Winston Churchill once described Russia as a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Churchill had his faults (oh, did he ever) but the man could certainly turn a phrase. His characterization of Russia comes to mind now when I think about Antrum: the Deadliest Film Ever Made, the new film-within-a-film-within-an-urban-legend from auteur David Amito. Antrum was a lot of fun to watch, despite two flaws that knock it down from a project I would have raved about to one that I can only call smart, ambitious, and well-executed.
Certain illusionists – Penn and Teller, for example, or James Randi – make careers out of first tricking an audience, then explaining exactly how they were tricked. Threading the belief/disbelief needle in this way is incredibly difficult, which may be why so few stage magicians choose to go that route (even Harry Houdini, famed skeptic as well as illusionist, wasn’t crazy about revealing his secrets). When done poorly, it cheapens both the illusionist and the illusion. This is one of the problems I have with Antrum.
To explain: Antrum is a so-called “lost tape” movie in the same vein as John Carpenter’s exquisite Cigarette Burns. It purports to be a documentary about (and the actual footage from) a “lost film” called Antrum, a cursed movie that kills those who watch it and was alleged to have been made with the assistance of the Prince of Darkness himself. Antrum opens with a brief documentary bumper about (and extensive warning regarding) the film to follow; then, we are treated to the “lost film” itself. I loved this setup, and even though it has its wonky bits, I still think it’s an interesting and fun framing device.[NOTE: Spoilers follow] Antrum, the titular “lost film” itself, is the story of a young woman and her younger brother. With their beloved dog euthanized and their mother having assured the young brother that the dog’s soul is surely in Hell, they decide (as you do) to dig their way to Hell to retrieve and redeem the soul of their beloved pet. Instead, they encounter two apparent Satanists cooking a human sacrifice alive inside a Brazen Baphomet modeled after the infamous Brazen Bull of Akragas. Along the way, we learn that the young man may have already made contact with dark forces that he doesn’t fully comprehend, and the siblings’ journey into Hell takes a turn for the literal.
Now: Antrum itself is shot, acted, filtered, edited, etc. to make it appear “vintage,” but as it turns out, that’s the least of the movie’s tricks. Pretty much every spooky subliminal method you can employ in video editing is let off the leash to play here; binaural mis-mixing, time-distorted music, sigils subliminally spliced into the action, unrelated disturbing images and bloodshed spliced into the action, etc. I was impressed, in a way, by the fact that David Amito thought to bring all of the Satanic Panic tropes to the table at once.
And thereby hang the movie’s two problems. First, that it is a Satanic Panic film at all. It’s no longer the 1980s or 1990s; for better or worse, culturally speaking, we live in the era of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina more than we do the age of The Exorcist (although there are still a depressing number of demonic possession movies made every single year). Speaking as a Satanist, I’m getting pretty tired of seeing us portrayed as either cold-blooded Machiavellian schemers or crazed, sickle-wielding, human-sacrificing lunatics. I don’t expect this state of affairs to change any time soon, but using Satanists as the predictable boogeyman of Antrum does lower it a notch in my estimation.
More damningly (if you’ll pardon the pun), Antrum does what the illusionists I described above strive not to do: it explains all of its tricks to the audience. If you watch past the brief “end credits” of the film-within-a-mockumentary, all of its gimmicks are explained and laid bare by various experts; the binaural mixing, the subliminal images, even what sigils are and which sigil is repeatedly subliminally displayed (it’s that of Astaroth, by the way – a good choice, in my humble opinion). I was disappointed by both the matter-of-fact tone and thoroughness of this explanation of Antrum’s tricks. As I said, it cheapens both the illusion and the illusionist.
Still – Antrum was fun, it had its genuinely scary moments (although fewer of them than I would have thought), and the dreamlike, off-kilter quality of the film-within-a-film is quite appealing. I can’t wait to see what David Amito cooks up next; there are moments here that make me suspect we might have another Panos Cosmatos on our hands, which would bring me unspeakable delight.