August Underground (2001)

August Underground is a gruelling watch but appropriately so. Presented as a string of found footage clips from a pair of serial killers’ Mini DV collection, it certainly looks and feels the part.

First off: the violence, the perspective, the ideology, the attitude – everything about August Underground is as it needs to be to be convincing. You could absolutely stumble upon clips of this movie and believe it to be a legitimate snuff film. Indeed, scenes from it regularly appear on those “real violence” sites and many have mistaken them for the real deal. I suppose that’s a compliment to Vogel’s filmmaking. As someone who has seen a handful of real murder clips in my teenage years, it certainly hits you with the same emotional turmoil those clips put you through. The glee in the violence and cruelty is so bracing. The emphasis on all the nasty details and the hopelessness in the victims’ eyes cuts deep. There’s a divide between “movie violence” and “real violence” and the way Vogel orchestrates all this feels like the real thing rather than a showcase for some special effects. It is ugly, upsetting and beyond comprehension.

There’s a constant thought of “why am I watching this?” and you can’t help but keep your finger over the volume button to avoid detection. I watched the film alone in an empty house but still felt totally guilty and implicit by indulging in watching something so horrible. How would I even explain watching this? “I’m doing it for a podcast!” (I am). You can’t help but think someone would look at you a bit more suspiciously if they knew you had this kind of shit swimming around in your mind’s eye.

Writer/director/actor Fred Vogel points to the “home movie” segment from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as primary inspiration for this project and that’s exactlywhat springs to mind. But where Henry was a by-product of the ‘Nam generation, the killers here – much like the boys at the centre of the Columbine shootings – feel like bored, parentless teens taking their love of the extreme to the absolute zenith. It’s like a really horrible, distressing extension of Jackass and goth cultures. They’re the kind of people that give those things a bad name. They have no compassion and find nothing but pleasure in the pain they inflict on others. Even more troubling: you feel like you’ve seen these guys before. They’re the boys the girls don’t look twice at on the playground so they take it upon themselves to teach them a lesson instead of, you know, having social skills. If they want something they think they can just take it and then destroy it. And, ofcourse, they don’t bat an eyelid in realising they can film the whole thing on a handheld camera. The eye behind a lot of these shots feels like that of a sick mind, not a filmmaker. As that is the film’s intention, I can only see that as a positive.

It’s easy to look at August Underground as a disgusting work of “shock value”. The low rating on here suggest that’s how most react to it but there’s more going on here. You can’t really rate it in the same way you rate other films. It’s coming at it’s subject from a very unique angle, using format and psychology as an aesthetic. All of the murder and depravity is scattered throughout other clips of the killers doing every day, boring shit. They go to the mall, they get tattoos, attend metal gigs and cavort with prostitutes. All that stuff is what makes this so deeply affecting and convincing. Those moments are given the same emphasis as the murders and it just shows you how inconsequential they think their actions are. All of this is just for shits (literally) and giggles for them. It’s fucked up.

The great achievement of August Underground is how it makes you appreciate being alive. As soon as I finished this movie I felt the urge to call everyone I care about to make sure they were okay. This film shows you how vulnerable human life is and how random and unmotivated genuine violence can be. It reminds you there are people like this out in the world and their targets are often just people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Plus, you’ll be thinking about this thing for days and it could quite possibly scar you for life. That’s more than I can say for a whole lot of other so called horror movies.

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