Review of The Woman (dir. Lucky McKee, 2011):

My introduction to the films of Lucky McKee came by way of the chilling May, which I stumbled across in a midnight session at the Melbourne International Film Festival quite a few years back.

May is one of those films I crave – a simple, psychological horror that can say so much without bludgeoning you over the head with it, except for when blood-letting is required. So that clandestine viewing on a cold, dark Melbourne night kick-started a love affair of sorts with the McKee-style, of which I felt hadn’t been authentically propagated since May until now with the release of his most controversial film yet, The Woman.

Starring McKee muse Angela Bettis (she of the outstanding titular role in May) and the mighty Sean Bridgers (Al Swearengen’s goofball lackey in Deadwood) as the parents of an American-as-apple-pie-family, The Woman charts the unfortunate happenings when supposed civilised humans decide to tame a feral female they find in the woods near their rural home.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of watching The Woman three times – once via an inferior DVD duplicate, another on the silver screen with an audience (all waiting for something far more shocking than what was actually delivered, I must say) and another following a casual chat over martinis with the divine Ms Pollyanna – ‘The Woman’ herself.

As opposed to her on-screen huntress persona, Pollyanna proved a smiling and highly enthusiastic conversationalist – and a wee bit lily-livered when it came to horror. She said she traditionally steered clear of the genre until such parts came her way (first Headspace, 2004) and, since then, she has been pleasantly surprised by the kind of love only horror fans seem able to afford. After shooting the breeze with Pollyanna, it was only fitting to watch the film again and attend the Q&A session to reconcile this amiable ‘blonde’ with the hissing, scowling wild thing of the film. With The Woman, Pollyanna exacts quite the transformation, including a vocal tone that she believes came to her “quite naturally”.

Pollyanna was already familiar with the character in The Woman after playing her in the Andrew van den Houten-directed Offspring (2009) based on a novel by Jack Ketchum. Ketchum called upon McKee to create another film with the woman character, Van den Houten stepped into producer shoes and, consequently, this very different ‘cannibal’ film was borne, and one that walks to the beat of its own drum as a standalone feature. All reports suggest Offspring is the lesser film, and one that may douse any sympathy a viewer has for the woman character, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but something that could impact on her mystery for some.

Lucky McKee confesses to writing The Woman to be a repeat-watcher, so you could say, my obsessive viewing over the last couple of weeks could (possibly) be justified. Whatever may have been said of the film’s ending in post-screening eavesdropping, no one boasted at prematurely picking the surprise conclusion, despite a number of hints being dropped throughout the film. Viewing number two enabled me to catch those clues that had previously slipped my grasp, and then viewing number three offered even more clues. That’s how I prefer my filmed entertainment – it may appear straightforward at first, but only truly discloses its hand over time. A great example of this is George A. Romero’s forgotten masterwork, Martin (1977). First viewing, I concluded he was a vampire. Second viewing, I changed my mind. Third viewing, I’m back to thinking he’s a vampire. And so it continues.

The Woman presents thematic material that is universally uncomfortable – misogyny, physical and mental abuse, and domestic violence. Light humour acts as a counterpoint offering a little levity to the overall viewing experience; most notably through the family’s youngest daughter (Darlin) and even the excessive use of gore, which never fails to raise a titter from audiences. Why gore makes people laugh is the subject of a far lengthier appraisal.

Sean Spillane’s music is treated with great reverence and informs the film from start to finish, often with songs played in their entirety. Pollyanna received the music from Lucky before shooting commenced, which suggests how important these tracks/ditties were in moulding the atmosphere, peppering it with pathos and contemporising the setting. It is an audacious filmmaker who chooses to incorporate poetic songs into a horror film rather than Psycho-like strings, Tubular-esque bells or the kind of audio ‘stabs’ and ‘stings’ that elicit scares due to the sheer shock of their volume more than anything else.

The Woman is a queen among pop horror movies, joining a family of modern marvels that includes Teeth, Ginger Snaps and even Todd Solondz’s Happiness. More please.

The Woman is in cinemas (Australia) from 18th August 2011 

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