Upon viewing Begotten for the first time, one could easily mistake it for an archaic silent film made by a seriously deranged director on crack (or whatever popular drug they used a hundred years ago). Low and behold, this is a movie from 1991 by 45-year old Edmund Elias Merhige (Suspect Zero, Shadow of the Vampire). Inspired by a near-death experience he had at the age of 19, Merhige’s first feature film is horrifyingly surreal. Shot entirely in black and white reversal film, every frame was painstakingly re-photographed to give it the grainy, silent-era look it has. If you’ve seen “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) you’ll know what I mean. Merhige said that for each minute of film (there are 78 of them), it took up to 10 hours of re-photographing in order to get the desired effect.
Extremely crude and bare-bones in his depiction of Earth’s creation, Merhige not only delivers a weird movie, he hands us a chunk of his scariest nightmare for us to interpret as we see fit. Watching this play out, we feel dirty, disgusting, but oddly enough, a strange sense of fulfillment crept up my being as the end credits appeared. It’s something about sharing in someone else’s deepest fears and given the privilege to witness their personal, visual representation of terror.
Merhige analogizes the biblical story of Earth’s Creation in Begotten: there’s God, Mother Earth, the Son of Earth and a bunch of nomads who scared the shit out of me. While the characters are listed in the credits and therefore recognizable in the film, the story itself is completely devoid of any kind of plot, thus leaving us wondering (most of the time) what it is exactly that we’re watching. A quote from fright.com explains this well: “I used those parts that scared me, or that I just couldn’t understand – the parts that stuck with me for days and that forced me to wonder where within me did this come from?” The opening scene is definitely not one for the faint of heart, as we watch a disheveled character (God) disemboweling himself for an uncomfortably long time, cutting and stabbing himself with a razor. Following his gruesome death, Mother Earth emerges and proceeds to arouse God’s penis, although it is no longer attached to his body. She becomes pregnant and wanders off into the desert. At this point, there has been some semblance of a plot, but this is where it gets really weird.
Mother Earth gives birth to a fully grown man, who seems to be constantly having seizures. The sounds used by Merhige throughout this scene are minimalist yet equally as disturbing as what is on screen. When the crawling man (Son of Earth) meets a group of nomads in the desert, he starts vomiting uncontrollably and they see this as a precious gift, jumping joyously before pulling him away by tying a rope to his neck. To realize that these scenes were taken from a human being’s imagination is truly scary. If you somehow succeeded in fusing together Wes Craven’s brain to David Cronenberg’s, assuming they were both dead of course, and managed to transplant it into a sentient being who could then direct a horror movie, it still wouldn’t be a thousandth of a percent as ethereal as Begotten.
I especially enjoyed the atmosphere created by Merhige throughout the film. Using poetic imagery akin to Lynch’s Eraserhead, we’re quickly sucked into the dreamscape that peers through the screen. A torturous pace and a limited range of sounds could turn some viewers away before the halfway mark, but I implore you to sit through the entire thing. It’s a beautiful testament of a man’s inventive creativity, and his capability to adapt his darkest feelings to the big screen.
Begotten is a great example of anarchist directing and a fascinating interpretation of Earth’s creation according to the bible. The pain and suffering endured by the Son of Earth is beyond me, as I do not possess the necessary literary skills to describe the excesses with which this character is subjected to. Merhige once hinted that he’d like this movie to be part of a trilogy, but unfortunately he cannot seem to get enough funding for that plan to materialize. I’m hoping he finds it someday.
This movie might be hard to find at Blockbuster or Super Club Videotron, but check repertory places such as La Boite Noire or Movieland (if you’re in Montreal) for a better chance of seeing it.