Verotika is not a big screen adaption of Madonna’s overlooked 1992 album Erotica. It is based on the adult comic book series Verotik, created by the heavy metal punk musician (of The Misfits) Glenn Danzig during the summer of 1994. Last year Danzig released Verotika, the horror anthology film inspired by his comic creation. It would be obvious to horror film fans that the classic 1982 chiller Creepshow was an inspiration for Danzig. The three main segments of this film run around 82 minutes total and, if nothing else can be said about these stories, it’s safe to say they are unlike anything you have probably ever seen.
Opening Verotika is an introduction by its narrator, Morella (played by adult film actress Kayden Cross). As we’re introduced to her, Morella walks up to a restrained female victim and gouges her long, sharp fingernails in the eyes of the poor woman (in extreme close-up), then removes what’s left of them. As Morrella holds two freshly plucked eyeballs in her hand, she then addresses the audience as her “darklings” and informs them of the film they’re about to see. This is the prelude that welcomes viewers to Verotika.
Segment One: “The Albino Spider of Dajette”
If you thought George Lucas was terrible at coming up with names for his serials, then wait until you see this title appear on your screen. This sequence stars Ashley Wisdom as Dajette, a fetish model sporting hair the color of the pink wig Natalie Portman wore during her stripper scenes in Closer. As the story begins, Dajette is performing oral sex on her male date but refuses his efforts to remove her shirt. After some struggle, the man gets the shirt off but is shocked to discover Dajette’s…um…secret: Our model has a set of eyes within the middle of each breast. You probably just had to re-read that again, and I wouldn’t blame you. Eyes in the middle of each breast. At this realization, we hear the very first sentence spoken by a character, the date, in this segment: “Your tits! They are looking at me!” Oh, boy.
Not surprisingly, the boyfriend gets spooked and up and leaves, which breaks Dajette’s heart. Sure, it’s not uncommon to cry when one is rejected by a lover, but it is rare that one’s breast cries, too. Yes, a tear from Dajette’s breast-eye drops to the floor where it falls on an albino spider. Somehow, this causes the spider to become a human-sized six-armed creature (played by Scotch Hopkins) which kind of resembles the silent gentlemen from the classic “Hush” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The spider creature man fondles Dajette’s head and face for many minutes and then heads out to snap the neck of a few neighborhood sex workers. Dajette also learns her good friend Francois (Paul Vandervort demonstrating his best Isabella Rossellini impression) is killed, but she still manages to make it to the next day’s photoshoot consisting of four other models standing around being photographed while wearing very revealing latex and leather outfits.
This could have been an interesting aspect of Dajette’s life to explore deeper. Esteemed filmmakers such as Brian De Palma touched on this type of world in Body Double along with the late Joel Schumacher in 8mm. I’m sure a good movie could be made about a character living in that environment at some point in the future, but this movie isn’t it.
The remainder of this sequence is rather uneventful. Dajette, still wearing the leather dress from her fetish shoot, wanders into a porn theater filled with creeps, a café with rude waiters, and into police officers. Every one of them bellows their lines with an exaggerated French accent which also makes no sense as the dirty cinema Dajette wandered into has LA signage posted. Most of the dialogue in this opening sequence is woefully terrible. But there are a few bright spots: the spider creature makeup is very well done, and the idea of an evil creature carrying out killings through the thoughts of another is an intriguing concept.
But the good is dragged down by the not-good, including mismatched editing and how even basic simple actions are ludicrously executed. Example: when Dajette picks up the phone in her apartment to call the police, she doesn’t dial any numbers. She just picks up her phone and is immediately connected to the police department. The good ideas here are buried under sloppy storytelling and execution, and when this segment is over, the question one asks is not “what happens next?” but “why did they bother?”
Segment Two: “Change of Face”
Now, that’s a clever and amusing title! I won’t get into too much detail about this segment, but I will say it is a slight improvement from the Dajette story. We even have an intriguing concept: a stripper who calls herself Mystery Girl (Rachel Alig) spends her nights carving off the faces of young women to place over her deformed one, so she won’t feel so horrible about herself. Here we have room to explore the way society puts pressure on us to look perfect. Unfortunately, Danzig would rather spend his screen time (several precious minutes of it) focusing on shapely strippers (including fellow adult film actress, Katrina Jade. I mean, this thing is full of them) which have basically nothing to do with this story.
Mystery Girl collects her faces and hangs them on her wall Hannibal Lector-style, but that’s as far as the similarities end between those two. When Mystery Girl performs on stage, she covers herself up in a thick satin ensemble, including her face. The faces she wears give her the confidence to dance in front of strangers, but she lacks this confidence every other time. She’d probably be happy dancing forever; however, a hard-nosed police Sgt. Anders (Sean Kanan) hunts her down, causing Mystery Girl to flee to another town and to another strip bar.
Change of Face is an improvement over Segment One (and if they had anything resembling a budget they might have even cheekily been able to include Roy Orbison’s “Mystery Girl” here), but for anybody watching, the highlight of Verotika comes to us in the third segment:
Segment Three: “Drukija Contessa of Blood”
Well. What a surprise this segment was. It feels like something from a completely different movie, and I mean that as a compliment. This story of a powerful contessa from millennia ago is boasting some genuine production value here. Yes, it’s still cheap (the rocks forming the wall look very plastic-y), but this segment doesn’t look cheap. It also contains the movie’s single most compelling performance by Alice Haig (bearing quite a striking resemblance to Angelina Jolie) as contessa, ruler of…wherever it is. This segment that is somewhat based on an Elizabeth Bathory legend even has an original idea that Danzig explores throughout this segment, and it is levels better than the previous two.
Drukija is a beautiful, vibrant ruler who carries herself with pride due to her youthful, striking face. But this face doesn’t just happen. She uses the blood of the town’s female virgins to keep herself youthful. One of her rituals includes bathing in a tub full of virgin blood which she smears all over her nude body and face. She even delights in being sprayed with spurting blood from a virgin’s just-slit throat. As the blood showers Drukija, she rejoices in glee as does her handmaiden, Sheshka (Natalia Borowsky).
The theme of a woman going to great lengths to preserve her outward beauty was sort of touched upon in Segment Two (before Danzig decided to focus more on stripper bodies), but here is the main catalyst for the story in that this is all the contessa has in her life. In one scene, she spends an extended period of time just marveling at how perfectly youthful she looks in a mirror. Anybody who has an Instagram account has seen many, many photos of men and women doing the exact same. The gazing, the self-adulation, the need for strangers to be astounded at one’s physical outward appearance—Drukija doesn’t have Instagram, but she does have her mirror, and it’s all she needs.
Much like our modern-day beauty-obsessed culture, Drukija will go to any length to maintain her looks. That even means slicing open a virgin’s chest wide open and…well…I’ll let you see what is depicted for yourself. It’s a genuine shocker. It’s gory, and it’s revolting, but it’s Verotika’s truly genuine and only surprise, and it’s a pretty neat one—if you can stomach it. Of course, the impact of it all is nearly ruined as Danzig’s camera noticeably jitters during this scene…and he kept the jitter in here! I’ll also not say anything about the wolf who runs off into the forest…where visible modern-day telephone polls are visible in the distance. If it wasn’t for Haig’s fearless dedication to this scene, the whole thing could have gone to pot. Also, besides the bathing scene, Haig remains fully clothed throughout this segment, even if her outfit is rather kinky for a country ruler.
So what to make of Verotika after it’s over? It’s certainly original, and I know from screenings that Danzig was surprised to hear audiences laughing at scenes which he meant to be profound. He shouldn’t be surprised. The editing in the Dajette segment is some of the sloppiest I’ve ever seen, and I come from a journalism school where at first we never edited anything in our lives, but we still did better than this. Working cheap doesn’t mean working terribly. Steven Spielberg used toy model kits for working out his shot plans on the first Indiana Jones movie, and for the second one, Temple of Doom, he used basic Christmas lights being pulled over the front window of a still car to simulate a moving high-speed chase through the city.
More often than not, working limited means having to be even more creative. There’s none of that here. And despite some Dario Argento-inspired color lighting schemes and the wicked spider creature makeup, this is Ed Wood level bad but will inspire many Friday night get-togethers where everybody hoots with laughter over pretty much every line of dialogue.
Things improve with Segment Two slightly as it contains something of an idea, but that idea gets shoved to the side by showcasing the strippers over exploring the idea further.
The third segment is the jewel here. It even reminded me of the Edgar Allen Poe anthology movie Spirits of the Dead which featured stories directed by Federico Fellini, Louis Malle, and Roger Vadim. Now, this segment is nowhere (and I do mean nowhere) near that caliber of quality, but if I was to compare it to something, I guess it would be Eli Roth’s Hostel movies. These movies are gory, disturbing, grungy, and at times sickening, but they each have an idea. And sometimes that’s just about all you can ask for in a horror movie today.
Verotika is available to stream on Shudder starting September 24th.