DVDanger: The Return of Artsploitation

Indie label returns with three psychosexual horrors

For anyone who wants respite from mainstream cinema, or even mainstream indie cinema, there's a whole globe of bizarre and envelope-pushing movies. The only problem is that there's a lack of outlets for them. So for fans of such films, the big question has been: Whatever happened to Artsploitation?

"I'm ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille." Indie cinema gets evil in The House With 100 Eyes, one of the first in a new wave of releases from Artsploitation.

The nascent label was off to a rollicking start, mixing genre oddities with street-hardened narratives. It had a slate that included fascinating Lithuanian sci-fi dream Vanishing Waves and German neo-Nazi drama Combat Girls.

Then it basically disappeared for 15 months.

Now it's back with a trifecta of titles. The tone of its first three releases places a little more emphasis on horror than much of its earlier catalog. However, its aspiration to provide a home to the more cerebral genre titles is undoubtedly still in place.

It begins with the metacommentary of found footage black comedy The House With 100 Eyes. Ed (Kay Lee) is an ambitious filmmaker. He wants to elevate the indie genre in which he and his wife (Shannon Malone) work. Their DVDs will have all the extras: commentaries, behind-the-scenes, outtakes. They'll put all other snuff films to shame. Yup, snuff films. They have a murder house that would make the devil in the white city, HH Holmes himself, reconsider his infamous career in architecture. This isn't just a purpose-built slaughterhouse: it's riddled with cameras, to catch every disturbing moment. "We're going to do some terrible things here," Ed tells the audience. "I think you're really going to enjoy it."

The timing of this release seems fortuitous, with the return of the gross-out faux-snuff Guinea Pig franchise in American Guinea Pig: Bouquet of Guts and Gore. However, this isn't a straight-ahead horror film. Instead, it's much closer to a dismantling of the genre, such as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the underseen The Poughkeepsie Tapes, and JT Petty's even less well known (but equally cerebral) S&Man. The killers seduce their victims, not with the standard promises of fame and fortune that used to get runaways into trouble, but with the newer short cut: a porn casting tape.

This undoubtedly rolls deeper towards the exploitation end of Artsploitation's catalog, and takes an undoubted turn into the gruesome. Its success really depends on the chemistry between Roof (who co-directs with Jay Lee, responsible for the surprisingly subversive Alyce Kills) and Malone. He has the deranged fervor of a director at his wits' end, but she is June Cleaver with a garrote. Together, they create Wes Craven's The People Under the Stairs from the twisted viewpoint of the incestuous, murderous Robeson family.

It poses the immortal horror question of the audience's own voyeurism to atrocity and sense of sympathy for the victims. There is, of course, the inevitable hope that someone, anyone will stop the killers. The question is simply whether it will be from their intended victims, or from the unhinged pair imploding. After all, there's no hope from a hopeless world that let this pair lose in the first place.

"Anyone need a ride?" Horsehead lays the symbolism on thick and heavy.

There's a similar sense of claustrophobia in Artsploitation's next release, Horsehead. Jessica (Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux) returns to her family's rambling mansion house upon the death of her grandmother, and attempts to unpack her complicated relationship with her lineage through the power of lucid dreaming. Yet her dreams seem to have a supernatural component, unraveling dark secrets the family would rather leave in a Gordian knot.

The dream sequences are designed to give director Romain Basset an opportunity to express his visual style. Metronomes, wolves, Red Riding Hood, Catholic iconography, shifting lighting, drowning fantasies, intergenerational incest fantasies, and an overt nod to Henry Fuesli's picture The Nightmare, pervade the lush imagery. There's no doubt that he is an extraordinary visualist, complimented by the cinematography of Vincent Vieillard-Baron and production designer Bruno Vitti. But the narrative is where this falls down. Bassett and co-writer Karim Chériguène could have let the visuals speak for themselves, a la Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani for the equally psycho-sexual, giallo-tinged The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears. Instead, they feel obligated to spell out every moment of symbolism, crowbarring irrelevant and unnecessary exposition dumps into Pointeaux's mouth.

The real problem is not even in the look, or the story. It's the sound mix, and some of the pronounced overdubbing of characters to make them spookier or eerier or more terrifying. Those problems are personified by the gestalt performance that is Winston, the Byronic grandfather that haunts Jessica's nights, and who unleashed a dark legacy on the family. The body is that of Fu'ad Aït Aattou, but he is somewhat ridiculously voiced by Paul Bandey, and it seems silly. It's an error that sends the film a little too far into the overblown, when it could have been captivating. Throw in a hideously mismatched soundtrack, and the end result is like a dubstep cover of The Cell.

Your lips say no but your eyes scream "no!" German serial killer oddity Der Samurai is a queercore Grimm tale.

Far more fascinating is Teutonic oddity Der Samurai, which opens with two seemingly unrelated images. First, a blonde man in a wedding dress, his back to the camera. Second, a bag full of raw meat. The connection between the two seems, initially, peripheral. The man in the dress is the titular samurai, played by character actor Pit Bukowski. The meat bag is carried by Jakob (Michel Diercks), a cop in a small, remote German village. Their paths cross when the bride has a samurai sword delivered via Jakob's police station. It's an invitation to Jakob to ringside seats in his murder spree.

Where Der Samurai gets interesting is in how its interconnects these two seemingly disconnected characters. There's more at play here in the bride's selection of attire than advanced Kill Bill crossplay. Initially, it seems he is dragging Jakob into a cat-and-mouse, catch-me-if-you-can scenario. Instead, this is transgressive queer cinema, with spree killing as an act of seduction. There are some plot holes (for example, it's never established how the bride knows so much about Jakob's personal life) but director Till Kleinert glosses over them with a relentless addiction to fairytale logic.

Compare and contrast with Horsehead. In that, the erotic symbolism of the wolf as the embodiment of animal instincts is hammered home by having Jessica in a red cape. Here, there is a lone wolf out in the woods, and that's for whom the meat in Jakob's bag is intended. He claims that it's to keep it away from houses, but what kind of cop nourishes a menace to society?

Kleinert's refreshing take on the serial killer trope mixes the Brothers Grimm with the more twisted flirtations underlying the Hannibal Lecter mythology, and drops in a Herschell Gordon Lewis-level love for over-the-top gruesome dispatches. It's occasionally a little silly, especially in the Japanese gore-fountain decapitations, but that's deliberate, and so more excusable than Horsehead's tonal traumas.

So while all three titles in the initial volley have flaws, it's still good news that Artsploitation is back. This is a label with a distinctive voice, and that's a rarity. With titles like SXSW horror favorite Cub, and Other Worlds Austin crowd pleaser Bloody Knuckles all on the slate before the end of the year, that voice should only get stronger.

Der Samurai and The House With 100 Eyes are available now from Artsploitation. Horsehead will be available June 23.

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