Bite (2022)

Bite had its world première at FrightFest 2022

“It spins us all, and around and around we go,” says head of the house Gerald (Stuart Sessions), some way into James Owen’s feature debut Bite, as he proffers his wisdoms – to a captive audience – on the karmic wheel of Eastern religion. “Fight it, run from it, hide. It doesn’t matter. It’s inevitable. You cannot hide from fate. You were always coming here. Every choice you have ever made had brought you to this moment.” 

Gerald might as well be describing the structure of Bite (co-written by Owen and Tom Critch), where, in a dog-eat-dog world ruled by wild coincidences and the improbable, almost metaphysical intersections of different people’s lives, what goes around very much comes around. The very opening scene, in which sweet old Beryl (Annabelle Lanyon) gives the much younger Nina (Shian Denovan) shelter from the pouring rain and dark night in her car, and even offers her a bed for the night in her empty-nest home, will then be recontextualised with a flashback revealing where Nina has come from, and how exactly she came to be there. Nina is indeed a fugitive, on the run from a gang of vicious drug dealers and dogfight operators whom she and her addict girlfriend Yaz (Nansi Nsue) just tried to to rob. Now dumped by Yaz for daring to suggest that they try to go straight, and pursued by the gang leader Roman (Jack Loy) who expressly wants to feed the pair of them to his fighting hounds, Nina imagines that she has found a brief suburban safehaven with Beryl – except that, like the half-heartedly larcenous Marion Crane from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Nina has walked into a deranged domestic situation with its own horrific backstory. 

The family of which Nina now finds herself an unwilling part is akin to the clan from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) or Steven Sheil’s Mum & Dad (2008). They too are, at least in a way, victims of their heritage and environment, all under the brutal thumb of domineering father Gerald (much as he was made who he is by his own father), but they have long since passed beyond the pale, and it is clear that, no matter how much they try to justify their acquired tastes to themselves, their criminality and complicity must eventually collide with some kind of comeuppance. The house, with its locked doors, cages and other forms of restraint, is a prison-house of patriarchy – a closed system and social microcosm from which neither captors nor captives seem able to escape. Yet if every character here is equally compromised by the circumstances that fate has apportioned them, the two lovers at its centre are the only ones trying to change. “I was a bitch,” Nina tells Yaz, in a film where everyone refers disparagingly to the young women as bitches, reducing them to caninity. Yet note the past tense of ‘was’, as Nina strives to put her more animalistic impulses behind her. For Nina longs to break free of the endless cycle – of thievery and deception, and of feeding Yaz’s habit – in which she has become caught. Meanwhile the conflict between Yaz’s constant cravings for drugs and her love for Nina is figured as an ongoing hallucinatory dialogue between herself and her alter ego, showing her at war with her own worse nature.

So even as Bite preoccupies itself not just with dogs trained to attack and bite other dogs, but with humans indoctrinated into eating other humans, its cannibalism comes with a karmic flavour. For here vegetarians find their special place in the food chain, thieves must pay a price for their rapine, addicts get quite literally hooked, killers meet violent deaths – and the good-natured are eventually treated in kind. For in the end, every dog has its day – but a few prefer to lick rather than bite the hand that feeds. Meanwhile, expect a lot of blood and gore on the menu, as Owen’s surgical spin on dysfunctional, destructive relationships demands we take a butchers. 

strap: James Owen’s feature debut finds caninity, cannibalism and karma in a deeply dysfunctional family – and in a dog-eat-dog world

© Anton Bitel