The “body horror” strand of horror film is tricky to execute for the simple reason that, the grosser it gets, the duller it usually becomes. Once we know why a character’s body is turning on itself, audiences are often left with little else but a muck of special effects. David Cronenberg is a master of this grossest of all cinematic subgenres because he understands emotional escalation, and so the elaborate biological degenerations that reliably drive this kind of film are never, for him, without metaphorical weight.
Watching Bite, one can tell that director Chad Archibald has closely studied Cronenberg’s films. The Fly is the chief point of reference, as Archibald constrains most of his narrative to one central setting, an apartment building, limiting the cast of characters to less than a half dozen. As in The Fly, these structural efficiencies foster a subtle sense of entrapment and stagnancy. Archibald also shapes his mutation story around an emotional metaphor. Casey (Elma Begovic) feels guilty about her cold feet over her looming wedding to a well-off mama’s boy, and misbehaves while in Costa Rica for her bachelorette party. This guilt parallels her physical alteration upon her return home, as she reacts to a bite she sustained from an unseen something lurking in a watering hole somewhere off an island’s beaten path.
It doesn’t land the transition over from claustrophobic character study into full-blown monster movie.
Casey’s failure to see what bit her pays evocative dividends throughout Bite’s first half, as we have no idea what she’s turning into. We assume probably a fish, a bug, or some previously unseen combination of the two, and one of those assumptions proves correct, but we don’t quite know, and this uncertainty reflects that unresolved nagging feeling one has when inspecting a strange rash or bump on their own body. It’s probably nothing, but what if it isn’t? This fear is the very thematic essence of body horror.
Bite has its share of strange, disturbing flourishes—the sorts of details one associates with a nightmare. Casey loses the ability to eat food (another nod to The Fly) and frequently vomits a brackish fluid. We’re so appallingly curious about the nature of her transformation that we parse the vomit for monstrous textures, and eventually they arrive when Casey coughs up translucent eggs that resemble hard, giant, glisteningly slimy roe. The sight of these eggs, which are soon undulating all over Casey’s apartment, might soften the stomach of even the staunchest horror aficionado.
But Archibald doesn’t quite land Bite’s transition over from claustrophobic character study into full-blown monster movie. Unlike, say, Jeff Goldblum, Begovic isn’t a big enough presence to register underneath the ludicrous makeup she’s inevitably required to wear, and so her character’s emotional agency is lost well before the ending, draining the film of stature. Ultimately, Bite is a superficial gross-out, but Archibald occasionally hits body-image pressure points with crude panache.