The 13th Floor

CINEMA IN EXTREMIS: Twisted Horror-Comedy DEEP DARK Opens a Glory Hole to Hell

I’ve mentioned in previous installments of this column that extreme cinema is about more than graphic gore or explicit sex; it’s about pushing the boundaries of visual storytelling in ways that may shock the viewer into seeing a new perspective… whether they want to or not.

The obscure but weirdly compelling 2015 horror-fantasy feature DEEP DARK illustrates that concept by literally poking a hole in the wall between the reality we (allegedly) perceive by daylight and the shadowy, sticky netherworld of nightmares. In the hands of filmmaker Michael Medaglia — making his feature debut as director — this concept is not only twisted, bizarre and sexually perverse, it also carries a strong undercurrent of absurdist comedy.

Ironically, the pitch-black satire almost works against the film’s surreal strengths at first… but since the humor focuses almost exclusively on a self-absorbed world of hungry, desperate outsider artists looking for that one big break it actually becomes a statement of transgressive art in itself, by mirroring these artists’ often dubious visions with genuine images of horror — images which literally seduce a failing artist and everyone around him in bizarre and ultimately monstrous ways. Think of it as Roger Corman’s cult classic A BUCKET OF BLOOD, but re-imagined by early David Cronenberg.

Sean McGrath (GRIMM) stars as Hermann Haig, a jobless young man who dreams of creating art that changes people’s lives forever; sadly, those dreams are inhibited by the fact that his actual work — crude mobiles strung together out of bent tableware, hot dogs, birth control pills and masking tape — is hilariously awful.

After one of his performance-art pieces malfunctions in the most outrageous way possible (splattering blood across other artists’ works in the middle of a tony gallery show), it seems Hermann is nearly resigned to failure. At the end of his rope, he accepts an offer from his artist uncle — whose own work, now manufactured by sweatshop workers, has made him wealthy — to rent a fleapit apartment where he once found “inspiration.”

As it turns out, Hermann’s uncle did indeed have a muse… and she’s still living in the apartment, which has been otherwise unoccupied since the uncle left. This muse has grown lonely and despondent over the years… and before long she makes herself known to her new roommate.

Did I mention she’s not human? Like, not even close?

The nameless presence — credited only as “The Hole” — isn’t living on the other side of the wall… she’s dwelling inside it (it’s even suggested that the wall itself might be alive), and the only split-second glimpse we get of her is a pink, lamprey-like mouth… which may only be one tiny part of the whole creature. Whatever “she” is, The Hole is capable of ripping a man’s spine out (as demonstrated in one of the film’s rare but effectively graphic deaths).

The Hole introduces herself just as Hermann is contemplating self-mutilation to end his creative agony; she begins with typewritten notes, then finally calling to him in a deep, smoldering voice (the dulcet tones of voice artist Denise Poirier, MTV’s ÆON FLUX). She’s lonely, as I said… and she’s willing to offer Hermann the artistic success he desperately craves.

She demonstrates her commitment to this surreal partnership by “birthing” a small, marble-sized nugget of luminescent gristle — which Hermann instinctively knows where to place within his latest mobile. The piece seemingly looks just as crappy as before… until other people lay eyes on it, after which they fall into a state of supernatural ecstasy. These collaborations also have an aphrodisiac effect — the first new piece compels its buyers to bang each other right on the gallery floor (after paying $50,000 for it).

Hermann’s dream has come true overnight… and all The Hole wants in return for these slime-covered supernatural offerings is his companionship… but as it turns out, she’s seeking attention of a more intimate kind. I’m sure the scene when Hermann starts humping the Hole might be the spot where a lot of viewers tuned out… but things get so much weirder than that.

Though beautifully shot on minimal sets (mostly the apartment), DEEP DARK is not perfect — though it’s only 80 minutes long, it could have benefited from a tighter edit (it may even have been punchier as a short). The central concept is intriguing, though, and the deliberate ambiguity about The Hole’s true nature leaves the story open for more grotesque, Lovecraftian possibilities (for example, the prologue, in which Hermann’s uncle has a gruesome nightmare involving his navel, is never addressed again). But Medaglia is clearly more interested in Hermann’s inner conflict — a battle between his hunger for success and the painful realization that he would be an utter failure without The Hole’s help. He needs her… as much as she needs him.

Nearly all the other characters, from the ambitious gallery owner Devora (Anne Sorce) to Hermann’s bitter artistic rival Joel (Tabor Helton), are not as conflicted as he is; they know exactly what they want. The same goes for The Hole… but instead of money, fame and power, she just wants Hermann’s love and devotion.

Like I said earlier, DEEP DARK is not striving to shock or sicken its audience, and it’s probably one of the mildest offerings I’ll be discussing in this column. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to cover it at first; it’s more indie than underground. But I was struck by the vulnerability shared by the central characters — and by that I mean Hermann and The Hole. Their strange relationship actually anchors the story’s craziest elements, to the point where I really had no idea where it would lead… but I was happy to go along for the ride.