Begotten (1990)

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Begotten is probably going to be the most abstruse horror film I’ll ever cover. It’s a horror film unlike any other horror film that has ever existed: an experimental film with no colour, no character, no dialogue, and barely any story. Begotten is a vicious onslaught of disturbing content, mesmerizing imagery and deep symbolism set to the soundtrack of ambient noise and disembodied gurgling. Back in 1990, Begotten was very popular with the underground cinema circuits, and it retains a dedicated following to this day. Over the years since, Begotten has been given given the accolade as both a cult classic, and the most overly pretentious film ever made. Nowadays, it’s become a sort of ‘secret handshake’ between horror fans, a film only recommended to those who are deemed ‘ready’ to experience it. Begotten was the cinematic debut of American film-maker Edmund Elias Merhige, and it was a labor of love and devotion. Three years of hard graft and dedication were needed in order to complete the 68 minute film. The hard work that went into the creation of Begotten is a true testament to Edmund Merhige’s commitment to cinema, a commitment that earned Edmund Merhige a career in horror cinema where he made three feature films, one of which being the critically acclaimed Shadow Of The Vampire, and four short films before swiftly disappearing from the cinema industry altogether after his 2006 short film Din Of Celestial Birds, his spiritual successor to Begotten.

Begotten is a film that’s intentionally hard to describe and hard to understand. The story is a surrealist re-imaging of the biblical story of Genesis, a re-imagining where God disembowels himself with a straight razor before Mother Earth emerges and uses god’s sperm to inseminate herself and give birth to the Flesh Of Man. Afterwards, Flesh Of Man is kidnapped by robed beings who torture both him and Mother Earth when she returns to take him back, and that’s basically the entire story of Begotten. This paper thin plot is told over the course of 60 grueling minutes of intense symbolic gratuity. Thus, Begotten is film with plenty of substance, yet it’s plot doesn’t have any substance at all. The story definitely has meaning, but it’s told in such a bizarre way, that it’s incredibly hard to decipher the story that the film is trying to tell.

However, Begotten is a film that intentionally says nothing about the meaning of it’s story. Instead, the film leaves it up to the audience to determine what they’re witnessing, to try and decipher the story that Edmund Merhige is trying tell. My personal opinion, is that the film tells the story of the birth of the Flesh Of Man, child of God and Mother Earth, only for the Flesh Of Man to be corrupted by sinful beings. These sinful beings exploit the innocence of the Flesh of Man, destroy Mother Earth, and forge the world in their own image from the remains of both Mother Earth and the Flesh Of Man. I think that Begotten is an allegory for the ideas of original sin as it pertains to the creation of mankind. That being said, I realize that my interpretation of Begotten is incredibly flawed and most likely unrepresentative of what Begotten is actually about. In the end, I don’t believe that Begotten could be completely understood, at least until Edmund Merhige comes out and bluntly states the film’s purpose. But until then, the mystery of the film’s content is just another reason why Begotten has such a dedicated following.

However, it’s obvious whilst watching Begotten that both story and character are completely unimportant, Begotten is a film that’s about visual impact, symbolism, and surreal imagery. The focus isn’t on plot, but on atmosphere, tension, and scenes of brutality. Begotten is a film that takes its time, a film that lingers on every single scene of violence, a film that is intent on letting its unapologetic imagery imprint itself into the minds of every viewer. It’s filmed as if every single moment is incredibly important, as if every single scene of gore must be focused on, as if every single frivolous sequence must have time dedicated to it. The film’s content isn’t deserved of an hour long running time, but Begotten decides to move along at a snail’s pace, a pace where every sickening sequence drags on and on, like grueling, cinematic torture.

In terms of cinema, when a director approaches a film the way Edmund Merhige approached Begotten, they run the risk of the film becoming tediously boring. However, Begotten was simply mesmerizing to watch, mainly because of Edmund Merhige’s evocative visual style. The cinematography alone helps make Begotten a very uncomfortable film to sit through: the camera angles are always far too close for comfort, the framing of each shot always feels wrong, and the film’s monochromatic style creates a lot of illusory visuals. However, there’s also something about the production aspects of Begotten that makes the film feel completely different to any other horror movie I’ve ever seen: Begotten feels ‘disturbingly amateurish’. It’s hard to express, but the film has a disturbingly realistic quality, one that affected me whilst watching the film. Thematically, Begotten is a brutal depiction of fantasy fiction, but with the way Begotten is framed, acted and edited together, there’s something horrifically ‘real’ about the film’s events, something that breaks the fourth wall and made me feel very uncomfortable whilst watching Begotten. It’s quite hard to explain what I mean as I can’t really describe it. I feel that one would have to watch the movie themselves to  understand what I’m trying to say, but there’s definitely something about Begotten which affected me.

That being said, however, I wasn’t completely overwhelmed by my experience of watching Begotten. I feel that the film does go on for far too long, because after about 40 minutes of watching Begotten, I became bored and uninterested. The problem with the film’s repetitive imagery, is that it makes it very easy for a viewer to become uninterested, especially if they’re more accustomed to faster, more evenly paced films with immersive story-telling, which is what I am more accustomed to. I feel that to be able to appreciate Begotten for what it’s worth, a viewer would need both an open mind and a lot of patience, and I do not have the patience necessary. Near the end of the film, I kept finding myself being distracted by my own thoughts, paying less and less attention to the film playing in front of me.

This wasn’t helped by the fact that the film’s cinematic style managed to create it’s own painful flaws. Because of the close, uncomfortable camera angles mixed with a monochromatic visual style, there’s a lot of shots in Begotten where it’s very hard to decipher what the shot is depicting, and I found myself very confused many times whilst watching Begotten because I couldn’t work out what the hell I was even looking at. Nonetheless, Begotten was a cinematic experiment, and experiments, by their very nature, will never be perfect, but I definitely respect Edmund Merhige for experimenting with cinematic styles and creating a film unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

I don’t know whether to recommend Begotten. I don’t even know where I stand in my opinion of the film. As I’ve stated before, it’s a film that demands a lot of patience and concentration, and I don’t have the patience nor the concentration needed to fully appreciate it. In conclusion, Begotten just isn’t a film for me, and I won’t be seeing it again, but I can definitely understand how many others can love and appreciate this experimental horror film. All I can say is that, in the end, it’s up to a viewer as to whether or not I recommend Begotten: if they believe they have the patience and concentration necessary, then I’m sure that they’ll enjoy their experience with Begotten, if they don’t have the patience necessary, than Begotten isn’t a film for them either.

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