I won't call it torture porn, because the very idea that it's pornography is insulting. It's only pornography to sick, twisted individuals. For the rest of us adults, it's torture horror, and that's what I'll call it. But torture horror is simply not a genre I can embrace. So when I recommend a film like UNDOCUMENTED, the illegal immigrant horror film that will be playing the Graveyard Shift at the Alamo Drafthouse West Oaks Friday, September 16, and Saturday, September 17th, you need to know where I'm coming from before you see it. As a film, it has value. And when it's finished, if you're angry at the world and upset, you're doing it right.
UNDOCUMENTED played Fantastic Fest last year. It's now making the rounds across the country in very limited release. I don't know how available this film will be; I'd imagine that it will be on DVD and Blu-Ray at some point. But it is thought-provoking and disturbing, and relevant to our discourse in this country. The film opens with the quote on the Statue of Liberty - "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." but in the context of the film, that famous line has a far more sinister meaning.
A documentary film crew, headed by Travis (Scott Machlowicz) the director, and Liz (Alona Tal) the producer, make their way south of the border to document one family trying to cross over into the United States. They figure that they will show the family's background, where they come from, and follow them all the way to the end where they find work somewhere in the country. The film is quite effective at making us feel sympathetic to their plight and their situation. I'm a raging liberal already, so personally I'm already on their side and the side of the filmmakers in the film to get these people to a safe place. The father, Alberto (Yancey Arias) wants to give his family a good life, and through his cousin Davie (Greg Serano), the cameraman on the documentary, they are able to secure passage to the border. Once there they make their way into a tunnel dug under the fence line, used for drug smuggling, and the first sign that the film crew and the immigrants are in serious trouble is a dead body at the end of the tunnel, carved up and maimed. But the immigrants are desperate, and once in the States, they wait for the truck that is supposed to take them on to a better place.
At this point in the journey, we are frightened along with the immigrants. We are taken every step of the way through their journey, and the mix of "found footage" styles and faux-documentary filmmaking is very effective at getting the point across. But suddenly, the truck stops, we hear loud bangs, the truck moves again, and the people in the back of the truck know there is something seriously wrong. The filmmakers all attempt to open the back of the truck to no avail; suddenly it stops again and the door opens up. And what happens next is something straight out of a nightmare - these immigrants, and the film crew, are in the hands of some seriously insane "patriots", led by the masked, enigmatic Z (Peter Stormare). They want the film crew to document what they do to these people - for recruiting purposes, and for their own personal sick pleasure. What follows is a descent into hell, and we are there along with the camera, seeing everything. The film is a mix between what the crew shoots and a narrative camera, so we always know what's going on. It also helps that the crew is competent in shooting, so there's very little shakycam here, and what there is of it is used effectively and sparingly.
I can't say I exactly enjoyed UNDOCUMENTED. It's not a movie you "enjoy". UNDOCUMENTED takes you places you won't want to go. Also, dealing with the controversial subject matter, audiences will be divided on how to deal with the problem but what they shouldn't be divided about at all is that we are all human beings in this world and your sympathies will be tested over and over again. It's not as simple as white guy rednecks versus illegal Mexicans - the film takes pains to avoid that cliched distinction. But UNDOCUMENTED is well made for the genre and has a real point to it. This is Chris Peckover's first feature-length film as a director, and I'd say he's damn good at evoking real terror and genuine unease while making a film that doesn't pull punches or stray from its subject. UNDOCUMENTED, unlike many other torture horror films, is about something.
My problem with torture horror is fairly simple - most horror films, be it slasher movies, monster movies, supernatural horror, have some sort of catharsis at the end. Even the ones that end badly for the protagonists. Torture horror, done right, has no such catharsis. It puts you in a deep, dark place, and simply abandons you there. How you deal with that after the credits roll is on you, and I think many audience menbers resent filmmakers for doing that to them. I know I did, after seeing UNDOCUMENTED. I was angry, and upset, and had nowhere to put it. There are no easy answers in torture horror films. It's the film's job to do that to you, to force you to that place where you have to ask questions, and there's no screams and laughter at the end to let you know that you're watching a movie. Torture horror is not my genre. But I'm recommending a film like UNDOCUMENTED because it's made so well, is genuinely thought-provoking, scary in the right places (but definitely not the fun type of scared), and has something to say. Peter Stormare plays a vile, contemptuous barely-a-human being, and he's very effective. I wanted to punch the screen when he was on - he's clearly insane, but utterly unredeemable. All the acting is very good across the board, especially Yancey Arias as Alberto, who speaks very little English in the film and has a very tough time of it in the movie.
Graveyard Shift at the Houston Alamo Drafthouse West Oaks will be showing UNDOCUMENTED on Friday, September 16th at 10:00 PM and Saturday, September 17th at 7:00 PM. If you think you can handle the level of violence and the disturbing nature of the film, I recommend the film to you. It's a rough movie, but worth the journey. It's not gratuitous, but it doesn't let you off easy, either. I'll be presenting the film with my partner in crime Robert Saucedo both nights. Just don't hit me afterwards. And for those just into a more fun kind of horror film, we're also presenting that Saturday night a free screening of the HBO film CAST A DEADLY SPELL, which I'll be writing about tomorrow. That one has some good old-fashioned Fred-Ward-fights-Lovecraftian-monsters fun in it. I hope to see you there.