Five out of Five stars
It’s not often that a movie reviewer is really surprised by what he sees on the screen. I guess that it’s totally fair to say that we are a jaded lot. Normally, even the most unexpected of movies has a familiar structure, or characters that we recognize. Fifteen minutes into most films we see the direction that the movie is headed and we begin to lean that way. Arturo Janneti’s Finis Mort manages to completely obliterate all expectations. This is Janneti’s first film, and I for one hope that we can hope to see much more from him.
The cast is almost totally unknown. Only Fred Kessler is familiar to audiences, and he appears only for a few moments of the movie. The fact that we have not seen these people before (and in some cases are guaranteed not to see them again) lends a certain quality of fascination to the film. The unfamiliarity of the faces combines with the Cinema Verite style to convince us that this is more historical document that entertainment. But, entertaining it is.
Since this film is of the sort that is likely to be seen by viewers who worry about spoilers let me give my recommendation right up front. See this film. Now that you know my suggestion, read no further if spoilers worry you.
For those who are still reading, here’s my full review:
The film opens on an indistinct, blurry image. The camera takes it’s time finding focus to finally reveal that we are looking at a gray room, wet looking all around, with a large wooden chair in the center of frame. A hooded man walks past the camera, then vanishes from sight. Off screen we can hear some muffled sounds. Maybe these are the sounds of a struggle of some sort. Perhaps we hear some moans and cries. We can’t be sure. Then the hooded man re-enters the shot. He is dragging a pretty girl (Julie Castgate) who is fighting to escape. She is wearing a sheer nightgown that barely comes o her thighs. Her hands are bound behind her back. One perfectly shaped breast finds its way free on the silken nightie. The hooded man forces her into the chair, and ties her into place. The image cuts to black
We fade in on Fred Kessler, dressed in a white lab coat setting behind a desk. He gives a monotone speech about the reality of what we are about to see. He tells us, again and again, that this is not fiction, but is rather real footage of brutal acts. He warns us not to watch. The look on his face is blank, as if he has been drugged. We know Kessler from many Z grade movies and his appearance creates the expectation of more of the same. Then we see a short title sequence.
I know that what I’m describing so far sounds like nineteen-seventies exploitation movie fare. I can’t explain why, but it doesn’t feel that way at all. Although we are only a few minutes into the program by the time the opening credits roll, it is already clear that we are in the hands of some sort of mad genius.
After the credits we can suppose that we have been dumped into a flash back. We watch a white van creeping up a quiet street at night. We see Julie Castgate (who in the credits is billed only as “Female Victim,” a decision that we may find odd) walking nervously down the sidewalk. The van comes to a sudden stop, and two men (Warren Smith and Ed Stall) jump out. They grab the female victim and drag her screaming into the van. Then the van speeds away.
By this point we in the audience are completely off balance. We can’t be sure what is going on. It is if is we are lost at sea.
Next we watch the hooded man (oddly, he is totally un-credited in the film, so we never know who the actor is) in a room with a large wooden table. The table is littered with knives and surgical instruments. He is sharpening a rather large butcher knife. This scene functions to give us our first real glimpse of what is to come. The foreshadowing is almost unbearable.
The strangest part of the film comes next. We get a strobe effect of images coming too quickly to be distinct. We can almost be sure that we have seen several dead bodies, and a girl’s screaming face. Then the screen cuts to soft black and stays that way for over a minute. Over the blackness we hear mechanical, grinding noises and indistinct dialogue. Then we fade back to the young woman in the chair. The man in the hood walks into frame and draws the blade of his knife across her face, releasing a small stream of blood and a terrified scream. The camera pushes in very tight on her eyes, which are wet and wide and filled with what looks like real fear.
Then we flash back (we guess) again. The girl is in another room, still dressed in her clothes from the street. The hooded man and the two men from the van are in the room. They strip her, and take turns raping her violently. This scene really doesn’t need any more description than that. As the scene ends we see the hooded man forcing the girl into the nightgown that we’ve seen before.
We return to the room with the chair. This is where Ms. Castgate does her best acting. She manages to portray real, paralyzing fear using mostly her eyes. At first she screams, but then the executioner (it is clear by now that that is what he is) forces a ball gag into her mouth.
He begins to cut her in delicate ways. He makes it slow; takes his time and punishes her. At the same time he is punishing the audience. We want to look away, but really cannot. Most of us (unless we are Charlie Sheen or Paris Hilton) have never seen anything like this. There is a fascination that builds around this sort of brutality, an obsessive appeal that makes us watch things that we never in our public minds admit to wanting to see. Perhaps it is catharsis. Perhaps we are just sick.
By the moment when he finally cuts her throat, and ends her life, we are hoping for it. When her eyes go dead we can’t be sure if we want that light to go out to spare her more pain, or to spare us more pain, or because our reptile brains long for the butchery. Maybe we are aroused, in some inimitable way, by all of this.
When she is finally dead the hooded man unties her, lays her out on the floor and removes what’s left of her clothes. Then he does the most unexpected (and most horrible) thing. The hooded man pulls his erect penis from his pants, strokes it a moment, then mounts the corpse in the room. The credits roll over the scene of this unbearable act.
The film ends with a statement from the film makers telling us that all of what we have watched is real. We, of course, don’t believe it. At least, I didn’t the first time I saw the film. By now I know that it is true. I, like you, have read the news stories about the murder of Julie Castgate. I, like you, know that Arturo Janneti is in hiding (in South America, the FBI suggests) and not likely to be found.
And yet, even knowing what we know now, we can’t help watching. We are shocked and amazed by this wondrous document. If you are like me, you will be seeking out a bootleg VHS of this film, and making copies for your friends. You will watch it late at night at parties you have hosted for only the select few who are likely to enjoy it (and most importantly: not likely to tell anyone about it).
Janneti’s film becomes like a drug. I expect that we will see other young directors attempting to copy it soon. I for one cannot wait.