Of all its numerous misdemeanours, the most heinous that Dominic Brunt’s vile Bait (2014) commits is its attempt to convince you that it isn’t the grim, misogynistic horror that it ultimately turns out to be. Its two female protagonists, Bex (Victoria Smurfit) and Dawn (Joanne Mitchell), begin the film as feisty, independently-minded individuals, running their own market stall selling organic tea and cakes and attempting to secure a loan to expand into a shop. They’re well-drawn and smartly acted at first, with realistic lives and realistic aspirations that don’t involve men and it initially feels refreshing to see a home-grown genre flick that seems rooted in the lives of women.
Sadly, the idea that they might be resourceful and capable enough to handle whatever a horror film might throw at them soon dissipates when they meet Jeremy (Jonathan Slinger), a sneering loan shark who begins extorting them, threatening them with violence and rape against them and their families if they don’t meet his ever-increasing demands. This violence is shot with a perverse lack of interest that one assumes is supposed to be reflective of the callous whims of its villain, but comes across as though the film itself doesn’t care for its characters and has dreamt them up just to watch them suffer. The violence is excessive and justified by neither plot nor thematics.
Jeremy and his thug for hire (Adam Fogerty) are introduced through vignettes of other characters who have fallen foul of him, each of them subject to a cruel fate that only serves the purpose of giving us more broken bones and misery to ogle. It may have worked if its protagonists had been given a little more agency. One could argue that their hands are forced, that they don’t have any choice but to give in to Jeremy’s demands and endure the pain and humiliation that they suffer through, but it hurts in 2015 to see two women once again abused by men for our titillation, excessively and extensively – particularly when the film did such a good job developing them in the first place. They frequently fail to make the obvious decisions that would save them or allow them to fight back. Even when they eventually turn the tables they do so almost reluctantly and in their underwear, still cowering in fear between strikes. Brunt doesn’t seem to realise that the pleasure of similar, more successful films such as his come not from the images of violence but the strength of those subjected to them to endure and overcome it: that the thrill is in the overpowering of the oppressor and not the means by which they do. With some careful tweaking of focus, Bait could have been the strong, women-focused extreme horror that it aspires to be.
Adam Howard | @afahoward