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Entries in August Underground [2001] (1)

Wednesday
Dec302009

August Underground (2001)

Down with the Sickness

I met Fred Vogel at last month’s HorrorHound convention in Cincinnati. I’d recently heard a great interview with him on Deadpit Radio, where he spoke at length about horror films and his production company, Toe Tag Pictures; it was cool to meet him, even though I’d never seen any of the August Underground pictures for which he is perhaps best known. Fred was very nice and—as in the interview—well spoken, passionate, and knowledgeable. I came away happy to have plopped down some cash for the trilogy, sight-unseen, knowing that I was supporting the efforts of a cool human being.

Today, I finally watched the first film, titled, simply, August Underground. Frankly, it’s the best independent film I’ve ever seen, and a wonderful example of what someone with enough imagination and talent can produce, even with the sparest of budgets. The problem is, I don’t know who the hell I can recommend it to.

You see, August Underground is a mock snuff film. Wholly devoid of plot and redeeming social value, it is the ultimate exercise in both style and tolerance. The film takes place in Pittsburgh, and centers on two unnamed guys who pass the time by kidnapping and torturing people. If this sounds like a Saw or Hostel knock-off, keep in mind that this film was released in 2001, and it is also shot as cinema verite: both the actors and the gore effects are so convincing that the only way to make it through the film with a clear conscience is to marvel at the performances and the artistry. This is sick stuff.

The conceit of the film is that it is a “found” VHS tape, I guess in the vain of The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. But Vogel’s commitment to the material is so absolute that the movie will cut from a woman bound and bleeding in a basement to a rave party at a local club to a pasture in which a cow gives birth. The image jumps and warps just as would a tape that had been recorded over multiple times, which means there are scenes that stop in the middle and open onto others that are thematic opposites. It’s style is the total absence of style.

Which is not to say that the movie is a pointless exercise in violence. On top of the acting and makeup effects, August Underground is a study in both set design and camerawork as storytelling devices. The assailants’ basement lair is a hellhole of arrested development, littered with cutouts from adult magazines and a bathtub filled with decomposing bodies; the cameraman (Allen Peters) giggles and lingers on exposed privates, taunting his friend (Fred Vogel) with ideas for how to further degrade and terrify the victims. While these shots seem random and repetitive, they begin to tell us something about the person taking them, peeling back the layers of psychosis but not providing any answers.

This subject matter has been tackled before, in films as far ranging as A Clockwork Orange and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to American Psycho. But August Underground pushes the ideas, almost to their extremes (I say “almost” because, much like David Fincher’s Se7en, we see mostly the aftermath of the violence; there is a good measure of assault, sure, but Vogel is surprisingly conservative in how much he actually shows). In the other films I mentioned, the audience understands that they’re just watching movies, stories with a first, second, and third act; and that, likely, the killer be punished, or at least disposed of until the sequel. August Underground is free to just be a crazy tape, and that makes the experience of watching the movie totally unpredictable.

Going into the movie, I expected the worst. Vogel and his films are considered by some to be the progenitors of the “torture porn” trend, and I had no interest in watching people get cut up for two hours (the first film is mercifully short, at 70 minutes). But having seen the movie for myself, I can say that it’s not a cheap splatterfest.

August Underground is a beautiful, gruesome, dark piece of art that will probably turn a lot of people off within the first two minutes. But for any aspiring filmmakers reading this, it is a must-see. There is no longer an excuse for amateurish acting, shoddy special effects, or stories that fail to elicit emotion; with very little money, Fred Vogel created a serial killing duo, crawled inside their twisted heads, and produced a video diary that will make the most jaded moviegoer squirm. I don’t know what it says about me that I really enjoyed this movie, but I take some solace in knowing that it’ll be a good long while before I check out the sequels.

Note: I typically post these reviews with a still from the movie at hand. There are literally no good, representative images that I can put up in good conscience. So here’s a happy picture of Fred and me; it’s the only happy picture associated with August Underground.