Cold feet are the least of a bride's worries after she is bitten by a bug in this beautifully shot but unevenly told horror film.
Bite (Fantasia Review)
I am by no means a horror movie junkie. That said, having hit my stride as a teen in the ’80s, the era that ushered in the multiplex boom, VHS rentals, and more cable channels than anyone could possibly need (okay, we needed them all), I watched a fair share of horror movies as a kid. This included the Holy Slasher Trinity (Michael, Jason, and Freddy) on VHS, Universal and Hammer films on UHF, and every B-movie on every channel I could get my hands on, long before the MST3K guys came along. Fortunately, there were more than enough movies around that I could avoid watching those with bugs at their core. I hate bugs. It’s a thing with me. From my youth to yesterday, I deftly avoided watching bug horror. Today, the streak is over thanks to Chad Archibald’s Bite.
Casey (Elma Begovic) is a pretty 20-something bride-to-be who, not too long before her nuptials to Jared (Jordan Gray), takes a bachelorette party trip to Costa Rica with her two best friends Jill and Kirsten (Annette Wozniak and Denise Yuen, respectively). While there, three major things occur: she reveals she’s not too sure she’s ready for marriage (for several reasons), she makes some poor decisions after partying too hard, and she gets bitten by a bug while swimming.
Upon returning home, Casey decides she is going to postpone the wedding. As she musters up the courage to have that talk with Jared, she takes ill, and that illness has some serious symptoms, including a heightened sense of hearing, a festering lesion on her leg, and an inability to keep down any food. As the days pass, Casey’s physical condition worsens, and her psychological condition suffers as a result. Eventually, she wonders exactly what it was that bit her and what that bite still has in store.
The good news (at least for me) is that, while Bite has a plot driven by bugginess, there is very little about it that’s buggy. The better news is that, overall, this is a pretty good film.
I was concerned at first, as the opening minutes of Bite give the impression it is a “found footage” horror film, a tired sub-genre on its last legs. Jill films the better part of the Costa Rica trip for posterity, and their time at the resort is only ever presented through her lens, but once the girls get home, that video is used for reference or flashback purposes only. Amen to that.
Abandoning the homemade footage and moving to a traditional presentation also allows the viewer to be mesmerized by Jeff Maher’s gorgeous cinematography. Horror is a genre that trades in shadows, and getting the right look is key to setting the proper mood. From the beginning of Casey’s demise, there’s a wonderful haze that looms like a pall over the film. As her condition worsens, Maher shifts his grey/blue/green hues to mostly gold. It’s an unsettling juxtaposition between the warm color scheme and the cold events.
The film also relies on the strength of Begovic, who makes her big-screen debut here. Her performance is terrific. Casey is a character dealing with stressors at multiple levels: a mystery illness, an engagement in doubt, and a suffocating future mother-in-law (who also happens to be her landlord) to name a few. Then there is the added complication of going through a horrific physical transformation as a result of that bite. Begovic manages it all wonderfully, but it’s the physical aspects of her performance that show off her talents the most. It’s something that could easily be overplayed, but her physicality is wonderfully subtle. (What’s most noticeable is how well Begovic performs when she’s alone; she has great skill at conveying thought and emotion through simple but effective facial and body movements.)
Other than the landlord-in-law (Lawrene Denkers) being far too much the caricature, the first half of the film is truly suspenseful stuff. The set-up works, Casey’s multi-layered emotional decline is gripping, and her early physical transformation is perfectly measured. I had memories of Honeymoon and Spring while watching the first half of Bite.
That second half, though, is rough. While Maher and Begovic’s respective work shines, the screenplay unravels at a dizzying pace. Dialogue is stilted, small scenes are either unnecessary or inexplicable, and character behavior goes from straining credulity to shattering that credulity completely. Director Archibald, who co-wrote the film with Jayme Laforest, abandons everything that made the first half work so well, spending the second half making plenty of amateur horror movie mistakes. It dampens the overall film, like when a clever little twist in the second half gets lost in all the madness and gore.
Bite might suffer from a shaky second half, but don’t hold that against the entire film. This is a very good horror movie with enough overall strength—both in the first half as a whole and in Maher and Begovic’s contributions to the second half—to make it very much worth seeking out.
Bite makes its World Premiere on July 29th at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival.