Glenn Danzig’s Verotika
by Travis Hedge Coke
Fred Armisen calls it, “A Glenn Danzig masterpiece.”
Less story-based than Cradle of Filth’s horror anthology movie, less genuinely gory than some movies that Lemmy Kilmister was in, Verotika has been called, “The Room of horror,” but mostly by people who really prefer traditional narrativizing. Based on select stories and characters from Glenn Danzig’s comics publishing house, Verotik, and the Verotika anthologies, the movie called, Verotika, is a delirious, deadpan ninety minute collection of three vignettes and tendon and sinew of a perfunctory, and oddly adorable host, Morella.
Only the first of the three short subjects seems to have a traditional character arc, and then only barely. These are less stories and more scenarios. They are situations. Dream ideas.
Verotika is written and directed by Danzig, noted musician, front man, and comics writer, notable for his self-named band and albums, his work on the earliest Misfits albums, a band he co-founded, among other ventures. Shot entirely in Los Angeles, the visual aesthetic changes from short to short, the first, The Albino Spider of Dajette, produced in vibrant colors, including rich pinks and purples, Change of Face in early 80s reminiscent chiaroscuro lens flares and hardbody inflection, and the third, Drukija, Contessa of Blood, the sturdy flesh and sky of art house King Arthur and porn theater religious pictures. Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Jess Franco show in color choices, mise en scene, and Danzig’s eagerness to both indulge the audience in lengthy sexualized passages with minimal or no dialogue, and abrupt, specific choices in editing and camerawork that both remind the audience constantly that there is a camera, there is an editor, this is artificial.
Someone once said, of Amando de Ossorio and his like, that Spanish horror films which Danzig has expressed admiration for, were not meant to scare you, but to lull you to sleep so you could have bad dreams.
While Morella (Kayden Kross, who also graced the swipe cover of Danzig’s covers album, Skeletons, in 2015) puts her fingers through the eyes of a woman in the first minutes of the movie, and the second short concerns a burlesque dancer, Mystery Girl (Rachel Alig, also of the comics-based Officer Downe), who cuts faces off for her collection, the movie is surprisingly easy on gore, with blood and rent flesh treated in largely lifeless or cartoonish fashion. The gore is an affectation, not a threat.
The only real horror in Verotika is how threatening men are, in general, even when contrasted with women who are committing violent murder, and how dangerous power is. The police pursuing Mystery Girl, for example, are faced with a strip club full of women and a doorman who know without hesitation that all cops are bastards. It is implicit and explicit that police present a threat, as well as maybe-necessary crime prevention or correction. Maybe, primarily because in all segments that police appear, they are broadly not of much use.
The Albino Spider of Dajette, which I do remember from the comics, would be in another horror anthology an odd choice to start us out, but here, it serves to ease us into further reaches of nontraditional cinematic presentation. This is horror film as, if not high art or high cinema, the commercial end of No Wave. The second segment is given over to long stretches of strip performances, while the third spends much of its runtime on a bath and the title Contessa (Alice Tate) bathing. She is bathing in blood, but it is, if horrific, a very low key and dream-stress delayed reaction horror. It’s Andy Warhol’s Kiss or Empire, but a Franco striptease or a Tessa Hughes Freeland Cinema of Transgression dance in the woods before and during a balletic satyr rape.
Placed in a museum context, Verotika seems artistic, deliberate, provocative in how little it provokes and how much it reminds. Characters rarely speak to one another, there are no real conversations. They may speak at one another, infrequently, and some monologue. Dajette of the first segment produces a hulking white spider-man after the tears from her breast touch a white spider on a rose after her boyfriend aggressively exposes her chest despite her pleas for him to stop. The spider-man (Scotch Hopkins) claims to be driven by Dajette’s subconscious, punishing her roommate and best friend, who she is plausibly, if unfairly envious of, committing violent reactionary and sexual acts she cannot, while men continue, throughout, to threaten her, from an unsympathetic and shouty photographer to the rape-on-their-mind theater-goers of a late night, possibly adult cinema.
The murders that Contessa Drukija has committed so that she might bathe in blood, rejoice in blood, are never questioned, only barely protested even by the victims, the young girls murdered so she can have a bath and feel, if not become, younger. If there is an ethical quandary, similar as in Franco and de Ossorio, it is for us, not anyone in the movie.
For all the posing and burlesque and twerking and stripper poles and baths and homoerotic posing, the fetish costumes and the tight t-shirts, there is never anything lingeringly and or explosively erotic. The whine of a wolf in the third short had more immediacy and presence than most of the human actors or human characters in the whole movie. In the third segment, seemingly set in a distant past, my brain began playing spot the power lines as telephone poles and other anachronisms seep in around the edges. I worked in a gentleman’s club for some time, years ago, and they do not do much for me, but watching Verotika is like being a dog in a strip club. The dog in the strip club is not bored, not wrong, they probably like everybody in the club enough, but their focus is not the focus of patrons or employees and it is not built or run with the dog in mind.
It is not showing on screens in museums, or on monitors. It is not showing in traditional theaters and cineplexes. Verotika is almost exclusively home rental, home ownership and showings. So, how do we take that? Reviews have suggested ritualistic midnight showings, party showings. When Franco moved from wide theatrical releases to specialty theaters, we saw a shift to films with less traditional narrative and more staccato moments of interest, like Two Female Spies with Flowered Panties, which begins as a gentle comedy and takes us through rape, brainwashing, and political corruption to end as a romantic comedy. When he moved to home release, instead of theatrical, we got movies like, Paula-Paula: An Audiovisual Experience, a sixty-five minute movie written by Lina Romay of two women making out for at least sixty-three of those minutes.
Who is the intended audience? Who is the best or even likely audience? The music is largely not Danzig’s own, so his musical fans may be disappointing with what, to me, was actually a really interesting selection. The references and allusions, both stylistic and specific, are so varied and implicit, it becomes hard to know if they are allusions. If the letters burning into view of the opening credits is an homage to the 19780s John Carpenter re-adaptation of The Thing, is that a callback to the grandaddy of The Village, the Mexican religious horror film, Alucarda? Is the lighting unusual in this segment because it’s mimicking the lighting choices of an older production, or because… ?
I watched Verotika alone, computer, phone, everything down, only distracted on occasion by pets or reaching for my tea. It was a near vacuum of ninety minutes. There were colors. There was light. Some very thin cut off faces flapped like cellophane and people wielded ornate knives. There was no attempt to scare, no attempt at dread or jumps, at confrontation at all, except for strippers keeping police away from a murderer or the aforementioned jerk boyfriend refusing to heed Dajette’s cries in the first segment. The threat of police is omnipresent, the threat of power unchecked, but never explicitly pressed.
Verotika has sat in my head, a cat in my brain, for days now. I do not immediately wish to watch it again, but it lives suspended whenever my attention wanders.
Fred Armisen is right. It is a Glenn Danzig masterpiece.