Stratum I – Nefastus – The First Layer
The most emotionally engaging moment of Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made happens about ten minutes in, when the mother of the film-within-a-film tells one of our two protagonists, a young boy named Nathan, that his dog did not go to Heaven because it was bad. We learn later that the dog bit Nathan and had to be put down. Beyond the emotionally damaging act of telling a grieving child its loved one is in Hell, there’s not much emotional charge in Antrum. That’s not meant as a criticism.
As a whole, Antrum doesn’t try and engage the viewer’s emotions. It works to engage their mind. Each and every element of the film, more or less successfully, layer themselves on top of each other with the precision of a Japanese puzzle box. It’s a fitting metaphor since the closest cinematic cousins to Antrum are Nakata’s Ringu (including Verbinski’s remake) and Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns. The difference here is that where those films fictionalize the detective investigating the cursed movie and write them into the story, Antrum externalizes the detective narrative. The viewer, each of us, gets to be the detective of this film, something I realized preparing for this article. I spent an afternoon fast-forwarding, rewinding, freeze-framing, and screen-shotting all through the picture. In the end, I realized I had spent one damn enjoyable day puzzling through the movie and its background and investigating scenes from those other films I just mentioned, which are some of my personal favorite horror movies.
Antrum as a film has many antecedents and reference points. It owes debts to a variety of filmmakers from Wes Craven to David Lynch, but its most important reference is Dante’s Inferno. The directors (David Amito and Michael Laicini) took the layering of Dante’s Hell as a challenge, as a guide, as gospel, and as a structuring device. They don’t try to hide that fact. Antrum (the fictional documentary itself and not the cursed film it investigates and presents) starts with clips from L’Inferno, a 1911 Italian silent adaption of the poem. In the Inferno, Hell is an enormous funnel composed of nine layers. The more wicked a soul is judged to be, the deeper into the pit it is cast, all of which is surrounded by the river Acheron over which Charon ferries the damned (a Charon figure makes an appearance in Antrum).
Literally everything in Antrum, from the plot to the sound design to the film stock of the cursed movie itself. is composed of multivalent, interdependent layers all modeled with the Inferno in mind. The filmmakers accomplished this with an intentional, engaging, and entertaining approach that rewards close attention and critical thought about what we are seeing on the screen with an experience similar to adopting a character in a role-playing game. It’s fun because it makes you feel a part of the mystery. I want to spend a little time discussing some of the ways that layering is presented.
Stratum II – Malificus – The Second Layer
The place to start with any discussion of a film is as simple as what happens. With Antrum the multiple plots unfold and intersect and comment on each other in a continuous conversation. It starts with the relatively brief documentary portion that bookends the interior film also called Antrum, its critical function is to provide a “real-world” placement for Antrum proper, to give it the trappings of a real film object. It allows us as the viewer to get into character as it were. One commentator warns us, “Antrum is not safe.” That message is reinforced by a warning placed at the beginning of Antrum proper, complete with a countdown right out of William Castle’s playbook.
We’re provided with an appropriately grisly history of screenings ending in catastrophe, an odd note suggesting spontaneous combustion as the cause of death and the fire in the theater where it screened in 1988. The choice to relate the events at a 1993 screening at first glance seems to undercut the suggestion of supernatural power at work in the film. We learn a concession worker dosed the popcorn butter with LSD to cause the riot. It’s possible this was included to give an air of “objectivity” to the filmmaker’s presentation.
Nine minutes in, we leave the documentary world and descend into the film-within-a-film. From this moment forward, nothing in Antrum is straightforward or is what it appears to be. In the first instance, Antrum itself is a modern film presented as a product of the ’70s. To that end, the sound is manipulated in ways not connected to the plot itself, for which separate aural manipulations are created. The music over the opening credits distorts as if on a tape that has stretched and warped through repeated plays. A filter is applied to the mastering of the sound, giving it static and sizzle and suggesting an aged film. The credits we see are in Russian; it’s presented as a product of the Soviet Union, though we know it’s a Canadian film and the actors within are a heterogeneous mix of English-speaking protagonists and Eastern-European villains. Even cue marks, sometimes called cigarette burns, are placed at the appropriate points throughout. But these are just surface details, lubricants to start the descent from the surface to the first layer.
So, what happens? On one level, this is a story of grieving and closure. A sister helps her young brother try and come to terms with the loss of his beloved pet. Below this, we have a woman and child in danger, on the run from foreign, Satanic killers. Even deeper, we have a supernatural folk tale of innocents entering the forest only to be hunted by demons. Should we assume the Satanic hunters (one of whom is credited as Cassius, who appears in the Inferno being chewed eternally by one of the Devil’s three heads) are actually demonic presences? Or are they simply sadistic killers, living off the grid, worshipping their Baphomet idol (which functions as a bronze bull torture device)? Antrum suggests they are both. Maybe, as the brother and sister dig through the layers of hell, their roles change. Early in the film, they are mere killers, but as we descend, the killer’s skins are co-opted by demonic entities. Or maybe it is none of these things.
Antrum leaves us a bread crumb trail into the forest. Near the beginning, we witness a car ride home from the vet. Mom, sister, and brother are in the car and this is the moment mom tells the little boy that his dog is now in hell. We clearly see the sister sitting in the front seat as this is stated. Then two things occur. First, the boy has a sort of waking nightmare/vision in which we see the sister vanish and then reappear, unconscious, and bleeding from the head. These nightmares are a recurring element throughout the film.
Secondly, later in the film, the sister mentions that she has no idea where the boy got the idea that the dog was in hell, even though we saw her there when her mother told it to the boy. Or was she? Is any of this “real”? It’s certainly not a real documentary. It’s certainly not a real Soviet-era horror film. Is there another layer of falsehood underneath that? The word “antrum” according to the movie itself is an entrance to Hell where the Devil fell from Heaven, but the true definition is a natural chamber or cavity in a bone or other anatomical structure. In other words… it’s all in your head. Though we’re not sure if that means the boy’s head, the sister’s, the filmmakers, or our own heads.
Stratum III – Demonium – The Third Layer
The audio techniques used to give the film-in-a-film Antrum the appearance of age have already been mentioned, but the manipulation of sound using both diegetic and external effects is crucial to the film’s impact. It starts with the character dialogue. There is an emphasis placed on ritual prayer, Bible verses (Ezekiel 28:16), and recitation. Before they begin digging, the sister leads the boy in repeating a protective prayer—beginning “One by one we pray to thee”—that she says first, then they repeat it together. Eventually, the camera sinks low and looks up at the sister silhouetted by the sun as her voice turns demonic and powerful, screaming the prayer by the end. Then the spell is broken and she has returned to normal. It’s not clear if either character noticed the change or if this was something only seen by the viewer. Is it in the film or outside it? Often Antrum, to its credit, makes it very hard to know the difference.
About half an hour in, the boy leans his head against the side of the hole they have been digging. He tells his sister that they are in the first layer but that he doesn’t hear anything. She asks what he is supposed to hear and he replies, “Trumpets.” We have to wait until the third layer before we actually hear the trumpets. The boy informs his sister that it’s more dangerous now that they have descended and the horns blast seemingly from the sky. The characters react to the noise, so it’s a sound in their environment. We discussed earlier the metal Baphomet that the killers have in their compound, and minutes after we hear the trumpets the two siblings are secret witnesses to the killers burning a man alive inside the idol. The brazen bull torture device was named for its pipes which transmuted the screams of the burning into the bellows of a bull through amplification and distortion. There is a suggestion that the trumpets heard by the two were actually the distorted screams of the tortured.
We’re told by screen titles at the end of the interior film that we have now watched Antrum in full. And after the interior Antrum Sovietesque credits, there are then credits for the faux-documentary. During these credits, there’s a great deal of commentary on the physical properties of the Antrum film-stock. One element discussed through the presentation of experts and talking heads is the use of binaural beats on the interior film soundtrack. Their presence is subtle, like subliminal imaging, so even though they have an alleged effect on the viewer it’s impossible to detect them consciously. The example given in the film is the presence of what they refer to as 500 “cycles” on one side and 504 on the other. What I don’t know and what I can’t test is whether this audio dissonance is actually there while we watch Antrum. Is it another fabrication by the filmmakers or did they really create a binaural soundtrack? Was I subjected to that kind of audio manipulation as I watched? Not knowing was part of the fun.
Stratum IV – Incarnatus est Metus – The Fourth Layer
The directors manipulate the visuals of Antrum in a multitude of ways, both subtle and obvious. For a subtle example, we can look at the framing of the background scenery throughout. They use the limbs of the trees, the vines, the shrubs, and even the trash and mechanical debris of the hunters’ compound to recreate pentagrams, triangles, and occult sigils that are featured in more obvious ways we’ll discuss below. In fact, this deliberate framing and filming of the background is just the bottom layer of a tangle of overlapping visual elements that fill Antrum from start to finish.
We mentioned the verse from Ezekiel earlier which is recited by the boy when tested by his sister. It is a long verse and as he recites it, they are silhouetted in the dusk at the top of a hill, framed in a very wide, very long shot. From the bottom of the frame to the top of their heads only fills about a fifth of the screen. The rest, at first, is just the Byzantium purple sky. Gradually, a giant horned face fades into view, filling the sky over the characters, it hangs in the sky present but as insubstantial as the cues on a DVD used to set the appropriate brightness, dimmed to the point of obscurity. After a few moments, it’s clear that the head is moving and gesticulating in a manner reminiscent of silent film actors.
We see the same figure a second time during one of the boy’s nightmares. He dreams of an animated sequence in which horned demons emerge from the pit the siblings are digging and slip on the skin-suits of the hunters that they meet a short time later. One of the animated demons puts on a deer antler headdress, this image bleeds into a live-action shot of the hunter wearing the antlers, which cuts to the horned Baphomet statue, which fades into the same vaporous horned devil from the sky, this time accompanied by the blast of the trumpets discussed earlier. It’s a sequence of events that sums up the layered, self-referential nature of the movie. We’ll see this devil one more time before we’re done but I’ll leave that for the concluding section.
The post-movie coda that runs during the frame-film credits, discusses the importance of triangles to the imagery of the film, providing multiple examples of the visual equivalent of diegetic sounds, such as the camping tent or the points of rope ceremoniously surrounding the hole they’re digging. But at the end of the interior film, there is an unusual example of the use of triangle imagery. It’s not one created by props or scenery in the movie and it’s not part of the acetate layer of sigils to be discussed next. The end credits play and the words “The End” on the screen next to a still of the brother and sister sitting together. This image cuts to a very bright, glowing orange triangle floating in the middle of a black screen.
I won’t give away what is essentially the climax of the film, but a faded after-image version of this triangle is clearly visible in the center of the screen for the next several minutes, like a burnt retinal image. It doesn’t fully fade away until the sister scrambles back into the tent which acts as a replacement triangle on the screen. It stands alone in its nature as a visual effect. It’s not in the world of the film, it stands over and before it, between us and the events that we watch happen. But it’s not an artifact added to the film object itself like the sigils that appear throughout. And it’s not like the image of the horned devil we’ve discussed which is in its nature behind all the events that occur, not obscured by or obscuring but integrated with them.
Literally layered over everything that has been discussed so far, we learn that a clear acetate film with etched occult sigils has been meticulously attached to the entire length of Antrum’s film stock. We learn incidental details from the talking heads commentators like the sigils appear over 170 times, that they are the Sigil of Astaroth, even the recounting of a legend regarding the alleged danger of summoning Astaroth, playing back into the “danger” of watching Antrum. Ironically, though this is probably the most obvious of the film’s visual manipulations, it’s maybe the least interesting and most straightforward. Sigils summon demons; sigils are added to film—film summons demons.
One interesting issue is the fact that they’re layered over the film instead of scratched directly onto the film stock. Maybe there is a technical reason that’s the preferred method, it’s never clear why that detail is written into the script. Unless the suggestion is that the sigils were added after the fact possibly, by someone other than the creator of Antrum, maybe the same unknown person who splices snuff film footage into Antrum, leaving us with not two films but actually three: the frame-film about Antrum, Antrum proper, and the snuff film showing the torture and murder of an unknown couple. The sigils do provide a regular visual cadence. You learn to expect them as you watch. Anytime we see the sun directly in the frame, anytime we see a light flare or a circular object or space on the screen, often anytime the framing of a shot has a negative space we can expect to see the blip of a sigil.
Stratum V – Abyssus – The Fifth Layer
Dante’s Inferno ends with Dante climbing down the hairy body of the devil through the crevice in the Earth in which Satan is frozen. There’s a moment of disorientation as Dante emerges on the other side and realizes that all he has traveled down through now appears upside down, including Satan, whose legs stick up awkwardly out of the earth. At the very end of Antrum, true to Dante to the last, we see one last shot of the horned devil close up in a black space. He hangs there on the screen for a few seconds, gesturing a clawed hand at the viewer until for a very brief moment the image is inverted and the devil is upside-down.
Antrum doesn’t get everything right. Sometimes it leaves pieces unresolved or unintegrated into the structure overall, for example, the snuff film footage or the shadowy, small-sized demons that seem to wander around the forest. But Antrum gets a whole hell of a lot right. It’s a form of metafiction that engages the viewer into playing its game, a game with roots in detective stories and ’80s VHS interactive games. You become a detective. You decide how much you buy into Antrum’s world. It’s been several days since I’ve watched Antrum in its entirety; maybe I got lucky.