Man Bites Dog turns serial murder into mock-documentary entertainment

Man Bites Dog turns serial murder into mock-documentary entertainment

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Texas Chainsaw 3-D has us thinking about “real horror” movies.

Man Bites Dog (1992)
The title of the nasty faux-documentary Man Bites Dog refers to a common journalistic credo: “Dog Bites Man” isn’t much of a headline, because it happens all the time; “Man Bites Dog,” on the other hand, is a tabloid classic. Shot in black and white to stark vérité effect, Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoît Poelvoorde’s smart provocation anticipates the reality-show convention of following a preening narcissist misbehaving in front of a camera crew for the presumed edification of an unseen audience. Only here, the misbehavior is not of the innocuous, pooping-on-the-staircase variety, but the exploits of a serial murderer. With chilling matter-of-factness, the film makes the viewer complicit in heinous atrocities—or, at least, a willing party to them, as they’re committed by a man who winks and nudges at the camera as if it were a good buddy. 

Using their real names, “Rémy,” “André”, and a rotating cast of soundmen—they’re the Spinal Tap drummers of this scenario—follow “Ben,” their happy-go-lucky killer, as he goes about his business, first by strangling a woman with piano wire and later explaining, in impressive detail, how much ballast is required to make sure the dead bodies stay at the bottom of the reservoir. One of the inherent deceptions of documentary filmmaking is how the camera itself affects behavior, but Man Bites Dog slyly turns the tables on that front: Ben may feel egged-on by the camera, but the real change in behavior comes from the filmmakers, who find themselves so drawn in by their subject that they become unwitting participants in his crimes. It’s a sick, deeply funny riff on the sort of manufactured “reality” we rarely take time to question. 

Availability: Criterion released a features-packed DVD version in 2002 and Hulu Plus subscribers can watch it for free as part of its Criterion vertical. 

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