Monday, October 19, 2020

“I’ve Been Being Stalked for Years” - Death by 1000 Cuts (2020) - Film #189

Most of the movies we cover on Senseless Cinema are classics from the 1970s and 1980s that have stood the test of time. But there are more recent films that become, instantly, instant classics. Andrew Getty's The Evil Within (2017) comes to mind, as does the first segment of Glenn Danzig's Verotika (2020), a film so boldly abstract that the projector in a cinema is represented by a fan with a lamp behind it sitting on a shelf. Another of these classics is Sam Salerno's Death by 1000 Cuts (2020), a feature-length expansion of a well-received 2019 short film.

Some of your universe's critics, as always, misinterpret the considerable qualities of this film. Reviewer Herb Gallow writes, “The acting is brutal, even by microbudget standards, and the script makes little sense, to the point that it becomes harder and harder to care about what's happening the further this goes.” And reviewer Dako17 writes, “The acting and kill scenes are so poorly done I still just feel like I'm watching some friends make a sh*t movie.”

Read on to experience the wonders of the modern classic Death by 1000 Cuts...

At 5:00 a.m., a young man named Johnny wakes up in his purple bedroom. He sits down at a table, flanked by his parents—his father holds an empty bottle with a cork in it while his mother holds a cane. He says he wants to leave the house but his mother tries to keep him inside. He leaves anyway. Outside, it is suddenly dark and Johnny is surrounded by bright lights and a man faceless man with a book. Johnny steps into the lights.

A voice over explains the meaning of the title, which I will not present here because everybody knows what death by 1,000 cuts means. The explanation plays over disturbing, grainy video of a young woman lying in a bathtub being cut with a knife.

Johnny wakes up again in his purple bedroom. He picks up a camcorder and sits down again at the table with his parents. They watch a news report on TV covering the disappearance of a young woman named Christine Gray. The news footage is a fascinating iMovie-like montage of still photos that pan back and forth. The news reporter finishes the story by saying, “Local police have no leads at this time which leaves us all wondering: Who could do something so evil?”

After the news report, Jonny says, “I’m going out.”

His mother says, “Make sure you bring a jacket.”

He leaves the house, not wearing a jacket, and videotapes a dead bird on the sidewalk, then walks to an apartment complex where he hides the camcorder and sits down with his psychotherapist. “For me,” he tells her, “life is like a party I wasn’t invited to.”

She tries to convince him that his parents love him, but he is skeptical. For some reason, he tells her in great detail about a tunnel he has found. “There’s a church next to the cemetery. If you park behind the church, you find this little dirt road between some trees. If you go down that, on the right is the town dump or whatever and on the left is the edge of the cemetery. Eventually, you’ll come up on this huge pipe. Duck under that and there’s a tunnel. Some kind of storm drain or something that you can walk through.” The tunnel, called Satan’s Tunnel, runs under the cemetery, and “if you see how close the headstones are, you’ll see that the bodies being buried are standing up. So that means the dead are standing, maybe even walking, on top of the tunnel.” He says he’s dreamed of that tunnel every night but he never goes inside, even in his dreams.

The therapist replies, “Our dreams are not random like most people think they are. They are often our subconscious trying to tell us something. Something we have forgotten or failed to accept.”

She offers to hypnotize Johnny, a process that involves wearing a hood made of skin hooked up by a hose to an oscilloscope. 

In the hypnotized state, Johnny enters the tunnel at night. He finds a mannequin bust with breasts and a mask. 

“What’s behind the mask?” asks the therapist’s voice.

“It’s another mask.” Johnny removes mask after mask as the therapist says, perhaps unnecessarily, “Masks are often used to conceal things.”

Johnny pulls off the last mask to reveal the therapist’s moving face on the mannequin. Then her face morphs into Johnny’s face, which tells him to look to his left. He does so to find an opening into a house, which he enters. The house is decorated with plastic masks on the walls. A man so alarmingly tall his hat brushes the ceiling enters the house carrying a noose. Running away, Johnny has visions of ghosts—a boy wearing a gas mask, a young woman holding her arm, a man playing with something that looks like a yoyo, another man with a bag over his head. When the tall man catches up to Johnny, Johnny puts a gun to his own head while the bag-headed man says, as a public service message, “This is only an acceptable way out in a dream. Not in the real world.”

Johnny shoots himself and wakes up in the therapist’s office, but he soon discovers he’s in a dream within a dream when the therapist turns into the alarmingly tall man and chokes him.

“Same time next week?” the therapist asks.

“Yeah,” Johnny replies. “Sure. Sounds good. I’ll be here.”

He leaves the apartment complex that houses the therapist’s office but on the sidewalk he sees the ghosts from the hypnosis session. He decides to videotape them so he can later replay the footage and prove there were no ghosts.

However, instead of going home, he finds himself in front of the house from his dreams, a highly noticeable house that is bedecked with colorful triangular flags for no apparent reason.

Johnny breaks into the house through the back door. Not only are the walls decorated with plastic masks, but there are dozens of clocks on every surface, each showing a different time but all ticking in synchrony.

He finds a bedroom where the bed is covered with VHS tapes. He watches one tape on a TV. It shows a torturer wearing one of the cheap plastic masks who violently flosses a tied-up man’s teeth before turning the camera on a hanging man. This cuts to a handwritten note: “Suicide by hanging after 1 days.” The tape then cuts to a more disturbing shot of a man lying on a garage floor whose hand is smashed repeatedly with a hammer, and then a handful of pills are dropped onto his head. “Suicide by overdose after 2 days.” Finally, we see a young woman in a bathtub whose arm is cut with a knife.

Johnny bugs out his eyes and quips, “Yikes.” Instead of running away in terror, he continues walking through the house, where he finds one doorknob replaced by a dead human hand, behind which door is a room decorated with skinned faces, a severed arm, and most disturbingly a blanket made of human skin and faces all sewn together.

Finally, Johnny finds the woman in the bathtub. She is still alive but instead of helping her, Johnny videotapes some more grotesqueries such as an eyeball in a toothbrush holder and a decaying hand used as a slapdash.

Unfortunately for Johnny, two men enter the house through the front door. One man stabs him but he manages to stab the stabber, escape the bathroom, and confuse everyone by adjusting the clocks so they no longer tick synchronously. Of course, this drives one of the killers crazy, allowing Johnny to escape and call 911. All the while, the other man continues to videotape everything.

Also, for unknown reasons, the killer reaches into the wound where Johnny stabbed him and starts pulling out his own intestines.

Johnny wakes up in the hospital, where he is visited by a doctor, the mayor, and the chief of police of his town (which is never named, only referred to as “this town” or “our town” many, many times). He says he can’t remember anything so the police chief tells him he was stabbed by a man named Travis Cook, and that they rescued the girl in the bathtub. The mayor stands over Johnny and expounds at length on something or other: “My grandfather was a judge in this town long ago and as a child he instilled in me a deep, deep sense of, well, justice. What those people did in that house, Johnny, they tipped the scales of justice in one direction, and your actions brought things back. This is bigger than that one situation. You reflected the values that this town was founded upon.”

Next, we see a news report summarizing the horrific events in the murder house. Again, the news reports in this film’s universe are a series of iMovie-like slideshows with images of birds on light posts, flags whipping in the wind, swing sets, and windows, along with a photo of the murderer Travis Cook.

Johnny is welcomed home to a houseful of people in a beautifully shot depiction from Johnny’s point of view of paranoia and oppression. All the people surround him and talk at once, forcing the introverted Johnny into a bizarre fantasy where he is tied to a chair while people with lump heads grab at him. 

He runs to his purple bedroom, where Christina, the bathtub victim, visits him. They sit on his bed and talk. Christina says she thinks the people in the house were trying to drive her to suicide. He explains that he likes to film everything because he sees things that may not be real because of an accident he had as a child when a metal toolbox fell on his head. “My parents didn’t find me for the longest time because they never cared about me.”

She tells Johnny that she repeatedly saw a face staring at her when she was little, and it was the masks from the murder house. “Either I’ve been being stalked for years or I’m just going crazy.”

He gives her a camera so she can record reality too. The film cuts away from Johnny and Christina in his purple bedroom to Johnny and Christina sitting on the grass, talking about the murder house. There is another cut to an oceanside park where Christina says, “You know I love you, right?”

“Yeah,” Johnny replies. “I love you too.”

There is a cut to a similar park later where Johnny and Christina begin an argument that stretches across several scenes in several different parks. Sitting in a car, Christina tells him, “That’s all you are to me is a friend, okay? I’m sorry if I misled you or something.”

(This is one of the most innovative sequences in the film which moves from placid declarations of love to arguments in a matter of minutes.)

In another set of cuts, they continue fighting and then decide to sleep together. However, their lovemaking is intercut with bizarre mechanical sounds and visions of bathtub horror, forcing them to give up after a few seconds.

At her parents’ house, Christina takes a shower while, of course, wearing a GoPro camera on her head. She sees a masked man, actually her father, enter the bathroom with his own camera, but she ignores the interruption. Later, she sits in bed, takes a handgun from her bedside table, and presses the barrel to her throat as the masked man emerges from her closet. Shockingly, she kills herself.

At a funeral home, Johnny confronts Christina’s parents about her wish for her ashes to be scattered across the seaside park. Her parents say they are going to bury her in the cemetery. (It is unclear why any of them are at the funeral home, as no funeral is occurring.) Later, in a dream, the masked cameraman reveals himself to Johnny to be Christina’s father. “That’s right. It was me the whole time. And the funniest part is, nobody’s going to believe you. Nobody ever believes you.”

Unwisely, Johnny agrees to be hypnotized again by his therapist, so he puts the skin-hood on again. He tells his therapist that as a child he was scared by a book that told the history of “our town.” The early history includes a cult that believed in a balance between joy and suffering. The members suffered in order to bring more joy into the world (theoretically). After the founder was burned as a witch, an 8-foot-tall man named Normal Van Buren became obsessed with her teachings, reforming the cult in order to torture other people to bring more joy to the cult members. In his manifesto, “Death by 1000 Cuts,” Van Buren set down his philosophy of trying to drive others to suicide by torture.

During the hypnosis session, Johnny is confronted by Van Buren, who tells him Johnny is a descendant of his. “Where do you think your great height and intelligence came from?” Van Buren tries to pressure Johnny to be the cult’s sacrifice, allowing them to steal his joy, so of course Johnny conjures up a gun to shoot himself in the head, the only way, apparently, to end a hypnosis session.

Johnny goes to the library where he meets a librarian. He asks for a book about Black Berta, the cult founder, but the librarian explains, “A few years back, the big wigs from the city government came and took all those books away. Said it was too frightening for the children.” However, she tells him the books are in “the annex.” “There’s an old bunker erected back during the second world war that housed a nuclear warhead for coastal defense, but it never ended up being used.”

He walks to a big concrete bunker on a hill. Although it appears he is unsuccessful opening the door, the filmmakers cut to Johnny inside the structure, where various documents about the town’s history sit on a table. He finds the book he is looking for within seconds. The author believes Van Buren’s cult may still be active. In another document, Johnny finds a narrative with pictures explaining that both he and Christina have been set up for torture by their own parents. This revelation sparks a convenient flashback to a childhood incident in which Johnny walked in on his curiously bewigged father torturing someone. Finally, he finds a map (on which the word “cemetery” is spelled “cemetary”) with directions to a meeting place and text that says the cult meets at midnight on the third Wednesday of each month. “That’s tomorrow night,” Johnny whispers helpfully.

The next morning, Johnny wakes up and uses his laptop to learn about Victor Payne, an earlier victim of the cult who wrote a blog.

Victor Payne’s blog (which uses the word “phenomenons”) explains that the town has been subjected to the disappearance of many children, and also that Black Berta Washington invented a lantern allowing people to see ghosts. (She also cried tears of blood, explaining why all the plastic masks have red lines descending from the eyes.) Victor Payne built his own ghost lantern, with which he was buried, so of course Johnny goes to the cemetery, digs up the course, and finds the still-working lantern. When Johnny turns it on, he immediately sees the ghost of Victor Payne at the grave. He also sees the other ghosts he had seen previously on the street: a boy wearing a gas mask, a zombie with a yoyo, and a woman with blood on her arm. Christina’s ghost also appears.

Johnny leaves the cemetery and walks through the tunnel to the cult’s gathering place where the masked town elders stand before an inconveniently massive bonfire.

As town elders are wont to do, the mayor explains the conspiracy/mystery that plagues “our town,” albeit in a somewhat childish formulation. “It’s a story as old as time, Johnny. I’m the mayor of this town. Beside me stand many of the prominent members of our community. We have the power. We can do whatever we want. And no one can stop us.”

A woman pulls up her mask and says, “My name is Wendy. I work in the mayor’s office. I know it was you who broke into the annex and I know it was my good-for-nothing twin sister who told you to do it. She’s so nosy, always trying to figure out about the records we keep in there. But she will never understand us and what we do. She thinks she’s so smart by reading all these books but people like her, and even you, will never understand certain things. Mother was wrong about us! I am the more successful sister! I am the achiever!”

Others talk to Johnny as well, including his therapist, his doctor, and his parents. They explain in great detail how they drive their sons and daughters to suicide as sacrifices, but if their victims are strong enough to survive, then they can join the cult. His parents tell him it’s time for him to die, so the mayor gives Johnny a knife. For a few seconds, he seems to go to a party where he is accepted among a group of masked cult members.

Then he is back at the bonfire, where he shows everyone his magic ghost lantern. The ghosts of past victims appear behind him. Johnny intones, “You all need to look upon what you have done. Look at them. Can’t you see them? You’re all guilty. You need to understand the magnitude of what you’re doing.”

Christina’s father, annoyed, says, “Johnny, come on. Stop.”

But Johnny does not stop. He keeps holding up the lantern. Christina’s ghost steps forward and her parents sort of fall over.

Johnny sees the nude mannequin again. Its faces morph from one cult member to the next as they repeat dialogue they just said ten seconds earlier. Then the mannequin stabs Johnny with a knife.

The cult members fall over, screaming, though the ghosts have disappeared. It seems the cultists have rapidly developed consciences when reminded by Johnny they are evil.

Johnny staggers away from the bonfire toward the seaside park. He falls to the ground and his ghost stands up, joined by the other ghosts.  The film fades too white.

The End

Death by 1000 Cuts is not the only film to combine youthful adventure and romance with gruesome and realistic torture, but it does keep the viewer off-balance more effectively than most such films. Perhaps this effectiveness is due to the extreme naiveness, even childishness, of Johnny in contrast with the stomach-churning violence (e.g., a hammer repeatedly smashing a victim's hand and the grotesque blanket made of human skin and face). Or perhaps it is due to the scale of the narrative, which goes from the simplicity of face-to-face human violence to a massive conspiracy affecting "our town" in which generations of town elders build families only in order to destroy them, until they are taken down by the naive Johnny when he simply explains that what they are doing is not nice. Whichever the explanation, it is clear that Death by 1000 Cuts is a work of great vision, and those of us who love cinema are looking forward with great anticipation to Sam Salerno's future work.