Mortal Remains (2013)
Written, Produced and Directed by Christian Stavrakis and Mark Ricche
The term ‘snuff’ appears countless times in urban myth relating to the production of various, usually low budget, nefarious cult celluloid affairs. Take for example the strange case of Karl Atticus, if that’s even his real name. Karl is somewhat of an enigmatic character, a recluse and an artist with a penchant for the macabre, he is most known for producing two cinematic affairs. Shock Culture (released in 69′) and also, what many consider his crowning achievement, 1972’s Mortal Remains.
There’s no argument that both are based on works by an early 20th century writer named Vernon Blake. Vernon’s prose is graphic, notoriously grisly, sexually explicit and more often not slathered in themes that range from torture, mutilation, sacrifice and the exploration of the darker side of ancient culture. His are works that many chose to ignore the existence of and reject, especially publishing companies, in favor of the more easily ‘digestable’. These two artists also share another similarity, both are merely only presumed deceased, but more on that later.
Karl Atticus has a blanketing aura of mystery surrounding him, so much so that that when Chris (Stavrakis) and Mark (Ricche), two budding documentary filmmakers, learn of the details surrounding his legacy secondhand (from a story told to them by Eduardo Sanchez originally told to him by a film historian) they pounce on the idea to explore his works and put the findings on film. And in the process leave the documentary they were currently creating, based on The Blair Witch Project, for another day.
Their explorations take them to Maryland in the 70’s, the small community of Loch Raven and the Atticus residence.
Karl has somewhat of a criminal history, though with only minimal evidence nothing pins him to the charge of defiling graves to taint his record. Hearsay and conjuncture abound however, as the documentary progresses many more details arise concerning not just Karls passions and bizarre directing techniques but also many of the quirks and idiosyncrasies that drive him comprising his overall nature. What forces drove him to an apparent suicide attempt, it leaves one to wonder is there a madness that permeates both his and Blakes work that eventually invades the psyche?
It’s not known how much Vernon Blakes fiction affected Karl but several factors are difficult to be ignored. In a screening of Culture Shock a pair of attendees were ritualistically slaughtered only to be discovered, in pieces, following the films finale. Another instance was the riot that broke out during the premiere of Mortal Remains. Several attendees took it upon themselves to torch the projectionist booth in protest of the films barbarity. As a result no prints are available of the films, the only one presumed burnt up in the cinema based rucus. The brutal nature of Karls films leads one to ponder upon whether he could have actually been a forerunner of the ‘Splatter’ genre. But is there something more? Why do people act in such an extreme manner when subjected to Karls work? Chris and Mark dig deeper, literally, only to find themselves told in no uncertain terms to never return to the site of the Atticus family plot. But they still can’t find it…anything. Later in defiance of said order they return and under cover of night discover someone/something doesn’t want them to proceed in their investigative endeavours.
Chris and Mark discover more sinister details, some in regards to on-set schnanigens. Actors and actresses go missing, various crew are told to leave Karl and his strange associates with the on-set talent to act out the scene alone, and not return until the following morning. The grisly effects are startlingly realistic, especially based on the features meager budget. We’re real bodies used after all?
The web widens and the enigma becomes a lake sized quandry. The team are warned off (again) and their interviewees are suddenly not wanting to talk any further on the subject fearing reprisal.
When all avenues seem to have collided into an immovable force, the team encounter a break.
Vernon Blake was renowned for inserting ciphers (word puzzles of a kind) into his works driving fans wild with reckless abandon in search of where it all might lead next… apparently somewhere as Chris and Mark discover when they unravel one. The result leads them down a path they have no control over and no choice, as curious inquizative minds know, but to follow.
What will become of them? Who is Karl Atticus? What has become of Mortal Remains? Where do the ciphers lead and why are people suddenly not wanting to be associated with the pairs research?
Not wanting to ruin this film or to drop any more spoilers as to spoil its viewing (than I already have) I’ll leave my synopsis and thoughts here.
Before I continue I need mention that this feature has little, if anything, to do with a similar sounding book title set in New England written by Henry Scammell.
Much like Karl, Vernon Blake was presumed dead (following an automobile accident in 1937) although his remains were never found or properly identified several witnesses attested to the fact that he was a passenger in the ill fated vehicle prior to the incident. This snippet of information is glorious as it lends an air of mystery to the film, an aura of supernatural in particular since there’s also something ‘attached’ to watching the films themselves (sprinkles of influence from The Ring/Ringu film perhaps). The fact that the plot in the graveyard is tricky to locate is a great touch also lending to the idea that others have tried and caused incident in doing so. A remarkable element is the use and influence of Vernon Blakes work, in particular his adeptness of getting his audience involved. In utilizing a set of secret codes and messages the readership is prompted to dig deeper, onwards into the origin of the stories themselves, perhaps even to become a part of them?
The POV camerawork is very effective in dragging the audience into the action, the adventure of discovery as the documentary crew gets excited about learning fresh details as too does the viewer. The feeling of anxiety as chase begins with an unknown assailant. Much like The Blair Witch Project this is also a film thats most effective when watched alone in the dark.
Shadows and images often move in and out of shot in POV nocturnal footage laying the groundwork for shock, intrigue and curiosity, to spark into abrupt animation. A chilling soundtrack is effective in adding sufficient atmosphere and weight to the films proceedings.
What makes the film work remarkably well, in my opinion, is its use of vintage and vault materials. A slew of newsreel highlights, posters and newspaper clippings are used to outstanding purpose to help weave the tapestry that is the many layered Mortal Remains curiosity, Karl Atticus, the man, the myth, the filmaker and the enigma behind everything and how it could all be related.
Mortal Remains is an outstanding effort and a great entry into the documentary genre, one that can confidently sit alongside The Blair Witch Project and a gem from the past, Cannibal Holocaust, that carved a new genre where before boundaries were very specific.
Seek this one out folks, join the cult, the fine folks at Cryptic Pictures send me over quite the package (no pun intended) including glossy postcards and promotional materials, of course this act of selfless generosity didn’t sway my opinion (I’m above that!) Although free stuff is always appreciated, the film managed to mold my opinion all by itself.
Your slave to cinema obscure, intense, bizarre and unhinged,
You can find Cult on twitter.