Cult Cinema: Begotten

Andrew reviews one of the strangest art house films ever made.

"Leatherface, come to mommy!"
E. Elias Merhige's debut feature and experimental student film Begotten is either one of the great art horror films of all time, or a video installation fit for a haunted house on Halloween. Taking cues from Lynch's Eraserhead, the film is shot in high contrast black and white and contains no dialogue, just an ambient soundscape of wind, film print damage and occasional organic as well as industrial sounds. On screen we see what appears to be either a loose interpretation of the Book of Genesis or a series of Rorschach tests hinting at grotesquerie and the occult. There's a lot of regurgitation of blood and human organs throughout the film, which is said to be God giving back life to the Earth, but I'm not so sure. Mostly, the film is intended to look like a gothic religious relic unearthed from within a rusty film can over a quarter of a century old. 

While E. Elias Merhige eventually entered into more commercial fare such as Shadow of the Vampire and Suspect Zero, Begotten is the project that cinephiles, horror aficionados and rock stars like Marilyn Manson (who featured clips of the film in some of his music videos) continue to return to. Reportedly, to achieve the look of a found silent feature from the depths of the Earth, Merhige spent 10 hours re-photographing the footage before hand-damaging individual frames. It's a remarkable visual accomplishment not unlike Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey-Boy and its dirty glass look. Music, if you can find any here, consists of Aphex Twin-inspired ambience and a throbbing heartbeat, creating a sleepy sense of unease. Ever present is the sound of print damage and a film projector, with intentional glitches and drops in the sound. 

"Hi. Yes, I'm here for the Cradle
of Filth video shoot...."
Closer to pure art than cinema (or for some, closer to a Horrible Sounds of Halloween audio cassette), 'Begotten' can either be deeply disturbing or incredibly tedious. Its snail pace and deliberately slow movement, including an overuse of slow motion, hint at a sensibility my former English Professor aptly named "the first week of film school." The fact that physical copies of Begotten are difficult to obtain either adds to its allure or repulsiveness, with some finding its exorbitant costs on eBay undeserving for such a film. Whatever your take on this surreal, nightmarish, pseudo-quasi religious art-horror film object is, it's the kind of slow burn you can play in the background before its flickering images of blood, vomit, goth and grain crawl beneath your skin.

-Andrew Kotwicki