August Underground is a found footage exploitation film written, directed and starring Fred Vogel. The film is presented as an aged and degraded VHS home movie following Peter (Fred Vogel), the charismatic leader of a pair of sadistic serial killers. The two heartless antagonists record their ruthless and perverse rampage on innocent victims with complete apathy and disregard for human life. Even in the company of the thousands of horror films created in recent history, August Underground is still considered one of the most disturbing horror movies every made.
The film is considered so obscene that Canadian officials charged Fred Vogel with transportation of obscene materials when he attempted to bring copies of August Underground and its sequel August Underground’s Mordum (2003) to a horror festival in Toronto.
The film’s content falls so squarely outside of the socially accepted norms for cinema that August Underground is regarded by many critics as having little if no redeeming value, while others that gravitate towards the sub-genre of explicit exploitation applaud the film for its fearlessness – in either case, August Underground is a film riddled in controversy.
Even fifteen years after the film’s original release, August Underground‘s popularity continues to flourish as a cult film. While Found Footage Critic does not typically cover films this explicit in nature, August Underground has rightfully earned its place as a historically important found footage film, and as such, the film merits discussion on this site.
August Underground opens in a decrepit basement where introductions to the film’s primary characters are made. Peter is the owner of the house where nearly all of the film’s torture scenes take place, and it’s in the basement where Peter’s partner in crime already has his handheld VHS video camera trained on the face of their current victim, Laura. Having been physically beaten and mutilated repeatedly, Laura is tied to a chair sitting in front of a wall covered with poorly cut explicit photographs. The two antagonists taunt Laura with promises of food and water, treating her in a manner that can only be described as sadistically inhumane in the worst possible way.
The pair’s notion of a good time creates the only plot development in August Underground, which also acts as slight breathing room between the scenes of sadistic torture that comprise the majority of the film. The two antagonists travel to a cemetery, a cow pasture, a meat processing plant, and their reasoning behind each day trip appears as uncoordinated as the casual dialogue that the actors attempt to produce.
These scenes are the only saving grace preventing August Underground from being classified as a pure snuff torture film, much like the way the Saw series creates character development between bizarre torture sequences. Unlike Saw which does manage to achieve a certain level of character growth, August Underground’s outdoor scenes fail to create even a baseline for its characters, because the characters do little more than laugh and walk around.
The rest of the film follows in an unfortunately predictable way. Once again this reviewer draws comparisons between Fred Vogel’s film and the Saw series, a franchise that always manages to create unique and inconceivable ways to torture its unsuspecting victims. The most inventive torture that either of August Underground’s villains think up is feeding Laura a human toe, and the cameraman goes a step further and smears Laura’s own feces on her face. The film finishes with a fifteen minute long gaudy, drug-ridden sex scene, which ends the way one would expect for a film about two serial killers.
Peter’s unnamed accomplice films for the entirety of August Underground, and he actively participates in torturing and mutilating their victims as much as Peter does. His intent for filming is clear, to document the pair’s sadistic exploits. His camerawork is invasive, and at times Peter instructs him to get a closeup of whatever uninventive horror they’ve dreamed up for their latest victim, and he gladly obliges.
The film does contain several scenes in which the reason for filming seems unrealistic when considering what else is happening on-screen. One such moment is when the two antagonists are assaulting pedestrians in a convenience store. Both Peter and the cameraman run around the store trying to catch their latest victims, and it seems somewhat unrealistic that the cameraman would focus on filming while there was a real likelihood of the victim escaping. A second such moment takes place when Peter enters into a physical altercation with another man at a club, and while the cameraman rushes to his aid, he can’t do anything because he’s holding the camera.
Found Footage Cinematography
For the most part, the quality of found footage cinematography is extremely believable throughout the entirety of August Underground. The image quality has been previously degraded, so every single shot is shown without color grading, which is to be expected in a found footage film. The footage itself is very blurry and is shot in a resolution reminiscent of legacy VHS cameras preceding the 2001 release date of the film.
The cameraman’s filming style vacillates between an amateur and semi-professional hand in a way that is somewhat disconcerting in the face of the film’s intent. Many of the scenes focusing on the intended subjects are never properly centered on screen and are unfocused and shaky. The haphazard filming in concert with the poor video quality may have been strategically chosen to mask the practical gore effects and violent scenes.
Conversely the outdoor and nightclub scenes (among other scenes) are filmed in a manner that is inconsistent with the previously mentioned amateurish camerawork.
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In these scenes, the video camera is used more deliberately with the look and feel of someone who clearly knows how to use a camera. This inconsistency is very noticeable throughout the film.
Found Footage Purity
What August Underground does do remarkably well is preserve found footage purity. The film never adds artificial background music or sound design to ratchet up the tension. Nor does the film attempt to clean-up the already damaged footage to make its original image more palatable, which preserves its authenticity (and as mentioned earlier, may have been strategically used to hide the practical effects). The character dialogue comes across as authentic and not scripted or rehearsed.
August Underground‘s adherence to what amounts to a technically sound found footage approach will enable viewers to fully immerse in the disturbing details of the main character’s exploits. This immersion is a double-edged sword, as it also means viewers must experience the entirety of the film through the lens and mindset of a psychopath, a perspective that strays far from the social norm.
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Content-wise, August Underground should be difficult for anyone with a conscience to watch. With no backstory or development of the film’s main cast, the characters come across entirely unsympathetic in the face of the atrocious acts that they commit on screen. The film would have benefited from some character construction, or perhaps an interlocking story offering relief from the near forty-five minutes of pure torture that August Underground so woefully glorifies. Regardless, the film has spawned a franchise of its own as well as a cult following, proving that there are plenty of fans out there who enjoy this horror sub-genre.
What are your thoughts on this controversial film? Get in on the discussion and post your comments below.