The Woman (Lucky McKee, 2011)
What almost everyone knows about The Woman who knows anything about The Woman is that is has caused, and continues to cause, a firestorm of debate in the horror community as to whether it is meant as a feminist film or a misogynist one. (I lack an understanding of why this debate exists, given Lucky McKee’s previous filmography; everything he has done has had a marked feminist streak.) I am unsure how many of the people involved in this debate have actually sat down and watched the silly thing, the third installment in a series that began with Jack Ketchum’s novels Off Season and Off Spring, both of which have already been filmed (both by other directors, and both not nearly as well as this). It’s not McKee’s best work—in fact, in McKee’s entire filmography, including Red (for which he received no credit), I ended up rating The Woman the lowest—but that does not mean it is not a good film, nor that you should not see it as long as you have the stomach for it; Lucky McKee bringing his C game to the table is still better than about 90% of dedicated horror hacks bringing their A games, and McKee has a light touch with savagery compared to a number of other recent enfants terribles (Eli Roth, anyone?), so that while he’s making a film that is just as nasty as the ones being made by those guys—even more, in many ways, just as it was in Sick Girl—McKee is good about leaving things just enough offscreen to trick you into thinking you maybe saw a lot more nastiness than you did. That’s an impressive trick to pull off. It also has the unfortunate side effect of fueling those debates, but you can’t have everything.
First off: if you have not seen Off Season and Off Spring yet (or, preferably, read the novels), go on, we will wait. This is not a stand-alone film in any way, even if those other pieces were directed by other folks; I think at least part of the debate is fueled by those who are unaware of the backstory here. The titular, and unnamed, Woman (Exam‘s Polyanna McIntosh) is the last surviving member of the cannibal clan who have been roaming the New England coast for decades, and whom we first met in those previous works. Without the family system in place, she is confused and somewhat weakened (think the teen protagonists of We Are What We Are, but far more savage), and she is eventually captured by Chris Cleek (Nell‘s Sean Bridgers), a backwoods lawyer with a thoroughly cracked family, delusions of grandeur, and a mean streak as wide as the Hudson. Originally, the Woman’s presence, and Cleek’s intent to “civilize” her (if you’ve got comparisons in your head to Bub in Day of the Dead and Ketchum’s own The Girl Next Door, you’re right on target), only affect Cleek himself, but that particular disease grows to infect the rest of the family, as sure as you can imagine, from Belle (McKee regular Angela Bettis)’s weird fascination with her to Brian (Ghoul‘s Zach Rand)’s sexual attraction. (According to IMDB’s trivia, there was an entire subplot excised from the film about Peggy, Cleek’s wife—and if you haven’t read the novel, that alone may well be reason enough to seek it out, because that feels missing from this movie.)
The thing is, it’s tough to get into the whole feminist/misogynist debate without revealing every major spoiler for the film, because that question is not answerable until the last sequence, but it seemed to me obvious once you got there—even if you’re not already familiar with McKee’s work (and this is not a spoiler alert: Lucky McKee wouldn’t touch a misogynist project with a ten-foot pole, and nor would Angela Bettis, judging by both’s past records). Putting that aside, how’s the rest of the movie, Mrs. Lincoln? Lucky McKee has, traditionally, excelled at one thing (among many others): taking B-list and character actors and getting A-list performances out of them. The Woman is no different in that regard; you have never heard of most of these people, though in some cases you should have (you’ve never seen Exam? Go. Now.), and you will exit this movie wondering why. McKee is also very good at knowing where to stick a camera for maximum effect and minimum special effects. Normally, in his movies, this leads to perhaps lighter ratings (and lower budgets), since you rarely see as much nastiness as your brain believes you are, but there was no way this one was getting around a hard R. (To McKee’s credit, had he taken the Bill Zebub show-everything route, this might not have even managed an NC-17.) Whether you buy into the misogyny talk or not, there is no denying that certain pieces of this film are difficult viewing, and it would be remiss of me to not add that at least one scene in the film is seriously triggering. (Depending on your particular neurosis, hell, the whole film may be triggering.) Approach with caution, but if you are a Lucky McKee fan, still approach. And if you are not already a Lucky McKee fan, go get your hands on May and Red and become one before watching this. *** ½