Saturday 10 March 2012

Wound (2010)

Director: David Blyth
Stars: Kate O'Rourke and Te Kaea Beri

I thought I recognised the name of writer/director David Blyth. This is a New Zealand horror film, released Stateside this week by Breaking Glass Pictures, and he made an earlier New Zealand horror film that I remember fondly, 1984's zombie flick Death Warmed Up. Looking back at his filmography, he's had a taste for experimental film and a disregard for traditional boundaries since his student days. His 1980 erotic punk fantasy, Angel Mine, may well be referenced here, as surely is his 2004 documentary about Kiwi bondage dungeons, Bound for Pleasure. Wound is the precise opposite of mainstream, and the polarisation of response won't be a shock to Blyth. Just look at the IMDb reviews; most people hate it with a passion but the few who like it are head over heels about it. I'm more open to experimental film than most and I found this approachable, even though it's stirred up a similar controversy to Angel Mine over thirty years ago.

In a word, it's about insanity. The central character is Susan, who we first meet at home, inviting in her father who has flown over from London to see her, then crowning him with a baseball bat, tying him up in a strange Satanic setting, strangling him to death, pulling out his pecker and cutting it in half with a pair of scissors, before taking off her mask and singing to her dolls. Yes, that's the introduction to this movie, so it's hardly surprising that most of the detractors in those IMDb reviews didn't get any further. There's something about male genital torture that seems to upset horror fans who can happily watch nubile young ladies tortured all night long. I'd tell you more about Susan, but I'm not yet sure what's real and what isn't. I'm pretty sure that everything I've just told you about isn't, for instance. It's just another manifestation of her mind, presumably an attempt to come to terms with her demons as she reevaluates her life and its events.

Kate O'Rourke gives a powerful and very brave performance as Susan. She doesn't seem to be a highly experienced actress, having played more roles on film as uncredited orcs, goblins, uruks and ringwraiths in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring than in all her other credits put together, but she allows this role to wash over her as utterly as Susan allows Master John to control her actions in a dom/sub scenario within the story. Potential roles may well be closed to her after making a film like this, especially given the controversy that has built around it in New Zealand, but I'm sure that filmmakers more concerned with art and less with audience metrics will be seeking her out. As submissive as she plays during certain scenes, she utterly dominates the film, to the degree that the character and the film are almost, if not absolutely, synonymous. I'm still thinking through whether all or just most of what we see takes place in her head.
There are other characters. Most obviously there's Tanya, her daughter, capably played by Te Kaea Beri in her debut on the big screen. When we first meet her, she's an unhappy orphan at school, plagued by doubt as to why she was given up at birth and searching for her real family. Soon we discover that she was stillborn to fourteen year old Susan, the product of incestuous rape by her own father, thus explaining the emasculation and murder that opened proceedings. There's also Mistress Ruth, Susan's mother, who works as a dominatrix at a club called The Box and appears through visions at various points to direct her daughter. Sandy Lowe seems notably comfortable in the role and has no other credits, so I wonder if Blyth found her while shooting Bound for Pleasure. Certainly there's a Mistress Sandy in that film, playing herself. Ruth is also dead, apparently murdered in an arson attack by her daughter after her miscarriage.

I should point out that while these sound like spoilers, they're not, and frankly I'm not convinced that anything I could tell you could act as a spoiler, given that what I got out of this film may only be my personal interpretation and not what David Blyth intended in the slightest. Ruth is the first character we know is dead, as we see her gravestone before she ever appears. Her next scene is on the phone, as her daughter explains to her that she's 'living a nightmare and can't wake up'. It's when we realise that she's talking into a dialtone that we begin to reevaluate everything that came before and, increasingly as the film progresses, everything still to come. It's all projection not reality, what Ken Russell described as 'repulsive dream-surgery'. If Ruth is dead and Tanya was stillborn, what else here is manifestation? It's all a battle, to quote Russell again, with 'her delirious, incestuous monsters of the id.' It underlines that Freddy Krueger is a happy meal toy.
The source for this rollercoaster ride to rationality appears to be gothic fiction, which Blyth freely acknowledges in the credits and on the film's website. It rings very true, but gothics are usually period pieces and this is utterly contemporary. In fact the only hint at a timeframe is through the gothic tinges to Tanya's appearance, which was surely deliberate, the modern goth carved out of the old gothic romances filtered through the fetish community, again very represented here. The Box is a gem of a location, situated somewhere only a little closer to reality than the labyrinth of the Cenobites, half club and half dungeon, both governed over by a delightfully iconic creation: a naked man in an elaborate pig mask, heavily tattooed but only from the waist down and with a spiked iron codpiece pinned to his skin. In lesser films, this would be the villain of the piece, here it's just another facet to the concept of control that Susan continually struggles with.

Everything here seems to be about control, making me wonder if it grew out of what Blyth found when shooting Bound for Pleasure or even what drew him to make that in the first place. Within the framework of this quest for sanity by a woman who doesn't know what sanity is, there are subplots dealing with the lack of control: Susan voluntarily abdicating control to a master, acknowledging her powerlessness over her mother by fashioning her into a dominatrix, losing control to incestuous rape. The most controversial scene, in which the pig masked man at The Box rapes an unconscious girl, merely depicts the most overt loss of control. Ironically, Wound is a very controlled film, low budget but without any need to not be. I get the impression that Blyth made precisely the film he intended to make and he's backed that up in interviews, suggesting that if he had ten times the money he'd merely pay the cast and crew more.

Whether this is the film for you is very much something you'll need to figure out for yourself. It isn't just not a Hollywood summer blockbuster, it's not likely to be an experience remotely close to anything you know. It's grotesque and repugnant, surreal and difficult, but challenging and rewarding. If you want well defined characters, you're in the wrong place. If you like the idea of a character who, with her fragile grip on reality, reimagines who she is, manifesting herself into the personae of mother and daughter as archetypes and specifics, so she can then interact with herself physically and mentally from different perspectives, then perhaps this is the picture to blow your mind. It goes further than David Lynch as it doesn't try to be cool, but it stays focused more than Alejandro Jodorowsky as it doesn't aim at the spiritual. It's more like Jan Svankmajer turned into live action by Luis Buñuel and remade by Ken Russell. If that inspires, buy it.

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