August Underground: Limited “Snuff Version” DVD Review
Written by Steve Pattee
DVD released by ToeTag Pictures
Directed by Fred Vogel
Written by Fred Vogel and Allen Peters
2000, Region 0 (NTSC), 70 minutes, Not rated
John A. Wisniewski
An indeterminate amount of time in two serial killers’ lives — captured on video.
Nothing more, nothing less.
What else can you say about a movie that doesn't have a plot? On the director's commentary, Fred Vogel seems a little miffed, if not angry, about critics saying August Underground doesn't have a plot. He explains that the film does have a plot. It’s a story about the serial killers.
But, Fred, that's not enough. A plot starts at point A and ends up at point B. Underground starts at point A and stays there — beating the ever-loving shit out of it.
And, on some primordial level, it works. In fact, it works extremely well.
The movie opens with absolutely no set-up. You are rushed head-first into the life of two serial killers — one of whom is never seen, because he is the man behind the camera. All you get from him is his maniacal laughter and voice giving encouragement and ideas. Sometimes, you see his hand torturing one of the victims, but never the person. Within three minutes from fade-in — there are no opening credits — there is a horrific vision of a woman in a basement, tied to a chair. And missing a nipple.
In the bathtub of the same basement lies a man — beaten, bloody and dead. Minus a penis.
Welcome to August Underground.
August Underground is an exploitation flick, plain and simple. There is nothing redeeming about this movie. Nothing at all. You feel dirty for watching it.
The movie is ugly. There is nothing pretty about Underground. Nothing at all. The film is a series of segments. Each time the camera is turned on, it seems it keeps running until someone is beaten, tortured, killed, or all three — then it's on to the next segment.
But, man, it's compelling.
One of the strongest suits of the movie is the acting. Vogel does go over the top at times with his portrayal of the serial killer in front of the camera — but just barely. And even the few times he does overdo it, it's forgivable because Vogel still makes the character credible.
And the victims are completely believable. Unsettlingly so. Each plays their role so well, you can't help but cringe when they do. Easily the best of the lot is the first victim you are introduced to: The girl in the basement. Because not only do you buy her fear absolutely and completely, you watch her will steadily decline as the killers keep going back to her.
That is another credit to Vogel — his consistency. While most of the segments are random acts of brutal violence, the killers keep coming back to torture, prod and poke their live victim in the basement. And each time they come back, her condition is worse. Scabs are forming, cuts look worse, she is obviously becoming weaker and losing her will to live. It is maddening.
This is exploitation in its finest form. There is senseless violence, brutality. severed limbs and blood. Oh, so much blood.
The gore is a major part of this movie and Vogel, a former teacher at Tom Savini's Special Make-Up Effects Program, really lays it on, and well. There is no possible way this movie would have been as enjoyable, for lack of a better, more comfortable, term, if it weren't for Vogel and his talented team of special effects artists. It's an astounding onslaught of grue and dismemberment, all of which is believable. If someone were to tell me this were a real snuff film, I'd damn near believe them. Between the acting and the effects, it is that realistic.
What amazes me is I couldn't turn this movie off, especially since I have never been a fan of the exploitation genre. But August Underground grabbed me, shook me and pummled me until I liked it. There were numerous times I wanted to turn it off, but my hand would not listen to my brain and grab the damn remote. And my feet sure as hell weren't helping, as my ass was glued to the chair.
To call it a train wreck would not be fair, because a train wreck is generally not an enjoyable experience, even when you are just watching. Underground is not an enjoyable experience, either, because it hurts to watch it. But it's damn good filmmaking because, no matter how uncomfortable you are watching it, you continue to do so until the end.
Video and Audio:
Shot on videotape and presented in its intended 4:3 aspect ratio, Underground looks like complete and utter garbage. It's muddy, it's grainy, the colors are washed and, at times, the camera shakes more then Katherine Hepburn on speed.
And I wouldn't have it any other way.
The highs get distorted, the lows get muffled and the sound is bad as the background noise gets picked up often. But this must be intentional, to add to the realism.
And I wouldn't have it any other way.
The first of three commentaries offered is with Vogel, the director and star. He does a great job filling in the back story on how Underground came to be, as well as how some of the special effects were done. There is a lot of information about the making of this movie and Vogel’s passion for it comes through loud and clear. Well worth a listen.
Also enjoyable is the second commentary, with Vogel and producers Aaron and Ben LaBonte. While some topics were covered in Vogel’s commentary, there is even more background information on the making of the film and it is just as enjoyable as the solo commentary.
The third commentary — a bonus commentary — is Vogel in character. With a victim.
There’s nothing quite like listening to a serial killer talk about his work, with the sound of a screaming woman in the background; or in this case, from the right speaker. While there is nothing to be learned from this commentary, as far as the technical side, it should be listened to, if only for 10 minutes.
“Hammer to the Head: A Closer Look at A.U.” is a three-part documentary running just over an hour. The first part is Vogel discussing the reasons why he made August Underground, the budget and some of the character motivations and reasons why they did the things they did. There are other interviews included within this part, but Vogel’s interview comprises the majority of it.
The second part of the documentary, which can also be played independently, is “August Underground: On Location.” As the title suggests, this featurette explores the various locations from the movie.
The last part, “August Underground: Behind the Brutality,” concentrates heavily on the special effects.
All in all, a well-detailed documentary that is a very big asset to the special features.
The second documentary offered, “August Underground: ‘Too Real For Comfort’ — An Outsider’s Perspective” is 102 minutes of, more or less, fluff, with interviews of people not involved with the picture, talking about how they felt when they first watched it and how they think the movie has affected the genre. While some of the people interviewed for this documentary had some interesting things to say, 102 minutes of back-patting is about 82 minutes too long.
A photo gallery is also offered.
Toe Tag Pictures went all out and covered every base that could be covered with their special features. One of the most in-depth jobs I’ve seen on a no-budget film.
August Underground is as close to a snuff movie as you're going to get. The sad part is the limited DVD is not available at your local Best Buy or Blockbuster, and can only be obtained from Toe Tag's website at a cost of $40*. The price is steep, but worth it — if you can handle it. While I think most gorehounds and exploitation fans should see this, it's tough to recommend a blind buy at that price. But take this for what it's worth: I had read about this film about a year ago, and if I knew then what I know now, I would have bought August Underground the first chance I got, even if I could only handle one viewing.
*The special edition is long out of print now, but you can still get a 2-disc edition at Toe Tag's site.