EXPECTATIONS: In his review of the low-budget straight-to-VOD body-horror film Contracted, Los Angeles Times critic Martin Tsai says it's "interesting in light of the somewhat similar Blue Is the Warmest Color." Being a fan of Blue, body horror and VOD distribution, I'm hoping Contracted will deliver on the promise of its effective poster.
REALITY: As a general rule, any film that begins with a guy fucking a corpse and bottling the discharge isn't going to end well for anyone - not the characters and certainly not the viewer. That's true of Contracted, and I don't know what the hell Martin Tsai is thinking. Contracted and Blue Is the Warmest Color both feature lesbians as their protagonists, and that's where the similarities end. The dialogue is bad, the acting is worse and the film smash-cuts to its end credits right when it gets interesting.
Are you sure this is a good idea? You don't look well at all.
Like all films without a better way to introduce its characters, Contracted begins at a party, where Sam (Najarra Townsend) greets people she's known for a long time by their first names so the audience won't forget who's who. She leaves a melancholy voicemail for her girlfriend, Nikki (Katie Stegeman), in which writer/director Eric England establishes they're having some kind of relationship trouble. A recovering addict of some kind, she runs into her dealer, Zain (Charley Koontz). And she brushes off Riley (Matt Mercer), the creepy nice-guy hanger-on who won't take "no, I'm a lesbian" for an answer. Of course, all this, as well as her testy relationship with her mother (Caroline Williams), will figure into the final act because, hey, Screenwriting 101, bro.
Anywho, in one of the film's only artistic flourishes that work, she meets the menacing B.J. (Simon Barrett) in the kitchen and he's kept out of focus, emphasizing his alien weirdness. What happens next, and how it's treated by the characters in the film as well as other critics (I'm looking at you, Tsai), will make you reevaluate everything you thought you knew about the definition of rape. As Tsai describes it, "Much like the heroine in that NC-17-rated French lesbian sex spectacle, Samantha switches teams and takes up with [B.J.] to alleviate her domestic ennui." He goes on to refer to it as an "infidelity." Yes, they have sex. Sam herself describes it as a hookup. Other characters do as well.
I'm fine.But it's rape, and it's there. Late in the film, Zain - who's supposed to be the comic relief, I think - makes a reference to selling B.J. roofies. Even during the "sex" scene, we hear Sam pleading with him: "We should stop. I'm serious. Please. Please." It's well-established that she's a lesbian. And there's a difference between Sam's team-switching, a side effect of rohypnol intoxication, and that of Blue's protagonist, who does so out of social pressure, confusion and loneliness. It's a puzzling comparison, but it's more puzzling that Contracted blends such antiquated ideas about sexual assault and homosexuality with Cronenbergian body horror while no one had the good sense to ask England what the fuck he was thinking in 2013.
That's not the worst of it. After her rape, Sam comes home with something extra, an STD that will cause her hair, teeth and nails to fall out, blood and maggots to pour forth from her vagina, and a handful of other horrible things. Armed with that knowledge, if you can't deduce exactly what this STD is, I refuse to spoil it. But because the small-ish budget was spent on effects instead of actors, the symptoms of this STD are impressively rendered, if you like being grossed out. That's the only draw, besides some inspired digital cinematography.
Late in the film, after Sam's lips have gone blue, all of her veins are showing and skin's peeling from her face - once Sam fully realizes her fate - Contracted has the vague odor of one good idea. See, Riley takes "creepy nice guy" to the next level, nurturing a crush on his lesbian friend while refusing to sincerely admit they have no romantic future. He half-heartedly attempts to blackmail her into ... a relationship? And even as Sam is falling apart, he accepts her offer of sex all too eagerly, allowing her to pass the STD to the guy who comes closest to deserving it. "God, you're wet," he moans as he enters her maggot-infested vagina. I came this close to vomiting ... and vomiting a second time as I wrote that sentence.
I don't know if that's a good message, but it's kind of interesting, I guess - certainly more so than the rest of the movie, in which England punishes a lesbian for being raped in the most horrible ways imaginable. Worse, the STD is the only means by which he gives his character agency. And there's something all too misogynistic in the way he returns to the vagina, again and again, for his wellspring of horror. Yes, horror as a genre has frequently dealt with the ways in which men fear everything between the vulva and the stomach. If you, aspiring horror filmmaker, are planning to tread this well-tread ground, do something interesting - like Teeth. Otherwise, find something else. And quit punishing your female protagonists for being women.
MINORITY REPORT: There is nothing more terrifying to the heterosexual male human than the female humans he purports to want to have sex with. You put your penis in a vagina and you may as well be investigating an alien hell planet. What even goes on in there? If only there was some way we could find out? Someone we could ask maybe? - Ian "Professor Clumsy" Maddison
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