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Every genre of film has its pioneers, cornerstones if you will, that revolutionized the genre forever and continue to inspire film-makers today – for instance, Japanese film has Akira Kurosawa, American film has Stanley Kubrick, and shitty film has Michael Bay. The world of Underground film – a genre once described as both “anti-art” by film critic Manny Farber, and “threatening the status quo” by film-maker Nick Zedd – has always played the role of the weird kid in the classroom of cinema, be it the psychedelic films of the 1960s, or the Cinema of Transgression from the late 1970s and early 80s, the genre has always shocked and awed those inclined to look off the beaten (read: mainstream) path. The world of Underground film today consists of the most variety it ever has, and with that variety comes individuals not afraid to push boundaries and set new status quos- individuals, and genre pioneers, like Fred Vogel.
Born in 1976, Fred Vogel knew only five years later after witnessing James Whale’s Frankenstein that he wanted to work in the horror genre. His passion for special effects make-up fueled him through his stint at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and in 1998, he was offered a teaching job teaching 3D art at what would soon become the Tom Savini Makeup School. While teaching, he decided to start work on a film that would eventually be the catalyst for why he lost his job – little did he know that film would change the world of film forever…
In 2001, a grainy ‘home-video’ entitled August Underground started circulating the world of underground film; nobody who watched it could prepare for what they were in for – for this was a film that would shock even the most proclaimed gore-hounds right to their blackened cores.
Banned in Australia, New Zealand, and responsible for placing Fred on the F.B.I. watch list, the movie starts in the middle – just like any other home-video – and we are led downstairs by a smiling young man, played by Fred, with the promise “You are going to love this!” We see a nude woman tied to a chair, rotten apple-core gag in her mouth, excrement coming out from behind, and her left nipple missing. “I cut it off!” – he says laughing hysterically. A quick pan of the basement showcases the rest of the carnage – a man lies in the bathtub, deceased, with his penis completely cut off and multiple stab wounds visible. “Where’s his fucking dick?!” the camera-man asks while trying not to laugh. After a sadistic session of the young men tormenting her with a fresh apple and shoving her own fecal matter into the wound of where her nipple used to be, the guys get bored and leave.
What follows is a 90 minute look into the world of these sociopaths – and not just their triumphant kills, no, we see them driving around, touring a slaughterhouse, and even having a night of fun with some prostitutes. This is a slice of their lives – exciting, boring, riveting, vile, and disgusting.
The carnage continues through the slices of their lives when they kidnap twin brothers and psychologically torture one – asking if he could feel it via telepathic link when his brother’s leg was cut off. The crazy thing about that scene was that the actor was an actual amputee, which only added more realism to the scene. The infamous August Underground hammer makes an appearance and takes the living brother out of his misery – but not before the amputated-leg brother receives multiple blows to the back of his head. It’s just another afternoon for these sociopaths, as their giggling conveys.
Many who will see August Underground – especially not knowing much going in – will have a hard time reminding themselves what they are viewing is indeed fabricated. These films are made for a select audience and somebody who just dabbles in mainstream horror would probably have a mental breakdown after just 15 minutes of August Underground due to all the realism – could you imagine if a politician got their hands on this?
This, the first of the trilogy, has a very child-like feel to it. The characters are akin to Alex and his droogs in A Clockwork Orange – having fun at the expense of somebody else’s pain. They giggle and laugh and make fart and poop jokes as they go on with multiple murders – children that they are, these maniacs are on the rise to something far more sinister…
If August Underground was the child of the series, then August Underground’s MORDUM is definitely the angry father of this dysfunctional family. Gone is the cameraman from the first installment (…was he murdered?) and instead, we are introduced to Crusty – Fred’s girlfriend, and new partner in crime. (How the fuck did THEY meet?!) It is with MORDUM that EVERYTHING gets turned up to 11 – especially the sadism – “CUT IT OFF!” one screams as a man bound in a wooden coffin, covered in maggots, is forced to cut his penis off with vanity scissors while the others laugh maniacally – and just to add insult to injury, they take his severed member and rape his nearby and tied-up girlfriend with it. “I feel violated!” Crusty says while mocking the girlfriend’s muffled cries, shoving the severed penis into her.
MORDUM, released in 2003, continues the rise of Fred’s character named Peter – he is never named directly in the series, but before the series was called August Underground it was going to be called Peter; however, it was too close to Henry (Portrait of a Serial Killer) and it was changed.
This entry follows the two, and friends, as they slice and dice multiple people – from an excruciatingly long vomit-play scene that escalates to an extremely realistic plastic bag over the head and hammer hit and disemboweling, to a decapitated, maggot-covered baby in a trashcan, to the climax, with a deranged third member, Crusty’s brother, appropriately named Maggot – with whom there is a demented love-triangle involving – having sex with a dead little girl in a bathtub – one thought comes to mind, these people must smell SO bad. As if the never-blinking eye of the camera capturing everything Hollywood would shy away from wasn’t enough, the non-stop sadistic laughter and dialogue adds more levels of ultimate depravity – “You don’t have to worry about growing up now, Sweetheart,” Crusty whispers to the corpse of a little girl getting violated in a dirty bathtub. This is what these people do for fun, think of that the next time you play Call of Duty: Whatever and eat half a bag Cheetos on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
MORDUM is definitely the power-house of the trilogy, with top-notch performances and effects; it still out-performs any faux-pas snuff film today by miles. The addition of a female character into the circle of killers helps further the fact that these people could be anybody – your neighbors, your distant cousins, or even your mailman. These are not famous people, these are not luxurious people, no, these are everyday people who can exist anywhere. They don’t need a mask, they don’t care about who sees them, they are monsters, and they are here to do the Devil’s work.
Right before the release of MORDUM, Fred Vogel, Christie Whiles (AKA Crusty), makeup maniac Jerami Cruise, and Mrs. Vogel – Fred’s wife Shelby, formed their own independent movie label called TOETAG Pictures. Christy would come to leave later down the road, and the three remaining members would evolve TOETAG into a symbol of films with no compromises – a company hell-bent on ‘telling it like it is’ and giving their loyal fans and followers exactly what they want -horror films with top-notch special effects and unflinching looks at multiple aspects of violence and gore, as well as a middle-finger raised high at Hollywood and censorship.
Three years would pass after MORDUM before fans would get a taste of the next TOETAG vision – what could possibly come after August Underground’s MORDUM? Where was there to go after that? Would it be another faux-pas snuff film? Answers came with the release of The Redsin Tower in 2006.
The Redsin Tower was a complete 180 in regards to August Underground – where the latter was ‘found footage’ and featured no real structured narrative, but rather just slices of life, The Redsin Tower would be TOETAG’s first traditional-narrative movie – complete with opening credits, a soundtrack, and the traditional three-act structure of a scripted movie. The film told the tale of a girl who recently broke up with her rather psychotic boyfriend, and was talked into joining some friends at the haunted Redsin Tower for a night of partying to forget the psycho. What follows is a night of debauchery and mayhem – including a terrific disemboweling and murder via axe. The blood and guts fly in the third act, and the film showed that Fred was more than capable of doing more than just being “The snuff guy.”
With traditional narrative tackled, Fred decided it was time to end his infamous August Underground trilogy, and in 2007, August Underground’s PENANCE was released. It had been four years since we left Peter and Crusty in the basement, four years since we saw how bat-shit insane Crusty is (and how she can vomit on command), four years since the intestines of a disemboweled woman were sexually violated, and four years since our minds were assaulted, raped, and blown away with August Underground’s MORDUM, so what could POSSIBLY come next in the trilogy?
PENANCE has a very different, but totally welcome feel to it – gone is the grainy found-footage look and we are given the first August Underground in High Definition! Also gone is Crusty’s crazy punk-rock appearance and instead she showcases a beautiful girl-next-door look, and even Peter starts off with a nice button-up shirt. What happened to these maniacs?
After following these two on a road-trip in the intro, we see a different, peaceful side of these two lovers – it is surreal, like seeing Hitler playing hopscotch with little girls and eating cotton candy. Could PENANCE really be a reformed and happy couple movie?
PENANCE showcases some of the vilest acts of these two coupled with the downfall of their relationship – one big ball of seething anger and depression that just festers in both of these characters until they both explode. We follow Peter and Crusty as they torture a man with nails pounded into him, cut another man open and reveal his gurgling and bubbling intestines, and perform a stomach-turning Christmas Eve home-invasion scene, akin to one of the most impactful scenes in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, in which an entire family is tormented and murdered in their Christmas-decorated living room. We also see what could be the cause of the demise of their relationship – the disemboweling of a pregnant woman by Peter – be sure to watch after the credits for the final clue on that one as Crusty appears to have had a miscarriage, and is filming the fetus in the toilet.
The beauty of PENANCE lies in watching these seemingly invincible monsters and realizing they actually are still human – they have relationship issues, they cry, and they feel love. Unfortunately, they also have extremely poor coping skills and take out their aggressions on the victims – perhaps the only way they know how to hurt each other, by ‘stealing’ kills.
The August Underground movies have the power to change you, however, August Underground is NOT a weapon as it would appear on the outside to many, no, it is a TOOL. The intense violence exists to show us just that – real violence is UGLY. This is not some stylized John Woo film with some guy duel-wielding Uzi’s, or some Saw-type torture porn, there is no stylized violence here – what you are seeing is violence at its purest – the August Underground films NEED to exist to show the rest of the world how ugly real violence can be.
With four films under his belt, Fred returned to the found-footage style of murder in 2009, but from a vastly different perspective than the August Underground films portrayed. Here, in Murder Collection v.1, the film is more of a tribute and homage to Mondo (exploitation documentary, AKA ‘Shockumentary’) films such as Faces of Death and Traces of Death – films made popular in the late 1970s and 1980s that showcased multiple real deaths caught on film. Murder Collection v.1 showcases multiple murders caught by security cameras, webcams, and home-videos all in a non-sensationalized, and very real matter with the deaths not in center-frame and in-focus, but rather hard to see and rather ambiguous – with no explanation or any back-story, sans the autopsy. We see a teenage son being beat to death by his father via a running webcam, a robbery involving multiple homicides through security camera footage, a super creepy home video of a pedophile who gets what’s coming to him, as well as a man killed and robbed at an ATM machine, an execution shot with a home video camera, and the best looking autopsy footage since Nacho Cerda’s Aftermath, along with a few other deaths as well.
The ultimate effect of Murder Collection v.1 is how real it feels – just like the first time one watched Faces of Death – which has ultimately been revealed to be a large percent fabricated – and wondered “Holy shit, is this real?!” Fred succeeded in creating yet another perspective of murder and death – totally different than August Underground that challenged the viewer’s morality and sense of what was real.
In 2009, the TOETAG train was in full motion with no signs of slowing down, and there was no better time to release a new film, and new vision. MASKHEAD was the bastard love-child of Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns (arguably the best installment) writer Scott Swan and Fred Vogel. Continuing and expanding on the exploration of the id (our wants, desires, and sexual and aggressive impulses) started in the August Underground films; MASKHEAD focuses more on the sexual aggression aspect. What starts with a man getting electrocuted while sitting in a metal chair – in an eyeball-bleeding scene that rivals the most infamous scene in Faces of Death – escalates to the exploits of a group of lesbian fetish film-makers, and their pet gimp, MASKHEAD. The duo lure individuals into thinking they are trying out for a modeling gig, and then MASKHEAD (who is never explained, but who cares, he’s awesome) abducts and kills them – all while being filmed. The film is hyper-sexualized, but it never feels straight-up pornographic, rather it comes off as an interesting balance between sexual and aggressive impulses – with porn scenarios leading into murders. It is a fine line to effectively balance on in film, and TOETAG finds a way to make it look easy.
With six films under his belt, a loyal fan base, a successful underground film company, and growing notoriety, Fred Vogel upped the ante with his next film in 2010, Sella Turcica, by returning to traditional story-telling and incorporating a known horror actress into the mix – I Spit on Your Grave’s Camille Keaton. Sella Turcica, medically defined as “a depression in the middle line of the upper surface of the sphenoid bone in which the pituitary gland is lodged,” tells the tale of Sergeant Bradley Roback and his return from the Middle East following an unexplained disappearance. Something is off with Bradley, and it becomes more evident as the film progresses – he is deteriorating, physically, with yellow teeth and black fluid excreting from his orifices, as well as mentally – eventually leading to a catatonic state. The film escalates into Dead Alive territory (“Your mother ate my dog!”) as well as brings the gore on heavy in the third act – jaws get ripped off, heads get severed via splintered wood (a one-up on Fulci’s infamous eyeball mutilation in Zombie), and individuals get beaten to a pulp – all leading up to a heavy and depressing final shot. Though it rings a little similar with Bob Clark’s 1972 Deathdream – call it a homage – the film firmly established that TOETAG is a force to be reckoned with in the world of independent film.
TOETAG shows absolutely no signs of slowing down – be it conquering the world of faux pas snuff films and making history to radically changing it up and having traditional narrative horror films to not stopping till they have shown every perspective of death imaginable – the Underground owes a huge ‘thank you’ to them for resetting the status quo and showing others that they don’t have to follow the rules to make the film they want. It’s safe to say that Fred Vogel and the kingdom of the Underground that TOETAG has made for itself will go down in history for all the future generations that will be inspired by it, and what a beautiful kingdom it is.
All hail the king.