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Dick in a Box – The Special

Updated: Jul 16, 2023

(This article was originally published on Ginger Nuts of Horror in November 2020)

The Fly 2 (1989) - especially when compared to its superlative predecessor - is a mediocre film except for one standout moment. In the final act of the movie, the main antagonist - businessman Anton Bartok (gleefully played by Lee Richardson) - has fallen foul of a teleporter accident, emerging from the pod as something else entirely.

In the closing scenes we Bartok slowly and painfully drag his new monstrous bloated maggot-like form across the sawdust floor of his pit, a single eye staring helplessly on. Does some fragment of human consciousness exist in there? Is he aware of his awful, horrifying predicament? Despite his villainy, it seems almost too harsh a punishment – to think of Bartok’s once brilliant and now fractured mind unable to do anything else but be forced to contemplate his cruel lifelong fate.

I think it was being introduced to Cronenberg in the late eighties through the cult BBC2 movie series Moviedrome that got me into Body Horror. I’d be watching them late at night in my bedroom on my portable colour TV, my face almost pressed to the screen – not in homage to Videodrome, but as a result of my headphone lead not being quite long enough to support secretive nocturnal viewings.

It’s a genre that stuck with me, and if I’m ever asked to think of my favourite moments in horror, my mind will invariably leap to The Fly, or the ending of The Fly 2, or to the frenzied black and white metallic chaos of Tetsuo and its sequel. (And, as a moment of non-horror, the moment in the otherwise laughable Superman 3 where Vera (Annie Ross) is captured by the computer, screaming for mercy as she’s painfully transformed into a cyborg. It might sound daft, but I imagine this scene holds similar terrifying memories for those subjected to it at a tender age.

Which, in a roundabout way, leads us to The Special (2020). Directed by B. Harrison Smith and based on the novella of the same name by James Newman and Mark Steensland, it’s an independent horror film that is doing the festival circuit and is now doing the rounds on various Video on Demand services. The poster intrigued me, selling it as “Fatal Attraction meets The Blob” in that lurid pink and purple popularised by Nicolas Cage Horror films (namely Color Out of Space and Mandy).

The poster is a little too on the nose for me, giving away a little bit more of the film than I wish I’d known in advance, but it could be argued it sold me on it.

Davy Raphaely plays Jerry, husband to Lisa (Sarah French). Jerry suspects that Lisa is having an affair and discloses his worries to friend and work colleague Mike (Dave Sheridan). Dave has the ideal solution to Davy’s woes – a visit to a brothel in a secretive location to have sex in revenge.

But not just with any woman, oh no. Jerry is to demand the titular “The Special”.

The location of Madame Zhora’s brothel in question is kept hidden from Jerry, driven there with a bag over his head. Upon arriving, Jerry’s initial awkwardness reticence dwindles when he sees the women available. Mike pulls him away and introduces him to Madame Zhora, asking her to give Jerry “The Special”.

Jerry is taken to a small bedroom, the door locked behind him. To his confusion, there’s nobody else here. Other than some sparse furnishings, the only item of interest in the room is a sealed box with a single hole, with a simple instruction written upon it.

“Stick it in here.”

Barely pausing for breath or to check the edges of the hole for splinters, Jerry just does that.

And whatever is inside that wooden box rocks Jerry’s tiny world. Passing out with the sheer ferocity of the resultant orgasm, he awakes in Mike’s car, already half-way home.

What unfolds is a tale of addiction, as an obsessed Jerry becomes compelled to seek the same experience again, a sensation he’s even willing to murder for. His work, health, friendships, and marriage suffer as he becomes singularly fixated on both protecting and screwing whatever lurks within that tiny wooden frame.

Shot around Pennsylvania, The Special is a film that does a lot with a small budget, with some frankly beautiful aerial drone photography of the streets and roads. The locations all feel suitably grubby, and there’s a thin membranous film of sleaze to every shot. I was reminded of the work of Frank Henenlotter on more than one occasion, particularly with his work on Brain Damage and the Basket Case series – all films sharing a DNA that make you feel like having a particularly thorough scrub down and shower afterwards.

Both direction and performances are perfectly adequate, and the story moves quickly along to an invariably grim conclusion. Films about addiction rarely end well, and The Special is no exception. My wife and I viewed the film together and both had our suspicions about how it was going to end – we were both right, but neither of us were disappointed.

An excellent film can be ruined by a bad ending (I’m looking at you, Kill List), or an average film uplifted and rescued by a good one.

The Special is a good film with an amazing ending. It’s now been two days since I’ve watched it, and I’ve thought about the ending multiple times. Like the fate of Anton Bartok, it’s one that will stick with me long after my memories of the finer details of the film have subsided and faded.

The Special is not without its faults, and I’ll address my primary one here. Addiction is a common trope in horror, and for good reason. There’s a structure to it which we can all anticipate, and there’s an entertainment to watching a character deteriorate and change – be that physically, mentally, or both. The aforementioned Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage (1988) is a good example, with a seemingly normal Joe becoming obsessed with the reality-warping psychedelia that the small turd-like creature attached to his brainstem can provide. Joe Begos’s excellent Bliss (2019) is another, with the lead Dezzy becoming addicted to a powerful hallucinogen to overcome a creative block.

In the case of both movies, we as an audience experience the effects of the drugs in question. We experience the euphoria and sensory shifts and the shift and flux of reality and can therefore see the appeal. This lets us sympathise with the leads to a certain extent, because whatever they’re doing looks like some damn good shit.

In The Special, despite Jerry’s first explosive knock-out cum-stained-trousers experience, it never seems that incredible. In fact, rather soon in the film than I’d expected, it almost becomes a little mundane. Jerry goes to ridiculous lengths to satisfy his urges, and both the direction and his performance are never quite good enough to convince me that those lengths are worth it.

But - Fuck man, that ending.

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