The horror…: “Angst”

June 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

At first it might be somewhat surprising to think that this little known Austrian film from 1983 – little known probably on account of it having widely received X-ratings in most jurisdictions and maintained them for so long – isn’t more frequently cited as one of the greats of the horror genre, because in many ways it is. But it only takes a second’s recollection of what it’s like to actually sit through this supremely unsettling work to realise why it’s not featured on more ‘top however many’, ‘greatest’, and even ‘best you’ve never heard of or seen’ lists. Even perennially revered – and rightfully so – films like Tobe Hooper’s original “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “The Exorcist” have elements of perverse excitement to them and moments that are bound to thrill. The former evokes a very grindhouse, very drive-in, so-wrong-it-must-be-right sense of fun while the former is scandalous in a prestige way that would have surely found audiences leaving theatres talking in hushed but excited whispers, saying, ‘oh my God, did you see what she did with that crucifix?!’ Plus the outstanding art direction in “Chainsaw Massacre” manages to wring a garish, primal kind of beauty from the ugliest subject matter, acknowledging that Leatherface is – like it or not – an artist of the macabre. Fact is, even the most artistically ambitious of horror classics – those that would stand up as great pieces of cinema period – even these would get a bunch of friends excited for a weed-laced re-watch session. But not for a second viewing of “Angst”; surely no one can get excited for that…unless maybe intellectually. In a literal sense, few movies could possibly be expected to approach the level of pure horror that this piece, directed by Gerald Kargl, manages to reach. It would not be at all shocking if it turned out that Kargl’s feature filmography is so tiny on account of him descending into a prolonged nervous rut after having made this movie, which would certainly not bode well at all for the actors, especially not Erwin Leder who plays the lead and who hopefully received a good long debriefing at the close of shooting. Sure, there are piles of movies – especially of late – that are quite content to drown a viewer in violence, gore and dementedness, but the trick to these and the reason that they can be digested by scores of blank faced teens who groan-laugh/laugh-groan ironically at each gratuitous kill is that there are formal elements to these scenes which actually end up blunting the potency of their unpleasantness, or at least distracting from them. It’s the same reason big-budget action tent pole releases that involve scores of people being mowed down with automatics are deemed fit for consumption by thirteen year olds whereas a film like “Irreversible” is quickly shuffled into a containment chamber as though it were Bubonic Plague. In short, presentation is perhaps more important than content when it comes to determining how said content is received, and with “Angst” the presentation is downright nauseating, in the most bravura way possible.

The aforementioned Leder, almost Nosferatu-like in the way that he skulks, plays – with troubling brilliance – a convicted murderer on the day of his release from prison after serving a decade long stint for ending an old lady. Adopting a drolly confessional voice-over narration reminiscent more of Bresson’s “Pickpocket” than something more sordid, the film follows this nameless individual whose first instinct on leaving prison grounds is to find someone to off. He is not only unapologetic and relentless in his pursuit, but he does not display any signs of self-questioning, any indication that he wonders why exactly he has these urges and what purpose submitting to them might serve. Almost as a knowing dig by the filmmakers at the rehabilitation/correctional process in which incarceration is supposed to play a major part, Leder’s character mentions off-hand that prison is where criminals are meant to learn how to be better people, which he says while clearly anticipating his just-got-out-of-prison celebratory slaying. For the next seventy minutes the viewer is subjected to a uniquely photographed portrayal of what it may be like to submit oneself utterly to a force so powerful it might seem like a divine calling, or a curse. Watching this film, it makes complete sense that the man who directed “Enter the Void”, Gaspar Noé, reveres this film alongside “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Shot by Zbigniew Rybczynski, “Angst” features immediately distinct use of very high-angle tracking shots, almost god’s eye (or devil’s eye) views of the main character as he walks down the street and around and through buildings. These shots basically pre-empt the kind of visual aesthetic utilised in certain role-playing games like the “Grand Theft Auto” series or even “The Sims,” the kind used to emphasise how much of a pawn each character in the game is; how much they exist to satisfy the entertainment desires of the gamer. Then there is the virtuosic use of a camera mounted on the actor himself – the kind used to such memorable effect in Scorsese’s “Mean Streets”, virtuosic here because the camera is a great deal more mobile that would be expected for a piece of apparatus fixed to a moving body. It (the camera) seems to swivel around him, as though the viewer is invited to assume the position of some demon that hangs around like a fly, attracted to the junkie-like desperation evident on his face and in his manner. In combination, these two techniques create a powerful sense of, well, many things: that this man’s physical body is at the utter mercy of his psychological obsessions, that he may be subject to out-of-body-experiences, that he may in fact be the tool of evil forces and spirits, that he is so removed from statistically normal human psychology that the ‘usual’ shots simply won’t suffice. But all this visual artistry, unlike other films in the horror canon, does little to shield or distract from the oppressiveness of the sequences being presented. “Angst” is simply not fun to watch despite wall-to-wall admirable visual flourishes, but it is plenty powerful and it is horrific through and through which is more than most supposed horror films can claim with sincerity.

So is “Angst” some sort of psycho-killer apologist statement? Probably not. There is – on display in the film – evidence that the filmmakers are curious about what exactly it is that enables someone to commit and recommit such acts of staggering violence with diminishing levels of awareness and an inability to view their behaviour in a context outside of their own needs and fantasies. Ultimately, there is the implication that the killer in this movie and similar individuals are in the throes of some kind of debased anxiety disorder, or that their pathology at the very least has strong components of anxiety of the kind that plagues true obsessive-compulsives who feel that they simply must do this or that in order to alleviate the overwhelming sense that all will not be well unless they carry out this or that. It’s terrifying to think that there are people in these particular psychological prisons, and perhaps more terrifying to think that – if faced with such an individual who has it in their mind that they must kill in order to simply feel…okay – nothing could in fact be done to dissuade them from stabbing you into oblivion. It should be said, however, that Leder’s unnamed character is perhaps more than just a victim of his vices. There are clear indications that he enjoys and cherishes what he does, though there are also moments of clear self-disgust and repulsion, for example his bout of dry retching after he has absolutely skewered the young lady and lapped up her blood in a deeply sexual manner in what must be one of the grimmest, most repulsive scenes of violence ever committed to film. The movie which comes closest to “Angst” in capturing the frankly sickening, ‘everyday’ quality that murder might have in the eyes of someone whose life is dedicated to it is “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”, an inevitable comparison and a film that probably supersedes its Austrian counterpart on account of it simply being far more watertight and practically perfect. Where “Angst” falls short of undisputed horror ‘glory’, if that is even the right word, is that portions of its apparently famous score (which is said to be more well-known than the movie as a whole) seems to be attempting to express a panic and disorientation that the visuals on their own suggest fairly successfully. There are two of three moments in which this drum-heavy stretch of cheeseball-80’s-action-score music appears, but these are mercifully few in a film that does not dish mercy out all that generously (at least not to humans, though adorable brown Daschunds seem to be an exception) .

 

Brief impression: “Summer of Sam”

July 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

If Spike Lee’s underrated (I would argue) ‘Summer of Sam’ is more concerned with the effect that the year-long Son of Sam killing season had on the general atmosphere in New York City during the summer of 1977, then I wonder about the scenes featuring Michael Badalucco as the titular figure; I wonder about the presence and the significance of these. Are they intended as periodic reminders of the ‘madman’ whose relatively simple acts had an entire city by the throat for twelve whole months, or are they part of a narrative device by which the concurrent ratcheting of tension in both the character-drama storyline and that of the crime-thriller feed into and feed off one another? Perhaps they are simply obligatory inclusions of an individual in a film whose overall existence is largely dependent on that very individual. Once the film comes to a conclusion though, it is clear that the explicit depiction of the true killer is a kind of dramatic irony: Adrien Brody’s Ritchie, one of the film’s key characters, is increasingly believed to be the Son of Sam by his ‘friends’ on account of his adopting the confronting dress code and lifestyle of the late 70s British Punk establishment (though anyone who knows the actual name of Son of Sam would realise that poor mohawked Ritchie is innocent,) with some fairly unfortunate consequences.

Each time Berkowitz is shown thrashing about in his morbidly lit abode, being tortured – presumably – by the voices chewing at his brain, or when Lee follows Son of Sam or his silhouette from behind as he stalks his human prey in the darkened streets and shrubs, there is almost undeniable deliberateness to the way his identity is concealed. Now while it is common practice to shroud dangerous and shadowy characters in mystery, either for purposes of suspense or to create a sense of otherness, the portrayal of the killer in this film highlights the frustration and tension inherent in his behaviour, or at the very least it seems that this is the case; that he is a wound-up, frustrated man with no other conceivable outlet but the barrel of a pistol. The strong sense I get is that this man is not so far removed from the ‘regular’ folk on whom he preys. Vinny, Ritchie, Ruby, Dionna, Joey and the rest of the cats that populate Throgs Neck, the section of the Bronx that serves as the film’s setting…these characters are all in some way trashing around their own personal hells, victims of their own personal demonic forces, their own 2000-year old black dog (an entity to which Berkowitz actually attributed his crimes): whether it’s Vinny and his irrepressible, wandering eye which finds him repeatedly cheating on his gorgeous wife Dionna, or Ritchie’s immersion in various subcultures that may or may not weigh on him but which certainly contribute to his being ostracised and viewed with undue suspicion, ‘Summer of Sam’ is bold enough to draw parallels between the psychic struggles of these characters and  Berkowitz’s rage, confusion and enslavement to his violent urges.

Spike Lee has always been a filmmaker who appears obsessed with the psychological complexities – no, the schizophrenia – of the cultural broth that is New York City, the psychosocial inferno that is created when ethnicities, generations and disparate value systems not only co-exist but frequently clash. In ‘Summer of Sam,’ Berkowitz is less a character than he is a personification of a community’s state of mind at a particular time in its history. Now, whether or not this film successfully explores exactly what state of mind the city of New York was in during this period is a difficult assessment to make, but there is no shortage of first-hand testimony of the fact that the late-seventies saw New York going through a very rough period indeed. Perhaps Berkowitz’s reign of violence was simply one of several possible outcomes; maybe it was even somewhat ineviable. That being said, this film is not so much an exploration of his crimes as it is one which uses his crimes as a way in, a way into the soul of a little section of the Bronx in the summer of 1977.

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