ToeTag Pictures. Ever hear of it? They are the film company behind the August Underground trilogy, The Redsin Tower, Maskhead, and Murder Collection V.1. If you only watch mainstream horror releases then chances are you haven’t heard of them. Formed by Fred Vogel and Jerami Cruise on April 1, 2004 ToeTag Pictures and Vogel are, I believe, the most important forces working the low-budget, independent horror scene today. Vogel has a very distinct voice that many people dismiss as simply being sick and twisted. And yes, he is indeed sick and twisted … very sick and twisted as a matter of fact. But there’s also an underlying intelligent voice at work here.
Unlike other indie horror filmmakers like Ryan Nicholson who seem only interested in filming shocking and graphic scenes simply to shock and disgust the viewers (not a criticism, just a observation), Vogel has a message amongst all the violence in his films. With each film Vogel makes he pushes the envelope of the horror genre and dares us to watch what he has made. It’s very challenging watching a Vogel/ToeTag Pictures film. There’s been a few times when I needed to walk away and kinda take a break from watching his films. Visually, the constant barrage of violent images really gets to ya. Other times I sit back and think to myself, “I can’t believe I just watched August Underground’s Mordum on the same TV that my kids watch Sesame Street.” And unlike most other supposedly “über-violent” flicks, repeated viewings of Vogel’s movies don’t lose that ‘gut-punch effect.’ The fourth viewing of August Underground’s Mordum will affect you just as much as the first.
So who is Fred Vogel? I was introduced to Vogel’s work from a buddy, Brian. He lent me a copy of Mordum, the second in the August Underground (AU) trilogy. Brian was very reluctant to give me the movie and after watching it I understood why. It wasn’t that Brian thought I couldn’t handle watching it; he was just worried what I might think about a person who actually OWNS a copy of such a movie. But after my first viewing of Mordum I was an instant fan of Vogel and wanted to see everything else he made. According to IMDB.com Vogel was born on April 18, 1976 in Warren, NJ (about an hour and a half from where I grew up in NJ), his nickname is Fredenstein, he’s 6’3”, married to Shelby Vogel (who he’s been with since the first August Underground movie in 2001), and his trademarks are “a spiked dog collar; leather chaps and black leather cowboy hat; [and] his films all contain intense violence with realistic special effects.” That’s it? Kinda mysterious, eh?
After watching his films you probably don’t wanna know anything about this guy. But I befriended him on Facebook, and when I looked at his profile and personal pictures there I saw a whole other side to Vogel. He’s just a regular guy who really loves horror movies (he was greatly influenced by Frankenstein and wears a bad ass tattoo of the monster) and the entire horror culture. His pictures showed him and Shelby getting married, posing with his parents, and all the stuff ‘normal’ people do. What the f*ck?? I thought Vogel was some f*cked-up underground borderline snuff filmmaker who lived in the shadows and only emerged long enough to direct another twisted movie. Now I’m seeing pictures of him smiling with his wife Shelby (a real hottie by the way) and hanging out with his friends. The truth is; he’s both these people. He’s just a guy who loves, maybe obsessively, every aspect of the horror genre and has taken a shot at making his dreams come true. BUT he’s also, in my opinion, a visionary and the only person in the genre doing anything original and cutting edge.
His first flick, August Underground, was made in 2001 by the now defunct production company Absu Films. In it we follow around two serial killers as they videotape their violent spree. Vogel plays the killer in front of the camera and Allen Peters (also a co-writer) played the guy behind the camera filming everything. That’s the plot folks. Vogel self-released 200 copies of it on videotape in 2002. It’s by far one of the most realistically simulated snuff films ever made. The special f/x are so goddamn realistic that you’ll watch this flick constantly asking yourself, “This is all pretend, right?” There’s one scene where the dynamic duo are killing in a family room and we get a glimpse of the “Man behind the camera” (as he’s listed in the credits) reflected in a turned off TV. It’s a really chilling scene. What’s the message here? What are we suppose to get walking away from this flick? I think this flick lays the foundation for a theme that is re-visited a lot of Vogel’s movies: The connection between technology and violence (I’ll return to this theme later). Whatever message you take away from this film, one thing’s for sure; you’re gonna feel like your eyes were raped and you’ll probably go take a 45 minute hot shower. You’ll also realize that all bets are off when you watch a Vogel/ToeTag movie.
Almost immediately after finishing the first AU, the gang started working on the second of the AU trilogy, Mordum (released in 2003). Mordum has the look of a more slick production, but it follows the same formula as its predecessor: A couple of sick-o’s taping their violent crime spree. But this is so much more than just a follow-up to the first AU.
This one boasts five directors (including Vogel and the death metal band’s front man Killjoy from Necrophagia) and now we have three serial killers instead of two. Vogel returns as one of the sadistic killers and this time brings along his f*cking crazy girlfriend Crusty, and Crusty’s brother Maggot. Over the course of their killing spree we see Maggot’s sanity decline more and more as he competes with Vogel’s character for the affection of Crusty, his sister (yeah exactly; eewww). Everything builds up to a truly horrifying climax. Everything in Mordum ups the ante from the first AU film. The violence is more graphic, the f/x are even more realistic, and the camera lingers more on people as they suffer, thereby making the viewer turn away from what they are watching. That’s a new touch; usually the camera turns away first leaving the viewer wanting more. Not here. You will either turn you head, close your eyes, or altogether walk away from some scenes. This takes cinematic voyeurism to a whole new level. Mordum also depicts some of the most graphic and disturbing scenes of sexual deviancy ever put on film. There’s necrophilia, pedophilia, infanticide, and incestual rape; all of it graphic and all of it extremely realistic.
Then four years later we finally get the concluding chapter in the AU series, Penance. Don’t think the guys could top what they did in Mordum? What the f*ck’s wrong with you … haven’t you been paying attention to what I’ve been writing? Penance not only concludes the trilogy, it evolves the characters (Vogel and Crusty … no Maggot this time; he slit his own throat at the end of Mordum) and even manages to do the impossible: It humanizes them. Kind of.
So again we’re following around Vogel and Crusty as they continue to tape their atrocities. We see them as they randomly humiliate, torture, butcher, and rape victims of all walks of life. But among all this violence we also see shots of them as they are just hanging out and goofing around; just like you’d see on any home video. These scenes really add a dimension of realism here that’ll have the hair standing up on your arms. But we also see the deterioration of our two killers.
In the beginning of Penance we see them as two larger than life characters that seem almost invincible. But by the end the flick they are both in tears, unable to stand the site of each other as they kind of become self-aware of what they’ve been doing. Vogel’s character gets more and more enraged with each victim and he starts drinking heavily, eventually drinking himself into a state of utter inebriation. Crusty, on the other hand, starts to realize just how horrible the atrocities they have been committing are and she ultimately breaks down both emotionally and physically.
Penance is definitely the most mature of Vogel’s projects. The performances by Vogel and Whiles (Crusty) are complex as we see them as both sociopathic, sadistic killers and at times see their “inner child” come out. This gives their characters a sense of innocence and normalcy that is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this movie. At times you feel that its possible that these two brutal killers could be your own next door neighbors or friends of friends that you hang out with. The special f/x are the best I’ve ever seen. Anywhere. F/x guru Jerami Cruise (who’s done the f/x for all the ToeTag films except the first AU) goes all out to give us the most realistic f/x to date. His attention to detail will once again have you looking away. What is so effective here is that Cruise isn’t going for over-the-top f/x like blood squirting 20 feet in the air or 100 pounds of guts falling out of someone in order to just gross you out. It’s not about grossing you out here; it’s about realism and disturbing you. Mission accomplished.
The year before making Penance Vogel did the unexpected: He made a more traditional genre flick with a narrative and a more digestible plot. In 2006 he released The Redsin Tower, which he wrote and directed. This is a story about revenge and the dangers of love going bad all with a supernatural element added in. Mitch (Perry Tiberio) just can’t seem to get over being dumped by his long time girlfriend Kim. Determined to get her back he stops at nothing, and I mean nothing, to win her over. Deciding to get over the memories of Mitch, Kim (Bethany Newell) decides to go partying with some friends at the Redsin Tower. This is when all the fun happens. Like Vogel himself said at the premier of this movie, “If you are expecting sh*t smeared tits, then you came to the wrong place.” Awesome quote!! And he’s right. He takes his time here introducing the characters and developing them so that we actually give a sh*t about what happens to them. Some complained that this one is slow in the beginning. Bullsh*t. Vogel is just developing characters and plot. This, I believe, is an important project for Vogel; it shows that he can construct and execute a more traditional-style narrative. He’s not just “that guy” from the faux-snuff flicks anymore.
Then around 2006 (I could be wrong about the year here), Vogel married the love of his life Shelby Jackson (who acted in Penance, Murder Collection, and Maskhead and who’s been involved with Vogel and ToeTag behind the scenes since Mordum). And between his own projects Vogel acted in and did the f/x work on 2004’s Murder-Set-Pieces, directed by Nick Palumbo, about a photographer who graphically murders his models/subjects. It’s an OK flick marked by uneven acting and a slow pace at times. (Vogel plays, not surprisingly, a masked psycho killer). But to be expected, the f/x are amazingly realistic.
Then in 2009 Vogel and ToeTag comes back at us with a vengeance giving us two movies, Murder Collection V.1 (released in April) and Maskhead (released in the Fall). Maskhead is another of Vogel’s more narrative flicks. Lesbian couple Syl and Maddie (Syl is no other than Vogel’s wife, Shelby) make seemingly innocent fetish movies. We see one where a girl is sexually playing with food; one highlighting a dog fetish; and another spotlighting a clown fetish. But all their movies end the same way: A huge man covered in dirty bandages wearing a mask that is beyond description enters the scene and brutally tortures and kills the actor/actress in the fetish movie.
As we expect in any Vogel flick, the f/x are beautifully executed as we watch some very brutal scenes like a man slowly getting his arm broken and then sawed off (that will have you squirming in your seat) and a woman getting raped by what’s essentially a 2×4 strap-on dildo that Maskhead wears. Brutal stuff. Maskhead does take some time getting started and feels like it drags a little in the beginning as we get to “know” the characters. But trust me; you’ll be rewarded for your patience. My biggest complaint is that I wanted to learn more about the character Maskhead himself. We’re told that under his bandages he’s covered in burns and scars (possible self-inflicted?). I wanna know his back story and why he’s like he is!!! Way to build up that mystery guys. If there’s ever a Maskhead 2 I’ll be the first one in line. There is also another great character here called “The Cowboy” who works for the lesbian couple. He’s their connection to the person who buys the snuff films they make. The Cowboy is just as twisted as Maskhead. Just try watching the scene where he picks up a male prostitute (or Bathroom Fag as he is called in the credits) in a dirty bathroom and takes him to a cheap motel room in order to fist him:
Cowboy: Do you fist?
Gigolo: Me or you?
Cowboy: You of course. I’m not a faggot!
He has some of the best lines in the flick. It’s a strong, disturbing movie written and co-directed (Vogel is the other director) by Scot Swan, who also wrote the two Master’s of Horror entries that John Carpenter directed; Cigarette Burns and Pro-Life (two of the better entries in an otherwise very limp series).
This brings us too Murder Collection V.1. This I believe is the culmination of all of Vogel’s flicks so far. It takes the themes of cinematic voyeurism, snuff filmmaking, and the traditional narrative style of storytelling and turns them on their head. It also, as I briefly mentioned above, explores the very close relationship between current technology and the violence that’s inherent in it. “Murder” is a website that shows real, explicit, and violent scenes of death. Its run by a guy only referred to as Balan. We’re told the police tracked down the website and shut it down but Balan was never found and is still out there compiling real videos. The difference here is that Balan isn’t committing the acts we are watching; he simply compiles and shows real videos of death. We see a guy get beat to death after taking money out of an ATM – all caught on the ATM’s camera. Another shows three guys out in the woods hazing a fourth guy. One of the guys is taping it (a nod to the AU trilogy?) and we see how things escalate as the hazing gets more and more violent. There’s no soundtrack on Murder Collection; when we see the guy get beaten to death on the ATM camera all we hear is the faint hum of the camera. Pretty f*cking chilling.
But the worst footage is the pedophile who sets up a still camera in order to tape what he’s about to do to two young boys. The casting here is too realistic; the actor playing the pedophile looks like someone who’s a pedophile. The scene takes its time building up. We see the horror on the faces of the blindfolded young boys as they become aware of exactly what’s gonna happen to them. It’s the most disturbing scene in the movie. Remember that long, hot shower you took after watching Mordum; well you’ll be getting that water hotter and you’ll be in the shower longer after this scene.
But what is so amazing about Murder Collection V.1 is the message (or should I say messages?). The first question we are asked is essentially, “Why would you want to watch real life violence?” You say you don’t? What about the whole Faces of Death craze in the 80’s? Yes we now know that they were all staged killings, but back when Faces first came out people thought they were watching real footage of actual deaths. Made for $450,000 Faces went on to gross $35 million worldwide (not including rental sales). You can’t tell me Faces would have been as successful if it was known from the get-go that all the deaths were staged. Hell, Vogel is essentially confronting us and making us answer why we want to watch the AU trilogy?? Damn you Vogel!!!
Each viewer needs to personally answer the question as to why they would want to see such real violence and death. And then just to keep us on our toes, Murder Collection goes on to condemn technology in general and the internet specifically for making it so easy to find and watch real violence and death. To stress this point Vogel and team create some truly realistic scenes that you’ll rewind and watch a few times over just to make sure that they’re not real (just wait for the autopsy scene!!). As Balan says in between scenes, “Viewing death generates acids in our guts and makes us feel … Alive.” This is f*cked up stuff people. And just like in the AU trilogy we get long lingering shots where the camera doesn’t flinch to the violence we are witnessing. Vogel is pointing out that the technology that made it possible to distribute such violent scenes also desensitizes us to the death and violence it promotes. This is a great flick people that will have you asking yourself, “Why am I watching this” the entire time you’re watching it!! And if you don’t buy the whole theory of “people love to watch real death”, then I ask you, why are shows like Celebrity Rehab so goddamn popular? No one watching a show like that wants to see Heidi Fleiss or Tom Sizemore rehabilitated. What people enjoy seeing are these celebrities self-destructing. We’re watching these people slowly killing themselves!!
Fred Vogel, and what he’s doing with ToeTag Pictures, is the most important man working in horror today. While other directors and studio execs are clamoring over each other trying to cast the faggy Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame and Miley Cyrus as the stars of the Videodrome remake (god I hope I’m joking about that), Vogel is out there pushing limits and challenging viewers with his flicks. Even the most jaded horror fan will be disgusted and revived after watching just one of Vogel’s flicks. They will feel that there’s still hope out there for the genre.
You won’t find any reviews of Vogel’s flicks in Fangoria Magazine folks (although you will in the bad ass genre mag Rue Morgue). You need to get over to www.toetagpictures.com and start buying these movies. They are an essential part of any true horror fan’s DVD collection. After watching them a few times you will see beyond the graphic violence and come to realize that Vogel is indeed doing some important sh*t to further progress the genre he loves so dearly. (And no people, I am in NO WAY associated with either Fred Vogel or ToeTag Pictures in any way … but I sure wish I was a part of that team!! I am just a huge fan. Watch his movies and you’ll understand).
Like I said above, I don’t know Fred Vogel personally. I wish I did. I wish I had the balls to make a career for myself in the horror genre as he did. I wish I had the vision to push the genre to the boiling point and offer its hungry viewers something new and disturbing. Being able to disturb a desensitized, hardcore horror fan like myself is almost impossible. But Vogel does it every time he gets behind the camera.
I can’t wait to see what he comes up with in the future.*
*Vogel has just wrapped production on his new film, Sella Turcica and is expecting it to be done by October. And yes; I already have mine pre-ordered.
August Underground (2001)
August Underground’s Mordum (2003)
The Redsin Tower (2006)
August Underground’s Penance (2007)
Murder Collection V.1 (2009)
Sella Turcica (2010)