by Steve Habrat
Given all the images that have been passed around of E. Elias Merhige’s heavily symbolic art house horror film Begotten, you’d think it would be a hell of a lot more impactful than it actually is. A virtually indecipherable film, Begotten drives the viewer to the brink of madness with its grainy black and white cinematography and nightmarish symbolism that only Merhige himself truly comprehends. At a brief hour and twelve minutes, Begotten is dreadfully pretentious at times, coming across as a big budget film school project rather than a feature film debut. I’ve always heard that Begotten is one of the scariest unknown horror films ever made but I was unaware that it is cryptically coded religious mumbo jumbo that is left up for debate for pseudo-intellectuals who confidently say they understand it. Trust me, you won’t understand much of Begotten.
Begotten begins with by telling us, “Like a flame burning away the darkness, life is flesh on bone convulsing above the ground.” The film then cuts to God (Played by Brian Salzberg), shrouded in what appear to be bandages and a flowing white robe, disemboweling himself with a straight razor. A clock ticks in the background, sounding almost like a muffled gagging noise as God bleeds out. When he dies, Mother Nature (Played by Donna Dempsey) emerges, impregnates her self and gives birth to the Son of Man (Played by Stephen Charles Barry), who she leaves in a barren wasteland. Soon, barbaric humanoid creatures begin preying on Mother Nature and the Son of Man, raping Mother Nature and the proceeding to dismember her. After destroying her, they set their sights on Son of Man, who crawls across the grotesque and barren landscape.
I said in my introduction that you’d think that Begotten would be a hell of a lot impactful than it actually is. Elaborating on this, Begotten gives the viewer a plethora of chilling images that end up being tattooed in your brain without the option of ever having them removed. The images of God disemboweling himself ranks as one of the creepiest things I have ever seen in a motion picture. Merhige’s camera presses right in on the gross stuff, especially when Mother Nature rises out of his corpse and then proceeds to arouse his dead body and impregnate herself. Try getting that sequence out of your head. Later in the film, when Mother Nature gives birth to a trembling, gasping man-child that is the Son of Man, he withers on the ground and vomits out these bizarre sacks that these faceless nomads eagerly snatch away from him. Or how about Mother Nature finding the Son of Man, tying a giant umbilical cord around him and dragging him through a dead forest? These are images out of a nightmare, purposely bleached and washed to make the film even more freakish and difficult.
While Begotten has creepy images, the film would solidify itself as a horror classic if we could penetrate the message of all these symbolic metaphors. The vague narrative that runs through it is impossible to understand unless you go look it up before hand. To even attempt to unlock the message that Merhige is trying to send, you need a fairly extensive background in religion. The message I gathered from Begotten (and trust me, I don’t claim to understand this film nor am I even going to pretend that I have a full grasp on it) is that the introduction to the film is the creation story. God created the world (Mother Nature) and put life in it. Mother Nature gives birth to this innocent and fragile life. Mother Nature and Innocence (Son of Man) are then set upon the bestial humanity (the humanoids), who proceed to rape, torture, dismember, and cannibalize beauty and innocence.
It’s a shame that Begotten doesn’t let us in on what it is trying to accomplish. I believe that there could be a chilling message to compliment those disquieting images that Merhige paints. Begotten ends up being such an exasperating film that at times I started giving up and getting bored with it because I just couldn’t find a doorway in. Begotten turns out to be the visual equivalent to nails on a chalkboard, grating due to its inaccessibility and jolting in the same breath. I bump the grade up from average to just slight above average because you will be struck by images in Begotten, creeping you out long after it has ended. In a way it is a shame because with Begotten, experimental style trumps profound artist statement.