Review Index


Real Life Horror

The documentary WELCOME TO LEITH, directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, may well be the finest “horror” movie of 2015. Currently playing in limited release around the US, it’s certainly the most horrific film I’ve seen this year, an effect magnified by the fact that nothing in it is scripted or staged.
     WELCOME TO LEITH relates what occurred when back in 2012 one Craig Cobb, a white supremacist, attempted to take over a tiny North Dakota town and turn it into a Neo-Nazi haven. Cobb didn’t ultimately succeed in his unholy aims--which, as the filmmakers make clear, weren’t actually illegal--but his exploits make for a film that probably wouldn’t be believed were it not comprised of actual footage taken during Cobb’s brief reign of terror. The documentary format, in other words, is instrumental to the impact of WELCOME TO LEITH.

     The situation related in that film is unique, but WELCOME TO LEITH is certainly not the only documentary that plays like an especially intense horror movie. Just check out 1983’s similarly themed FEAR IS THE MASTER, an hour-long British document that chronicles how the notorious Indian cultist Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, together with a bevy of gullible followers, literally took over the town of Antelope, Oregon back in the eighties.
     The filmmakers make no pretense of objectivity, opening and closing the film with footage of Jim Jones and Adolph Hitler. Like them, Rajneesh used fear and intimidation to achieve his goals, convincing his followers that the rest of the world was out to get them and surrounding himself with armed guards.
     The film includes amazing footage of the group encounter sessions Rajneesh required of his followers; we’re shown hundreds of people literally wigging out, screaming and madly beating their heads against the ground. Such sights may seem pleasingly outrageous, but things turn sobering when we’re shown how the “Rajneeshies” took over the Antelope city council, forcing longtime residents off their lands by raising taxes and suing anyone who spoke out against them. Even more disturbing are the revelations of the child molestation that apparently ran rampant among the Rajneeshies. They eventually disbanded and Rajneesh was extradited back to India, but not before his followers tried to poison a town’s water supply and inject salmonella into the stock of several fast food restaurants.
     Like WELCOME TO LEITH, FEAR IS THE MASTER is a downright mind-blowing account with innumerable present day implications.

     1971’s BLUE WATER, WHITE DEATH is a documentary account of a diving crew’s search for great white sharks, with much verite imagery of the critters in their natural habitat that was apparently the first such footage ever shot. The early shots of the crewmembers swimming underwater amid a gaggle of African sharks are valuable because such sharks are apparently all-but extinct now. Also featured is some disturbingly graphic footage of whales being harpooned, thankfully something else you won’t see today.
     As for the climactic scenes of the great whites, they’re plenty scary, especially when one of the sharks mercilessly batters an underwater cage with a diver inside, prefiguring a similar scene in JAWS.

     The 1998 college fraternity expose FRAT HOUSE was one of the final documentaries directed by Todd Phillips before his defection to Hollywood. It was made for HBO Undercover but never aired, the official reason being that parts--if not all--of it were staged, but I’ve also heard that HBO backed off after receiving some pretty serious threats from fraternities around the country.
     Admittedly, the “reality” FRAT HOUSE presents isn’t always unconvincing (such as a shot of a door closing on the camera, with the following shot taking place on the other side of said door), but that didn’t ruin my enjoyment of this unrelenting testosterone-fest. As it begins, filming commences amid one college fraternity until the Frat head, a muscle-bound nutcase ironically named Blossom, freaks out and threatens Phillips on camera.
     Moving on, Phillips finds a frat house at another college that lets him film--but only if he and his fellow filmmakers go through the fraternity hazing process themselves. This entails chugging Tabasco sauce and spitting it in a cup for another pledge to drink, getting locked in a rabbit cage and having every possible substance spat at or poured on them, standing on their heads for hours on end, walking around blindfolded while being doused with boiling hot and/or freezing cold water, etc. One of the filmmakers is hospitalized from the ordeal, and Phillips notes that his tormenters seem to be enjoying themselves a bit too much. Not unlike the viewer!

     I’ve never seen anything quite like 1990’s LORD OF THE FLIES (POVELITEL MUKH), a visually stunning documentary evocation of decay and desolation in Glasnost-era Russia.
     The subject is an old man living a garbage-strewn hovel with what look like a dozen dogs and cats, just as many chickens and millions of flies. The importance of the flies, we learn, are the maggots they produce, which the old man packs into massive drums, boils and pickles for use as food for the chickens whose eggs and meat sustain the man and his pets--and when the animals die their cadavers are used to attract the flies that lay the maggot eggs, and the cycle repeats itself.
     The ultra-mobile camerawork of director Vladimir Tyulkin is quite innovative in the way it constantly swoops and swirls in imitation of a fly’s POV. Beware, though: there are some profoundly gruesome moments, and also a lot of excess babbling by the old man, who fancies himself a philosopher and politician (he even goes so far as to offer unsolicited advice to Mikhail Gorbachev).
     There appears to be an honest-to-goodness political metaphor in all this, and a pretty heavy-handed one that equates 90s-era Russia with the repellent sights we’re shown here, but the film’s brilliance is that it works in just about any way one wants to view it.

     1967’s insane asylum expose TITICUT FOLLIES is the most famous film ever made by the legendary documentarian Frederick Weisman, and the only American film to be censored for reasons other than obscenity or national security (for the record, it was ruled an invasion of inmate privacy by the Massachusetts supreme court and withdrawn from circulation for a time).
     Done up in Wiseman’s standard fly-on-the-wall manner, with a resolutely frank, editorializing-free point of view, it depicts life inside the Massachusetts Bridgewater Correctional Institution. Among the many horrors uncovered by Wiseman’s black and white visuals are babbling madmen stripped naked and forced to subside in featureless cells, orderlies casually taunting an inmate, and a decrepit old man being administered an especially horrendous treatment involving a rubber tube stuck up his nose. Truly, clanking chains and ominous music aren’t required to achieve a sense of real horror, as this film adequately proves.
     For more verite unpleasantness from Mr. Weisman check out 1976’s MEAT, in which he trains his unflinching gaze on the inner workings of a slaughterhouse.

     The subject of celebrity staking is given an alternately funny and disturbing airing in I THINK WE’RE ALONE NOW (2008), which looks in on the pathetic lives of two losers obsessed with eighties burn-out Tiffany. One is Jeff Turner, a middle-aged sufferer of Asperger syndrome who believes with all his heart that Tiffany is in love with him, and laughs off any mention that he might be stalking her--even though he’s had a restraining order taken out against him for that very crime. He’s a likeable enough guy, but also a something of a goof who can be easily dismissed.
     Far more impacting is the case of Kelly McCormick, a tortured hermaphrodite who believes Tiffany appeared to him/her after he/she suffered a head injury, and now believes he/she is meant to be with Tiffany--and can’t understand why she doesn’t agree. In contrast with Jeff the goofball, Kelly’s is a sad and profoundly troubling case that can’t be taken lightly.
     First time director Sean Donnelly profiles these two freaks in admirably frank and non-judgmental fashion, providing a startling glimpse into a subculture that’s as scary in its way as any Satan-worshipping cult.

     Even scarier is America’s extreme right wing, as presented in 1977’s THE CALIFORNIA REICH. Set in “enlightened” San Francisco, it gives us a disquietingly intimate look into the lives of some white supremacist assholes. There are other docos about these types (including 1991’s BLOOD IN THE FACE), but this is the most impacting such film I’ve seen. Utilizing a resolutely emotion-free approach akin to that of the abovementioned TITICUT FLLIES, THE CALIFORNIA REICH excels in near-surreal imagery, such as Santa Claus appearing at a neo-Nazi rally, a housewife baking a swastika cake and little kids practicing Nazi salutes, made all the more chilling because, once again, all of it is completely real.

     The outrageous 2007 documentary KISS MY SNAKE provides an up close and discomfortingly personal look at a most bizarre subculture: that of snake boxing in Thailand. It’s there, in a remote jungle setting, that a group of daredevils raise deadly cobras which they taunt, smack and, yes, kiss for the edification of leering crowds.
     Included is much verite footage of the snake boxers in action, which is as hair-raising as anything in a Hollywood horror fest. We also witness the drama that occurs when one of the fighters gets bitten and has to be rushed to a remote hospital for treatment.
     What makes the film especially resonant is its intimate look at the lives and personalities of the snake boxers, most of them grizzled yet spirited old men who love snakes and the adrenaline rush of fighting them. It’s precisely because we get to know and respect these guys that the snake fighting sequences are so impacting.

     2001’s HELL HOUSE looks in on a Halloween haunted house put on by the Texas-based Trinity Church, who replace the ghosts and ghouls of standard haunted houses with scenarios illustrating various “evils” like abortion, homosexuality and suicide.
     In the course of the film we meet the people behind Hell House, all of them disarmingly nice folk, and look in on the preparation and audition process, which culminates in an outrageous cast & crew meeting in which everyone rolls around on the floor speaking in tongues! The Hell House itself is just as nutty, with depictions of a kid shooting himself in a classroom, a young woman bleeding to death from an abortion pill and a mock-up of Hell, where all the subjects are tortured. At the end of it are “prayer rooms” where Hell House’s patrons are encouraged (read: badgered) to get in touch with J.C. directly. Yes, all of this is every bit as outrageous, and outrageously funny (as when one of Hell House’s overseers casually asks an assistant to “go to Hell” and retrieve a prop), as it sounds.

     WACO: THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT (1997) feels like an Oliver Stone flick in the way it compellingly dissects a violent event to uncover a teeming mess of conspiracies. It’s all absolutely convincing, not to mention nail-bitingly exciting.
     Utilizing infrared photography and sound recordings from the scene, along with eyewitness testimony and real-life court footage, the filmmakers demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that the 1993 siege on David Koresh and his followers in Waco, Texas was one of the largest--and deadliest--screw-ups in US history. This film also shows that the government-vetted news reports about the raid were total fabrications, ignoring the fact that Koresh and his followers were law abiding (if deluded) citizens who were persecuted, and eventually massacred, by a publicity hungry government.

     For the final film on this list, we’ll travel back to 1933, the year of LAND WITHOUT BREAD (LAS HURDES: TIERRA SIN PAN). The third film by Luis Bunuel, following his surrealist masterworks UN CHIEN ANDALOU and L’AGE D’OR, LAND WITHOUT BREAD was the only documentary Bunuel ever made, and has been mistakenly categorized by some as a morbid satire.
     It focuses on Las Hurdas, an arid, mountainous region of Spain where life (back in 1932, anyway) really sucked. The mostly inbred population suffered from severe malnutrition and starvation, not to mention dwarfism and imbecility. For fun they hang a chicken from its feet in the town square and take turns trying to knock its head off. Also on hand is a donkey ripped apart by a dog, a burrow stung to death by bees and the burial of a dead baby. Bunuel’s surrealist leanings are evident in the relentlessly dispassionate narration and deceptively tranquil music that counterpoints the action, which make for a one-of-a-kind film that’s guaranteed to leave a mark.