Directed by Fred Vogel (2007)
Reviewed by Jeff, added on Jul 30 2007
August Underground has become a fairly notorious brand name among horror fans. It's one of those infamous films that you've probably heard about but have likely never seen. It sits out there on the fringe of the fringe. With the release of 2007's August Underground's Penance, creator Fred Vogel has now completed his trilogy of AU films, and there will purportedly be no more entries in the series.
I'm going to attempt to do a sort of composite review of all three films. I think this makes sense for a couple of reasons: One, many of our readers may not have seen any of the AU films and would like to know a little bit about each of them, and two, while you certainly don't need to see one of the films in order to understand the others, there is a progression and evolution across the films that is interesting to observe.
August Underground (2001)
The original AU opens with a seemingly average dude (director Fred Vogel) meeting up with a friend and heading down into a basement, where we see a naked woman tied to a chair, beaten and bloodied. Vogel is the main character (I've read that his character is named "Peter", but I never caught that so I'll just refer to him by his real name; in any case, it hardly matters what his name is). His cohort is never seen, as he is always operating the camcorder on which every moment of the film is shot. The cameraman does speak, though, and eagerly participates in Fred's crimes.
There is no plot, no structured beginning, middle or end to AU. The pair simply dawdles around what appears to be a very average American town and wreaks havoc, filming it all shakily with their camcorder. They go to a convenience store and kill a clerk, pick up a hitchhiker and brutalize her, etc. They torture and kill simply because they like to. Interspersed are scenes of the pair doing everyday stuff, which only emphasizes the lack of narrative. They're hanging out somewhere one minute, and the next they're smashing someone's head in with a hammer. This is by design, of course. The film is sort of presented as "What if you found an anonymous tape lying somewhere, put it in, and this is what was on it?" It's faux-snuff, or gorenography, or insert-another-snooty-term-here.
Vogel is a talented special effects artist; he even worked as an instructor at the Tom Savini FX school for a while. If you looked at AU as simply a showcase for the extreme FX that Vogel is interested in, then you could sort of come to terms with it, "Oh, he just wants to show off what he can do with FX, I get it." But I don't think that's quite all that's going on with AU. After reading interviews, reviews and other writings on the film, I think it's a combination of a few things. One is definitely to showcase Vogel's FX work (his production company, Toe Tag, does FX for other films). Another reason might be the "punk rock" mentality, where there's a rejection of the mainstream offerings and a craving for something different and harder. And lastly, I've also read that Vogel actually intended a message with AU. That is: We shouldn't glamorize serial killers. Figures like Charles Manson have, strangely but undeniably, become pop-culture icons of a sort. With AU, Vogel makes his killers so despicable, their crimes so heinous, that you never for a second "root for them" like you might find yourself rooting for Jason or Freddy as they chase down a generic teen.
That's actually sort of a laudable intention, if that is indeed what was intended. It's unique for a horror film to challenge horror culture and its icons, instead of doing the traditional "let's shake up the squares" routine. If horror is often us-vs-them, subculture-vs-mainstream, then August Underground is more like us-vs-us. It, in effect, says to the viewer: What are you watching this for? What's up with you? I don't know who I could recommend this movie to. Certainly not anyone who's only casually into horror, it's just too much.
August Underground's Mordum (2003)
The original AU was hard to watch, but Mordum cranks it up to 11. The biggest change is a larger cast of characters. Fred returns, and we are also introduced to Christy Whiles and this other dude named (I think) Maggot. As with the first film, I don't remember any instances of the characters being referred to by name, so I'm referring to them by their credited names. I don't know if Maggot is supposed to be the same cameraman character from the previous film; little continuity things like that are, I guess, somewhat beside the point. This time the camera is passed around and we see all of the characters getting in on the act.
The stuff they do in Mordum... good grief, I barely believe it's legal. It's definitely over-the-top. How can I describe the level and tone of the gore? Think of the amount of gore in Peter Jackson's Braindead, and then try to imagine it done with a serious tone instead of as a comedy. Okay, maybe that's exaggerating; I dunno, suffice it to say that Mordum is stomach-churningly gross. Now, I fully expect Mat to say "It didn't bother me at all, I ate spaghetti and meatballs while I was watching it." - but any normal person is going to gag a few times if he tries to watch Mordum.
In terms of plot, well, there still ain't much. There's more interplay between the main characters. They go back and forth between being best friends and screaming hatefully at each other; I guess that demonstrates how insane they are or something? In a couple places, the main group of three hooks up with one or two other individuals and that leads to 4 or even 5 people standing around while the mayhem ensues. That's sort of an interesting thought: Group dynamics and the ways that a crowd can work; if something really awful was happening in the midst of a group, would everyone stand around and watch? Would someone have the courage to break ranks, or would fear of the group petrify the individual? I don't think Mordum was intending to pose that question, necessarily, but it came to my mind.
August Underground's Penance (2007)
The final AU film, Penance, is different from its predecessors in a number of ways. Just on the surface, visually, it's much clearer, having been shot digitally while the others were given the look of a degraded VHS tape. We're back to two main characters, Fred and Christy, and they actually dial the gore back quite a bit from Mordum, though it's still quite gory.
There is some animal violence in Penance. It's not totally exploitational, like in Cannibal Holocaust or that ghastly cat scene in Men Behind The Sun. Penance has a scene of a rat being fed to a small aligator, which I guess isn't so outrageous because that aligator was going to eat that rat whether they filmed it or not. There's also a scene where Christy hacks up a dead deer (it's already dead and hanging in a shed when we see it) and they proceed to feed the deer to a caged lion. I'm not sure where this takes place, it doesn't quite look like a zoo, but I can't imagine some dude is just keeping a lion in his back yard, either. In any case, it's a pretty neat scene. The lion is amazingly imposing, kudos for putting that in the movie. I don't see it as a metaphor for anything, I'm just saying that the lion is really impressive.
Although the structure is similar to the previous entries, that is: Lots of footage of brutal murders intercut with lots of footage of normal, routine activities, Penance definitely feels like there's more of a story going on. It's not presented to us very explicitly, but it's there, floating in the background. Basically, this is where Fred and Christy bottom-out and self-destruct. We don't get final closure in the form of a conclusive death scene for either of them, but I got the sense that their characters were either physically dead or else so mentally destroyed that they may as well have been dead. Either way, the characters are "over" for all intents and purposes.
I wanted to do a little additional research for this review, so I browsed around Toe Tag's forums, and both Fred and Christy themselves seem to be active participants in the threads, and would sort of slyly say "yay" or "nay" to different theories that posters would advance. After reading those posts, and thinking a little about it; I feel that there are some interesting, subtle story things going on in Penance that I may have missed on my first viewing. For that reason, I definitely think Penance is the best of the AU films. It's still extremely graphic and is still faux-snuff, I still don't quite know who I could recommend this to... but there's a nugget of something really interesting swimming around in that bucket of gore. Contrast this with the previous two films, where they're pretty much just the bucket of gore.
As I watched these movies I was at turns revulsed, interested, almost ashamed, and even bored (I checked the clock a few times during each film). I won't say there's nothing else out there like August Underground. Films like Murder Set Pieces (which, I've read, Vogel himself did FX work on) or Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh & Blood come to mind. There are lowbrow gore flicks, like Slaughtered Vomit Dolls, as well as more artful works, such as Aftermath. Where does AU rank when set against similar "gorno" films? I think it holds up pretty well, especially Penance, but again... I'm wracking my brain thinking of who I would possibly suggest AU to. I can't think of anyone, not even Mat (if he hasn't already seen it, that is).
The August Underground movies are a curious thing. On one hand, I don't know why anyone, myself included, would choose to watch something like this. But on the other hand, we do watch them and that simple fact, aside from any of the films' actual content, is something to ponder in and of itself. Is that Vogel's whole point? Is he saying "Here guys, this is the sickest thing imaginable. Would you like to watch it?" Presented with that, our choice to watch or not watch is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the whole AU experience. Maybe I'm getting a little too meta here?
I guess it's time for a score. This is a composite for the whole trilogy, though as I describe above, I definitely think Penance is the best of the three and Mordum is by far the most visually extreme.