E. Elias Merhige's Begotten has sprouted a few legends since it emerged in 1990--how the writer / director / producer / cinematographer / special effect-and-sound designer spent three years of his life and an estimated $33,000 to make it; how he conducted extensive experiments including running the unexposed negative through sandpaper and building his own optical printer to fabricate the special effects (most of the details can be found in a 9/20/10 interview he did for horrornews.net). The results have since been considered one of the most (if not the most) disturbing films ever made.
No film can live up to that kind of hype of course; unfair to expect otherwise, even if the reputation is at least partly deserved.
The story is difficult to summarize, and to be fair part of the problem is in trying to understand what's going on--a handful of reviewers have gotten details wrong (or perhaps have concocted a radically different interpretation), others when recounting the narrative sound suspiciously similar (Wikipedia much?). The images have a dense grain, are shot in high-contrast black-and-white with either black or white occasionally flooding the screen; the sound design is tactile to the point where you feel as if you can reach out and touch it, with a constant deep David Lynch rumble (not so much vast unseen diesel engine as active volcano).
Sometimes Merhige draws his camera up close--the better to catch say the sponginess of raw meat as a blade slices through its thickness the blood welling out an added bonus--sometimes too close and all is indecipherable (Is he being roasted or boiled? Is she being beaten or raped?). Deliberately obscured shots have their uses (I'm thinking of that moment in Rosemary's Baby when Minnie Castavet places a mysterious phone call in Rosemary's bedroom and Polanski angles the camera just so that the entire audience tilts its collective head sideways trying to see what she's up to) but the setup for the mystery has to be clear; we need to have an idea of what we're failing to see.
On pacing--Merhige will fire a particularly unsettling image at you then linger interminably over some unrelated or incoherent shot, dissipating the impact. Or explicitly stage some atrocity for what seems like hours (the running time is 72 minutes); when the camera finally cuts away you shake your head as if coming out of a trance. Most of the time you think something's happened you're just not sure what, and the filmmaker is in no great hurry to explain, or build on the image.
One has to admire Merhige's integrity; he seems to have little to no interest in making it easy or even possible for the audience to follow what narrative there is. Either that or the film is so stuffed with religious and philosophical influences (The story of Jesus obviously but also (as Merhige notes in the aforementioned interview) Greek and Egyptian mythology, the Old Testament (Book of Genesis), the Romantic poets, Goethe) there's not much room left for anything so conventional as a story.
Perhaps the film's greatest flaw is its refusal or inability to allow us any kind of emotional connection to the--hesitate to even use the word 'characters' (Figures? Models? Marionettes?)--onscreen. Distancing can be useful--in Nosferatu (which Merhige considers so influential he did a behind-the-scenes recreation of its production (Shadow of the Vampire, 2000)), Murnau filmed Count Orlock's hand stretching slowly across her nightgown in a single take (to draw out suspense) and in medium shot (to emphasize our helplessness in stopping him); in Vampyr (which Merhige doesn't acknowledge but visually speaking is the film's spiritual godfather) eerie images (the shadow of a laborer shoveling in reverse, dirt leaping onto the blade to be dropped back in the grave) pass the screen without emphasis or explanation. But Murnau populated his expressionist sets (Count Orloc's craggy castle, the ship's tattered majesty) with emphatically melodramatic performances, and Dreyer fixed our attention to his big screen through two extraordinary closeups: of a young woman looking up at her sister with vampiric greed, and of a young man wide-eyed and paralyzed (you sense his mute if mounting panic) as he's carried in a coffin to his grave.
Correction: Begotten does allow itself a few moments: when Merhige cuts to a closeup of God (Brian Salzburg) wearing his mask, eye flicking about as if seeking escape; when Mother Earth (Donna Dempsey) runs her hands down her body, reaches out to frig God's erect penis and impregnate herself; and when we first see the Son of the Earth (Stephen Charles Barry), Mother's full-grown issue, laid out on the ground and seized by a series of brutal convulsions.
With these three scenes and the sounds and textures accompanying their passage onscreen Begotten rightly deserves a place on any list of Most Disturbing; between them and the film's strange conclusion stretches a dry dry desert of incomprehensibility. The Nomads for one--who are they what do they want why are they even in this picture? They take the Son's offerings (organs and chunks of flesh regurgitated by mouth) and beat him burn him perhaps boil him (not sure of the latter two and possibly Merhige didn't have the budget for the proper prosthetic effects; they meet Mother Earth, raise their stick-clubs and--not sure what happens next only it seems endlessly repetitive and entirely meaningless. Your willingness to receive Merhige's images starts to calcify into resentment; your desire to gasp in shock turns into a blasphemous need to giggle. You wonder if this was the effect the director meant to evoke all along; you wonder despite yourself: 'is this a film about hell or a grubby delicatessen?' Some of the stuff you see onscreen actually looks (God forgive me) appetizing.
I do think Begotten is a kind of great horror, glimpsed at as if from long ago and far away, through barely mammalian eyes. The perceived distance of the images both spatial and temporal give it the unsettling quality not just of nightmare but of a dim collective memory, of some awful torment inflicted on the species in the dawn of our history and one we fear might be visited upon us again. But it's a struggle to appreciate--you're as likely to say 'huh?' as you are 'wow!' The film is an experience all right, you're just not 100% sure what kind.
First published in Businessworld 10.27.17