The allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic figures the unenlightened as prisoners locked away in a dark subterranean chamber who imagine that the shadows they see artificially projected on the wall before them are reality, while in fact the only reality is in the sunlit world outside and beyond their perception. Unsurprisingly, this philosophical parable has in recent times been readily appropriated as a metaphor for cinema and the viewers willingly immersed in its world of make believe. All of this forms the associative background for David Amito and Michael Laicini’s Antrum: The Deadliest Movie Ever Made, both because the film is obsessively concerned with the relationship between art and reality, belief and truth, and because ‘antrum’ is the Latin for cave.
In fact this is two films. The first film is Antrum, a lost work from 1977 which, before it disappeared entirely, gained notoriety as a film maudit, not only because several festival programmers who saw it in the early Eighties died shortly thereafter, but also because its only two public screenings (1988 in Budapest, 1993 in San Francisco) ended in disaster. The second film is Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made, which begins with a documentary-style account of the film’s notorious history, ends with more talking heads discussing the different ways in which it might be possible for a piece of art to affect and alter its audience and deconstructing the insidious impact of its subliminal sights and sounds. Between these documentary bookends comes the newly discovered Antrum itself, in all its glory. “It’s been lost for years,” as ‘filmmaker/Antrum aficionado’ A.J. Bond comments to camera, “Some people don’t think it exists.” These words slyly allude to the status of Antrum as a pure fabrication. For, like Fabien Delage’s Fury of the Demon (La rage de démon, 2016) or Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce’s Top Knot Detective (2017), Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made is a pseudo-documentary, inventing from scratch the object of its attention, and prompting us to fear for our very lives a supposed artefact of the Seventies that it has in fact conjured into existence from nothing.
In other words, this is a piece of meta-horror, unnerving us not so much with the occult content of Antrum – although that is certainly creepy – but with the carefully framed insinuation that our very act of watching might prove dangerous, even fatal, for us. This flirts with the notion, well known to tabloids, that the horror genre can negatively affect our behaviour and spread its malevolent motifs from the darkened cave of the theatre (the Latin word for ‘theatre’ is cavea) to the world beyond. Even though we know that Antrum is a construct, once the idea of its baleful influence has been implanted, it is hard not to wonder what affect all its trippy parcels of sounds, its scratched-on sigils, its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flashes to Latin inscriptions, its occasionally back-masked dialogue and its bizarre cutaways to scenes of torture, might be having on the viewer’s susceptible mind. It is as though, in choosing to submit to this ‘cursed’ film, we are willingly opening ourselves up, if not to actual malign forces, then at least to the power of suggestion, with all the psychosomatic symptoms that such suggestion can bring. Perhaps you only need to believe just a little to summon up – and let in – something devilish.
Antrum the film is concerned precisely with a Satanic summoning. For the bulk of it, like Liam Gavin’s A Dark Song (2016), observes a ritual act, as performed by teenaged Oralee (Nicole Tompkins) and her younger brother Nathan (Rowan Smyth) in the woods. Their aim is to open a portal to Hell and to liberate the soul of Nathan’s dead dog Maxine, who Nathan has become convinced is damned, whether because his mother said so or because he dreamt she did. Oralee conducts the ritual – which involves digging into the ground – following instructions from a leather-bound, hand-written grimoire that she claims was written and supplied by an acquaintance called Ike. As they camp out by the big hole that they are deepening, they have increasingly odd, even alarming encounters with others – perhaps demonic avatars, or perhaps just the sort of people you might expect in a popular suicide spot or in backwoods where crazies and killers are just part of the generic landscape.
Antrum is formally subdivided into headed chapters that mark each time another ‘layer’ of Hell is supposedly unearthed by the siblings. The film too comes with multiple overlapping narrative layers, and we become increasingly confused (along with Oralee and Nathan) as to whether these two are engaged in a genuine infernal invocation, a therapeutic game or an elaborate ruse. As their perceptions and understandings, their hallucinations and nightmares, their deceptions and delusions, all become devilishly confounded, and as the authenticity of Ike’s text whose instructions they are following comes into question (even as the authenticity of the film Antrum itself is always suspect), we are seeing, dramatised before our very eyes, the pernicious power of belief and fear – which has, even in the documentary sections of Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made, been the constant theme.
As Oralee and Nathan keep digging, Antrum becomes its own exercise in excavation, disinterring the texture and tropes, even the grain, of the Seventies’ psychotronic scene. The soft focus, the dappled sunlight, the overexposed images, Alicia Fricker’s psychedelic choral folk track (which you can imagine Gilderoy processing in the Berberian Sound Studio), the clothes and Brady Bunch-blond hair of the siblings – all these signifiers summon up the cinema of a particular time and place. This is a fake so deep that it feels like the real thing – an authentic horror (film) dug up from the past. It is a simulacrum of a simulacrum, constructed yet thoroughly convincing, with only a very direct allusion to the dumpster scene in David Lynch’s similarly heady Mulholland Dr. (2001) offering any hint that this cannot have been made in 1977 (unless we are to suppose, absurdly, that Lynch’s scene was inspired by his own private copy of Antrum).
Three snatches of Latin text flash momentarily onto the screen during the course of Antrum, and with the benefits of patience and a pause button, you can read them for yourself. The first, FACILIS DESCENSUS AVERNO (“easy is the way down to the Underworld”), is a quote from Virgil’s Aeneid, and clearly references the ease with which Oralee and Nathan are opening themselves to a Hell from which they may struggle ever to return. The second, CAVE AB HOMINE UNIUS LIBRI (“beware of the man with one book”), is written back to front, and evidently a cryptic warning about any transactions with the mysterious Ike (as well as a punning interlinguistic reference, via the word ‘cave’, to the film’s title). The third and final message, NIHIL PRETIOSIUS VERITATE (“nothing is more precious than reality”), comes at a point in the narrative where any notion of an anchoring reality has become lost to all those flickering shadows on the walls of the hole that these characters have dug for themselves (and possibly for us too). Once this film has caught us in the labyrinth of its conflicting ambiguities, will we ever truly be able emerge and escape from its layered depths unscathed, and to return to exactly what we were before – or are this film’s malign messages now also etched permanently onto the filmy surfaces of our mind’s eye?
Antrum is all at once disorienting and unsettling, as competing perspectives and facts on (or under) the ground conspire to lure two young people to an almost certain doom. Here different narrative pathways (supernatural, folkloric and psychological) lead simultaneously to the same tragic end – and there is only so far that you can rationalise that end. As a piece of faux-nostalgia (with a mean-spirited aftertaste), Antrum is an exhumed work of dizzying beauty and lysergic unease – but the po-faced documentary sections which frame this film-within-a-film also serve to muddy its waters further, making us question precisely what we may be sacrificing of ourselves when we willingly suspend disbelief and yield to art’s illusory sway. Of course we know that films cannot really kill their viewers – and yet that same part of us that wants to believe they can also drives us to watch, like lambs to the slaughter. It is that very impulse which Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made examines, and defies us to explore, as it gets us meddling with transgressive taboos and digging their forbidden vibe.
© Anton Bitel