Verotika (2019) – How the Gods Kill (Horror)

There has recently been a strange discourse on the internet. The internet being what it is, it’s not like it’s actually going to matter or change anything, but people seemed to get very exorcized. Even Paul Schrader weighed in because he seems to have nothing better to do these days between making very fine movies about bitter old men and listening to Taylor Swift. The debate was, is it mean to write mean reviews? Now, as a critic I have thoughts on this. I grew up on Mark Kermode rants. Not only was it an introduction to cinema but his eloquence and ability to frame trash in its proper context and explain quite how much his time was wasted spoke to a teenager having a really rough time of it. Maybe there is something adolescent in it, but when teenagers feel they have no control, the ability to put oneself above it all with a good, acerbic, withering comment, is a lot better than lashing out or self destruction. When it comes to movies, I think the best way to frame it is that, even though a filmmaker may put their whole heart and love into a picture, at the end of the day, a lot of filmmakers don’t, and when all I have is the final product in front of me, trash is trash is trash. We have such little precious time on this earth, and when I could be watching Citizen Kane, or really, I could be out there living my life, and I’m served tripe like Verotika… then really you’re getting everything you’re asking for. “They don’t build statues of critics”, they said, well critics are there to tear down the false gods they do make statues to. 

Verotika for a long time was impossible to view unless you were very lucky. It played a few festivals, a few exclusive screenings. The director, famous punk and metal rockstar Glenn “Mother” Danzig clearly thought this was something that deserved to have an air of mystique to it, something he wanted only his purest of devotees, or horror blood junkies, to be able to see. Only they would get it, probably. To be fair this is understandable for someone like Glenn Danzig, who clearly is a punk lifer, someone whose music was pretty out there even for punk music when it was being made. Misfits, his punk band, often misnomered as The Misfits, innovated horror punk from the very earliest days of the spirit of ‘77. With the striking band look and their mixture of supposedly kitsch genres into their sound to sell this eerie gothic but yet fun sound like skiffle and rockabilly, they must have stuck out like a sore thumb in a genre that took itself very seriously.

What has become clear though as Glenn Danzig has aged is that he never quite got the irreverence of punk. His later music, especially his solo music, has taken itself increasingly seriously, which, to be fair, punk did, but not in the way Danzig does. The Sex Pistols, and The Stooges, and The Damned, and The Clash, they all took punk seriously but crucially they took the music and the movement seriously, but they rarely took themselves seriously. That’s what punk is, to me at least, it’s understanding the importance of the community, but not yourself. You don’t end up with a nickname like Rat Scabies without understanding this. Danzig, increasingly more so as soon as he started wanting to just be called “Danzig”, doesn’t seem to understand this. So Glenn Danzig, (I refuse to call him just “Danzig”), puts this movie out to a few select screenings because he wants people who quoteunquote “get it”, when he doesn’t get it, and what happens? Immediately you have multiple write ups calling this the next The Room. If only it were that funny. 

Verotika gets its name from a series of horror comics upon which this is loosely based called Verotik. I haven’t read it so I can’t tell you how faithful to the tone it is or whether any of the stories come directly from the source material but the name sets out its stall pretty clearly. The concept here are stories that mix a blend of sex and violence, violence and erotica. This has been a staple of horror marketing, whether you’re talking about the sex equals death trope in slasher films or films like The New York Ripper, the exploitation of which relies on blending those two base instincts. The appeal is clear, this is taking something that has long been lobbed as an insult, a derogatory slur against horror, that all it is is sex and violence, and embracing it, like punk music embraced a lot of the derogations thrown against it. Heck, even the name “punk” used to be an insult. The best quote I’ve heard is that calling your music ‘punk rock’ is essentially like calling it ‘music for assholes’.

What this misses is that this embracing of violence and sex in horror is in no way new or original. Just in the last few years the metatextual discussion of sex and violence on screen has reached the sophisticated yet viscerally satisfying heights of Knife + Heart and Censor, both films that directly and knowingly engage in the history of visual exploitation in cinema while giving you the visceral thrills you want from all those things. What Verotika seems most interested in doing, is fulfilling Glenn Danzig’s jerk-off fantasies while claiming there is some rebellious spirit at play. Personally, I think paying a cast of pornography actresses to debase themselves on screen under the pretext of making a proper movie seems like maybe the least radical act of rebellion you could engage in, and the most exploitative, and not in the fun horror movie way. 

The horror anthology is cheap, let’s get that out the way. This by itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Horror movies are cheap, that’s why they get made, it’s why they’re successful, but this looks so cheap. This is not a problem of budgeting but of direction. Halloween was cheap but it belies its price. Halloween is sleek and stylish in spite of its shoddy production. Even a film like Doom Asylum manages with clever use of location and tactful use of practical effects to turn a very, very cheap film into something, if not good then at least not a punk on the audience. The direction in Verotika is just shoddy. All the visuals look like untreated raw footage. The crew shot on good cameras, probably set to record the raw footage because that’s the default setting for a lot of professional grade cameras, and they just never bothered to treat or edit any of it. The other scenario is there are so many coloured gels in this movie, (which really makes the untreated nature of the footage stand out), but the blood in every scenario pops red, a dark and rich shade, which makes me think that every other shot was played down so that the blood stood out, but all that does is make you see how cheap and bad the fake blood is. The texture and color of it looks more like straight from the tube tomato puree that somebody’s rubbed into their body. All of the effects, practical and otherwise look so cheap that it looks like a joke, or a student theater production. If you treated the footage, as in, you actually enhanced the contrast at all, you could use bold shadows to hide the seams in a monster costume, but they didn’t, and you can see them, and it’s stupid. 

Which brings us onto the first segment. I will explain what happens and it will sound like I’m lying or high but I promise I’m not, please stay with me. A pink haired model is having weird clothes on sex with a guy on her sofa. This segment is set in France but what doesn’t happen is anyone talking French. Instead, what does happen is everyone does very bad, student theater, French accents. So, the guy wants to take her vest top off, she obviously is uncomfortable with this, but instead of being cool with her boundaries he rips it off to reveal… eyes where her nipples should be… Now at this point I am already very uncomfortable. Not because of the eyes on the breasts, although I think that’s what Glenn Danzig wants me to be uncomfortable with, but I am uncomfortable because of the violation of sexual boundaries that’s just happened. Glenn Danzig doesn’t seem very concerned with this, the man just body shames her and leaves. This is to the point where it feels like Glenn Danzig weird and franly hateful body shaming joke at the expense of the adult film actress’ breast implants, a joke I just, just hate. Let her live her life, man. If we are meant to feel sympathy for her, nothing about the camera work invites us to identify with her, nothing about the direction gives us anything other than awkward, alienating distance. 

What happens next is her breast eyes cry onto a very badly CGI’d white spider, who turns into a giant weirdo muscle man spider guy, in the aforementioned bad monster costume. He holds her by the neck, weirdly and awkwardly, and says “allow me to do what your subconscious cannot”. Subsequently, with almost no transition at all, while she is asleep, the spider starts going out and breaking sex worker’s necks. The reason this threw me for a loop is “girl with eyes where her areola should be” is already a premise for a short film. I don’t know why anyone thought “what this needs is a weird spider monster”. Probably because Glenn Danzig has absolutely no respect or empathy for any of these people. He can only do horror through shock and seems incapable of doing any of it through character, because he doesn’t care to understand the characters. We will come back to this.

The real reason this short doesn’t work though, besides being just horribly made, is that at no point in the short film, does anyone hint at anything or set up anything that says what this poor girl actually wants to do in her subconscious moments, is to murder sex workers. What it feels like, is that Glenn Danzig already thinks we should think that she should be ashamed of herself for being how she is, not just someone with a deformity, or a model in the text of the film, but metatextuality, someone who is willing to undergo plastic surgery as an actress, and someone who is willing to subject themselves to being in pornography. I think all of those things are fine, for the record, but the short only works if you go in thinking that someone should be ashamed of that, thus, by murdering sex workers, the character is lashing out at themselves. It’s just evil, heinous filmmaking. 

The second short is fairly unmemorable beyond a weird, poorly handled time jump in the middle and an actor playing a police detective who is just the worst. He is completely undirected and doing a student theater cop. This is a running theme, actors making choices that children would do in their Year 7 school play, to look like grown ups playing dress up, which makes it inexplicable that actual adults are making any of these choices. 

The third short is where all the themes of terribleness already set up in the picture come together. Set in medieval times, it obviously wants to be something akin to Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death or Micheal Armstrong’s Mark of the Devil. Inspired by true life tales of medieval exploitation like Countess Elizabeth Báthory or Gilles de Rais, the short consists of someone going out to find local virgins, bringing them into a big medieval castle, murdering them, and bathing in their blood. That’s it. There’s no build of tension. You’re at no point expected to wonder why any of these young girls are being brought into the castle, you’re just expected to voyeuristically gaze on their murder, which the camera fetishises. This is a recurring theme in the picture. In the first short, there’s a scene where the big bug monster holds the protagonist prone by the neck, and the vibe isn’t one of terror, but just ‘look at this’. The camera lingers not in a way that makes artful the act of alienation, not even in a way that like Argento or Fulci weaponized the act of looking long upon violence, but in a way that turns it into something fetishised. This is in the literal sense but also in the Marxian sense whereby something becomes an object of fetish in a more abstract way of thinking about desire. The acts of violence and torture are stripped of any potential terror and just become something to look at. I don’t know quite how to explain it but I feel the real thing that Glenn Danzig thinks is erotic is not any of the actual erotic content or frequent nudity, but the violence itself. Glenn Danzig thinks the thing that’s erotic is mutilating women, and he wants us to look at his jerk off material like some creepy, predatory uncle taking a date home. 

If this isn’t your thing, and I don’t really want to meet anyone for whom it is their thing, the film just turns into something slow, boring, and insulting. Insulting because the film expects me to be into this, and I find it disgusting. 

The immediate point of comparison I think Glenn Danzig would like a viewer to go to is the Creepshow franchise, with the bold lighting and direct horror anthology, comic book influence. The difference is that Creepshow is delightful, and light hearted, and charming. Going up the franchise, maybe it makes more sense to go for Creepshow 2, a bit cheaper, only three stories instead of five, and directly based off existing Stephen King stories instead of a general tonal influence from a body of existing work. The real point of comparison though is Creepshow 3, which I happened to watch for the first time recently. Ugly, cheap, crude, fetished cruelty, mean spirited, indulgent, and clearly made so a bunch of hacks could get off on the idea of making a movie. 

In the past I have written about the kind of failure that makes an artist’s previous work look bad, and this is like that. What this exposes about the body of work of Glenn Danzig is how like this he always was. He struck the pose because he believed it, and he moves about constantly thinking he’s a rockstar, constantly thinking he’s as young and in touch as he always was. It exposes that the whole time he was making revolutionary music, he was getting high on his own fumes. 

I could tell you that he believed his own hype. I could tell you that this is another Tommy Wiseau, The Room situation where some fatuous blowhard thought he could and we are laughing at his own folly. I could tell you that he got too big for his boots. I could tell you that he got to the point where his head got too big and he thought that he could make whatever he wanted without having to learn how and didn’t put in the effort and didn’t put in the money and thought it was good enough anyway because it came from his brilliant mind. But that’s not what happened. What’s happened is that Glenn Danzig made a movie for himself to jerk off to, and called it art, and released it to the rest of the world because somehow that’s punk. And it isn’t. It’s gross, not because porn is, by itself, gross, not because I object to confrontational art, and not because it is wrong to make exploitation films, but because the money in the porn industry has been decimated by Pornhub and the gig economy, and this is probably the most dignified work a lot of these actresses are going to get. This isn’t a Rabid or The Girlfriend Experience type of thing where the movie is dignified or artful on it’s own terms and it gives struggling actresses in the adult entertainment industry ambitious work to do. This isn’t a Return of the Living Dead situation where the actual character who strips in the movie isn’t the one played by an actual stripper that Dan O’ Bannon knew. This is a situation where Glenn Danzig thought it would be punk to exploit a bunch of people who needed the work. It isn’t punk, and it’s not funny, it’s just depressing.

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