So, you've probably read my review for Fred Vogel's August Underground's Mordum, and if you've read that review, you'll know that I referred to that film as being one of the most genuinely disturbing, sick, and outright horrifying films I've ever seen. You'll also know that Mordum is the "sequel" to a pus-addled cinematic sore known as August Underground. I first heard about this film a few years ago, and I remember seeing about ten minutes of a tenth-generation bootlegged VHS copy at a party I had attended. I remember having a tide of opposing emotions and sensations wash over me; guilt, disgust, fascination, curiosity, fear...all of these things pulled at my mind in a grim tug-of-war. The funny thing is that, until fairly recently, I had forgotten all about August Underground. I had forgotten that I ever heard about Toe Tag Pictures. I had forgotten I had ever heard about the sick, simplistic genius embodied by Fred Vogel's putrid productions. If those memories had stayed buried, I might be a happier person today. Now, before you get all pissed off and accuse me of overdramatizing this whole thing, let me explain:
The August Underground films are twisted, wholly evil films, but they will prove to be incredibly important in the history of horror cinema. They are purely indicative of the fact that there are filmmakers out there who are so completely disenfranchised with the state of sanitized modern mainstream horror films that they will go to incredible...unspeakable lengths to produce something that is diametrically opposed to your standard overhyped PG-13 (or even "hard-R") slag.
Like Mordum, August Underground is basically just a string of disturbing vignettes and gory set pieces strung together by...well, nothing. They simply are. As in the sequel, Fred Vogel plays a nameless sociopath...a serial killer who has an interesting modus operandi: he kills indiscriminately, preying on hitchhikers, stoners, metal-heads, girls, guys, little-old-ladies, etcetera, without bias. He is followed around by a "friend" that films everything with what may very well be the world's worst video camera. This "cinema verite" technique has been done before, and with more "flair", but that lack of flair is part of the sick charm of the August Underground films, and it lends feel of reality to the proceedings. Vogel's "killer" keeps a girl in the basement of his farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania. He and his camerman/friend/cohort make daily visits to the girl, whereupon they perpetrate some truly sick shit. When first we meet this hapless girl, she's already been down there for god knows how long. In any case, she's been down there long enough for "the killer" to have performed unspeakable tortures on her, including slicing off one of her nipples, making her watch while he murders and dismembers her boyfriend, and making her sit in (and sometimes eat) her own feces. That the "shit" is actually "brownie batter" (as Vogel assures us in his commentary) is of little consolation. The point is that the "shit" certainly looks real enough...so much so that one almost gags at the sight of it. You've got to hand it to that Fred Vogel...no one plays around with fake blood and feces with more panache. Right. Onto the rest of the movie. Well, we follow "the killer" and his buddy on an increasingly sick set of misadventures, including the beating death of some poor-white-trash girl they found on the roadside. Not before sexually humiliating her, of course. Then, we are taken along to a "concert", where Vogel engages in some impromptu slamdancing and ass-beatings. Moving along, we pay another visit to our little girlfriend in the cellar. She's not doing so well by this point; she's starving, and piles of her shit are starting to grow and grow. That doesn't stop "the killer" and his friend in engaging in some more spirited torture, though. Then, we go on various "road trips", and see "the killer" beat an old woman to death and steal her car (this lady, according to the commentary, is Vogel's actual grandmother...she's one hell of a sport, I might add). Then, a visit to a convenience store, and the torture/beating/humiliation of some store patrons. And on, and on, and on. Finally, "the killer" rents a couple of prostitutes, and after some reasonably graphic (though completely nonerotic) sex, the film ends with "the killer" sodomizing one girl while beating her on the head with a hammer. Then, he chases the other screaming girl out into the night. End of movie.
Ugh. It must be said that, while August Underground is graphic, nasty, and sick, it's nowhere near as graphic or nasty as Mordum. It's just as sick and mean-spirited, though, so don't let that fool you for a second. It's actually quite interesting to watch these films back to back, as you can see that Vogel's "passion" for reality just keeps intensifying as he goes along. There is one point of contention, though. I'm not sure if "the killer" from August Underground is supposed to be the same actual person as "the killer" from Mordum...they certainly could be the same person (they're both played by Vogel), and if that is in fact the case, then Vogel has actually done something interesting with the character, as he clearly makes "advances" both in terms of depravity and sheer murderous creativity from one film to the other. When August Underground: Penance (the third part of the series...currently in production, for better or worse) comes out, I'll let you know.
It's also interesting to look at Vogel's progression as a filmmaker from one film to the next. Here, he's clearly feeling his way around, trying to figure out what he's trying to say. Neither film is particularly strong from a narrative perspective, but then, they don't have to be. They are simply linear threads of sadistic mayhem. But, in Mordum, Vogel took some of the ideas he presents here in August Underground, and manages them a bit less clumsily. What we're left with in August Underground is a cinematic experiment in endurance. Vogel was so fed up with the hack-mainstream-horror-movies that he gave birth to this, his first child. This first child is crabby, unwieldly, and throws temper-tantrums like there's no tomorrow, all in a (mostly successful) effort to draw attention to itself. It's not a bad film by any stretch...nothing this visionary can be considered inherently "bad"...but it's neither as artful nor as ultimately successful as it's younger sibling, Mordum. Whereas most sequels suffer due to comparisons to their originating film, the slightly more noticeable amateurism of August Underground make Mordum look like the film that August Underground was trying to be, but just couldn't quite make it. That said, August Underground is a more intimate film than Mordum. The other thing missing from this film that Mordum had going for it is Christie "Crusty" Wiles. That touch of the evil and brutal side of femininity pushed Mordum over the top, and made it even scarier. August Underground lacks that "feminine touch", so to speak, and every woman that appears on screen here is a victim, plain and simple. There is, however, an interesting undercurrent of latent homosexual jealousy lingering in the background of August Underground, between "the killer" and "the cameraman", which makes for some very tense moments dotted throughout the film. It's nothing explicit, and it's never verbalized, but it's there all the same, and it makes August Underground more realistic; if these were "real people" who had this kind of relationship, the homosexual tension would play a big part in the proceedings, so it's effective in this context.
All comparisons aside, August Underground is as effective, realistic, and hateful a piece of "psycho-cinema" as you're likely to see. It paints a vivid picture of the day to day life of a true sociopath...demonstrating that, while not every moment or deed in this guy's life is filled with murder and mayhem, every moment is filled with things leading up to murder and mayhem. It's always on "the killer's" mind...like an addict who can only think about getting his next fix, "the killer" lives from murder to murder...from rape to rape...from one brutal act to the next. August Underground is actually a perfect companion piece to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, as the two films are most definitely like two sides of the same coin; one dealing in the underlying anguish and psychosis that breeds creatures like "Henry" and "the killer", and the other detailing the acts themselves. Furthermore, August Underground is everything that Henry:PSK was accused of being, but wasn't. So, crack a beer, close your blinds (lest the neighbors see), and watch 'em together. Sure, you'll need a long, hot shower afterward, but you'll never get the chance to see the life of a serial killer in this kind of detail again.
Toe Tag Pictures...Fred Vogel's production house...has "graced" us with two different releases of August Underground...a "standard" special edition, and this, the "Limited 'Snuff' Edition", which is identical to the "standard" release, with the following exceptions: the "Snuff" edition features alternate box art which comes autographed by the cast and crew of August Underground, alternate disc art, and the inclusion of a third commentary track by Fred Vogel in character as "the killer". Other extras common to both releases include two commentary tracks (one by Vogel...as himself, and the other by the cast and crew), a "making of" feature (which is worth the price of the disc alone), conversations with most of the people involved in the filming and/or production, stills, trailers, and more. The film itself, like Mordum, was shot on digital camcorder and "messed up" to look like generations-old videotape, and the full-frame transfer is suitably ugly, grainy, noisy, and scratchy, but once again, those things only add to the "charm" and realism of the movie. Both releases are excellent, but unless you're a completionist (like me) who simply must have the "ultimate edition" of everything, stick with the "standard" special edition, which will net you all of the extras aside from the autographs and the commentary track by "the killer". A special note on that commentary track: Vogel's judgement here is somewhat questionable, as his willingness to revisit this character is a bit odd. Still, he's an "actor" in addition to being a director, and he certainly lets himself get into character. Therefore, this track has a chilling immediacy that makes for a profoundly disturbing multimedia experience. 'nuff said...
While not as inherently powerful as Mordum, the original August Underground is highly recommended rogue filmmaking at its best, for those who can get into it. If, on the other hand, you had nightmares for months and got sick from watching Henry, then you should probably give this one a "pass". Fuckin' wimps.