August Underground’s Unlikely Innocence

If you know anything about extreme horror, you know the name August Underground. Made for dirt and pennies in the infant 2000s by special effects professor Fred Vogel, it didn’t take long for it to become a juggernaut of extremist horror. Filmed on cheap video and featuring what is still hailed as some of the most realistic looking gore ever put to screen, it remains a force to be reckoned with 20 years later.

It doesn’t pull any punches. It opens with the cameraman (Allen Peters) and Peter (Vogel) entering a house and immediately descending into the basement wherein a naked, bloodied girl with a missing nipple is gagged and bound in a chair surrounded by feces, urine, and strange photographs. Shown also is a dead man in a bathtub with his body mangled and his genitals severed, presumably tossed in the toilet. The rest of the film follows the assailants as they harass, humiliate, and murder many unsuspecting civilians along their seemingly aimless path of terror.

Based on that, one might find it justifiable that this film and its sequels are commonly regarded as nothing but pointless gory slop. However, there are a small handful of details behind its creation that make it so much more intriguing than meets the eye.

A grainy image of a cement stairway to a basement. There is a bloody footprint on the third step. There is some black tarp on the left wall, and a few miscellaneous items on the concrete floor below. To the right is a wooden wall and a wooden stair rail.
Down we go!

Vogel claims in this podcast that none of the actors were paid, the cast comprised entirely of willing volunteers—one scene even involved Vogel’s own grandmother. The knowledge that this film is a passion project made my viewing experience rather lighthearted. It’s easy to see that Vogel and Peters were having fun together and that the rest of the cast were truly giving their all.

Also stated in the aforementioned podcast, Vogel felt partially inspired to make Underground by his students at the time, some of whom were writing letters to well-known serial killers. He greatly disliked this, and wanted to make something that showcased “what a serial killer really is.” In the film, Peter and the cameraman laugh and jest with each other, not in the fashion of your typical villain, but as if someone just told a ludicrously funny joke. Imagine a night out with your best friends, a can of alcohol or two, the bunch of you dancing to your favorite music; that is the kind of laughter you hear. This banter contrast with the imagery makes for an eerie watch, and with the knowledge of Vogel’s inspiration, drives home that realism. These killers are nasty and irredeemable, not romanticized or showcased in arthouse glory or vivid color; they are human, and that’s the worst thing about them.

While that noble aim may not shine through in the final product for many viewers (I’m even one to typically believe details not properly expressed in the content are worthless if they are only relayed after the fact [I am bloody looking at you, J.K. Rowling and Noelle Stevenson]), I still greatly respect the intent. One of the vilest features ever created was made in part to shed light on the realities of murder; go figure!

Because I went into the movie knowing all this behind-the-scenes detail, it cast a strange cheery glow over it. I saw what Vogel wanted me to see, but I also saw two friends having fun together. Not terribly different from Kuso (one of my favorite movies), the reasons for the existence of Underground are simple and innocent, and that gives it a whole other angle besides what is shown. Fred Vogel wanted to make a movie that conveyed something he felt strongly about, and he did, and he did it with friends and other passionate people. When a movie is made with that kind of raw love, it really shines, and August Underground is no exception—just as long as you know what to look for.

One final tidbit that I think is of utmost importance is that I didn’t watch it alone; I had one of my dearest friends with me. We were laughing and hollering and truly engaging with the film all the way through, in such a way I would never have expected to with such a title. Though they and I could not be together for obvious reasons, I could still feel the positive energy shared between us. We both knew about the film’s background—we had listened to some of that podcast just before we watched, and I think it had the same effect on them as it did me. Just like the filmmakers, we were a couple of friends having a good time. There was a kinship, an understanding that, perhaps, couldn’t have been achieved without knowing the film’s history. But all that matters now is we did have that experience, and it’s one I won’t forget or take for granted.

A poor quality image of a white man with dark hair and wearing what looks to be a bloodied white tank top in a white room. He is wearing a blue rubber glove and looking down toward a yellow bucket with some dark colored liquid in it.
Serial killin’ is nasty business.

It seems to me that to some film fans, there must be some form of “justification” for the existence of any given movie. Said justification seems to be dependent on a deep message or spectacular visuals or performances. To be just is to be worthy of human eyes, and the general consensus seems to be that material like August Underground does not meet this criterion. Generally, these pictures are viewed as akin to pornography (why is that an insult again?), obscenity for the sake of it; worthless. But if you stop to think about it, odds are this viewpoint will reveal itself as shallow and unjust. If one person, even a majority of people, deems a movie unfit for the human gaze, this does not make them right.

I find it peculiar that movies must have a deeper reason to justify certain visuals. Personally, I believe there is beauty to all films, however small it may be, and sometimes this beauty lay in a movie’s silliness. Let’s bring Kuso back into the conversation. It is loosely based around an earthquake that happened when the director was a child, and thus has themes of his trauma and fear, but mostly the movie is full of sh*t—literally. One of the segments’ plots revolves around a young man discovering a strange organism in the woods that he rubs feces on every day to help it grow (or come out of hiding, I still have no idea what in the world happened there), and the rest of the shorts involve similarly disgusting subject matter. While, like August Underground, Kuso has some deeper ideas present, it is overwhelmed by its nonsensical, vile, and quite frankly goofy imagery—but that’s why I love it. I explained much more in-depth in this article, but in short, this movie works for me because it’s fun to be fun, a good bit of madness made by people who care; just like August Underground.

A poor quality image of two naked women (the girl on the left is white with long brown hair, the girl on the right is black with black hair) holding each other on an olive-colored couch.
They seem to be very good friends.

It might be hard to take me even a lick seriously when I’m calling August Underground innocent, but when I’m looking at these people—young, opportunistic creators making something so raw and free—I can’t help but feel that kind of youthful joy. This movie was made by a group of passionate individuals who created something simply because they wanted to. When you’re aware of this, that passion and drive really shine through. There is care, respect, and friendship detectable even through that grainy, cheap, 20-year-old video.

Of course, that all could be an illusion I’ve conjured up based on feelings not truly detectable through video. Maybe the joyful energy I sensed wasn’t actually there, but my joy was, and my friend’s joy was—and I believe that’s all that really matters.

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Written by Emma Gilbert

Emma Gilbert is a 23-year-old from North Carolina who has had a special interest in horror films since she was 14. She's been writing since she was 10 years old, encouraged by her family and friends all the way. Here, she hopes to entertain and enthrall you with trainwreck analyses and lame humor!

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