Tuesday, July 22, 2008 

Film review: Donkey Punch.

Since the collapse of the Hammer studios, British horror has often been exactly that: horrible. While it's unlikely that anything will ever be produced on these shores that manages to equal The Wicker Man, the last decade has seen a few flourishings of potential talent. Although both largely derivative, 28 Days Later of the zombie genre and The Descent of the slasher/body count/monster picture, both showed that when both funding and thought is available, commercially successful offerings can still be produced. If you include Shaun of the Dead with those two, and perhaps even London 2 Brighton (which is probably the finest British film of recent years), then the point can be expanded even further. Even so, such films still often require all the help they can get. The makers of Donkey Punch must then be delighted with the Daily Mail's reaction courtesy of Amanda Platell: the most vile film she's ever seen, made with OUR MONEY, via the UK Film Council, although much of the funding would have been provided from those who waste their money on lottery tickets.

The Mail has had a history of giving huge plaudits and attention to films which it finds morally repugnant, therefore driving people to go and see them. It said of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre that if a ever film should be banned, then this it. It was in the vanguard of bringing the mostly pretty bad "video nasties" to wider acclaim, campaigned against Crash, and most recently lambasted Hostel. Some hits, some misses there, but always missing the point that declaring you're outraged about something eminently available will also make it instantly more attractive, and with censorship and bans now largely history, even more pointless than previously.

Donkey Punch was always going to be controversial. After all, when you name your film after an apocryphal sex act, a sex act which is carried out in full glare of the camera, although unless I missed something it didn't in this case involve anal penetration as the mythical move is meant to (supposedly punching the back of your partner's neck as you're about to orgasm makes the sphincter tighten even further), you're instantly courting attention and potential opprobrium. Although I haven't seen Skins, Donkey Punch has been compared in its attitude and filming to it, and coming from the Film 4 stable, it's not exactly surprising. Perhaps a better comparison though would be to the one-off late night versions of Hollyoaks, except with better actors, a much improved, wittier script, more bloodshed and a tension which although doesn't quite reach the heights or gory excesses of Wolf Creek, or the aptly named Haute Tension, still builds up to a fairly pleasing denouement.

Three young working class women from Leeds, either in their very late teens or early twenties have escaped from northern drudgery to Mallorca. Going out partying, they meet three southern middle class lads, one of whom swiftly steals a bottle of Champagne after one of the girls requests it. Suitably impressed, they retire to the beach, where they inform the girls that this is their last weekend in Mallorca and that they've been working on a yacht, whose owner has conveniently flown off somewhere and left them in charge. After a slight amount of hesitation from Tammi, played by Nichola Burley, who herself wasn't sure of the trip to begin with, they go out to sea, where the debauchery begins in earnest. Drugs, and then sex are the order of the day.

So far, so predictable, and so pedestrian. Having taken ecstasy and a hit off something resembling a crack or meth pipe, two of the girls have had their inhibitions lowered enough to allow themselves to be filmed naked kissing, which nonetheless still rings alarm bells of credulity, before the more audacious Lisa, played by Sian Breckin, invites the suitably dense and achingly nonchalant cool guy Bluey, played execrably by Tom Burke to engage in coitus. Filming all this for posterity is the shy, impressionable and younger Josh, who thinking he's only going to be able to jerk off while watching the two young women fuck his friends, is kindly allowed by Lisa to take over from Bluey while he grabs hold of the camera. About to climax, Bluey tells Josh jokingly to "go on, do it!" While it's not clear whether he's alluding to the previous discussion of unusual sexual practices, where donkey punching was mentioned, or to Josh blowing his load, Josh takes it upon himself to do the former. Tragedy occurs.

It's here where Donkey Punch finally comes into its own. The male group understandably panic, and figure that if they dump Lisa's corpse out in international waters, and say that she fell overboard, all of them will get off and put this terrible incident behind them. The two remaining young women, terrified, but not bowed, also understandably disagree. Their refusal to go along with the plan doesn't matter; Lisa is to be fish food.

At this point the film could have all gone to pot: as satisfying as a I Spit on Your Grave style rampage of revenge from one of the girls for what's happened to thier sister, even if not in blood, would have been, it would have stretched the film to breaking point, even if they had been further brutalised. Instead, it turns into a dripping, almost classical in scope orgy of chaos as one by one the bodycount increases. Incidentally, Amanda Platell has got the complete wrong end of the stick in her own criticism, mainly because what's clear is that the revenge that does come is being meted out by the females against those who have first tricked them, abused them, tried to control them and then finally resorted to out and out murder. If you wanted to get close to Pseud's Corner territory, you could even see it at a large stretch as a film depicting the class war in actual motion: the northern proletariat striking out at the southern, public school educated bourgeois twits who have oppressed and exploited them for most of the film's length, even if at times they have been too trusting to begin with and gone along with their enemies. When Josh, even after the death of Lisa orders the two remaining women, surrounded by the lads to sort them out a meal, it's impossible not to see the sexist overtones which are afterwards hurled back in the most vicious way. In a way, it's little more than an updating of the laughable, ideologically bankrupt cautionary message of Last House on the Left, but both films equally have far more power than just to shock and wag the finger.

The one overwhelming problem which almost blunts the attack is that moments of comedy horror creep into two of the death scenes. If accidental or through sloppy film-making it could be understood, but it's clearly meant to be seen that way. As a result it undermines the tension that has been built up, and almost breaks the spell completely. It's mainly down to the subtle but excellent performance by Burley as Tammi that the momentum is not affected.

Despite Platell's endorsement, much of what's here, apart from the orgy and punch itself, which are as you would expect fairly graphic, there's nothing here in the violence or gore stakes that you won't have seen before, mainly because it would be out of kilter with the film itself if there was. It's also perverse to see it as part of the torture porn genre, which is purely nihilistic and indulges in depravity because it can; the script here is too strong, the characters, if not completely three-dimensional fairly well-drawn, and the social commentary far too prevalent. If there was one word to describe the torture-porn genre, you'd be inclined to use grimy, as both the locations, the filming and the scripts are exactly that. Here instead there is gloss, and while I wouldn't say that it is anything approaching realistic, up until the film's title sequence it's nothing that is beyond the realms of imagination.

While not a classic by any means, Donkey Punch stands above most of the recent American offerings that share similar motivations, and does suggest that a new generation of British film-makers and also actors can escape from the drama/comedy/soap-oriented hell to the big screen without making such drivel as Sex Lives of the Potato Men or Three and Out, Daily Mail approved or not.

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