(A.k.a. THE ANGEL'S MELANCHOLIA)
I'm assuming if you've clicked on this link you're already familiar with MELANCHOLIE DER ENGEL. Or, at the very least, its rather contentious director Marian Dora. If not ... proceed with caution, perhaps.
Influenced by their mutual fascination with Charles Manson-alike Andreas Baader, director Marian Dora and producer Carsten Frank co-wrote a script based around a curious criminal case from the 1970s in which a group of disparate people had spent several days in a rural farmhouse and only a couple of them survived. The survivors refused to talk about what had happened there, but later investigations of the premises unearthed the remains of bodies that had been buried there many years before.
Dora and Frank fill in the blanks and offer their own speculative version of those latter several days.
To this end, we open at a funfair where old pals Katze (Carsten Frank) and Brauth (porno actor Zenza Raggi) affectionately meet up after many years apart. Believe me, this is the only warm moment in a film which serves as a litany of pure misanthropy.
Within no time these two miscreants, who clearly share a dark secret from their past, hook up with a couple of girls perusing the fair. Melanie (Janette Weller) is an attractive woman with a hint of attitude about her; 16-year-old Bianca (Bianca Schneider) is a little girl lost in comparison. These guys, despite their pseudo-intellectual bullshit and rather odd appearances (Brauth wears a white suit and looks quite messiah-like with his long hair and beard), somehow manage to coerce these ladies into joining them on a car ride to a run-down farmhouse set in the middle of nowhere.
Before they do that though, the foursome briefly visit a tavern where they also pick up the stern-faced Anja (Patrizia Johann). She's swiftly established as being a little less ordinary during a rather bizarre exchange with Katze in the pub's toilet.
Arriving by night at their remote destination, the five of them are instantly thrown into an atmosphere of impending violence, chaos and philosophical claptrap.
Before long, there's a knock on the door. Enter the elderly Heinrich (Pietro Martellanza), wheeling the young and vulnerable Clarissa (Margarethe von Stern) in her wheelchair. Now there are seven.
This disparate group sit in their squalid surroundings smoking, taking drugs and occasionally indulging in acts of random decadence or violence. In one relatively early scene, Anja's breast is slowly sliced before she gives Katze a blowjob and spits out his load onto her injured boob. Neither action appears to be faked.
And so the inhumanity continues. The punishments become harsher, the atmosphere smells more and more of decay, and the outcome for all involved - including the seriously depraved Katze, who it's revealed is dying - becomes ever bleaker.
MELANCHOLIE DER ENGEL is arguably Dora's magnum opus, even though he personally derides it as an artistic failure. But his and Frank's mental picture of what happened during those unrevealed several days during the 1970s is truly, persuasively horrific. Even if it could be argued that they went too far in their pursuit of portraying a vision of Hell on Earth.
Though never scary, the film does induce anxiety in the viewer by way of fearing what level Dora is going to up his shock tactics to next. Rape? Yeah, it's in there. Torture of a disabled girl's stoma? Sure. The killing of insects, frogs, snails? Yes, yes. The slaughter of a pig (seemingly performed by farmers but shot in a manner which suggests cold-blooded murder - I reconcile this scene to the rabbit sequence in NEKROMANTIK, Jorg Buttgereit being a clear influence on Dora, even though this one is shot in much more deceptively exploitative fashion)? Yep. A cat having its throat slit (understandably really contentious among detractors, although my understanding is this scene was actually simulated - it's certainly one of the few moments in the films that looks comfortably faked)? Of course. Disembowelment, torture, puking? You bet!
Believe me, I'm only scratching the surface. This film is unrelenting in terms of misery and pain. And yet, for all its low budget squalor and horrible content - we also get faux snuff footage and people shitting, for real, on each other - its sense of hopelessness comes across as a genuine howl of despair, a convincing argument for the suggestions that it represents (as implied through the antagonists' impromptu visits to the Auschwitz prison camp and the graves of both Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the aforementioned Baader) the German psyche post-Nazi era. Guilt, shame, self-loathing, redemption, rebirth (achieving the angel's state of melancholy).
If that sounds portentous, that's because it is. It comes across that way via the film's protracted moments of socio-bollocks prose. But it undeniably lends a weight of artistic intent, however misguided, to proceedings. Dora may be a hugely dubious proposition, but he has a brain and he's concocted a film - under seriously difficult conditions (see below, the extras section) - which stands well above other modern extreme horror flicks like SLAUGHTERED VOMIT DOLLS, AUGUST UNDERGROUND, MURDER-SET-PIECES. It does this by virtue of its political rhetoric, solid acting (yes, all performers are surprisingly good), amazingly nauseating set design - seriously, the interiors of the farmhouse surpass the "bone" room from THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE - and Dora's unexpectedly albeit paradoxically beautiful cinematography.
It's a sprawling epic of a film and I don't doubt it will lose viewers along the way. There was a moment where the film still had half an hour to go, where a scene culminated in moments so intense and cruel that I thought that was the finale ... but no, there was more to come. And when I say more, I mean more. More death, more mayhem, more perversion.
Samuel Dalferth's score is also jarringly soothing throughout. And we also get a couple of languid songs from the legendary late David Hess (THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT's Krug) along the way.
The animal killings are, of course, indefensible. Much like the ones in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, APOCALYPSE NOW etc. Even if it's snails and insects for the main part (I do believe the pig was killed humanely and the cat was faked - I sincerely fucking hope so), it's still reprehensible. It's an antiquated casualty of filmmaking that directors of old (Jodorowsky, Waters, Leone etc) may have been happy to entertain, but in this day and age - MELANCHOLIE DER ENGEL was shot in 2009 - there really is no excuse.
And yet the sense of hopelessness and despair that pervades the screen even when something ugly isn't occurring marks Dora's film out as one of those authentically nihilistic horror films which, rightly or wrongly, typify for me what the genre should be about. Much like SALO, the aforementioned CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE etc, it's an unapologetically downbeat, horrific prospect that leaves you feeling in need of a shower. As much as I love the likes of FRIGHT NIGHT and THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, sometimes it doesn't harm to have that jolt to remind you that mankind is this fucked up and we need to better ourselves.
MELANCHOLIE DER ENGEL is presented uncut and uncensored in its longest version here - a "Director's Approved Extended Version", no less - clocking in at 164 minutes and 14 seconds in length. The blu-ray is region-free.
It's framed in its original 1.85:1 ratio and is enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The 1080p HD transfer is a solid effort, by far the best the film has ever looked. But keep your expectations in check: this was made on a low budget utilising Maxwell MiniDV cassettes on an outdated Sony camcorder. Images are clear and as bright as allows, but this is a deliberately murky film to begin with. Colours are muted, almost sepia at times, and there's a smoky aura to many scenes. Images are sometimes soft too ... as I say, this is how the film was shot. Far from harming the film, this is an accurate portrayal of Dora's movie and if anything the authentically foggy presentation adds to the feature's horrible effect. The lo-fi aesthetics will only allow for so much cleansing, and this transfer is spot on in terms of conveying the griminess of the film without fucking up its dirty feel. If you were happy with Arrow's presentation of NEKROMANTIK (shot on film, I know), then this shouldn't trouble you. But if you're expecting a transfer comparable to TRANSFORMERS, well ...
Audio is presented in the original German language, in 2.0 and 5.1 options. Both are DTS-HD tracks, and both are great. Optional English subtitles are easy to read at all times.
The disc opens to a static main menu page. From there, pop-up menus include a scene selection option allowing access to the film via 12 chapters.
The disc is loaded with extras.
Most significant of these is author Magnus Blomdahl's 2016 production REVISITING MELANCHOLIE DER ENGEL, a 60-minute documentary shot in HD on his i-Phone.
Dora features prominently as Blomdahl interviews him at length, both in his home and on location at some of the places this film was shot. Of course, his face is pixelated whenever he appears onscreen. The filmmaker openly admits that MELANCHOLIE's three-week shoot was the worst experience of his life - one he never wants to repeat. The pair converse in English (optional subtitles are provided in both English and German language - I'd recommend them whatever your persuasion, because the audio isn't always the best), and a healthy rapport seems to be established throughout.
An early tour of Dora's home gives some insight into his own influences: among his large collection of videotapes I spied the likes of DEMONS, HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK (signed by David Hess), CLASS OF 1984 and ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS; posters for films like FACES OF DEATH and ANDY WARHOL'S BAD adorn his walls. Throw in a healthy number of sci-fi comics, full-sized mannequins and human skulls - not to mention an empty beer bottle here and there - and an intriguing profile develops.
However, Dora is erudite and thoughtful with his answers, as well as very honest. He's also extremely chilled out, his manner resembling a marriage of David Cronenberg's scientific intellect and the aforementioned Buttgereit's methodical matter-of-factness. He speaks of the toll the shoot took on him physically and mentally, opens up about his falling out with Carsten Frank over the latter's insistence on removing footage of him molesting a male corpse (a real one, mind; Dora admits he blackmailed a drunken morgue assistant to let them into the morgue and play with a dead human being ... what the fuck?!) and walks us round the house that most of the sordid footage was shot in - now a really ill-foreboding rock bar, by the looks of things - while revealing how the actresses would only perform for five minutes at a time in there, despite there being a thousand incense sticks lit to combat the smell of rotting animal and human remains.
Interspersed throughout with clips from MELANCHOLIE which serve as interesting contrasts to revisiting the scenes, this is a good documentary overall. It's disappointing that none of the players are present to proffer their own thoughts. Also, Blomdahl drops the ball by not challenging the director about his violence towards animals. Dora does concede he went beyond his own limits and concludes the documentary with an audio message to Blomdahl declaring "If I'd have known what demons I was unleashing (in himself and his performers, many of which he'd not met prior to the shoot - he admits to manipulating them by not revealing the script to them and shooting in non-chronological order), it would've been better to not do the film".
The documentary also has its own bonus features: a 52-second introduction from an obscured Dora squatting on a beach explaining why he agreed to participate; Blomdahl's own 95-second introduction in which he admits he's a fan of the film and therefore "it's maybe not a real documentary", but he does promise "great anecdotes"; 5 minutes of deleted scenes (nothing revelatory); a 12-page text essay from Blomdahl reflecting on shooting his documentary, in which he addresses the animal violence himself and admits that Dora is an affable but potentially scary character. Indeed, he cites Dora as calling himself "dangerous".
We also get three of Dora's short films. Could they possibly be as contentious as the main feature? Read on ...
The 7-minute EROTIC FANTASY comes on like the bastard lovechild of Richard Kern, Nigel Wingrove and Lucifer Valentine. A naked woman lies on her back in a dingy dungeon, chained to some form of table. An equally naked man, whose face is never seen, throws a plastic bag over her head and cuts out holes for her eyes to observe what follows. This being the work of Dora, what follows is a succession of disembodied animal parts being smothered all over her trembling torso. And these are not old specimens: these are eyes, tongues and innards freshly cut from the moist cadavers waiting in the corner of the otherwise sparsely furnished room. Echoes of THE EVIL CAMERAMAN's grimy performance art come into play, while the candles lit around the room lend events a slightly sacrilegious aura.
Next up is the 16-minute PROVOKATION, from 2002. It's shown here in 16x9 widescreen for the first time, if I recall correctly. Set to the falsely lulling gentle strains of a piano, this documents one young man's growing sexual frustration around the woman he shares his apartment with. As there's no dialogue, it's difficult to ascertain whether she's his estranged lover or simply an unfortunately hot housemate. I say "unfortunately" because of the fate that awaits her. Expect nudity, sexual violence, anal fingering, shit, piss and a very real, very explicit cumshot. Well edited and performed in an early transgressive style (it even appears to have been shot on 8mm, although The Internet Movie Database claims it was shot on video), this certainly retains its power to shock. I don't have an issue with its go-for-broke taboo-trashing; my problem lies with the correlation between the film's title and its precis. Our antagonist's frustration grows because he happens to see his female friend walking around the place in shorts, or sleeping in T-shirt and knickers: does she really "provoke" her own rape and murder on these grounds?
The last short film is the 31-minute AN EINEM MORGEN IM FRUHLING. This starts all light and fluffy with some by-now comically signature tender music. But then we're suddenly being given a POV tour guide of a morgue, and from then on in it's Grim City Central. Real corpses in all their bare-fleshed glory, being clumsily manhandled by medics who we only see from the neck down. No narrative, just an unremittingly sombre and graphic wallow in the triumphs of death. 7 minutes in, and Dora's camera is zooming in on one corpse's flaccid penis, and then the brown drool emanating from the same man's lifeless contorted mouth. Is this cadaver carved open and dissected at any point? What the fuck do you think? And, of course, that's what makes up the bulk of this short's running time. Imagine OROZCO THE EMBALMER but with all dialogue being replaced by cheesy stock horror music, and that's what you get here. Not for everyone.
Beyond that, this disc offers three original trailers for the film. These total about 10 minutes in length, the third one being the longest and most spoilerific of the bunch.
We also get 94 seconds of deleted scenes, the middle one of which offers a tad more gore. The bookending two are inconsequential.
A 2-minute artwork gallery focuses on posters for the film's numerous releases.
Then there's a 2-minute handheld video featurette of Dora at the pub which was used as the house in the film. This is, I suppose, an off-cut from the REVISITING documentary and exists for completists only.
We also get three text essays which, between them, offer some valuable background into the film's story and origins.
This release comes with double-sided reversible cover artwork and the first thousand copies come individually numbered, with an exclusive slipcase.
MELANCHOLIE DER ENGEL is a troubling, genuinely shocking and effectively gruesome film. It's difficult to defend it against those who deride it for being pretentious, overlong and nasty for nasty's sake. But I also feel it would be wrong to dismiss it as sick trash: it's a morbidly rancid artistic achievement and one of the most persuasively horrific films ever made. A film you can smell and taste as you're watching it, while paradoxically being beautifully shot for the most part, and one which leaves you feeling not only in need of a shower but some kind of spiritual healing. For all its flaws, there aren't many (any?) modern horror films that can claim to have that effect? Whether or not that's a recommendation ... you decide.
This blu-ray is sure to stand the test of time as the film's definitive release.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by PCM|