You go to your local mom and pop video store (you can tell this is a dream sequence already). Inside you find an astounding number of offbeat titles that titillate and astound your eyeballs. The proprietor of this establishment has his finger on the pulse of the independent film scene and has every art house film from the late 70's that a distributor would even send him. On the shelf you find a tape entitled August Underground. Hey, it's movie night and your girlfriend is stopping by to snuggle under some blankets, eat some popcorn and watch horror flicks, maybe get a bit frisky. It's the perfect Friday night in and hey, if you bring home something obscure enough she'll think you're bitchin'. You give the guy behind the counter your rental membership number (it's four digits) and he takes a look at the selection you've just handed him. He looks at you with a sick grin. "It's gonna be a long night for you buddy". You don't know what this means, but he says it such a way as to make you believe you may be snuggling a little closer to your lady friend than usual. You race home, settle down into a nice snuggle position, fingers all a-goo with butter and sticky with salt. And then the movie begins.
At first you say to yourself, well I can take it. What's a little torture. Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer has this one beat any day. I'm sure the narrative will kick in sooner or later and then the real scares will begin. You try to convince yourself that this must be the cast. After all, there's no way this depravity could continue for more than say... ten minutes? Fifteen? Your lady friend seems rather uneasy and you're beginning to wonder what exactly the clerk behind the counter meant by his opinion-neutral remark concerning the lengthy of your evening. By minute thirty the snuggling has screamed to a grinding halt. There is not more hand holding. No puppies or kittens. No sticky fingers covered in popcorn. You've seen enough torture and sexual abuse to fill ten I Spit On Your Graves. You might as well have yelled "piss your pants" yourself and played the David Hess role from Last House on the Left with your girl to try and turn her on; Michael Rooker all but came into your living room to discuss how he might have played Henry Lee Lucas differently based on the performances offered up in AU (that's August Underground to the uninitiated). Yep. By minute thirty you realize you are not getting laid. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. The store clerk must be a prophet. It certainly was going to be a long night.
While this is a fictitious account about a horror fan's first encounter with August Underground and TOETAG, I'm willing to bet that this was not an uncommon occurrence for those individuals "in the know" enough to chase down a copy of this landmark piece of independent film. Every horror fan has a movie that they don't want to be caught watching over and over and over again. Every one of us have movies we don't want our significant others to find for fear of persecution. The difference between the movies you have in your video cabinet and August Underground is when your significant other finds August Underground, you no longer have a significant other and you are having a conversation with any number of law enforcement officials.
Let's give a brief history lesson. Toetag Pictures started in 2004 well after the initial release of the film that would make them great and shock even the unshockable horror fans. We'll go through each of their pictures in depth below but for now know that August Underground was lensed in 2001, directed by Fred Vogel and released on good ol' VHS. From there he would partner with Jerami Cruise, Michael Schneider, Christie Whiles, Shelby Jackson, and Killjoy to make the even more infamous (if that's conceivable) sequel to August Underground, August Underground's Mordum. With some sick reviews, having been banned in several countries and with the notoriety to move forward Jerami Cruise and Fred Vogel form TOETAG Pictures. Through various involvement with the original core members of August Underground's Mordum running the show, the studio has since put out a third film in the AU series, August Underground's Penance and release several unrelated original features that have shocked and inspired independent horror minds.
With AU celebrating its ten year anniversary this year, TOETAG teamed up with death metal band, Necrophagia to bring a horrifying experience to the Sherman Theater in Stroudsburg, PA via Severed Sinema this past August. For those of you who know horror movies like the back of your Freddy glove but are unfamiliar with death metal, Killjoy, who was involved with the production of Mordum is a member Necrophagia. Very fitting. The special showing included all three films and a performance by horror enthusiast, death metal band Necrophagia. Now I didn't make it, but I kept encouraging my Stourdsburg local friends to attend. None of them have called me back. I'm not sure they understood the power of AU or the rest of the unholy trilogy.
I'm not sure a good portion of the horror community would understand how to take the films of TOETAG. At first glance these are not pictures that one wants to watch over and over again. They are shot with production value that is clearly non-Hollywood. These films are engorged with a fertile amount of sexual deviancy and torture, dismemberment, body fluids and overall degradation that might leave even the experienced viewer feeling a bit uneasy. So how do you sell a product that nobody wants to watch again after the first viewing? Well that's where the joke is on Tipper Gore and a rabble of Canadian border agents that couldn't differentiate between faux snuff and the real deal.
Ya see... people love to gross themselves out. To test themselves and their friends. I've mentioned quite a few times that I would sit down to the Traces of Death (not the Faces... TRACES) and eat a roast beef sandwich piled high with meat. This was especially arousing during autopsy scenes when everyone in the room would take one look at me and head to the bathroom. Sometimes in unison. So there's the gross out competition. Who can show the sickest, most depraved film possible. If sexual torture ain't your thing, we got vomit. If vomit ain't your thing, we have castration. If castration don't bother ya... how about necrophilia, and if we can't get your goat with good ol' necrophilia, make you can watch a man having intercourse with the bowels of a that very same dead body. For those of you who have scene Eli Roth's Hostel and called it torture porn, you truly must treat yourself to a screening of August Underground or even more so, Mordum. You will redefine your ridiculous sub-genres quickly and apologetically. Let's face it though. At the end of the day the gross out isn't scary. It's just twisted. Fans of the amazing effects would definitely watch this on repeat, but what makes Vogel's production lasting? Why don't we call it out and label it "some guy with a camcorder covering his friends in stage blood and having them play spin the bottle with a meat clever"?
August Underground is more than meets the eye... the sick stories from the mind of Vogel paint a real picture of the serial killer's mind or a girl becoming possessed by an evil being or acts as social criticism and flashes a mirror in front of us and forces us to look at lens point. TOETAG's films are not films that candy coat anything. They are not Hollywood productions nor could any Hollywood or major studio projection hope to tackle what Vogel and his gang have. Sure you miss some of the smoke and mirrors when you watch a TOETAG picture but you do so at the price of absolute honesty and a burning desire to tell a story... with someone else bowels of course. Let's go into each film and figure out where Vogel's honesty meets your deepest fears.
AUGUST UNDERGROUND (2002)
Shot by Vogel while under the production company Absu Films, this film was initially released as a 200 copy VHS distribution. It's a fitting release given that AU is shot with no hidden agenda. It's supposed to look like you've discovered the cassette tape of a couple of psychopaths. What ensues is the complete annihilation of several individuals in ways that should only be watched and not described as the effects work is beyond the vomit bag. This movie succeeds at crushing the human spirit; torturing the audience just as much as the protagonists in the film. While its easy to dismiss AU as the efforts of an individual who simply wants to play the gross out card, it is important to remember that while you may be watching a movie about being brutally assaulted, the actors on screen are putting their broken souls through the ringer to given outstanding performances. Try getting Meryl Streep to be the victim of any of these acts. By the end of this one you'll feel sick. Your stomach will be in knots and you certainly won't be feeling anything beyond disgust at Vogel for making a film that clearly says nothing... until you realize that it said it got inside your head and told you every nightmare you fear. It made you fear for your children, your wife or husband... August makes you fear the most common place of consumer activities and August has you guessing about what lurks inside the folks you see every single day.
AUGUST UNDERGROUND'S MORDUM (2003)
Get ready for more of the same with this picture only more brutal. MORE... you want MORE? Remember when we were talking about necrophilia and gut raping a dead person? Yes, this is where you'll find it. If AU gave you the willies, AU's Mordum will make you think that even the gentlest outcast can become a stark raving taboo. By this point Vogel had started working with truly genius minds to take this picture one step beyond the septic tank. If your VCR doesn't vomit, your surround sound surely will. I can't say that this one breaks as much ground as the first one, but it breaks even more balls.
We will not be including the trailer as it has been removed their site. Make that your mandate to see the picture in its entirety.
NECROPHAGIA'S SICKCESS (2004)
A mockumentary about the on and off stage disgusto-antics of the band Necrophagia are "revealed" by Fred Vogel and his camera. Star of AU's Mordum, Killjoy, helps take the viewer into a day in the life of death metal animals. Looking back on this now it's a lot like watching the show Metalocalypse; Necrophagia clearly must be the inspiration for Dethklok. Good clean fun especially if you like eating dead bodies and listening to death metal. Also checking out James Van Beeber's work with Necrophagia. Get ready to feel downtrodden and hungry.
THE REDSIN TOWER (2006)
You know how you know that Fred Vogel is a New Jersey native? The Redsin Tower...that's how. Now I can't clearly say which epic spook hunt truly inspired Redsin, but if you've been wandering into abandoned Colby Mansion (before it burned down of course), hunting Devil's Tower in the middle of Kinnelon or trying not to get caught tresspassing at Greystone State Mental Hospital (the abandon section of course) then you may identify with the characters in this picture. The story of a group of kids looking for a good time the way Jersey does it. Find the scariest place you can and drink copious amounts until your good and ready to practice your procreation techniques. Beyond my own personal identification with the story matter and despite what origins I might speculate for this film, you must watch this picture all the way to the end. Because it will astound you. If ever I believed a piece of special effects was real it would be this end sequence. Makes the exorcist look like the friggin' Gummy Bears.
AUGUST UNDERGROUND'S PENANCE (2007)
This late arriving third installment into the AU series attempts to develop the serial killer friends you will come to expect from a TOETAG presentation. While this film is brutal and tests your personal boundaries as any good puke thermometer should, it comes across as a GG Allin performance that jumped out of the toilet ball and ran down the hall. What does that mean? It means if you like AU and AU's Mordum than this should fulfill your Ipecac requirement while fleshing out the series nicely. AU4 anyone?
MURDER COLLECTION VOL. 1 (2009)
Remember Faces of Death or Traces of Death. If you're reading this article and have gotten this far than it might be that you simply watch them every day in lieu of the morning news. Well MCV1 is a play for the Mondo film that might just get your to snap. With a mixed story line of completely debauched scenarios, the murder are supposed to be real but are simply the work of an amazing special effects group. There's segment in which a man is completely demoralized and degraded by a pack of douche bags with ridiculous claims and justifications for their lack of self restraint. I can tell you right now that I left that sequence feeling uneasy and asking myself if it was, in fact, a fake. I know it was. At least I think it was... Bless you Mr. Vogel for forcing me to have this 30 minute exercise in perception vs. reality. This is truly the work of a gifted filmmaker/social commentator.
Somewhere between the porn film industry and the horror industry we have discovered some strange vortex or dimension in which Maskhead exists. Some truly marvelous effects work and torture with some strangely sexy images (some of which involves a clown girl popping balloons)... You don't know what your watching until they're all dead! Minimal narrative which is something that you might come to expect from a TOETAG production... equally so would be the extreme torture and sadism. I don't think I'm wrong here, the guys making it want you to either laugh or puke. A real head and stomach turner.
SELLA TURCICA (2010)
Somewhere between Deathdream and a Danny Boyle zombie lies a picture that does what few horror pictures can get from an audience. It evokes feeeeeelings. Characters you can identify with and the plight of the soldier returning from war meets the uncertainty of how a family should react combined with the mystery as to what within a war torn man's brain. Its a slow burn film, but when it's ready to go, Sella Turcica we'll shock the every loving Hell out of you and give you some of the finest gore effects used in an independent film or big Hollywood production for that matter. By the by, the music is haunting and melancholia and leaves you feeling fiercely sympathetic for all members of this unsuspecting family. It's ok if you just want to watch the last twenty minutes on repeat for several hours just to soak it all in.
TOETAG Pictures is to putting Pittsburgh on the map again. Monroeville Mall, eat your heart out or August Underground will rape all your zombies. Stop by TOETAG, buy some movies and support independent horror. With your help it can triumph over the cookie cutter movie machine.