If you like blood and guts, then many horror movies have you covered. If you like ambient creeps and gore-free dread, then you’re also likely in a good place, as haunted house and ghost movies are still very much in vogue. But if you’re into dark, impenetrable existentialist art horror, you may find yourself in short supply. Indeed, there are only so many times one can watch ERASERHEAD before becoming numb to the nightmarish, machine-like horrors therein.
To you seekers of the extreme, I offer a mid-’80s discovery called BEGOTTEN.
BEGOTTEN is directed by a Brooklyn-born experimental filmmaker named E. Elias Merhige, a name you may know from the excellent SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE and from the rarely-noted 2004 serial killer thriller SUSPECT ZERO. Merhige is a deep-thinking, spiritually bent artist of the highest order. He is no mere filmmaker content to tell stories, but an artist who is preoccupied with myth, mankind’s place in the universe, and other elevated philosophies. Although he has directed films for major studios and even made several music videos for artists like Danzig and Marilyn Manson, one can easily see that he is more content to live among conceptual artist collectives, aggressively confronting people with his pointed abstract film work.
Merhige made artistic short films throughout the 1980s, and securing copies of these early films has proven elusive. Merhige, however, reportedly began work on BEGOTTEN as early as 1984, and originally intended it to be part of an abstract trilogy of theatrical dance pieces. Merhige was only 22 years old at the time, right when philosophy influences inflame the post-college mind, and the original script was influenced by the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche and French poet Antoine Artaud. Through its many years of development, BEGOTTEN eventually became a film project which took three years to shoot.
BEGOTTEN is one of the masterpieces of underground cult cinema, and one of the most striking, strange, terrifying, and powerful films you may encounter. It’s also incredibly difficult and might put off many casual viewers unready for its obliqueness. The film leaves a brand on the mind and the soul of its viewers, giving an emotional wrench, a spiritual rattle, and an intellectual thrill. Few films even ponder attempting what this film does with both fists.
BEGOTTEN opens with a poem (“Like a flame burning away the darkness, life in flesh on bone convulsing above the ground”) and proceeds with no dialogue and only a few brief moments of fugue-like music. The opening scenes feature a figure in a mask, shaking as if from illness, painstakingly disemboweling itself with a razor. We’ll later learn from the credits that this is God (Brian Salzberg). From God’s entrails emerges a half-nude women. This is Mother Earth (Donna Dempsey). Mother Earth inseminates herself using the fluids harvested from God’s body and eventually gives birth to a quivering, skeletal child-being. This is Son of Earth (Stephen Charles Barry). The two of them will slowly cross a barren, dangerous post-apocalyptic landscape populated by faceless cultists.
The cultists encounter Son of Earth, and he vomits. The cultists treat the vomit like a gift, and burn him with fire. They also rape Nature to death. The cultists then rip apart both Son of Earth and Nature and plant them underground which eventually leads to the growth of a lush forest.
BEGOTTEN is fascinating and nightmarish. It was filmed using a high-contrast, black-and-white form of photography called dot chiaroscuro, constantly shifting into barely recognizable imagery. It looks and feels like a living Rorschach test, tantalizing you with a solidity that is constantly just out of grasp. BEGOTTEN invites the eye with an amorphous visual puzzle that the viewer must constantly unlock. If that sounds difficult, it was meant to be. Cinema can do more than it often gets credit for.
BEGOTTEN is often grouped with horror movies, as that is the genre it most closely emulates. This is clearly a story – although “story” is a small word to describe what’s going on here, perhaps “myth” – of blood, violence, and death. The level of gore is only matched by some of the more hardcore exploitation cannibal flicks of the 1970s, and only horror fans may be properly steeled to consume it. But even they will experience a level of horrific extremity rarely seen in cinema.
But it doesn’t take a very sophisticated student of cinema to see that this is not an exploitation film. This is clearly a deep well of human thought. I hesitate to offer interpretation, as the film doesn’t seem equipped to bear the petty adolescent burden of one-to-one symbolic intellectualism. This is a film to be experienced, endured, and fought with. It evokes religious images, theatrical traditions, and other mythic forms, and it would be fine to cite inspirations, but Merhige’s art is as most art should be: immediate to the point of abstraction. Among the emotions you’ll walk away with are fear, awe, frustration, disgust, and a strange elevation.
Have I made the film sound unwatchable? Perhaps it is. Perhaps this is such a challenge, any casual viewers will be scared off, handily eager to seek a film that is palatable, scary, and entertaining. I would argue that you, dear readers – you who are horror fans already – are specially primed to experience an ugly, beautiful film like BEGOTTEN. The entire film can be seen on YouTube, and its also available on DVD here and there. Seek out the beauty. Seek out the fear. Seek out the challenge. The pleasures can only be novel.