We see it all the time now: cinéma vérité, faux documentaries, and mockumentaries; “shaky-cam” and the hand-held style as a portal to cinematic realism. These methods have enjoyed great success in modern horror: The Blair Witch Project, famous for its “ground-breaking” use of these techniques, banked a metric fuck-ton just by insinuating its basis in true events. Truth and reality have subsequently found their place as stock tricks of the trade, prompting many to shout out their boredom with this particular sub-genre and its apparent overuse in horror today. Before Blair Witch, though; before Cloverfield or [REC] or its American counterpart, Quarantine, there was Man Bites Dog: the grisly serial killer chronicle that could easily have fathered them all.
Man Bites Dog (in French: C’est arrivé près de chez vous, or, “It Happened In Your Neighborhood”) was released in 1992, a Belgian, French-language film that was written, produced, directed and acted by four film students on a budget of nothing; it is the essence of DIY filmmaking. The students appear in the film using their own names: Rémy is the director, André, the cameraman, and finally, Benoît, their serial killer; a charismatic, magnetic and egomaniacal subject. Rémy and his crew, which originally includes André and Patrick (their sound man), follow Benoît to capture his crimes and methods in a documentary format; it is not clear how they were introduced or how the arrangement was made. Beginning their project as neutral observers, they track his work; in this case, the killing is not just extracurricular – it’s his job, as he sometimes kills in order to rob his victims. Benoît reveals proudly to the camera his considerable knowledge on the execution of these crimes, lecturing on the proper method for corpse disposal and who to target (specifically, “nobodies”, who preserve his low profile, and the elderly, who normally have large amounts of cash hidden around their homes). In shadowing the killer, we meet his family and friends, all unaware of his activities (though his girlfriend, Valerie, seems to have a dispassionate knowledge that she justifies and dismisses by saying “everyone’s got to eat”).
Between murders (all grisly, opportunistic and often in broad daylight), long conversations with Benoît quickly deteriorate into monologues that cover a wide range of topics: art, architecture and city planning, relationships; he clearly fancies himself quite the Renaissance man, pontificating for the camera and talking down to his crew, often criticizing and insulting those he considers inferior. In his sermons, he is transparent and smug, showing his hand as a blatant xenophobe and misogynist in his attempts to seem erudite or socially aware. He sings often and recites poetry on the fly, almost always loudly and belligerently drunk. It’s true, we are following a serial killer in action, but this film lapses often into deep character study; his crimes and their victims tend to function as a setpiece.
As the film progresses, we see the crew becoming desensitized to the acts of a killer: at first, they film without involvement, but do not report the crimes; soon they are assisting Benoît in small ways, by giving chase, holding down a victim, or even disposing of a body; eventually we see that their passive observation has been eclipsed by their immersion in their work. Soon enough, the true, questioning heart of the film becomes clear: in experiencing these escalating offenses through the eye of the camera, the crew our obvious proxy, are we actually removed from the horror of it all? Are we, as observers, as horror fans, somehow complicit through our constant return to this material? While the film seems to ask these questions directly, it manages to simultaneously laugh them off as well; in one scene, they encounter their mirror image: another three-man crew, following a serial killer of their own. Here we find what seems to be a comment on the media’s hunger for contravention: where there is one camera crew documenting a serial killer, there must, of course, be more.
In execution, the film’s minimalist approach works entirely to its advantage. There is little to no music used, and special effects are sparse, but realistic, limited mostly to blood and gunshot wounds (save for one gruesome tableau late in the film, which does not suffer from its presentation in black and white). We often see the camera crew and their equipment, lending to the feeling of behind-the-scenes participation in a work-in-progress. We are in these moments with the crew, and we are observers as they are; their transformation could easily be ours, and therefore, so could their transgression.
As Benoît devolves, there is a growing and distinct feeling of “you are what you eat”. Through the process, with hours of footage on-hand and having gotten exactly what they came for, the crew faces what is described by an increasingly detached Rémy as “occupational hazards”: criminality, complicity, and death. In his ability to write these off with a simple “we’re all aware of that”, a bit of the film’s real impetus shines through: as an audience, we all know why we’re here and what we came to see – but what, exactly, does that make us?
With or without its moral and existential dilemmas, this film is phenomenal. It’s gripping. Benoît is a consummate asshole, yes, but he’s a fascinating, exciting asshole, and as black as the film gets, it’s impossible not to see it through. While not the first of its kind (one cannot forget Cannibal Holocaust), it’s an obvious standout of the sub-genre, begetting more recent entries such as Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and even, in its own way, Dexter. Before the days of the ubiquitous reality film, before Paranormal Activity and its bastard sons, there was Man Bites Dog, a true blue specimen of documentary-horror at its very best, reflecting ourselves and our humanity at their very worst.
Kara is a Senior Office Assistant for the Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics at Indiana University. A past English major and lifetime writer, she has also served both as an actress and behind-the-scenes assistant for several projects with our friends at Clockwerk Pictures. Kara lives with her husband in Bloomington, Indiana. In her spare time, she is a freelance editor/proofreader for international students at Indiana University, and serves as an organizer of the Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).