In defence of Donkey Punch

Feature Craig Lines 4 Jul 2013 - 06:33

The British indie horror Donkey Punch was released five years ago to almost universal displeasure. Craig defends an underrated film...

In 2008, director Olly Blackburn released his first feature film to an almost universally negative response. Even now, five years on, you'll find few kind words in amongst the rage that viewers seem to find for Donkey Punch.

It's perhaps no surprise that The Daily Mail and its ilk might respond negatively. Indeed, like a Pavlovian Punch doll it squawked and flapped as soon the film was released, its reviewer decrying the content as "morally bankrupt" and "the vilest film I've ever seen". It left him "sickened to the core". Great reverse marketing, right? Such hyperbolic outrage would normally ignite the attention of horror fans everywhere yet, this time, even the gorehounds seemed to find the film troublesome. Many complained it was "pornographic", others that it was full of "detestable characters", "unrealistic situations" and "offensive language". Shockingly - the horror fraternity and the moral majority stood in rare agreement: Donkey Punch was repellent. A disgrace.

So what was it that they found so objectionable? What could possibly cause so much anger and negativity about a movie that, at least on the surface, is just Dead Calm meets The Magaluf Weekender? Of course, the answer is that Donkey Punch, in so many ways, isn't about what's on the surface. It's about what lies in the murky waters beneath...

The most shocking aspect of Donkey Punch is that it defies not just genre but societal conventions, in daring to take an unflinching swipe at the patriarchy. Indeed, I would say it's one of the most explicitly feminist horror films ever made and that makes people uncomfortable. I can already hear readers shifting in their seats at my use of the F word, angry fingers at the ready to fill the comments box with protests of "no, it's just shit!"

Now, I'm not saying that all those who criticised it are necessarily massive sexists, but I feel the film is worth a revisit with some alternative analysis to much of what you'll find online. I want to put across my take on what I believe to be a massively overlooked gem of British indie cinema and perhaps encourage a revisit or two from those who may have previously dismissed or avoided it. 

The plot follows three Leeds girls on vacation in Mallorca. They meet a group of lads in a bar and hit it off. As luck would have it, the lads are sailors and their boat's owner is away for the weekend; a perfect excuse for sex, drugs, alcohol on the high seas. As the boat sails out and the party gets going, they lose their inhibitions and the conversation gets filthy. The group swap tall tales about sexual urban legends, culminating with an explanation of the 'donkey punch': a sex act in which a man takes his partner from behind and, on the cusp of his orgasm, punches her in the back of the neck, apparently triggering a muscle spasm that enhances his pleasure...

When they adjourn to the boat's bedroom and an orgy ensues, it could happily continue throughout the night if it wasn't for - you guessed it - one of the lads getting carried away and trying his hand at a donkey punch. It goes wrong. Way wrong. The girl's neck breaks and she dies instantly. The group - formerly united in a mutual love of partying - fractures at once. It becomes literally Boys vs Girls, the former concerned that they're going to be accused of murder and the latter devastated and terrified because their friend is dead and they're trapped on a boat in the middle of nowhere.

Immediately, the boys make their view of the world clear. They're the ones with the big plans in life. They want to be lawyers, high-ranking naval officers - 'real' jobs for men - and the fact that a girl has died is just an annoying inconvenience that needs to swept aside. It's by no means as important as their promising careers. After all, she was just a girl. Lisa - the corpse - soon becomes literally a piece of meat and director Blackburn never lets us forget this. 

As they devise ways in which to dispose of the body, it's a far cry from Weekend At Bernie's style farce. These scenes are shot matter-of-factly, and we're acutely aware that the lump beneath the bedsheet was once a human being, even if it's no longer treated as such. There's an extended scene in which she's finally tossed overboard and it's excruciating to watch, so coldly and callously is it handled, reminding us starkly that this is all the boys ever saw her as. Meat.

The total and literal objectification of Lisa is the start of how Blackburn reveals the boys' characters. Although they initially seem more or less interchangeable - dopey, bantering horndogs - each of them is skilfully written to represent a different facet of patriarchal behaviour.

Bluey is the boorish man-child, a particularly grubby page ripped out of Nuts magazine and brought to life. Almost everything he says is a sexist gag (ie: "Have you ever been to Goa? 'Cos you look like a bit of a goer yourself!") and he's never outgrown the crude, demeaning schoolyard approach to sexual relationships. Women rest in a confusing place somewhere between a conquest and a joke to him.

Marcus is the 'mansplainer'; outwardly courteous and affable but prone to condescending lectures whenever one of the women attempts to suggest that she may actually, like, know something. Although he's happy to humour them and make them feel important, he sees women as second-class citizens, incapable of either taking charge or even being relevant to the significant areas of the Man's World. They're purely decorative. 

Josh is the shy, timid 'nice guy' who doesn't understand why girls always choose other guys over him and believes it must be because he's just so damn nice. Right? Wrong. He's the worst of the lot. His bitter contempt for an entire gender doesn't stop when he delivers the donkey punch. As the film progresses, he reveals himself to be rotten to the core. A deep-rooted misogynist and a lying hypocrite to boot.

Last of all, Sean is perhaps the most crucial part of the group dynamic because he knows what the others are doing is wrong. He has empathy for the women, he recognises them as fellow humans and yet has no strength to stand up to his mates. He is completely passive, bowing to majority pressure because he's scared of losing face - of being viewed as an unmasculine outsider - so he goes along with them, deeper and deeper until the momentum is too great. It's too late to stop them.

As the situation becomes nightmarish, the lads' "harmless banter" from the first act becomes more and more menacing with every sexist jibe, as it's now loaded with the weight of murder and the constant threat of more violence. Each joke is delivered in such a spiteful way that it makes the viewer question whether there was ever a time when this was appropriate and, of course, the answer is no.

When the double-crossing begins, it isn't even that long before the two surviving girls - Kim and Tammi - begin to turn on each other, Kim blaming Tammi for the whole situation (mirroring real life when often, women turn on other women - even in' feminist' circles - blaming them for the problems that are actually - indisputably - caused by male patriarchal behaviour). There's black comedy to be milked from this conflict too though, such as in the scene where Kim and Tammi are locked in a room and have to break down the door. 

"You should do it," urges Kim with a bitchy sneer, "you're heavier than I am." Anyone who's seen the internet responses to Samantha Brick's Daily Mail articles should recognise this behaviour; how easy it is for women to victimise other women for their physical appearance, submitting to the trappings of valuing one another only by the criteria of male gaze.

It's clever, subtly dropped-in dialogue like this and the fact that the metaphors stand up coherently throughout the film that really makes Donkey Punch special. It avoids hypocrisy too. The explicit orgy scene (which, incidentally, clocks in at around two minutes and contains the only nudity in the entire movie) is equal opportunity objectification. There's as much full frontal male nudity in it as there is female, and it's this perhaps that caused the panicked outcry online and the almost endless procession of reviews that deem the film pornographic.

Certainly, there are no more than a few seconds of full frontal female nudity, and plenty of other films that aren't accused of being porn possess way more. It's worth thinking about because it's a symptom of the exact behaviour that Donkey Punch questions. Society tells us that it's fine to see women naked - after all, they're just sexual objects - but seeing men naked is gross, pornographic, exploitative. It touches a nerve. Especially in a young, male, heterosexual audience who apparently find themselves quite offended and disgusted by it. Why should this be? (Another great line from the film: "Are you fucking gay?!" Bluey spits in disbelief when Sean initially implores him to consider the feelings of the girls before tossing their friend's body overboard...) 

When I first watched Donkey Punch, I felt the title did it a disservice; that such a great movie - a taut, gorgeously-shot, original thriller with a bangin' soundtrack, an uninhibited young cast and such a daring, righteous message - would lose the audience it deserved. That they wouldn't get past the name. Sadly this seems to be exactly what happened, but it's a shame. Especially because I now believe the idea of the donkey punch is so integral to the film's message that I can't imagine it with any other title.

Not only is it important in the obvious allegorical sense of it being a violent sexual act that provides pleasure for the man and pain for the woman (pretty much the theme of the whole film) but the script continually asks - and offers theories on - what kind of a culture creates such a phrase. Why does mainstream media trivialise these things, dressing up sexual violence in juvenile, comedic terms, and what's the outcome? What dangerous attitudes become insidious within society as a result? What does and could it all lead to?

Donkey Punch offers an extreme (and, yes, at times exaggerated) set of answers to these questions but the fact that it provokes relentlessly - that it dares to rattle the phallic hornet's nest - should be praised. Horror, as a genre, should be provocative and should be controversial and should disturb and unsettle. Donkey Punch achieves that by asking a hard line of questions, by presenting its metaphors without flinching and by not insulting its audience's intelligence. The fact that it upset so many people shows that sometimes provocation is not just about how much sex and violence you can cram onto a screen.

Indeed, the same year it came out saw us faced with movies like Martyrs, Frontiers and Inside - all infinitely more explicit, sadistic and grotesque horrors that met with just a fraction of the abuse and upset from reviewers. Sometimes all you need is to hold up the ugly funhouse mirror to an audience, and Donkey Punch does this. It questions its target demographic and, boy oh boy, did they not like that. But, really, what's so vile about peace, love and understanding?

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