October Nightmares #12: Begotten (1990)


Begotten is a film I was initially disinclined to include on the list. As a horror film, it is easily among my favourites. But I feared admitting this would portray me as some artsy type, who has nothing better to do than watch pretentious films in the hoping of staving off the realisation that I spent years on a useless degree. And then my brain spasm subsided. Fuck it, thought I. The culture police haven't been given their badges and guns yet, so why should I shy away from things that I enjoy? Plus Begotten's stark black and white visuals are the perfect antidote to Street Trash's polychromatic excess. The two do share a fondness for minimalist nonsensical plots, however, so it's not too much of a departure.

I can only assume that director E. Elias Merhige intended Begotten to be watched after the viewer has smoked a blunt the size of Harry Callahan's fucking gun. The film is a supposed re-imagining of the Book of Genesis, portraying events through obscure symbolism and unpleasant, confusing imagery. Merhige would later go on to give the re-imagining treatment to Nosferatu actor Max Schreck, in Shadow of the Vampire (2000) - a depiction of an ego so dangerous and uncontrollable it would even outrage British Petroleum. For the uninitiated, any attempt at finding meaning in Begotten will no doubt prove to be an insurmountable challenge. This is art-house level of ostentatiousness, where each single scene has a multitude of conflicting interpretations and theories stuck to it, like the victims of a crazed acupuncturist.

One film that comes to mind for its thematic similarities is David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977). Like Eraserhead, Begotten is deeply layered, and one initially runs the risk of discarding its oneiric, surrealist narrative as meaningless. The two take place in nightmarish, desolate landscapes - Eraserhead in a bleak industrial setting, whereas Begotten features sinister churches and primeval hills/cliffs. Begotten is ripe with the themes and appurtenances of paganism; lending it a strange, almost forbidden quality, as though you are watching secret footage of a shamanistic cult. Perhaps this sentiment is enforced by the grainy, obscuring cinematography that places uncomfortable emphasis on movement and leaves the responsibility of interpretation squarely in the hands of the viewer. This is akin to leaving Ferris Bueller in charge of getting himself to school, but the use of vague shapes - identifiable only through great effort - works in the film's favour.

Suffering is the only thematic aspect of Begotten decipherable from the outside. From the ominous opening scene of a robed 'God' abusing and disembowelling itself, to the ritualistic dismembering of the Son of Earth, the film singularly focuses on the role of death and suffering in the life cycle. Though the meaning of the story remains obtuse, Merhige portrays a cycle of destruction and renewal. As is the case with many horror films with a bleak, cynical outlook, a sense of anti-humanism runs throughout Begotten. The human nomads torture and kill both the Son of Earth and Mother Earth, and rape the latter. It's a rather inelegant metaphor for humanity's treatment of the ecosystem. A metaphor that is infinitely more tolerable than a condescending lecture from PETA at any rate.

Begotten is an extremely bleak film. The cinematography brings to mind early horror films such as Nosferatu: possessing a strange inhuman quality stemming from the stilted movements and ghastly shapes. With a gruelling attention to the details of violence - the lingering shot of God's entrails running down his lower body as he opens himself up, for example - and an amateurish quality, Begotten feels as though it is trying to emulate a snuff movie. Even the soundtrack has devolved into a hymn of nature, overemphasising the on-screen setting, and weird guttural moans. This coupled with the cryptic plot creates a movie that involves you in its brutality, while simultaneously keeping you at a distance. It's like a crazy girlfriend who tells you its over but trashes all your stuff to punish you for not spending time with her.

What makes Begotten a truly unique film, is that for all its simplicity it achieves what most religious horror films fail in their overly ambitious approach. Faithful to the 'silent movie' there's no spoken dialogue, but there are no captions either (discounting a vaguely expository opening). Regardless, Begotten is effective because it focuses on the non-human. God, Mother Earth and the Son of Earth are frightening spectres, but what happens to them is equally horrific. The divine suffers terribly at the hands of humanity. Most religious horror takes the perspective of the earthly individual uncovering the sinister occult plots, and unholy gods masquerading as benevolent figures. Begotten very much is of the "God is dead" ideology. Hell, in Begotten's world Friedrich Nietzsche would have probably killed the bastard himself.