Randall Kaplan isn't a household name. In fact, I'd never heard of him until Beneath The Flesh popped up in my mailbox. But you know what? This dude's got a talent for the 'scary' and this DVD from Pathfinder, which collects four of his short films, is definitely going to appeal to those who like their horror experimental, a little surreal, and atmospheric. Here's a peak:
Boxhead (23:47) - The opening salvo is a pretty effective one as this short tells the unnerving and unusual story of an aging man who lives his life as a reclusive hermit type, ignoring society and all that it has to offer and dealing with other people only when he has to. Flashbacks show us that as a boy he had a rather unorthodox friend, a creature he's dubbed 'Boxhead' but now that he's aged decades, it isn't quite as friendly as he remembers it to be. Appearing in his rundown low-rent apartment, the creature he once created to help battle the loneliness he suffered as a child forces him to deal with his own personal demons.
The Basement (5:29) - Two men who don't necessarily like each other are forced to deal with each other while stuck in a creepy, grubby basement - and one of them has a knife. The stark black and white contrast here really resembles parts of Night Of The Living Dead at times, though there are no zombies to be seen anywhere in sight.
The Child (5:10) - This short piece of Svankmajer-esque claymation shows a man and a woman doing what it is that men and women do to make babies. A naked male troll creature finds what we assume to be the fruits of their labor on the floor and takes him in - bad idea. This baby isn't normal, in fact, it kind of looks like a Cenobite from Hellraiser.
Id (12:41) - A frail looking man deals with his own inner demons as he tries to find love with the woman he sees in his own apartment as he also tries to keep some semblance of a normal life going. Unfortunately, the strange creature (which looks an awful lot like a shaved and naked version of the Nosferatu that Klaus Kinski played in Herzog's film of the same name) that lives in the apartment with him isn't keen on him acting on his more base impulses. He tries his best not to let the evil influence affect his personal life, but that's not going to happen, even if the public library is a good spot for a make out session.
The Insides (30:18) - Last but not least, the longest of the four films in this collection follows a man who, when we first meet him riding the subway train, believes that there's something evil literally growing inside of him which is trying quite desperately to get out. He works away at his grocery store job when he's not smoking and drinking though he understandably finds social situations awkward. His apartment is a mess and his social life even more so, but he's gotta do what he's gotta do...
There are some incredibly freaky visuals on display throughout these short films, ones that'll stick with you and, dare I say it, for lack of a cornier term haunt you for quite a while after you hit the stop button. The film's are gory or bloody, rather, they're unsettling and disturbing without feeling too exploitative or ever resorting to shock value. Think of Kaplan's work as a cross between David Lynch and Jan Svanmajer and you'll be on the right track, as there's a very definite and macabre beauty to his work that somehow makes the unnerving qualities all the more effective.
Shot with a low budget, the stark black and white cinematography aptly represents the worlds of contrast where these odd little shorts play out. They're all quite creative, interesting, unique and well shot. They don't bombard you with blood and guts, rather, they get under your skin just as the title implies.
The aspect ratios vary from one film to the next but none of the material here is anamorphic or flagged for progressive scan playback, sadly. That said, those complains aside, Pathfinder's transfer is decent enough. Black levels are strong and contrast looks dead on. There's a decent enough level of detail here and thankfully you won't have to worry about compression artifacts or edge enhancement at all. There's a little bit of shimmer here and there but no real print damage to speak of, just some welcome film grain. All in all, this material really doesn't look bad at all.
The English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo tracks that are included for each of the shorts are all fine. The levels are well balanced except for a few effects that, it's probably safe to guess, are a little louder for the sake of effect. There isn't a ton of dialogue here, the movies rely more on visuals and atmosphere than talking but when the players do speak you won't have any problems understanding. There are no problems with hiss or distortion at all and everything sounds decent enough here.
The main extra on this release is an interview with writer/editor/director/actor Randall Kaplan, the driving creative force behind this odd collection of films. Kaplan talks to the camera about why horror films are interesting and what draws him to the genre before explaining what some of his shorts are about ("Boxhead is a manifestation of some inner... shit!"). Sitting behind an Optimus Prime figure and a poster for Herzog's Nosferatu he speaks for just short of nine minutes about the therapeutic qualities of watching horror films and how he feels about various themes that recur throughout them.
Aside from that, look for a still gallery, some classy static menu screens, a trailer for the feature and a screen that advertises other Pathfinder DVD releases and which contains trailers for a few of them.
All in all this is a pretty interesting package from Pathfinder. The extras could have been better (commentary tracks would have been better than the so-so interview featurette) and the audio and video aren't perfect even if they are strong enough, but the content is good. Beneath The Flesh isn't even close to mainstream horror, but that's not a bad thing at all and it definitely deserves to find an audience. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.