Andrew Kimmel works in publishing and almost never writes unless there is some threat to his well-being. His favorite New Year’s tradition with his partner is watching as many horror movies as they can until they pass out.
“WARNING: SOME OF THIS FILM MAY BE SEEN AS GROSSLY OFFENSIVE AND SHOULD NOT BE SHOWN TO MINORS!!!”
I’m sitting at lunch with a bunch of new coworkers about three weeks into a new job. A few of them had come down from Chicago for an annual meeting, and we’ve wrapped up all the business-related discussion. I still have no idea what I’m doing at the job, finding my feet with the work culture, but I know I need to start building rapport and showing some semblance of personality.
One of them asks me what I do for fun, and because it’s the week after Halloween, I say I enjoy watching horror movies.
“Oh, what’s your favorite one?”
I think to myself: Buckle up, bucko, because my love is vast, and we’re about to wade hip-deep into the merits of being psychologically scarred and emotionally disturbed. A memorable first impression is about to be made …
With a second’s thought, I take hold of myself and rattle off something socially acceptable. I wasn’t foolish enough to get into the gory details of The Human Centipede or I Spit on Your Grave over Reubens and poutine, so thankfully my employment remained intact. Thankfully I hadn’t seen NEKRomantik yet, but I wouldn’t have mentioned it either — even though upon first viewing, it immediately ascended to one of my favorite horror films of all time. I still feel unbelievably uncomfortable about liking it because I know it’s the movie-taste equivalent of not liking red pandas or babies. People learn these facts and want an explanation: “What in the heavens and the earth is wrong with you?”
So, dear reader, while I’d very much like to stick with the beloved classics or the campy ones that bring a wholesomeness to honest-to-goodness horror, I am moved this year to talk about one that is different and special in its own way. Part of this motivation is contrarian. I see all the controversial lists with Salo or Cannibal Holocaust at the tippy top, and NEKRomantik sometimes doesn’t even make the cut. I need to defend its grotesqueness to, as Edward Gorey might say, “make everyone as uneasy as possible.” The other part recognizes that this movie isn’t a typical one for me, and I want to understand why I enjoy something so prima facie unenjoyable.
The reason I’m more drawn to movies that play on the psychological is that the alternatives are disappointing. Movies that use gore or suspense as their primary forces are too dependent on humans as physical beings. They let our biology do the work of creating discomfort instead of digging deeper into what makes going to the movies rewarding — a reexamination of the world around us and how we interpret it. Jump scares and pulp have their place, but I’m always looking for a cupcake instead of a bowl of sprinkles.
Of course, NEKRomantik does do its best to gross viewers out. The film opens with a woman pulling down her underwear and peeing for 20 seconds before she and her traveling partner are immediately, brutally dismembered in an avoidable car accident. The main character, Rob Schmadtke, collects souvenirs of the recently deceased — going so far as to take a gunshot victim’s entire body home with him. Rob and his girlfriend, Betty, get to know that corpse intimately. A rabbit is butchered. A cat is butchered. The final scene is a hara-kiri-esque suicide complete with riotous orgasm.
It’s everything your mother warned you about college.
Writer-director-special effects artist Jörg Buttgereit (hey, no-budget filmmakers wear a lot of hats!) spends all 75 minutes splicing together absurdities like upbeat romantic music with gory visual effects. Dark German humor is his emotional bedrock. What makes NEKRomantik more than pure exploitation is how it addresses the way humans cognitively classify different types of disgust.
In philosophy, the Problem of the Heap (or the sorites paradox) draws attention to how humans distinguish boundaries. At which point does a heap of sand cease to be a heap when individual grains are removed? How many hairs does a man lose before he’s called bald? When does red become orange and orange become yellow? Buttgereit asks how much does a human have to do before we are disgusted? Why is one thing taboo but another thing not?
One particular way to explore this question — a line of inquiry that led to NEKRomantik being banned in several countries to this day — is the theme of necrophilia, which is pretty revolting to most audiences. Whatever the reason for this disgust — our primal feelings, an affront against the sacred, or so on — Rob and Betty perform the act surrounded by other abuses.
Dead bodies are unceremoniously cleaned up (without gloves) by a crew of characters who make their living doing so, shoved into plastic bags to be taken away in exchange for a paycheck from a company whose logo shares a history with piracy and Nazi Germany.
After an intimate night with his deceased friend, Rob fixes two large steaks — essentially another form of dead flesh being consumed in a different way. The juxtaposition leads to uncomfortable questions and realizations. Why does one act, nominally involving love, offend our sensibilities more than acts of indifferent cruelty toward equally living beings?
At times, the juxtapositions come a little easy. Betty bathes in blood as Rob watches a documentary on desensitization. A human autopsy is shown interlaced with a rabbit being butchered. Simple visual gags, if not for the level of detail Buttgereit puts into his thesis. The documentary contains a further juxtaposition: What is the difference between desensitization as a tool to get over phobias and lead a productive life versus desensitization through media as a cause of a lack of compassion and empathy? The source of the rabbit footage, a real documentary, leads to more: How much of our gruesome feelings come from seeing this act and how much from it being reframed by a horror movie? Why are we bothered by this but not the steaks later, and what does this say about human sensibilities?
Buttgereit ventures into the whimsical and blackly humorous at times, too, which is probably what helps me find love for this movie. He alludes to German Heimatfilme and turns it on its head, letting the wholesome, middle-class family man literally get away with murder, cutting in a very timely closeup of a garden gnome. The soundtrack is absolutely beautiful and sounds as if The Legend of Zelda had a baby with the witch-house genre. There’s even an amateurish horror B-movie within this amateurish horror B-movie. NEKRomantik never takes itself too seriously as Buttgereit’s later Schramm does, which frees us to consider broader implications.
I don’t think it’s very interesting to condemn or celebrate on the basis of controversial choices. I don’t buy into the intentional fallacy that just because a creator intended one reading — or could not have intended another — that other interpretations are inherently invalid. What I care about is impact, and there is no denying that NEKRomantik carries a wallop outside of its visuals.
And maybe that’s what I really love about horror movies. It’s not the gore or the shock or the suspense or even the mindfuckery. It’s that at the heart of really good horror movies, we are asked where the lines are and why they are there and who put them there. Because understanding these boundaries means understanding ourselves and our place in this world a little bit better.
All this being said: A year after my first viewing, I’m in New York City with a group of friends. We pass the Nitehawk Cinema, where NEKRomantik is playing.
“Now that’s a movie that stayed with me,” I say.
They ask me, “Do you want to see it again?”
I think for a moment, glancing at the faces of my friends, whom I love and for whom I care. Friends with whom I enjoy conversing with about anything, serious or not.
“No. No, I would prefer not to.”
For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2019
Pop Skull – Richard Propes
The Ghost and the Darkness – John Tuttle
Graveyard Shift – Eric Harris
Captain Kronos – Bob Bloom
Alien – Nicole Brooks
The Night Stalker / The Night Strangler – Lou Harry
Pet Semetary (1989) – Heather Knight
Marianne – Alys Caviness-Gober
Orphan – Greg Lindberg
Vamp – James Ledesma