Year: 1990
Studio: Theatre of Material
Director: E Elias Merhige
Producer: E Elias Merhige
Writer: E Elias Merhige

God dies by his own hand, the spirit of Gaia is born from his corpse, fellating it and impregnating herself to give birth to a helpless man who seems to be severely handicapped. She leaves him to be abused, tormented and tortured by masked nomads, returning soon after to be set upon herself and raped by the nomads, who dismember her and her son and bury their remains in the ground to produce new life. The end.

But there's much, much more. It's certainly not a film to be enjoyed, but you can't deny the extraordinary directorial talent by E Elias Merhige (who'd go on to make Shadow of the Vampire with Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich and not much else) on show here. On the level of pure storytelling this looks like the visual representation of some sexually perverted serial killer's inner monologue made flesh.

On an aesthetic level it looks like some unhinged genius made a movie in the 1920s in some Mississippi backwater, so effective is the visual language of out-of-focus, drifting camerawork, sun-spoiled and cheap film stock, sickly high contrast black and white and a soundscape consisting of nothing but throbs, birdsong and crickets, wind through an abandoned landscape and muffled screams.

No matter what you think of the content (if it had been better known it probably would have met with the same controversy roller coaster as Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ and Kevin Smith's Dogma), Merhige conveys such a tactile sense of sweat, filth, sodden cloth, putrid water and stink you can almost sense it all, and he does all that with pictures that aren't even particularly clear because of the bruised, drunken cinematography and badly degraded look of the film.

Think of the haunted videotape from the American remake of The Ring, only longer, stranger, more disturbing and with the low quality of the images giving it an even stronger mood of deterioration and grime. It's like a fever dream student film someone used to pitch the tone of a far less narratively cohesive The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

The visuals were apparently inspired by David Lynch's Eraserhead (which I still haven't seen at the time of writing this review), but I strongly suspect Merhige took things up a notch. Without having read his description of the actual story in the past you might have no idea what it's all about, but even without knowing the full allegory it's a very effective visual experience. It'd be at home projected against the walls at a death metal bar.

It's experimental, avant garde and disturbing in the extreme, the kind of thing that might give you nightmares even while you have no idea what's going on.

In fact it's so hard to make out at times I wouldn't have realised that the 'god' figure was disembowelling himself if I hadn't known beforehand because of the film's reputation. It looks like the figure is trying to open a bag of old fashioned pen ink with scissors or something, but the face shrouded in cloth, blood splattered down it from the mouth, the body rocking back and forth as if in anguish will have you looking over your shoulder in the middle of the night.

Once you know it's all a metaphor it's pretty obvious it's got to do with the decline of religion in the face of secularism's rise in society, the destruction of the Earth at the hands of humanity and a few other lofty social themes, but without all that stuff it's still one of the most distinctive examples you'll see in any film from any director with such a command over the mood and tone – it just happens to be a very visually disturbing horror film.

If Merhige had made Begotten today he'd have it on YouTube and be directing a sequel from The Conjuring universe by this time next year.

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