Digging into two separate series/franchises over the course of a week feels like the ultimate post-Halloween comedown. After a solid month of Cine-Ween coverage here at the site, to say nothing of my own attempts to watch as many spooky movies as possible, you’d think I’d be overwhelmed, but no. So, I dug out the stuff that I hadn’t been able to get to over the course of October, and had myself a rabbit hole of a viewing experience.
First up was the Cult Epics double-disc Blu-ray release of German director Jörg Buttgereit’s 1987 film, Nekromantik, as well as its 1991 sequel, Nekromantik 2: The Return of the Loving Dead. These aren’t necessarily new, as they’re just the individual 2014 and 2015 releases in their original slipcases, but bundled together in a new outer slipcase with new color art by Martin Trafford. However, having not had a chance to get my hands on the releases prior to this, it’s nice to have both the films together in one handy package.
Buttgereit’s movies are, of course, notorious, and watching both of them back-to-back really demonstrates that both of his most famous (infamous?) films are still a terrifying viewing experience to undertake. I agree with the director’s premise that neither the original Nekromantik, nor its sequel, are to be considered horror movies, per se, but operate more like romances, because these are at heart tales of people in love.
Granted, they’re in love with corpses/death/decay, but these are still about people looking for love and the happiness which occurs when they find it. Like any romantic comedy worth its salt, there are trials and tribulations to be had. Overcoming the rotting stench of decay in order to be able to make love is certainly something more interesting than the usual “he’s too laid back, she’s too uptight” issues, and worthy of exploration.
While separated by the span of four years, watching both movies back-to-back presents what is essentially one lengthy film. Given that the sequel picks up not long after the original, with Monika digging up the corpse of Rob from the first movie following his suicide and subsequent burial, the throughline is right there, and it’s as if there were merely a pause. We even see Monika at the end of the original 1987 movie, meaning that it was always the case that there was more story to tell, rather than Buttgereit simply opting to make a sequel just because.
The films have a minimum of dialogue, allowing for the director to tell much of his story visually. There’s this cannibal movie aspect to both films, of which I’m not exactly the biggest fan, wherein the director uses actual footage of violence toward animals to make a point about the state of mankind, and how we’re merely pieces of meat ourselves. It’s effective, especially given the visceral reaction I’ve had dealing with the scenes of the rabbit being killed and skinned from the original, as well as the seal dissection in the sequel.
I think it’s the fact that, despite the special effects being remarkably realistic for a no-budget film, and the corpses depicted looking authentically like rotting flesh, right down the sticky, gooey, so-gross-you-can-almost-smell-it ooze coming off the bodies, they’re still essentially fake. Those are real animals, and while I feel like it’s a cheap way of eliciting a legitimate reaction of shock from the viewer, it’s nevertheless extremely effective.
Both films are restored and scanned from their original 8mm and 16mm negatives, respectively, making the look of the corpses, bodies, et cetera all the more impressive. An 8mm to 35mm blow-up would effectively hide some the fakery behind film grain, but presented in HD on a screen not 15 feet away, there’s no way to really hide any of this. It’s right there, up close and squishy, and when you see Betty or Monika cuddle up to, lick, and attempt intimacy with these rotting bags of flesh, you’re intensely uncomfortable.
And that’s just the films. Good heavens, there are enough extras on each disc to where making it through both films and their extras will take the better part of a day. Both films have their HD remaster from the original 8mm and 16mm negatives, as noted, but there are also 35mm HD “grindhouse” versions, as well, along with audio commentary for both films featuring the director and various personages involved in the films’ productions. In other words, you have three different ways to watch each film, with new introductions for each, too. Throw in music videos, short films, Q&As, trailers, and a live concert, and there’s more supplemental material than anyone could want.
Short of some truly cringeworthy questions during the 2013 Q&A included with Nekromantik, it’s all very insightful material. The short film, Hot Love, plays like a shorter test run at the subject matter for both films, in the way it examines romance and death and how the two interplay, while A Moment of Silence At the Grave of Ed Gein certainly pays homage to the ghoulish Wisconsite to which all films of this nature are inevitably indebted. This is the sort of thing for which physical media is the absolute best: the ability compare and contrast different versions of the film, hear what the director has to say, and view it within the context of both earlier and later work. It’s a cinematic experience in and of itself, all within a package smaller than a standard hardcover book.
Now, I’m sure there are to be people for whom taking Jörg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik films and putting them in a piece which also discusses the four cursed object Amityville films is something akin to heresy. Personally, I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility. All of these films span roughly the same period, to begin with: Buttgereit’s original Nekromantik was released in 1987, Amityville Horror: The Evil Escapes came out in 1989, Nekromantik 2 came out in 1991, and Amityville 1992: It’s About Time is fairly self-explanatory, with Amityville: A New Generation following in 1993, and Amityville Dollhouse closing things out in 1996. 10 years, six films, and while they don’t have a lot in common thematically, they certain reflect the changing trends in horror / exploitation films.
There are certain hallmarks to certain eras of film, and there’s something about that transitional period of horror between the ’80s and the ’90s which really gets a lot of grief. The late ’70s and early ’80s saw the genre change from the artistic, big-budget horror like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby to the low cost, high return of the slasher boom, very much in line with the exploitation origins of both of those aforementioned films. Let’s not forget that William Castle almost directed the latter of the pair.
However, as the slasher boom faded and horror began to once again transition, there’s a certain lack of identity regarding the genre until the “meta” or “self aware” horror of the mid-’90s and beyond. Films from the period are marked more by the look of what the characters are wearing and the way in which the films are shot than any sort of over-arching subgenre format.
Strangely, Vinegar Syndrome’s restoration of the four films they’ve put together as Amityville: The Cursed Collection makes a valid argument that the genre wasn’t as messily divergent as we’ve come to believe. Some of the points made when you watch these four movies over the course of a couple of days are reflective of early ’90s films in general – gratuitous female nudity or skimpy clothing shots being one point, and the idea of family dysfunction at the heart of most conflict another.
I don’t know if it’s a post-sitcom thing or what, but it seems that every time you have an on-screen family, be it nuclear as in It’s About Time, blended like Dollhouse, or the created neighbor family of A New Generation, there has to be a rebel, a goody-goody, the nerd, and so on. The more characters, the more individual archetypes you see, whereas the fewer characters mean that sometimes you get the goody-goody nerd.
Anyhow, digression aside, the movies contained within this box set are all of a sort, and it’s old-fashioned. These are, cursed objects and ’90s obsessions aside, basically films about how the objects – a lamp, a clock, a mirror, and a dollhouse – taken from the original Defeo/Lutz home turn your average suburban household into a possessed nightmare. While the films attempt to tweak the formula, like A New Generation going for more of an urban gentrification locale, they’re still playing with the same ingredients. It’s the cinematic equivalent of comfort food.
Hell, even the approach to making the films is old-fashioned. The made-for-TV film that is The Evil Escapes might’ve come out in 1989, but it feels like it’s 1979, starring as it does Jane Wyatt and Patty Duke. In the bonus features on A New Generation, director John Murlowski specifically mentions that he got William Cruse, who did visual effects on the original Amityville Horror, to go for that “old school” feel.
Amityville Dollhouse was released on video in February 1997, meaning that it came out after the likes of Scream and The Craft, films which effectively reconfigured horror into the “meta” era. However, it still feels like it came out in 1989. There’s very little in the film to tie it to the time in which ti was filmed, except clothes and cars. It’s timeless, but not in the sense that a viewer could see it at any time and still relate, but more in the sense that it seems to lack any sort of rooting.
Where does it take place? When does it take place? What brought this family together? Who fucking knows? All of these are questions which can be thrown at the four movies in the box set, and it’s what makes the fact that they occupy the same timeframe as the Nekromantik films so interesting. On one hand, you have this pair of films which push the very limits of what one person can take, and on the other, there’s a quartet which cling to the past with every ounce of their being.
The special features in Vinegar Syndrome’s box set – along with the excellent 4K scans of each film – mean that there’s a lot to put these films in their context, be it made for TV movie or straight-to-video release, and they really do look quite excellent. While all four are extraordinarily brightly lit for horror films, it means that nothing’s obscured by shadow. The special effects, when they come, look remarkably disturbing – big points to the “hand in the disposal” scene from The Evil Escapes for winning on just how disgusting you could get on prime-time TV in the late ’80s.
So, should you find yourself wondering just how weird and diverse horror go right before it hit a new epoch, take a week to dive into these six movies and lose yourself in nostalgia and forward-thinking oddities.
Amityville: The Cursed Collection is available from Vinegar Syndrome.
The Nekromantik 1&2 set is available from Cult Epics.