Marla boasts a fascinating concept. Our title heroine is a young woman scraping by on tips who wants to get an IUD and is given an opportunity to have a free one installed on the sly from an old friend of her brother’s. Little does she know, however, that there’s no such thing as a free IUD, and soon the implanted device bears some very Teeth-esque consequences. That’s neat. Whether played as a sequence of bloody gags or as a serious meditation on the anxieties of both medicine and sexuality there’s plenty to dig into. Close your eyes. Imagine all the possibilities for a second. Pretty cool, right?
Great. Now, don’t watch Marla.
Director: Lisa van Dam-Bates
Released: November 5, 2019 (VOD, DVD)
I spent most of Marla wondering if the entire cast spent their off-camera time chugging bottles of NyQuil. It’s uncanny how just about every actor offers an identically sleeping-gas sedate performance. “You got groceries” and “Oh my god, your boyfriend’s bloody dead body is lying right beneath you” are delivered with the same far-off monotone, straining only slightly to reach the general idea of emotions like unease, grief, or horror. One or two supporting actors mumbling through their lines in a low-budget horror flick is expected, sure, but everyone? It’s oddly endearing, while also very boring.
At the first act’s end, Marla (writer/director Lisa van Dam-Bates) straddles her boyfriend for the first time since having the IUD implanted, and the device explodes her lover’s bottom half. You’d imagine in this case Marla would jump off of him, scream in terror, and look over her bloodied self and the gruesome tableau on the bed in revulsion. Not in this case. Marla just continues to straddle him. He starts to gag, and she asks him what’s wrong. He coughs blood in her face, and she touches his cheek. He outright dies, and she says his name a few times while still mounted to the dude--and then she leans down to kiss his lips for the last time as if he died of some terminal disease rather than a junk-gnoshing IUD. I don’t get it. Did van Dam-Bates not want to do another angle? Did she just not feel like standing? Marla’s friend then enters the bedroom and also doesn’t scream, giving the impression that this is basically what she expected to walk in on. This is a horror film where no one knows how to feel horrified.
Our big bad guy, Doc (Jason Stange) apparently is very pushy about these IUDs, trying to get every woman who comes into his office to take one. Of course these contraceptives are actually some deadly invention of his own, built for the express purpose of…
I have no idea. Marla uses its rich premise to make no statements, explore no themes, not even bothering to give its main villain a motivation. He’s clearly trying to make moves on Marla, but he isn’t immune to the device (as we see for ourselves), so it doesn’t do him any good. Does he just hate sex? Is he trying to take down the contraceptive industry? Does he like bloodplay that much? I don’t know. Maybe. You can fill in the blank yourself.
Not that it matters. The plot is nothing but a collection of weird and unbelievable choices only connected by the fact that they happen in the same movie. After her boyfriend dies, Marla doesn’t tell the police anything--for some reason. Our detective finds the bloody clothes of a rapist who met the business end of Marla’s IUD in the woods and just jots a note down before moving along. Marla is supposed to distract Doc while her friend searches through his files for clues, and the second Doc says he needs to leave the kitchen, she just lets him go. Nothing. Matters.
It doesn’t even get violence right. The few times Marla does make a man pop, the gush of blood is so violent and abrupt that it plays way more to giggles than gasps. The climax is kind of neat and has one cool shot, but it’s very much not worth the hour-and-a-half of confusion, frustration, and boredom that comes with it.
If you’re looking for some fresh feminist horror from this year, check out Darlin’ instead. You’ll be glad you did.