August Underground (2001, dir. Fred Vogel) is perhaps one of the most known entries on the Disturbing Movie Iceberg as well as being a textbook example of what to expect from disturbing cinema. This film has little plot and follows two wannabe, unnamed serial killers who I will refer to as the Killer and the Cameraman. Their adventures are mostly violent for the sake of violence, though audiences do see snapshots of the two killers daily lives. Most of the brutality of the film is reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange, only if Alex DeLarge had a way to document his crusade of degeneracy. There are people being left to die while the killers hoot and holler away from the crime scene along with a woman the Killer “loves” tied up in his basement.
Unlike many of the Disturbing Iceberg films I’ve covered on this blog, I have decided not to go into detail of the events of this film. This isn’t because it’s too terrible to retell — I’ve broken down Where the Dead Go to Die after all — rather it’s because not enough happens within the film to waste time retelling it. Much of the film is mundane and merely showcases the daily life of the Killer and the Cameraman. Because of this, I feel like a lot was promised in this film which it didn’t deliver. For example, the audience never actually watches the Killer kill anyone — which is the least a horror film can do. Most of the deaths are already dead bodies that have been long dead and killed off camera, or it’s noted that victims are still alive when leaving the scene. Likewise, the audience never sees much happen to the girl in the basement, either — who is the focus of the killers for at least half the film. While the Killer occasionally hits the girl, most of her torment is a camera being put in her face while she’s verbally taunted about her situation. While in the real world, this would still be a horrible situation to be placed in, for a disturbing horror flick it’s incredibly dull and anti-climactic. August Underground is meant to be faux snuff, and with this in mind I was expecting gore and torture that’s brutal and cruel. When I go into a disturbing movie, I want to feel sad and disgusted by humanity. Instead, the audience gets two dorks mildly bullying a naked woman. I don’t mean to sound insensitive or as if this wouldn’t disturb some viewers, but I do feel as if this is another example of a “disturbing movie” not fulfilling its promises. The first Terrifier has better torture and brutality than August Underground. However, I’m sure in 2001 the contents of this film was a huge deal.
Along with this, the killers are unconvincing and not threatening in the slightest. While watching the film, I was trying to put my finger on what exactly made the two unconvincing killers, and it’s that the actors come across as if they know they’re just acting. They themselves don’t believe they’re serial killers and thus it makes the performance unconvincing to the audience. Rather, the two come across as goofy friends just making random home videos — which is a positive or a negative depending on the scene. Also, much of the dialog between the Killer and the Cameraman is incredibly dated and immature. For the most part, the dialog is more gross than any actions taking place — at least from a woman’s perspective. The moment I believe the dialog disgusted me the most is when the two pick up a female hitchhiker. In this scene, once the woman enters the car the killers immediately begin recording her and ask her to show them parts of her body for $20. This starts as flashing tits for $20, but soon delves into the two telling her she now needs to show her crotch and touch herself for the money. The woman is incredibly uncomfortable the entire time and doesn’t want to do it, especially on camera. This leads the Cameraman into telling her things such as, “Oh, I forgot. There’s not actually any film in the camera. It’s not recording.” I have never wanted to punch my screen more; boys acting like they’re smart or sly in this manner makes me so angry. There’s also, in general, a lot of commentary on women and sex throughout the film that immediately transported me back to middle school. Because of this, I would define August Underground as more immature than disturbing. Especially because while I felt grossed out at times from the dialog, I never felt disturbed or bothered by their actions. Moments such as the hitchhiker or later when an extensive amount of time is being focused on a goat's balls really make the film come across more as a movie a prepubescent boy would make.
This brings me to one of my largest frustrations while watching August Underground, and an aspect that greatly affects its believability — the victims’ responses. Not a single person the killers attack ever fight back — nor do they scream or curse. Perhaps the most frustrating example of this is in the gas station/convenience store. In this scene, the killers can’t decide if they want to mess with the cashier or finally leave the store. After deciding to completely take the store over by stabbing the clerk, a couple gets caught attempting to hide from the killers. One of them is a man who does not even attempt to fight against the two losers with a camera, even though he could definitely take both of them. It’s one thing to not fight back, but it’s another to not even put up a struggle against one’s attacker. It’s as if every character outside of the killers are mindless ragdolls with no sense of agency. Everything for the killers is too easy and there are no signs of repercussions — and the killers are too dopey for the audience to think they’re masterminds.
After this gas station scene is a moment where I think the film lost a cool opportunity to show mild repercussions. As the killers are pulling out of the parking lot, a police car immediately lights up behind them, sirens whooping. The Cameraman turns to show the car behind them before the film cuts to a new clip. On one hand, it’s realistic that the Cameraman didn’t record this encounter because it was the police and the camera would have stood out. However, I would have loved a clip watching the killers interacting with a cop. There are several ways I can envision a scene like this going, from the killers attempting to bullshit their way to freedom, to the two being arrested, to the cop pulling them over for something mundane and not knowing anything about the killers’ actions. I feel like this could have added some tension to the film and not made it feel like these goofy goobers are untouchable for no reason.
I would be lying if I said this film had no redeemable or likable qualities. Likewise, I believe it would be unfair to state that this film has done nothing for the horror industry. As most of you know, I have a large soft spot in my heart for any horror film made with a home video camera and no budget. While watching August Underground, I could sense Vogel’s passion for the horror genre and the importance this film was to him. August Underground is also, arguably, one of the blueprints of the disturbing horror genre. It predates other infamous disturbing movies with the same themes and atmosphere such as Slaughtered Vomit Dolls, Snuff 102, and The Poughkeepsie Tapes. It also really succeeds at visualizing what early internet gore and horror was like; when rotten dot com and LiveLeak were thriving and well. I believe August Underground is the perfect representation and love letter to a very specific part of the internet. Despite all its flaws, there was a period of time that this film was shared as if it were real snuff and there have been many other filmmakers and artists who are inspired by Vogel’s work. With August Underground’s history and influence on horror, I can’t help but hold respect and appreciation for this movie — even though I do think it has many moments of eye rolling immaturity.
While I hold a lot of criticism for August Underground, there are still plenty of aspects I enjoyed enough to consider rewatching the film. One of the main aspects I loved was the video quality as well as the set design of the basement. The basement design was the highlight as it perfectly encapsulates the vibe and tone of the film. It’s grotesque and filthy, with blood and feces scattered and splattered everywhere. To add, the walls are covered in cut out images of naked, bloody bodies and pornographic imagery. It truly makes one’s heart sink and is a hellish nightmare. I believe the video quality does a lot to enhance the believability and grotesqueness of the movie as well. I’m certain the low quality is what helped many believe August Underground was real snuff because it effectively comes across as someone’s home movies. As mentioned before, a large chunk of the film is merely the daily lives of these killers and this works for and against the film. As far as believability, I believe these clips support the realism because it truly comes across as found footage. Not only does it give the audience insight to how these characters behave outside the basement, but it’s a display of a popular disturbing movie theme about how one never truly knows a person. If the audience did not get to be a fly on the wall and only saw the mundane parts of the film, one might interpret a character such as the Killer as a big ol’ goofball who could never hurt anyone. While these clips make the film drag, I think they’re necessary in order to have a well-rounded understanding of the main characters.
Finally, I want to note how I’m thankful and surprised this film only had one account of graphic forced sex. It’s easy for disturbing cinema to attempt disturbing its audience by including topics such as rape. However, August Underground did not do this and for that I feel an added appreciation. Most of the time when a “disturbing” movie includes extensive sexual assault or rape, it comes across as stale and immature. This is not to belittle the real victims of rape, rather what I mean is that rape is a popular overused and often unnecessary topic for disturbing films to have. It’s often randomly thrown into a disturbing film as some kind of fail safe. There’s no purpose it holds; it’s like this genre’s version of the cheap jumpscare. From what I had heard of August Underground, I was expecting this topic to arise a lot. And while the entire last 10 minutes of the film is nothing but an awkward wannabe porno, rape is only ever used once in the beginning of the film. So I guess congratulations to August Underground for being one of the most infamous entries on the iceberg yet it hardly exploits sexual assault (the winner, however, goes to Martyrs).
August Underground -- C Tier
Despite it’s mid-score, I ended up really enjoying August Underground. Although I continue to go back and forth between loving the film and believing it’s “meh.” There’s a lot to wade through when watching the film, and many other moments that are flat out frustrating or annoying. But I see Vogel’s vision, and it was an easy watch. While there were no moments that disturbed me, I do think it’s fitting that the film is on Layer 3 of the iceberg. It’s not as obscene as other disturbing movies (especially because we never see anyone get killed or tortured), but I can see someone who isn’t used to this type of horror being uncomfortable with the film. I hold more respect for August Underground — a homemade horror movie with clear passion and personality — than I do other films such as A Serbian Film — a “disturbing” movie that tries much too hard to upset the viewer. For as much flack that August Underground gets for being “disturbing for disturbing sake,” I will praise this film all day every day for not being as frustratingly dull, lifeless, and predictable as A Serbian Film.
August Underground is available to rent through YouTube or Vudu, and available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Unearthed Films