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Rant #423
(published February 26, 2009)
The Creepiest Film Ever Made
by David Erik Nelson
Cinephiles can argue endlessly about the scariest movie ever made—with most votes going to The Exorcist, The Shining, or any of the current crop of splatter films—but for those who've seen it, there is no question that the creepiest is E. Elias Merhige's 1991 experimental/horror film, Begotten.

Inspired by Merhige's car-crash-triggered near-death experience, Begotten has no named characters and no dialogue; its soundtrack, instead, is crowded with the humid sounds of wind, crickets, ragged breathing, and the slurps of meat pulled from quivering flesh. The film's Internet Movie Database synopsis is concise: "God disembowels himself with a straight razor. The spirit-like Mother Earth emerges, venturing into a bleak, barren landscape. Twitching and cowering, the Son of Earth is set upon by faceless cannibals." It is a bizarre film, often dull, but relentlessly unnerving, and thus fascinating.

This likely doesn't sound scary, because it isn't; it's creepy. The film inspires a pervasive "shivery apprehension", a sense that hinges on what Freud labeled "the Uncanny": The disturbing experience of usually familiar objects or situations being momentarily unidentifiable. Waking up in the middle of the night with your arm numb—feeling like a corpse-arm sewn to your body—is not especially scary, but is uncanny, and thus almost unbearably creepy.

Begotten achieves its preeminent creepiness through technique alone, both by virtue of the over-amplified foley track and the visuals. Merhige shot the film to black and white reversal stock and then, in a process that took 10 hours per minute of finished footage, re-photographed each frame, eliminating all half-tones. The result is a searingly stark movie, with many images hovering before our eyes as shimmering Rorschach blots: "Is that the sun or an eye? A gaping mouth, or a slit belly? Druids?" The ultimate effect is of a grimy, Victorian art-house snuff film.

Unlike the current crop of splatter films, such as Hostel and the Saw franchise—films which Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon decried as "torture porn" in a 2007 open letter to the MPAA—Begotten makes no attempt to speak our agreed horror-film language of building tension, comic relief, cat-scares, and cheap cautionary tales. Begotten doesn't half-heartedly argue that you shouldn't pick up hitchhikers or backpack in Eastern Europe. At the movie's end, you are left inarticulably disturbed and forlorn, suspicious that some very important stone in your mind's foundation has been knocked loose. Its effects are deep and cumulative, like heavy-metal poisoning. If there is anything scary in Begotten, it's the possibility that Merhige's near-death vision of God is accurate.

The original trailer for Begotten:

A shorter version of this piece was originally published in the October 2007 print edition of The Current.

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