This hand pours beer down a sewer grate. We’re seeing what he sees through the eye of a camcorder, the image third generation, unwatchable. Pixels infest the lens. He laughs at the falling liquid before getting chided by an off-screen voice for wasting it. The camera pans upward. This is a buggy night on some rural farm. A large young man is approaching. When he passes the camera, us, he squeaks, “I’ve got something to show you. You’re gonna love this…” We float with ugly shake through the house. The man, playing the master of ceremonies, leads us through a door by the kitchen, down a rickety flight of stairs, into the basement. He switches on the overhead light bulb. We suddenly see what has, for hours, perhaps days, been hidden inside this tissue of darkness in the middle of nowhere.
Fred Vogel’s August Underground was produced in 2001 but not officially released on DVD until 2005. It remains a secret to this day, barely known, whispered about and passed between cautious friends. If people do end up watching it, they watch it on a dare. It never appears in any retrospective Best Of genre film lists. Vogel is never mentioned with the other “extreme” horror directors that achieved recent fame, like Eli Roth, Alexandre Aja, Rob Zombie, etc. There’s no copy at Best Buy if you want to get it the easy way because August is only available via mail order from Vogel’s production company, ToeTag Pictures. The Internet is where the movie exists at first, as a rumor. When it arrived in the mail, I thought it would be packaged in a crumpled paper bag, like the cheeky cover art of Blue Underground’s release of Roberta Findlay’s Snuff.
I couldn’t really function months after I watched it. Food was not appetizing. Everything around me was jaundiced. I walked slowly to and from different locations, different cities, vulnerable, windless, as if I had just experienced a blowback. Creaks and house sounds amplified. The most I can say about this period was that, underneath every thought, action, every step and choice, there was a faint tremor, the braced atmosphere of a storm-and it didn’t matter if it was coming, or if it had already passed by. After watching August Underground I stopped feeling safe. I saw the bleak Australian horror movie Wolf Creek in a theater on Broadway where the city consigns the alleged trash that comes to town. It arrived with a reputation as the most hardcore genre film in years. It barely fazed me. I left the theater, heading downtown to see Woody Allen’s Match Point, regarding other people as mere specters, bodies that hovered along, incapable of offering any communion or comfort. Really, I felt soothed during Wolf Creek. Because it wasn’t August Underground.
It’s an artful title, sere. After watching the movie, it makes less sense. It is resigned, meditative. August, the month, isn’t mentioned by these central unnamed characters: the man in front of the camera and the man behind it. On a DVD interview, Vogel says that he changed the title from the Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer derivative “Peter.” The copy on the back of the DVD-as if the experience can be properly synopsized, whittled down and cataloged the way other movies are-suggests a scenario the viewer has walked into, finding an unmarked VHS tape on the street and taking it home and watching it. What could be a more dread way to encounter this material? So, August Underground could be what one of these anonymous viewers, with a more poetic bent than others who would simply turn the unmarked tape over to the police, would write on the label before filing it away in a private collection.
Or it could be the title of a different movie altogether, one that doesn’t actually exist but could in some parallel dimension, made on 35mm, or, more appropriately, 16mm, possibly in black and white like The Honeymoon Killers or in blotchy color like Nick Millard’s guttural 1975 horror indie Criminally Insane. This nonexistent movie would be called August Underground and it would be a claustrophobic study of the captive girl in that basement.
There’s a contract between spectator and film that August Underground carelessly shreds. Its hardly the first movie to utilize the “found footage” conceit, as anyone with even the smallest knowledge of horror movies could also name Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project, and a grisly home invasion sequence from Henry, shot by the killers with a stolen camera, is what planted the seed for Vogel. But those examples still hold the audience at a distance; an unsafe one, but a distance nonetheless. The found footage in Henry and Holocaust are surrounded by cinematic storytelling, scenes with coverage and programmed music. Blair Witch is straight raw, but it is classically structured, a clear three-act piece, with Proper slow-build and a clear dramatic destination that offers you a safety net. August never has that. As soon as we enter the basement, we’re with these two, we are these two, overseeing their captive, taunting her, making sure that her final living days are nothing less than hell. A necessary component that reassures us, in the ad parlance of old, that this is “Only a movie, only a movie, only a movie…” is replaced by the siren wail of “this is all real. This is happening right now.” This is not the pleasurable suspense of Hitchcock, where we know that, soon, the ride will be over and we can get off, shaken but pleased, and this isn’t even the insanity of early Tobe Hooper, the cinematic equivalent of Neil Young’s grunge music. The opening six minutes of August are ugly in both the haggard image and the utter negation of joy and humanity. This is over the line. It’s shameful, inappropriate. They have no right to do this to us. I had to pause it to catch my breath because I felt like vomiting, and I knew that if I continued playing it I would vomit. It made the bottom of my head drop out. It truly broke my heart. I felt like I was falling forever until, as Laura Palmer said, I would burst into fire, and “the angels wouldn’t help you. Because they’ve all gone away.”
“August isn’t a film, it’s an experience.” This is what Vogel wrote to me in response to an E-mail I sent when I realized I needed to do something to affirm that what I had seen was not in fact real. I watched his audio commentary a few times, as well as a documentary on the set’s second disc that collects testimonials from others in the underground horror field. I piled up the film’s obvious flaws, the hokey stage fighting between the lead killer (played by Vogel) and people he bashes up against in scummy punk concerts and convenience stores. I thought (and still think) that a climax with two flabby prostitutes is overlong and tiresome. These complaints should have made the confrontational violation of the film’s most visceral scenes go away. They didn’t. The smear wouldn’t wash off.
How did Vogel achieve this? Why isn’t August stupid and obvious like Video X, a boring hicks-on-the-lam DTV dump? It’s more than another independent horror film, even though it comes from a legacy of quality, as it was made in Romero’s Pittsburgh and Vogel himself was a former instructor in Tom Savini’s makeup school. So why is it more than the merely good film it could have been? Why does it do this?
When I read Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld, I came upon a passage that brought me closer to understanding what August Underground had put me through. It comes in a side character’s description of a murder by the “Texas Highway Killer,” as shot by a child playing with the family camcorder during a long car trip. DeLillo zeroes into the specifically unnerving components of watching video itself, divorced from whatever event is being captured:
“It is unrelenting footage that rolls on and on. It has an aimless determination, a persistence that lives outside the subject matter. You are looking into the mind of home video. It is innocent, it is aimless, it is determined, it is real.”
This onslaught of data moving forward, dragging you by the hair even if you don’t want to follow, was harnessed by Vogel in a way no other film with the same conceit ever could. Without knowing it, DeLillo wrote the perfect review of August Underground. “The mind of home video” can’t help but witness, and lend its dull unblinking gaze to whatever befalls the lens. He continues, and the parallels to a little-seen horror film made years after the book’s publication become eerie. Throughout his career DeLillo has been heralded for predicting cultural trends and tragedies, but this is one psychic brainwave that has gone ignored:
“There is a crude power operating here. You keep on looking because things combine to hold you fast-a sense of the random, the amateurish, the accidental, the impending…It is crude, it is blunt, it is relentless. It is the jostled part of your mind, the film that runs through your hotel brain under all the thoughts you know you’re thinking.”
The first five minutes introduced me to my hotel brain. The dirtiness doesn’t abate, and the action can be incoherent. (A large difference from the conveniently angled Blair Witch and Cloverfield). The remaining 70 beam late-night road travel, visits to tattoo parlors and a slaughterhouse, youthful fucking around. Sometimes we’re in the basement, taunting the bound, naked girl, prodding the castrated body of her boyfriend in a bathtub, then we’re back outside, shitkicking around the barn, driving. There are other victims, twin brothers, an old woman. Repeat viewings reveal just how tight and carefully modulated this is. You can’t know the first time, you’re too numb. The wormhole is closed after the “the accidental, the impending…” of that first sequence. Only after watching it multiple times do we realize there is more, a pitch grim Americana vision that can only be wrought into being by videotape. There are images that resonate as much as they repel. The two killers enter a tourist trap miniature village, and as Vogel stands above the model trains and ice-skating pixies, the elixir of domination for any serial killer is just as potently represented here as in the early basement gouge. After being ejected from a rave club, he marches into thick pink fog, and the camera tries to catch up, but the miasma swallows him whole.
What happens after? The man behind the camera, the man who wastes the beer, is named Allen Peters, described as Vogel’s “Partner in crime” on the commentary track. Peters apparently disowned the result, and had nothing to do with ToeTag Pictures when it became a true film studio. Vogel was off, though. To date he has directed 5 features (besides this one, The Redsin Tower (2006), August Underground’s Penance (2007), Murder Collection Vol. 1 (2009) and 2010s Sella Turcica) and co-directed 2 more (August Underground’s Mordum (2003) with a collective, the terrific Maskhead (2009) with Scott Swan). He’s one of the most dangerous and fascinating American filmmakers alive, even though his attempts at non-raw storytelling have produced mixed results. He could handle it, in other words. His “partner in crime” could not.
Let’s be this person, Allen Peters, shooting that first movement. In the midst of “acting,” did the man’s hotel brain surface? Did everything all of a sudden turn real, did the stage and the patrons disappear in that crimson fog? Was he inside the world the horror fans and amateur filmmakers painstakingly created, like Jeff Daniels going back into the movie screen of The Purple Rose Of Cairo? It’s an experience. Was it him then, standing over an actress who had ceased being an actress and was then utterly in that moment his victim and slave? What private thoughts came forth?
Something was transgressed in the shooting of August Underground. Porn photos were glued to the basement walls, artificial feces and body parts were made, but when it was recorded, DeLillo’s fear, his awe, was made manifest. AnnMarie Reveruzzi, the “girl in the cellar,” went on to appear in a few more low-budget B-movies, the last in 2005. Peters went off the grid. Vogel gathered more people and worked hard. In ways large and small, each one of them escaped the Underworld. I could never wish it out of existence, so instead I talked about it and wrote about it and showed it to anyone who would watch it for more than half a decade.