There’s nihilism, and there’s nihilism to the point where it’s not safe to be around the nihilist; when the deep black hole at the center of their mind is so possessing that you will be killed and eaten by whatever is trapped down there. There is no coincidence in the fact that nihilism and Nathan Schiff start with the same letter. In Schiff-World, there is no innocence; no purity. Faith is a worthless example of twisted moron thinking that will lead you into a gory death, where your body, even once your soul is pried free of it, is not exempt from defilation and mutilation. This is Vermillion Eyes, the bottom level of the Schiff “Trilogy”. Weasels Rip My Flesh was sci-fi madness. The Long Island Cannibal Massacre was a dark but fun slasher carnival. They Don’t Cut the Grass Anymore was a nightmarish descent into a sleazy, bloody mindfuck. And Vermillion Eyes will change how you think, forever. It involves a lot of existential terror; and when I say terror, I mean that you will be afraid to continue being alive. Be forewarned.
We open with a shot of a little girl—possibly Schiff’s sister—who is not a-okay with being filmed. We see right away that print-wise, this is a winner; I’ll get more to that later. Let’s just say that the print is so deformed that we can’t even tell if this obviously camera shy girl is even a human being. It is creepy. Then, we meet our protagonist, a man-with-no-name who is haunted by dreams of sexuality and violence. He reads porno mags but also runs around in a hazmat suit and collect bodies of people who died in horrible accidents. Eventually, he picks up on hallucinations that combine the two; he murders his girlfriend after she performs a striptease; he is disemboweled by a woman who climbs into his bed. Finally chance doesn’t give him enough bodies, so he murders women in bizarre ways, like listening to their problems before dosing them with LSD and stabbing them. He fantasizes having sex with burnt corpses, and maggot-infested bodies. He insults a blind woman, saying her prayers are worthless because when she dies, her mind will become as empty as her eyes. We realize that this is the only way this demented soul can live; his obsession with life and death, and the relationship between the two, the fragility of the former, the Kryptonian invulnerability of the latter, leads to his sick, weird fascination with sexuality—it is the only way he feels alive. But death is so powerful for him that he worships it, and thus his libido becomes also his thanatos. This is the ultimate Freudian movie, really. And as it marches on, and on, there’s something so resiliently unsettling about it that I feel like crying.
In that, Schiff seems to win. The vehemence here can’t be an accident; Schiff cannot film these dark and terrible things without his belief in their truthfulness. Either that, or he is the greatest director of all time; creating a hideously and fabulously obsidian movie that is so confused and distorted, and exhausted and drugged, that it becomes a living embodiment of the worst, filthiest kind of humanity. These are the kinds of paranoid confused images I got when I was suffering from depression. You don’t know where to go. Life seems pointless. Sexuality becomes…blurred. Death seems omnipotent and lording in contrast to feeble life. You realize for glimmering seconds that the mind seems drab and worthless…
At some points you come back later, and voila, gory fun. Like the others. Slap fights; arms hacked off; goofy monster masks; obscenely hilarious orchestras; H.G. Lewis-level bad dismemberments; oh-sure-just-use-chocolate-pudding-so-she-looks-like-a-burn-victim. It could be one of the best bad VHS movies ever made. Things are all well and good; it’s just a teenage Schiff again, making another Weasels. It’s all cool. It’s all goofy. And then suddenly, bam, the man crushes a corpses ribcage and starts dismembering her face. You see this goopy volcano of gore that you slowly realize has teeth. That was a fucking human face. I should’ve warned you how good Schiff is at latex; this looks like he seriously fucking killed someone. You try to avert your eyes as the bleeding brain-oozing head is torn away with remarkably life-like sounds, but you can’t. Weasels Rip My Flesh is dead and fucking buried. Welcome to a charnel house where the pretty flowers are overflowing with blood; where paintings of idyllic scenes hung on walls are done on canvases of human skin; and where every kiss, every embrace, is just one more prolonged instant leading into a shallow and cold grave. You’re never happy. You’ve never been happy. And you’ll never be happy, as long as you live.
Did Nathan Schiff have depression? Or did he just like telling people he was messed up? Either way, there was something old and ancient creaking in that man’s mind. I love his work, and I respect him personally. He must have worked hard to get people to act in a movie like this. I would be nervous. Maybe that’s why the actors keep watching the camera; it’s not that they’re not professionally trained, they’re just watching for the knife! I kid, of course. Though the terror in this film seems all too real; screams are frighteningly realistic, and the sounds of people dying (throats being crushed, pleas for mercy, etc.) are almost too well-done. Was Schiff right? Do all these horrible feelings really lurk within us? Did he drive his cast to let them out? When the man breaks down shaking and sobbing and crying when he kills his sister—with whom he had an incestuous relationship—it’s shockingly convincing. Schiff has taken so many primordial emotions and repeated them laid bare for anyone who has felt them before. I almost didn’t make it. It took three separate attempts to get all the way through, because it was so violent and so…sad. The killer in this movie is seriously fucked up. He has mental problems that he doesn’t know how to fix, or run from. He seriously can’t stop himself from hurting people and killing people. He sees a child on a playground and he sees innocence in her, the fun she’s having. So he snaps her neck. He has to prove that innocence is a falsification, a myth. Her mom tries to stop him but he beats her to death and chops her eye open with a rusty razor. But as he does so, he runs away. He doesn’t want to do this, but something made him do it. He’s a paradox, having innocence even as he murders those who seem to possess it. But even as he shows innocence is real, he dies when a dog tears out his throat. It’s like the universe corrects its error…and proves him right. And then, suddenly, a child walks up to him, and smiles. She keeps smiling even in the face of his injuries. He reaches out to her, as if in protest, but dies. And she walks away, seemingly unfazed. She will continue being innocent…and that proves him wrong. Emotions repeat endlessly. Minds change constantly. There is no escape.
Now, I did promise I’d talk about the film quality. This is a bad ‘un. It’s beaten to hell and back, with some parts being nearly invisible due to darkness, shakiness, washing-out, or all three. Emulsion lines scar every inch of the print and the sound crackles, pops, cuts, and whimpers. I kind of wish this movie had subtitles. The important dialogue is very audible, but sometimes, such as when a victim moans, “There’s a worm inside me! There’s a worm inside me!” I had to replay it a couple of times. The bashed up flesh-colored smudges on the print constantly deform people into weird zombie monsters. Blood flows out and mixes like paint into the shrubbery of the ill-lit film. Screams flatten out into bass metronomes and music becomes like that of an old burnt-out ‘50s PSA. But I somehow suspect that if this movie weren’t so maimed, it wouldn’t be so terrifying and nightmarish; even just slightly so. There’s still enough to keep this ghost train going; more than enough actually. Since this is Schiff’s last “big” movie (though he did make the even-rarer I-want-‘em-listers The Last Heterosexual in 1993 and Abracadaver in 2008), I figure he got a lot of what was in him out. It’s okay, really. Ian Fleming got his kinks out with the James Bond books, and then died. Schiff lives on, mercifully, but I feel like maybe the flame is gone. Although, naturally…I would welcome any sort of dramatic return on his behalf…
This is a tough one to recommend. I’ve been bench-pressing “low-budget” horror, porn, and art cinema for so long, and I was a little unprepared for this one. It’s something for genuinely prepared people. Anyone else will be shocked and horrified; but that’s another victory for Schiff to chalk up. That means he was right. That we create our own evil, and that evil will someday consume the world. The key point here is to remain optimistic and hopeful. Someday evil will bleed out on a beach, and there will be a single child there, unfazed, unscarred, unafraid. She will smile. And then she’ll walk away, go into her house, and close the door, as the sun rises once again, as it always has and always will.