repeatedly pull him out of the path of the demolition ball.

When soft lad Vince (Stephen Graham) gets into a slovenly state in his new singleton loneliness following a lost love, his mates decide to cheer him up with a hopefully filthy weekend in the village of Moodly. Mikey (Noel Clarke) has a gran in the village who is away on a cruise while the builders work on her property but, on arrival, Moodly appears deserted. When the women do turn up it's not the description of man-eaters that the lads had bargained for but body-savaging, cannibalistic, zombie-like mutations... and all the men-folk have already been torn to bloody ribbons. Sergeant Gavin Wright (Terry Stone) is the only survivor from an army team that has been unable to secure the village and together the seven men do battle with the bevy of blood monsters.

Now to the second of the accusations, that it robs from Edgar Wright's Shaun Of The Dead. Methinks that this is tick-book critical laziness; an idle shorthand based on a lack of imagination and an over-familiarity with the Wright opus. Shaun Of The Dead has become an unwarranted anno domini for the British horror comedy film. Yep, for most, Carry On Screaming was never made. I never thought once of Shaun Of The Dead while watching Doghouse, there was no real reason. People are over-familiar with the Wright film which is why it jumps to the fore when viewers identify the sug-genre and nationality. The two films have nothing in common, the rare comparisons drawn having little substance. This is all the more ironic given that Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright are arch geeks who are incapable of composition without reference. Doghouse has been accused of plagiarism that isn't there, whereas Shaun Of The Dead is a non-stop homage to other films. Let's face it... parody is the allowable face of plagiarism.

West has doggedly avoided outright film referencing and if he falls into the trap of familiarity on occasion it is the merry accident that comes of the natural pursuit of a story. Shaun of the Dead is buckshot homage and misses its marks as often as it hits them. It grabs in every direction and occasionally returns with something. There is more skill in what Schaffer has done with his script and West has done with the shooting of it. From the moment that the lads escape London thematic boundaries are set and kept. On arrival in Moodly, the geographical boundaries are set and kept. It does not meander to get its brownie points but arrogantly declares its direction and route and will use the tools provided to make the film as funny, horrid and entertaining as it can. To this end it is the spiritual partner not of the recent, messy Lesbian Vampire Killers (which contains a similar journey from London into a bloody, rural fantasy), or Shaun of the Dead but has more in common with Dog Soldiers, Brain Dead, and Return Of The Living Dead. Doghouse does not need to play the movie referencing game and as a result does not suffer from those distractions.

Shaun Of The Dead holds a permit to sample all the Romero traits but its zombies lack the character that Romero would be careful to imbue on his own movies. Romero's bravado in this department included a zombie ballerina in Day Of The Dead, who is spotted first in a long shot followed by a close-up of feet, is revealed to be shuffling forward in her ballet shoes on tip-toes. West's Doghouse creatures are intrinsically designed and costumed, their characters are immediate and in the almost non-stop action that takes up most of the film, it is to West's merit and those of his team that there is never any confusion as to who is in the frame of the action. Norma Moriceau could not have done a better job on individualising the costumes. Mime artistes and players are given specific choreography to add to each identity. It is not only the bodies that are instantly discernable. You never fumble with who is who or where anybody is.

On arrival, Patrick (Keith-Lee Castle) draws the camera to a map of the little town. It sports the obligatory 'you are here' message and the town's unusual but basic shape is immediately seared into your brain. There was a similar smart-mapping to Dog Soldiers, Brain Dead and Return Of The Living Dead, in which floor-plans to besieged houses and a cemetery were set out in a visual easy read for the viewer. Like those films Doghouse also has a long dark night of imaginative gore and a claustrophobic feel to it. All are hysterical nightmares in blood and black.

Doghouse is intrinsically penned and Jake West has improved inordinately as a director since Evil Aliens though the long shadow of those earlier films still dims the view of too many. Another example of why to appreciate this film... is how they managed to get in an explanation for not having mobile phones. Firstly, they really set to work at coming up with something original to embarrass the lazy rest of the filmmakers who fail repeatedly to come up with a decent explanation. But they go one step further by using their running themes of sexism and laddishness as the building blocks for that explanation. Them indoors are unhappy with their men-folk disappearing for the weekend and harass them on their mobiles. With each call everyone has to answer their phone because they are so ´┐Żber-masculine that they all have the same ring-tone: the theme from Match Of The Day. Brilliant! Dyer declares: "Right! I've had enough of this!" and not putting up with this all weekend he demands everyone's mobile... putting them in a satchel, which will naturally become unreachable. To come up with an original method of stripping them of their phones is one thing but to then incorporate this flick's abusive motifs so adeptly is a little bit smarty-pants if not absolutely effing genius.

That ending was originally my only problem with the film, a seeming uncertainty on how to close, but I have even talked myself around to explaining that now. The film is one great series of wind-ups. That final escape by the bad boys as daylight hits is a declaration of their jackass stance (even down to the shopping trolley). The closing shot acts like a tribute to Leo Baxendale and the Bash Street Kids or Little Plum comic strips, their mischief done, the lads scarpering, disappearing out of the frame, side left. Behaving like arses the ignorant sods botch the destruction of the zombitch hoard and flee laughing. The final wind-up is that it is several of the most detestable lads who survive the ordeal... learning nothing from it. Boys are always breaking their toys and then moving on rapidly to the next thing. It's in keeping... they are a bunch of selfish bastards!

Suggestions that the shopping trolley has also been lifted from Shaun Of The Dead are also preposterous. Shaun Of The Dead's shopping trolley came from Dawn Of The Dead and the Romero film is where Doghouse might have found its own trolley. But it might just as well have been found in Bryan Forbes' The Stepford Wives, a nod from makers to the earlier odious ode to misogyny. The Doghouse message then is that what was once the most sexist horror fable ever filmed has now been trumped, as torn movie posters once declared war on successive films by Wes Craven and Sam Raimi. In truth, I do not believe that either. Doghouse is governed by the direction of its plot and here needed to allow its survivors to escape when one of them is severely disabled by his injuries. How do they cart him off? When transporting a man what alternative is there to the shopping trolley? A papoose is not going to do it!

A suggestion that the cross-dressing is a take on the zombie mimicry of Shaun Of The Dead does not hold muster either. In Shaun of the Dead they do indeed do the zombie shuffle (and it is Romero's) but in Doghouse they try to blend in but with a degree of tardiness and nonchalance. The female monsters are only stupid women so they reckon that they don't even have to act like women, merely dress like women. They trot into the street unconcerned, even nod o'reet to the nearest zombitch. There is nothing comparable in the two scenes, nor in the two films. The drag action also provides one of the funniest moments in the film. Cross-dressing shouldn't be this funny but it is. They exeunt their changing rooms and the befrocked soldier wears a comfortable smile. Graham (Emil Marwa) looks at him and decides: "You've done this before, haven't you?"

The cast is great, including Lee Ingleby as comics and film geek Matt and there are a number of cameos. Billy Murray (EastEnders, The Bill) appears as a ravaged half-dead soldier, and Adele Silva (Emmerdale) is Mikey's wife who wants to throw her wedding ring after him but can't because he had already predicted she would do that and had glued it to her finger while she slept. Emily Booth is a scissor-hands hairdresser and much amusement comes of Mikey's encounter with a jilted old flame (Tree Carr, as Sue) newly monstrified, whose savagery is reinterpreted by the callous get as a continuing anger towards him for their break-up: "Get over it!" he guffaws. The horror and the laughs come thick and fast. A latecomer with car trouble (Neil Maskell as Banksey) delivers the timely line, "you wouldn't believe the day I've had!" and the gay member of their circle is derided over his masculinity prompting him to hit Neil, who casually responds: "You even hit like a girl!"

In the space of one week I have seen three wild and great horror films, Embodiment Of Evil, Dark Floors and then Doghouse, and, like those first two films, and this is unusual these days, no sooner had the film finished but I wanted to see it again. Every time the horror genre is spoken of as on its last legs and short of new tricks there is a resurgence of imagination and with these films - but also in Let The Right One In, Chronocrimines (aka: Timecrimes), Tony Manero, Fingerprints, King Of The Hill and not forgetting the contributions of Splinter, Fritt Vilt II (aka: Cold Prey: Resurrection), and Tres Dias - this is now a great year for the horror film... and yet we are only part way through it; if anyone would only care to take notice. Doghouse ensures that we have our first great British genre movie offering of the year to add to the pack of superb horrors. Doghouse continues to nag me with its game and its tricks and its images but I suspect that the film might never recover from its success at being so naughty.

Doghouse



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