Friday 5 April 2013


Director: Jake West
Writer: Daniel Schaffer
Producer: Mike Loveday
Cast: Danny Dyer, Noel Clarke, Stephen Graham
Country: UK
Year of release: 2009
Reviewed from: theatrical release

Jake West’s career in feature films has been a steady progression. He opened his account with Razor Blade Smile, possibly the lowest-budgeted British film ever given a theatrical release. It was one of the last old-school UK frightflicks before the British Horror Revival - new technology and new ideology deftly combining national identity with cinematic literacy - kicked in

Jake’s sophomore picture, Evil Aliens, was consequently a very different film, albeit with a clear lineage that established the director’s distinctive style. It had ten times the budget, CGI spaceships, great comedy gags and ambitious set pieces. And like the best films of the BHF, it was distinctively British.

Then came an interesting side-step with the Sci Fi Channel original feature Pumpkinhead: Ashes to Ashes. A curate’s egg of a picture, it was a Jake West film struggling to get free from the constraints of a rigidly structured cable TV movie. But it was another ten-fold increase in budget and it gave Jake the experience he needed: concentrating on directing a film without, as he puts it, also having to get the cables out of the van himself.

The other half of that back-to-back brace of belated sequels should have been Jake’s fourth movie but when his Pumpkinhead-in-space idea was turned down by the Sci Fi Channel top brass he was too far advanced on prepping P3 to start writing P4 from scratch. So Mike Hurst was brought in to direct what became Pumpkinhead: Blood Feud. In retrospect this was maybe a good thing as it gave Jake the experience of helming a decently budgeted (by comparison) film for a production company without bogging him down too much or for too long.

The fee he got for Pumpkinhead gave Jake the breathing space to work on developing a new project without having to work constantly on DVD documentaries and suchlike. By chance, through a mutual acquaintance he met comicbook writer/artist Dan Schaffer. And from their discussions Doghouse was born. A second slice of serendipity saw Jake invited to a photo-shoot of new(-ish) British cinema talent where he met Terry Stone, who would be instrumental in getting the movie made.

Stone made his screen debut in an episode of bland sitcom My Family in 2003 and hasn’t stopped since, combining his acting with executive producing (presumably building on his pre-actor experience as a rave promoter). He’s in Ten Dead Men, he’s in Rise of the Footsoldier, he’s in Kung Fu Flid - and he executive produced them all, along with a bunch of other stuff. Stone was looking for a horror picture for his company Hanover Films and he was able to get Jake and Dan’s screenplay to Carnaby Films, who took it to Sony, who became interested in backing the movie, Jimi Mistry got attached (though he later dropped out because of scheduling conflicts) and then Danny Dyer came on board and the whole thing grew from there. A promo film of Jake, Emily Booth and FX legend Bob Keen extolling the project’s virtues also helped to generate interest although by the time the project came to fruition Keen was no longer involved.

And so now, some time later, here we are. In a way, it’s Jake West’s first film. Yes, RBS and Evil Aliens both played a few cinemas but they were blink-and-you’ll-miss-it releases of films which did better at festivals and then on DVD (well actually VHS in the case of Razor Blade Smile, which shows you how much things have changed). Pumpkinhead was an American TV movie which snuck onto DVD in the UK without anybody noticing. No, the first chance that most people have had to see Jake’s work on the big screen is Doghouse. Sony struck about 200 prints. Here in Leicester it opened at the Odeon and the Showcase (not that either put much effort into letting people know about it).

So: Doghouse. I’ve been writing about and discussing this for so long that I have to remind myself that not everybody reading this review, at whatever future date, will know the plot. Fortunately, the plot is very simple.

Vince (Stephen Graham: Gangs of New YorkInkheartThe Cull) is getting over an unpleasant divorce (a photo in his wallet shows he still holds a candle for his ex-wife). So six of his mates are taking him for a lad’s weekend in the country. The nominal leader of the gang is Neil (Danny Dyer: SeveranceJack SaidJust for the Record), an unpleasant misogynist twat who verbally abuses any attractive women he sees yet somehow is able to manage two consecutive dates with the same young lady. But this weekend is actually being organised by Mikey (Noel Clarke: Doctor WhoKidulthood), a much more likeable, cheeky lad who is married but is apparently a little cocksure in his belief that his wife will always be there for him (she is seen dumping something of his in the bin but I can’t make out what the electronic item actually is).

Then there’s Matt (Lee Ingleby: Harry PotterCrooked House) who runs a small comic-book shop with an Evil Dead poster on the wall and a remarkable number of Dan Schaffer titles in the window. There is no evidence to indicate whether he has or hasn’t got a girlfriend, unless we are supposed to assume that comic-book geek = saddo virgin. Patrick (Keith Lee-Castle: Young DraculaVampire DiarySeed of Chucky) has a posh, shrill wife whose rants he blocks out by listening to soothing, stress-busting self-help messages on his iPod. And Graham (Emil Marwa: Red RidingCode 46 - replacing the unavailable Mistry) is ‘the gay one’, whose boyfriend is as unsympathetic as the other lads’ womenfolk.

This sextet meet up in a London pub before setting off for the countryside in a minibus (hired from ‘West Tours’!) driven by a confident, attractive young woman named Ruth (Christina Cole: The Deaths of Ian StoneSurviving Evil), who is happy to let them call her Candy. They’re heading for Moodley, a tiny hamlet deep in the woods where they will stay at Mikey’s nan’s house while she’s away. Mikey has sold them on this idea by explaining that the village has a 4:1 ratio of women to men, although it later transpires that he hasn’t been there since he was a young lad.

Setting off separately is a seventh member of the gang, tubby electrical contractor Banksy (Neil Maskell: Kill ListBasic Instinct 2!) who plans to drive to Moodley in his own van. There is no clear explanation of why he is travelling separately: there’s plenty of room in the minibus or, frankly, all seven blokes could have squeezed into Banksy’s Transit. It may be that he is meant to meet up with the others and is simply late, but if that’s the case it’s curious that he would be driving to the rendezvous pub: where is he planning to leave his van for the weekend?

Anyway, Banksy isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed and manages to leave his phone and his house-keys locked in his front hall. His van keys must be on a separate key-ring because he sets off okay but the van later breaks down. Meanwhile the minibus has to stop because a narrow lane is blocked by a savaged sheep carcass. Annoyed by constant phone interruptions (all the friends have the same Match of the Day ringtone), Neil insists that everyone put their mobiles into a bag. And so the constant problem of modern day horror films is neatly dealt with.

Moodley turns out to be a tiny, tiny hamlet, surrounded by thick woodland and with a surprising number of shops (it’s actually a collection of hospital outbuildings, cleverly dressed). There’s a butcher, a pub, a hairdresser, a church, a dress shop, a dental surgery and a shop called Burn the Witch that sells gothic and magical stuff, including a mummified penis. There is also a remarkably well-stocked toy shop which is odd as there is absolutely no evidence of any children in the village.

And so we come to the nub of what I said six paragraphs ago was a simple plot. And, well, it is. Moodley at first appears to be deserted. We see - but the lads miss - clues that something bad has happened: bloody handprints and so on. It swiftly transpires that all the men in the town have been bloodily murdered by the women who have all been turned into animalistic cannibals.

They’re not actually zombies, although the fact that they lurch unsteadily around their former home, wandering mindlessly about except when they instinctively rush to devour living human prey, while wearing tattered remnants of clothes and grunting primitively... means that to all intents and purposes this is a zombie film. Even though they’re not dead, just ill. Let’s face it: 28 Days Later is considered a zombie film and the ‘zombies’ in that weren’t dead, just ill. Schaffer and West were obviously acutely aware of this possible accusation of misrepresentation so in the scene that introduces us to Matt he is explaining a comic to a young boy, saying that whatever things are in the publication are not actually zombies.

In the publicity, Jake and Dan referred to these monstrous antagonists as ‘zombirds’ but neither Z-word is ever used in the film itself (apart from the comic shop scene mentioned above) although there was a throwaway gag that used the term in the original script.

The first zombird encountered is a shuffling teenager in a hoodie, mistaken as a homeless Big Issue seller although the idea of a Big Issue seller in a small, isolated, rural hamlet is pretty ridiculous. But we can assume that these Londoners don’t get out into the sensible bits of the country much.

Before they can hand over some change, the girl is violently rugby tackled by a soldier and there is a degree of confusion as our lads’ sense of decency leads them to try to rescue the teenager, until they realise how dangerous she is. The soldier, who tries to explain what is going on while fending off six understandably misguided have-a-go heroes, is Sergeant Gavin Wright (aforementioned executive producer Terry Stone), a bluff, no-bullshit professional. (A rather weak running gag about the others constantly getting his name wrong was wisely dropped.)

With more zombirds closing in from all sides, the seven blokes race for the relative safety of Mikey’s nan’s house, pausing only to gawp in horror at a senior officer whose entrails are falling out of his mangled torso. For some reason this Colonel (Billy Murray: EastEndersThe BillDead Cert) is pegged or strung upright against a six-foot wooden fence which doesn’t really make any sense but does give an opportunity for an unexpected axe attack from the next garden, providing top FX bloke Karl Derrick (The Brothers Grimm) with an opportunity for one of the movie’s gorier gags.

It seems that the zombirds operate purely on sight and so the men are safe once they’re inside the house. The women continue to wander aimlessly, making no attempt to smash their way in, which makes one wonder why some of the Moodley men weren’t able to survive in the same way. But maybe they all succumbed to trusting their wives, girlfriends, sisters, daughters or mums.

The zombirds themselves are a mixed lot. Jake was careful to give each a separate character, to the extent of running a ‘zombird boot camp’ before filming for the actresses and stuntwomen to improvise and develop distinctive postures and movements. Having said that, the women mostly conform to fairly obvious stereotypes or simplistic job-based ‘characterisations’. This allows them to be individually identified in Schaffer’s screenplay so that there’s never ‘a zombird’ attacking, it’s always ‘the Snipper’ or ‘Foxy’. And to be fair, when none of the characters have any dialogue and they all share the same basic motivation and actions, such simplicity is needed in order to separate them.

So we have the aforementioned Snipper who is the local hairdresser, a flirtatious minx ably played by Emily Booth who turned down a role in Razor Blade Smile, worked with Jake on the Shock Movie Massacre titles, starred in Evil Aliens and was attached to this film right from the start. She staggers angrily-yet-sexily around the village armed with two pairs of scissors which could very clearly cut off more than hair. (They’re actually dog clippers as even the largest ordinary scissors looked too weedy and unthreatening.)

There’s a busty goth, evidently proprietor of the Burn the Witch shop, who is optimistically squeezed into a ridiculous corset and carries, for some reason, a broadsword. There’s a (rather manly) butcher, a lollipop lady, the barmaid from the pub, the dentist, a bride in full get-up, a teenage schoolgirl, a lady vicar (or rather, there would be if her scenes hadn’t been consigned to the file marked ‘DVD extras’), Mikey’s nan, a very large lady (named Bubbles in the script) in a very large negligee and a posh bird in fox-hunting gear who rather ridiculously has an actual dead fox around her shoulders. That last detail is, for me, one step too far, turning ‘Foxy’ from a character into a cartoon.

And so we come to the nub of what I said, seventeen paragraphs ago, is a simple plot.

Our heroes attempt to escape, of course, but are unable to do so because Candy/Ruth is still on the minibus and she too has turned into a zombird. Racing back for cover, the gang are broken up. Vince and Matt shelter in the toy shop where they improvise with boys’ toys, as one would. Specifically, a remote-controlled truck, a set of walkie talkies and a super-soaker which Matt fills with R/C engine fuel, transforming it into an impromptu flame-thrower. (In one of the film’s funniest gags, he subsequently discovers why flame-throwers are rarely made of plastic.)

Mikey, Graham and Sgt Wright, on the other hand, find themselves holed up in a dress shop, which gives them the possibility of escaping by pretending to be women. And so, a great tradition is maintained. Arthur Lucan wore a dress in Mother Riley Meets the Vampire; Peter Butterworth wore a dress in Carry On Screaming; now Noel Clarke, Terry Stone and Emil Marwa get the chance. It just wouldn’t be a British comedy film unless it featured one or more men in women’s clothing. It’s a tradition or an old charter or something. Elsewhere, Patrick has scampered up to a platform attached to a large billboard (advertising razors - a curious choice for an advert in a tiny village where only 20 per cent of the population are male) and is using his golf clubs and golf balls to whack zombirds. And Neil has fallen prey to Bubbles, a lady who likes to eat her men one finger at a time...

Eventually, most of the gang regroup in the local church (one of the great advantages of using hospital buildings for the set is that... hospitals usually have a church). It is from this sequence that the lady vicar scene was excised and also a short but complex gag with an unsuccessful attempt to use a fire hose as a weapon (“Forget it mate, you’re firing blanks.”) which was not filmed because of time restrictions.

Inside the church is some sort of explanation of what is going on. Sort of. There are banks of computers which geeky Mat gets working somehow and, when they switch on, every monitor shows a webcam image of a local politician named Meg Nut (nutmeg - geddit?) played by former Time Lady Mary Tamm. This does rather suggest that Ms Nut has been sat at her computer for some time, waiting for the webcam link to come back on-line. She recognises Sgt Wright and asks about progress on Project Cathouse. There are also large crates in the church containing packets of Wonderwash washing powder.

Now, the bit of the explanation that makes sense is that the military are testing a new form of biological warfare which can turn half the population of an area against the other, obviating the need for a military invasion. The bit that doesn’t make sense is the suggestion that it has only affected women because the biological agent was contained in the washing powder, which was distributed as a free gift to the women of Moodley to encourage them to vote for Meg Nut in some sort of local election. (Incidental to this are all the posters around the village, some urging people to vote for Meg Nut, others espousing a male candidate whose face has been torn from every poster.)

This is really the point where it’s best to not look too closely. Clearly free packets of washing powder wouldn’t just affect women, or affect all women, and certainly not all women at the same time. In any case, people are generally careful not to actually touch washing powder, it’s not the most pleasant of stuff. If the intention was to distribute it to the women of Moodley, why not just hand out free samples rather than going to the trouble of staging a fake election. Lovely though it is to see Mary Tamm in anything, really the whole Meg Nut subplot is extraneous and somewhat contradictory. The biggest contradiction being that Candy the bus driver has ‘turned’ without ever leaving her vehicle, indicating (as the lads correctly deduce) that the contaminant is airborne. She hasn’t been near any washing powder.

Really, all that was needed was the explanation that the military were secretly testing a new form of biological warfare. (And let’s face it, using an election as cover for dispersal of some deadly Persil would be tricky to achieve in most of the places where we’re likely to need it. The British army rarely invades functioning democracies.) We are also still left wondering how the army were so unprepared that only one soldier is still alive. Sgt Wright explains that most of the Moodley women have wandered off into the woods, which explains why there’s only about 40 or so (still a lot of make-ups for Karl Derrick and his team) but you wonder why, even in their zombified state, they didn’t take the easier route of staggering along the road towards the next village.

Which reminds me: where did that sheep come from? That was outside the village. In fact, given that we’re shown how much dense woodland surrounds Moodley, why would there even be a sheep? Sheep require large, open fields, they don’t live in woodland. How would they graze? You see, this is what happens when townies write about the countryside: they populate it with Big Issue sellers and forest-dwelling sheep.

Basically Doghouse is one of those hugely enjoyable films that makes sense at the time but starts to crumble at the edges if you, unwisely, analyse the details of the plot in the cold light of day. This manifestly Doesn’t Matter.

Two other things are in the church. There’s a crypt with the stacked corpses of the Moodley Men (and presumably the unwary soldiers) and there is a control for ‘the Dolphin Device.’ This emits an ultrasonic sound which only the women can hear - we’ll tactfully ignore the scientific questions that raises, not least about oldies like Mikey’s nan - which turns the angry, zombified women into fully-fledged monsters. Cue the ‘Phase II’ make-ups: full prosthetic jobs with lots of goop and scowling and the teeth and the claws and everything. Additionally, once the women are into Phase II, the Dolphin can be used to control them - although this is never fully explained.

The nub of it is that the zombirds become much more savage and dangerous (and less human) but can also be controlled. The former seems pointless as they have already killed all the men but we can charitably assume that the additional transformation is necessary for the control thing to work. Unfortunately, the control thing here doesn’t work, leading to further problems for the lads and an escape from the church facilitated by the late arrival of the oblivious Banksy. (The reveal shot of his transport is probably the film’s biggest single laugh; I’m giggling just thinking about it.)

In the final act, things take a turn for the worse and I don’t think it’s overly spoilerish to say that not all eight men make it out of Moodley alive. This is a good thing, narratively. We have been made to care about these characters who, up to now, have remained largely unscathed apart from bruises, loss of dignity and the occasional severed finger. When people start dying, the film becomes serious - but without stopping being funny, and that takes a quite significant degree of writing and directorial skill.

Predictably, an escape from Moodley turns out to be a false ending as one of the ‘deaths’ proves to have been less than fatal and the survivors have no qualms about returning to the village for a rescue mission. We have a final funny scene showing how the Dolphin Device should work and then... it all suddenly stops.

Some of the preceding paragraphs may sound negative but take a closer look and you’ll see that I’m nitpicking, mostly about the largely irrelevant background to the story. I’m picking nits because most of the film works and works brilliantly. The characters are credible and broadly sympathetic. Even Neil’s arrogant sexist pig is revealed to have loyalties and concerns beyond his own dick although there is a very funny bedroom scene (not with Bubbles!) which suggests that he’ll never truly learn. The dialogue is crisp and clever and funny. The humour comes from the situations and the believable reactions. The horror originates likewise, the reasonable gore quotient earning the film an accessible 15 certificate in the UK.

The effects are good, the costumes (designed by Hayley Nebauer: Gnaw) are good, the acting is uniformly excellent - by both named, speaking characters and the hordes of zombirds - and the production design by Matthew Button (The SickhouseThe Reeds) is top-notch. Jake’s editing and Ali Asad’s cinematography (he has done videos for Oasis, George Michael, The Prodigy and others) work together to give a look and feel to the film that is just right for the subject. Jake’s regular composer Richard Wells (Being HumanMutant Chronicles) provides a smashing score with a delicious touch of spaghetti western in places. Kudos also to special effects co-ordinator Scott McIntyre who has a wide range of TV credits from Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace to Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway and has also worked on BHR features such as HushThe Sickhouse and Wild Country.

The only actual continuity error I spotted - and this is splitting hairs now but I like to be comprehensive - is in the toy shop when Vince’s water pistol’s reservoir is nearly empty, nearly full, nearly empty again in a series of three shots evidently derived from two different takes. There is also a bit of a surprise in the church when an upstairs door being relentlessly hammered by two zombirds eventually collapses to reveal Bubbles whom we saw running(!) down the street outside only a few moments earlier. But that’s in the script and really just shows that, for a BBW, she has a remarkable turn of speed when it comes to getting up stairs.

However, if i was going to make one criticism which is not pedantic (and I am) it’s the absolute very end when, as mentioned above, it all suddenly stops. Our gleeful, surviving heroes turn and run from the advancing hordes of zombettes. The picture freezes and fades and then the end credits role slowly under an incredibly sedate piece of instrumental music. It’s not really a sudden, jarring halt, more an extremely swift but steady and stable deceleration. What it’s not is a climax. And the film needs a climax, even if it wants to leave the story open-ended.

This is deliberate. The only deviation from the script is the excision of a shot in which one of the surviving men cheekily moons the advancing zombirds before our heroes flee with confident grins on their faces. I think it’s the inappropriate music more than anything else that’s the problem.

The irony here is that I have seen plenty of films - we all have - where a thought-provoking or enigmatic ending is shattered by the credits blasting onto the screen accompanied by a hammering, completely inappropriate rock/pop song that has no connection with the film except using the movie title as part of the chorus. This is usually entirely unnecessary. It’s like switching off a DVD to find that the default TV channel is VH1 and the volume’s too loud.

But that’s exactly what Doghouse needs at the end. It needs something hard and fast to bang in just as the picture freezes with some wannabe rock star belting out: “I’m in the doghouse! You’re putting me in the doghouse baby!” Or something similar. After all that excitement, the end credits seem a damp squib. They desperately need a punch, not a gentle instrumental. The current end titles music doesn’t spoil the film, it just deflates the ending and so one leaves the cinema less excited and enthused than one should be. It’s a curious decision.

At the other end of the film (or the start, to use the technical term) there is a slightly more extensive editorial snip. As originally written, a prologue showed a couple of the last surviving Moodley males - one of whom rather over-literally hides inside a kennel - being caught and cut up by zombirds. This was filmed but dropped in favour of going straight into introducing our gang of likely lads; a wise choice in my view. However, it will no doubt be on the DVD and you can see a couple of shots from it in one of the trailers.

Now, there is a rule that one cannot review Doghouse without mentioning the thematically similar Lesbian Vampire Killers which hit British cinemas a couple of months earlier to generally poor reviews (possibly more to do with the overhyping of its starring comedy duo Horne and Corden rather than the film itself). I haven’t seen LVK although I understand it to be more of a wacky comedy about vampires than a character-based horror-comedy like Doghouse.

What I think is more interesting, and what no other critic seems to have spotted (because they all watch different films to me) is that at least one other British indie feature produced around the same time also shares the elements that, on the surface, link Doghouse and LVK. Ironically, it was the same day that I visited Jake West in the Doghouse edit suite that I saw a festival screening of The Scar Crow. It’s a much smaller film than LVK or Doghouse but once again it concerns a group of laddish blokes on a trip into the countryside who encounter a threat which is both fantastical and female. Not lesbian vampires or ersatz zombies but a trio of female ghosts.

There’s an old film journalist’s saying: once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s a subgenre.

In fact, if one discounts the battle-of-the-sexes aspect and just thinks about recent British indie horror films in which laddish townie blokes face a horrific fantasy/sci-fi threat in the countryside then we probably have to add both Stag Knight and Stag Night of the Dead into the mix. There is clearly something in the air right now. Something that makes thirtysomething footie-and-beer Londoners the perfect protagonists for horror films. Well, British horror films. You wouldn’t get anything like this in the United States where the male lead must always be clean-cut, sober, in his early twenties and boringly perfect.

And yet this is one area where Doghouse falters slightly. I mean, it’s great and it knows its target market. But it doesn’t have the mainstream appeal of the other film which critics are legally required to mention here, which is Shaun of the Dead. And that is because, odd though it may seem, the characters are all too similar.

In an unused line of dialogue, Sgt Wright sums up the gang as “the Poof, the Space Cadet, the Scrote, the Geek, the Jack-the-lad, and the Redundant Leader” which is a handy bit of shorthand with a touch of The Breakfast Club about it. But despite their differences, the six of them (plus Banksy who would presumably have been called ‘the Fat One’ if he had been in that scene) are all mates. They hang out together, they have shared values. They are all thirtysomething and none of them are yet happily married with kids and a mortgage (a description which also applies to Jake and Dan, I notice).

What is missing is a contrasting voice. Even Sgt Wright is a similar sort of character and although he argues with them, it’s not enough of a culture clash. They’re not a group of disparate individuals forced together by circumstances and so we don’t get the inherent character conflict that such a situation would provide and which would benefit any film like this. In Shaun, Simon Pegg’s title character had a genuine dislike of the Dylan Moran character. Then you throw his mum into the mix whose outlook will naturally be completely different and with her comes the Bill Nighy stepfather character.

That is what I missed most in Doghouse: someone who was in the same situation but whose views were in direct contrast to those of Neil, Mikey and co. Maybe an old guy or a butch lesbian or someone else who had somehow survived the initial infection and massacre. Yes, there are arguments here but calling each other a wanker isn’t the same as people fighting each other when their only hope of survival lies in working together. And that is what any horror film - comic or serious - really needs in order to be considered a classic.

But look, this is my extended pontification on what I thought worked and didn’t work in Doghouse. And as I believe I have stressed before, readers should not consider the amount of positive or negative wordage to relate directly to the quality of the film. Doghouse is generally very good indeed with minor flaws or space for small improvements that don’t seriously detract from the overall quality.

Among the zombirds are a number of interesting actresses, some of whom played more than one part. There’s Jenna Goodwin (The Thirst), Victoria Hopkins (The Devil’s Music), musician Tree Carr (who was in Evil Aliens and runs the Today is Boring website which organised a female/tranny zombie walk to publicise the film), Lara Croft model Alison Carroll, Ria Knowles (who was in a production of Ken Campbell’s The Warp), Joelle Simpson (28 Days LaterWarrioress), Danielle Laws (KillerKillerBordello Death Tales), jobbing production designer Melanie Light and burlesque dancers Roxy Velvet and Trixie Malicious. Crew members donning zombird make-up include make-up department co-ordinator Deborah Hyde, senior costume maker Tania Chant, principal costume standby Nina Ayres, costume assistant Hayley Crompton and production assistant Judith Lewis.

Annie Vanders (Across the UniverseGhosthunters.con) plays Bubbles, Beryl Nesbitt (who was in Blake’s 7 and The Day of the Triffids) is Mikey’s nan and Lynda Dagley (who was in Scream and Scream Again) is the lady vicar in the DVD extras (but seen on an advance publicity image). Nicola Jane Reading, who plays the busty goth, has a sideline as a professional Xena: Warrior Princess lookalike!

Mikey’s wife is played by Adele Silva (EmmerdaleKarma Magnet), Patrick’s wife by Caroline Head, Graham’s boyfriend by Christopher Elson (who was in an episode of Torchwood) and Neil’s date by Jessica Clement (The Real Hustle). The mechanic who looks at Banksy’s van is executive producer Toby Richards (also in Ten Dead Men) and the barmaid in the London pub is Debbie Flett who used to be a dolly dealer on Play Your Cards Right!

Doghouse is, at heart, a film about men and masculinity. It celebrates the good aspects of blokedom - the camaraderie, the creativity in design and planning, the boyhood dreams retained - while at the same time holding up for criticism the less enjoyable side. The stuff that goes too far: chauvinism, sexism, misogyny, call it what you will. What Doghouse is not about, oddly, is the differences between men and women. Though many journalists have summed it up as a battle of the sexes (look, I did it up there) the simple truth is that the film is not about men vs women. It’s about men vs monsters that just happen to be shaped like women.

The zombirds are not women. They may look like them, at least in Phase 1, but they do not behave or think like women any more than Noel Clarke in a dress does. Aside from breasts (and no, we don’t see any) there is nothing distinctively female or feminine about the threat here. These are just monsters and they are only women in the sense that the male characters perceive them as women. And for the most part all that leads to is jokes. Good jokes, character-based jokes, funny jokes, but jokes nonetheless. Doghouse explores - well, touches upon - some men’s attitudes to women but it’s not about relationships, it’s not about vive la difference, it’s not even about sex.

Nothing wrong with that. That’s not what it aims to do. But it’s what I think people might expect it to do and it’s what a considerable number of reviewers who weren’t paying particular attention believe it does.

No, the key to this film lies in the location, not the antagonists. What Doghouse is about, I have realised, and what The Scar Crow is about, and what I suspect Lesbian Vampire Killers and Stag Night of the Dead and Stag Knight are about, is a fear not of women, but of the countryside. Yes, they all feature groups of blokes but they’re city blokes, Laandaaners, venturing into the dangerous wilderness. The antecedent of these films is not battle-of-the-sexes screwball comedies like His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby and it’s not even man/woman sci-fi fables like Sex Mission or The Stepford Wives. These films are directly descended, I would argue, from Straw Dogs.

Most film-makers live in cities, whether it’s Los Angeles or London or Leicester. Jake and Dan are London boys so their notion of ‘other’ or ‘alien’ is the countryside. But it’s a peculiar sort of countryside, as divorced from reality as the mittel-Europe that Universal sought to conjure in the 1930s and 1940s. Jake and Dan’s concept of a small, isolated village is a mini-London. It’s not just the Big Issue seller; apart from anything else that’s not what she is. But although the lads are the butt of this joke, what is lampooned is their naive assumption that any badly-dressed, half-drunk teenager staggering along the pavement is a homeless person touting magazines when in fact she’s an ersatz zombie. It’s not their naivete in thinking that rural isolated villages have mag-selling homeless populations like London.

A you-are-here sign and an aerial pull-out both show clearly that Moodley is in the middle of an enormous, dense woodland with just one road leading in and out. Wherever the next nearest habitation is, it’s a long way away on the other side of dense deciduous forest. But this isn’t a village, it’s a mini-London. There’s the extraordinary array of shops. There’s the big advertising bill-board. Frankly there’s the incongruous you-are-here sign - you don’t get those in the country! I won’t mention the sheep again.

Superficially this is a film about men and women or at least about men and how they relate to women. But at heart it’s a film about town boys venturing into the heart of darkness and then trying to escape from what they find there. The fact that what they find there is animalistic female cannibals is almost incidental. I don’t know whether Jake and Dan are aware of this. I don’t know whether they would even agree with this interpretation (I’m sure they’ll let me know) but I think it’s evidence of how Doghouse is much more than a simplistic run-around, blood-and-gags horror-comedy. There are layers here, layers that perhaps even the creators were unaware of because it is their own London-centric world view that colours their understanding of what they have created. Fortunately, the top layer is a damn fine run-around, blood-and-gags horror-comedy.

So enough with the pontificating. The short version of this 6,000-word review, the fifty-word version, is that Doghouse succeeds brilliantly in what it sets out to do and is a hugely enjoyable horror-romp which marks Jake West’s transition from a struggling indie director to a real film-maker. At this rate, he’ll be in Hollywood before Christmas.

MJS rating: A-
review originally posted 22nd June 2009

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