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August Underground   B+

Toetag Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Fred Vogel
Writers: Fred Vogel, Allen Peters
Cast: Fred Vogel, AnnMarie Reveruzzi, John A. Wisniewski, Alexa Iris, Dan Friedman, Casey Eganey, Randi Stubbs, Erika Risovich.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

Few films are as unsettling as August Underground. Crafted as the camcorder-shot exploits of two psycho-geeks on a killing spree, it completely rebukes the romanticized images of serial killers that Hollywood spits out on a regular basis. Far from Anthony Hopkins' ghoulishly suave Hannibal Lecter, the two killers are childish buffoons who humiliate, torture, and kill for their own amusement. But is the movie a sick exploitation film that should be condemned or a brutally honest triumph that should be praised? Well, that's a question that is sure to be debated among those able to watch it all the way through.

The film opens with the grainy video image of a bottle of beer being poured onto the ground. It's the cameraman's beer, and what we see is what he videotapes. A stocky guy who appears to be in his mid-20s walks toward the camera and bitches about him wasting a beer. No matter, though, because the guy is excited about showing something to his cameraman friend. He leads the cameraman into a basement where a girl is tied to a chair. She's naked, crying, and covered in blood and feces. The cameraman notices that one of her nipples is missing and asks what happened. "I cut it off, man," the other says, and they both laugh. It's like these guys are in a state of arrested development and haven't matured beyond the phase that some kids go through in which they enjoy pulling off the legs of insects. Only they've grown bored of torturing bugs and small animals and have moved on to the next big thing.

The main killer is played by director Fred Vogel (a former instructor at Tom Savini's School of Special Makeup Effects), who is so convincing as a sick, moronic fuck without an ounce of humanity that I had to wonder if it wasn't an act at all. Indeed, August Underground seems so real at times that I had doubts as to whether I watching a faux-reality movie or an actual snuff film. My doubts were fleeting (and maybe even silly), but I had them and they horrified me. It's a testament to the skill and talent of the cast and filmmakers that nothing feels calculated or scripted, hitting a level of stark realism that few films can ever hope to achieve and reinforcing the cinema verité style with an intensity that hurts. Alas, even at 70 minutes the movie has some excess fat (including a boring trip to the slaughterhouse) that dilutes the overall potency it could have had.

While many will dismiss the movie as exploitation, I'd disagree. Exploitation thrives on the audience's desire to see things like violence and aberrant sexuality, and it often ends up glamorizing these things in the process. In August Underground, the depravity is presented so nakedly, in all its god-awful ugliness, that it's tough to imagine anyone being titillated by it (I would be wary of anyone who says they enjoy this movie). The violence and gore isn't supposed to be fun -- it's intended to hurt, and it does. It may even be a brutal slap in the face to all the gorehounds and sleaze junkies seeking a quick fix. Then again, maybe it is sick exploitation and maybe I'm giving it too much credit. Whatever the case, I can't deny its troubling impact on me, and I would be lying if I said that images and moments from the film aren't still haunting me over a week after watching it. This, I know for sure: I'll never watch it again.

Review published 09.03.2002.

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