Walking, Talking, Living Doll – The Bitch Is Back And Dutch Underground Cinema

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A vengeful sex doll stars in the most entertaining and impressive short horror film you’ll ever see.

The best horror film of 1995 wasn’t a major Hollywood movie or a low budget independent feature. In fact, it wasn’t a feature film at all. The Bitch is Back was a fifteen-minute long spoof from Holland that wipes the floor with many of the films it sends up.

I came across the film on a trip to Amsterdam, where it was one of several films handed to me by filmmakers who were in some way connected to the Netherlands Film and Television Academy, and their graduation evening. It was also one of the few to survive the trip back through British customs, where arthouse cinema counted for nothing if it transgressed the moral rules in force during the mid-1990s. My copy of Ian Kerkhof‘s widely praised graduation film The Return of the Dead Man, his earlier award-winning feature The Mozart Bird and, yes, a handful of 1970s porno chic VHS ensured that I spent a day in a customs cell while my house was worked over in search of more of the same.

But that’s a story for another day, perhaps. In any case, The Bitch is Back as deemed suitable for entry into the UK, and so I was allowed to keep the tape. Later, I would arrange for the film to play as supporting feature to horror films being released by the Screen Edge label that played to almost empty late-night houses at the Manchester Odeon, part of the first Kino Film Festival. Pearls before swine, it seemed, given the low turnouts.

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Written and directed by Tjebbo Penning, The Bitch is Back is a delicious pastiche of  slasher flicks and the Child’s Play type of  ‘doll comes to life and terrorises people’ movies. It opens with a man (Marcel Faber) seen in post-coital relaxation, lying next to his partner. Nothing so odd there, other than the fact that his partner is an inflatable woman. Filled with apparent disgust for this rubbery girlfriend, our hero kicks it disdainfully across the room and heads for the shower. But while he washes, a figure enters the bathroom and approaches the shower. Suddenly, the door flies open and he is surprised (to say the least) to see the blow-up doll, a pair of scissors clutched in its fingerless hand. And the shock continues when the doll, with a triumphant cry of “heeere’s Leanna!” plunges the scissors into his arm!

So begins a pacey, punchy battle between the man and his doll. Plenty of blood is spilled in the encounter; this film certainly doesn’t skimp on the violence, with the victim having his face smashed against walls and tables, being tied up and tortured, and beaten bloody throughout. But the film isn’t simply wall-to-wall violence. Despite the short running time, it builds up a strong level of tension, and is a great deal more genuinely scary than many a feature-length horror movie.

The idea of a vengeance-crazed sex doll is pretty ludicrous, of course, and it’s to Penning’s credit that the concept works at all, let alone as well as it actually does. All the humour in this film is entirely intentional. And most of it stems from the doll’s dialogue. In one of the wittiest moves I’ve seen in a film for a long time, Penning lifts all the dialogue from other movies. From “Look at me, ma! Top of the world!” to “the horror…the horror”, much of the fun in this film comes from trying to place the quotes with the original film.

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With only a slightly weak ending to spoil things, The Bitch is Back comes highly recommended. Surprisingly for such a low budget short film, it was shot on 35mm rather than video, and looks as slick and professional as any mainstream Hollywood movie. So how was the film made? Producer Petra Goedings explained:

The Bitch is Back was made with our own money. A minimal budget, a group of sponsors and an enthusiastic crew formed the basis of an eight-day shoot in March 1995. The screenplay was written with minimal means for production in mind: one actor, one dummy, one interior location and no complicated shots or expensive special effects. This kept the shooting ratio low and as a result the costs were easily controlled.”

Still, shooting on 35mm film must have cost a fortune? The sheer cost of the film alone, let alone printing and editing?

“The 35mm was given to us by various production companies. After the shoot this material was developed but not printed. It was scanned to and edited on betacam video, which saved us a lot of money. Finally, the negative was cut with the edit decision list from the betacam. The screening of the answerprint was the first time any of us saw the material on the big screen.”

The great thing about the film, of course, is the wonderful dialogue. As Petra points out, these were included not only in homage to the films they are lifted from, but in reference to the cliches of the horror genre.

“Everything stops – music, sound and action – for the hero to say his slightly comical one-liner. In this film, these one-liners are quotes. In the USA there are so-called film buffs who know most of these film quotes by heart. It’s all part of a film climate that doesn’t exist in Holland. We hope it bears witness to our love for the cinema.”

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Spoof or not, the film genuinely works in horror movie terms. It builds atmosphere and delivers shocks. This isn’t as easy as it sounds (look at all the ‘real’ horror movies that fail to manage that), but the makers of this film knew exactly what it took.

“In horror films, the activity of the unaware victims are shown without the usual compressing of real time. This builds tension because it is unusual and makes you expect the monster around every corner. In this film we sort of play with this style-element in the kitchen scene at the end. An unimportant activity like drinking a glass of milk can be suspenseful when it is shown in real time.”

The film emerged at a time when the Dutch film industry was pretty exciting – not a nation known for its cinema, the Netherlands was nevertheless making some impressive and transgressive cinema at the time, from Kerkhof’s work to Victor Nieuwenhuijs and Maartje Seyferth’s Venus in Furs and Jacek Lenartowicz’s short film tribute to 1970s arty erotica Femme (both also films that survived that unfortunate clash with customs), it seemed as though there was a new underground developing in the country. It didn’t, unfortunately, last, not least because the rest of the world seemed weirdly indifferent to this new scene that was developing – distribution outside the Netherlands for most of these films was spotty, to say the least. Kerkhof would go on to make a few more pioneering features, including the magnificent rave culture drama Wasted, before heading back to his native South Africa and reinventing himself as Aryan Kaganof; Nieuwenhuijs and Seyferth have made a few more features, including the impressively weird Meat in 2010; Tjebbo Penning and Petra Goedings have had decent careers, the former mostly in TV, the latter as a producer of numerous films. None of their subsequent work has had quite the subversive sense of fun that was found in The Bitch is Back.

You can watch the whole film here.