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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I remember reading a review of this when it came out that started something like "Donkey Punch, no it's not a headline reporting a domestic between Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, but a sordid sexual act...."

I've never seen the movie but I don't think I could get that image out of my head.

It is great to see this massively underrated film getting some recognition. I never understood the hate for Donkey Punch. I've seen it many times and as this article outlines, it's a multi-layered film that offers so much in terms of character.

Like this piece mentions, I guess a lot of people had trouble getting past the sex scene, and I don't think that this was the prime marketing tool of the film helped. I remember reading a piece in Empire magazine around the time of release which pretty much talked solely about that one scene.

I think those who went looking for a porno style orgy scene would have left disappointed. That scene is a lot of things but sexy is not one of them. It's all so cold and clinical with Bluey filming it and instructing Josh what to do with Lisa. This is made all the more apparent by the way in which it's cut with an actual really sweet scene happening on deck with Sean and Tammi, below the sunset. It's really cleverly done.

Anyway, great article on a great film. I don't need to persuaded to watch it again, but I will anyway.

I had the misfortune of going the cinema to see this. It’s quite
possibly the worst thing I have seen on the big screen and that includes
Phantom Menace and Condor Man! (Condor man was top but bad) Recently watched
Kill List which was almost as bad as Donkey Punch but didn’t have Ray Winston’s
daughter in it, if she was in both I would be hard pushed to pick the worst of
the two. Would rather watch a Crossroads box set than either of these again.

I expected this to be terrible but the Warp Films logo was a surprising sign of raising hopes. must admit i haven't watched it in probably 4.5 years but enjoyed it several times when i did. Was a good year for Jaimie Winstone, what with this and Dead Set.

Anyway, yes, i think the tittilating name did the film a disservice really.

I have seen films that are far more sexually explicit, especially European films. I do not remember any frontal nudity, rather the conveniently placed table, etc., but again, French and German films treat nudity in a casual way, if the plot requires someone to be taking a shower or having sex, they film in a naturalistic way, neither avoiding or emphasising their nakedness.
As for the violence and amorality, again there are far more disturbing films, such as the Saw series.
As a film, it is not bad, but does not stick in the mind, and is not one ever to have troubled BAFTA or the Academy come prize-giving. Perhaps they should have gone all out to upset the Daily Fail, and made a stronger film!

There's three bits in the film which really stand out and hint that its a better film than it first appears. Two are when the men get killed (Bluey and Marcus). All pretense basically drops. They whimper and they beg and they go down pathetically. One, in particular, drops the accent he's been affecting all the way through the film.

The third is Jaime Winstone's character's fate. Its really quite chilling.

FWIW, I think you're being harsh on the 'nicer' bloke - he spends the entire film being pushed around by the others. I don't think its because its the risk of 'losing face', he's the outsider of the group (younger brother of one of the others). At most opportunities, he tries to do the right thing and is just shouted down. It doesn't end well for him either.

But I agree, its a better film than most would give it credit for.

Actually, thinking about it - when the 'nicer' bloke does take charge and does try to force everyone to do the right thing, it gets misconstrued and ... an unconventional piece of yachting equipment is used in an unconventional manner.

Goddamn

A great article, I may have a look having read this.

This article is fairly damning of the male gender and the author sounds like a thoroughly indoctrinated feminist. The film rests on the assumption that these are the onlys facets of male behaviour that would occour in this most hypothetical of situations and the author has ran with it inciting the patriarchy to blame for everything. . Even when the women turn on eact other the author lays the blame at the feet of the patriarchy which is in itself quite insulting to women as it assumes everything women do or say is driven by men, are they not capable of falling out with each other on their own merits? The claim that male nudity is what caused so much offence is also highly speculative on the part of the author. Are we encouraged to see naked women in society? When I log on to facebook I see female friends posting pictures of semi naked men from the 'female wank bank', what would the reaction be if men posted the equivalent I wonder?

After all the detracting of the male of the species the author does raise more interesting questions on society and culture in general and how such things can become trivialised or even thought of in the first place.

To call Donkey Punch a feminist movie is an insult to feminism. It is, rather, an exploitation flick that lazily trades on stereotyped views of *both* genders.

That is an insult to donkeys everywhere.

Good article, and I certainly think you may have hit upon the filmmakers' intentions, certainly. Not so sure that the finished product reflected that as well as it could, however. It's been a while since I've seen it but I seem to remember being bothered that the two women fighting to survive weren't particularly likeable.

You convinced me to watch it with the first 2 paragraphs

I enjoyed everything you've just mentioned except The Phantom Menace, haha. Admittedly, not all of them for the right reasons. Especially not Crossroads.

I actually liked Donkey Punch. I saw it a few years ago on NetFlix, and I wasn't expecting what happened to happen. It's a must see in my book if anyone hasn't seen it.

Good article, which I almost didn't bother with because yet again DoG played the 'Everyone else hated it but we're praising it' card. Stick it back in the deck for goodness sake. Donkey Punch got a four star review in the most successful and arguably most popular film magazine in the UK. Quality has never accounted for taste; so mid tier genre films that make little money are few and far between are worth talking about outside of such pages. David Fincher was totally right in thinking no one would ever green light Seven or a Fight Club again.

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