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Begotten is a 1989 American experimental horror film written, directed, and produced by E. Elias Merhige. It stars Brian Salsberg, Donna Dempsy, Stephen Charles Barry, and members of Merhige’s theatre company, Theatreofmaterial. Its unconventional narrative depicts the suicide of a godlike figure and the resulting births of Mother Earth and the Son of Earth, who set out on a journey across a barren landscape. The film does not contain dialogue, with its visual style evoking early silent films.

The film’s storyline draws upon creation myths in Christian mythologyCeltic mythology, and Slavic paganism, featuring narrative motifs and religious imagery that reoccur throughout Merhige’s work. Other influences include the transgressive artist Antonin Artaud and the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The film’s visual style was inspired by Georges Franju‘s Blood of the BeastsAkira Kurosawa‘s Seven SamuraiStan Brakhage‘s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Begotten was originally conceived as a work of experimental theatre featuring dance and live music. It become a film project after Merhige realized that his vision would be too expensive to produce live. The film was shot on location in New York City and New Jersey over five and a half months. After it was completed, Merhige spent two years trying to find a distributor willing to market it. The film debuted at the Montreal World Film Festival, and later screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, with the film critics Tom Luddy and Peter Scarlet in attendance. Impressed by its cinematographer and visual imagery, the two brought it to the attention of the critic Susan Sontag, whose enthusiastic praise and private screening to critics and filmmakers in her own home were instrumental to its eventual release.

Although it was largely ignored by mainstream critics, and the few contemporary reviews were mixed to positive, it has since attained cult film status and influenced several avant-garde film-makers, visual artists and musicians. The film’s scarcity on home video prompted fans to circulate their own bootleg copies, a phenomenon described as a “copy-cult” by the film studies scholar Ernest Mathijs. Merhige produced two sequels to Begotten: 2006’s Din of Celestial Birds and 2022’s Polia & Blastema: A Cosmic Opera. Both are short films.


Principal photography began in the mid-to-late 1980s and lasted for a period between three and five-and-a-half months. Merhige took on multiple roles in the film’s production, including cinematography and special effects, in the latter using a 16 mm Arriflex camera on black-and-white reversal film. Celia Bryant, who had worked on the set of the films Greased Lightning (1977) and I, the Jury (1982), is credited as the film’s costume designer. The film was produced on a low-budget of around thirty-three thousand dollars; the cast and crew were paid little to nothing, but they were given free room and board throughout filming. Funding for the film came from Merhige’s grandfather, who had set Merhige up with a trust fund for medical school. Additional costs were paid by Merhige from the income he received while working multiple jobs as a special effects artist.

The opening passage depicting God disemboweling himself and Mother Earth emerging from his remains was the first to be shot. After editing the resulting footage, it was shown to the cast and crew, according to Merhige, to motivate them to complete production. Most of the film was shot at a construction site on the border between New York City and New Jersey, where Merhige was permitted to shoot for twenty days when construction crews were not working. Members of the construction site occasionally assisted the film crew by constructing landscapes when shots of mountains were needed. Scenes involving time-lapses of sunrises and sunsets were shot by the director, who spent two days in the mountains near Santa Fe or Albuquerque, while additional sequences of plants sprouting from the earth were filmed from inside a large terrarium constructed by Merhige. Merhige characterized the atmosphere during production as a powerful, almost ceremonial experience that was “life-changing” for those involved. As filming concluded, Merhige had difficulties moving on from the project, describing a sense of mourning and the loss of an emotional high.

The film’s distinctive decayed aesthetic was accomplished through intense processing through an optical printer. Each minute of the film required eight to ten hours of labor to process.

At the outset, Merhige intended for the visuals to have a decayed look, as if the film was an artifact that had been damaged and degraded by time and wear. Merhige had always been interested in crafting imagery through analog format, stating it resembled the very nature of creation. Prior to Begotten, Merhige had worked as a special effects designer for various companies, including a brief job for a Disney television series that involved rotoscoping. These jobs had provided him with the technical knowledge—and savings—he needed to handle the film’s post-production and visual effects on his own. Visual ideas, such as audience perception and how imagery is processed, according to Merhige, was also important to him while envisioning the film’s visual style, as it challenged the viewer’s interpretation of what is depicted on the screen.

Filmic influences for Begotten‘s visual style identified by Merhige include The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Blood of the Beasts (1949), Seven Samurai (1954), and The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971). He also noted the cinematic works of Andrzej MunkSergei Eisenstein, and Luis Buñuel, all known for their unconventional style, as additional points of influence. Other possible influences identified by critics include David Lynch‘s Eraserhead (1977), Dimitri Kirsanoff‘s Ménilmontant (1926), and Tobe Hooper‘s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), as well as tribal artethnographic studies, and the paintings of Piero della Francesca.

Before and during Begotten‘s shooting, Merhige experimented with different types of film reel to achieve an old, withered look. In one experiment, he ran an unexposed negative against sandpaper to scratch its surface before shooting on the damaged reel. Unsatisfied with the results, Merhige decided on an optical printer for further processing. The “rephotography” removed almost all of the gray midtones from the visible spectrum, leaving only extreme contrasts of black and white. He was unable to find an optical printer priced within his budget, so he built one himself. He constructed the printer over a period of eight months with spare parts from camera stores and special effects houses where he had worked.

The production process was time-consuming, with each minute of footage generated by the optical printer taking between eight and ten hours to complete. Once a test shot was sent to the laboratory for development, minuscule mistakes in calibration sometimes ruined the shot, meaning the process had to be restarted. Merhige began asking laboratories if they were willing to adjust their usual development procedures to his custom specifications, but was repeatedly turned away. Eventually, he found a small studio willing to accommodate his requests: Kin-O-Lux Labs, owned by Fred Schreck. Merhige quickly developed a friendship with Schreck, who allowed the director to use the laboratory to develop the footage while teaching him how to develop footage by hand. At one point during the editing process, Merhige enlisted his father’s input on certain scenes, stating that his father was “very open-minded” to the project. Merhige used similar “rephotography” techniques for segments of his next film, Shadow of the Vampire (2001).

Begotten does not contain any dialogue, apart from its opening intertitles; Merhige envisioned “a time that predates spoken language” in which “communication is made on a sensory level”. The soundtrack and sound effects were composed and mixed by Evan Albam, who, prior to Begotten, had not composed professionally. Merhige and Albam worked closely together to establish the right balance of visual and audio cues. The soundtrack took a year to complete.[14] The music is ambient and dirge-like, and the sound design is fleshed out by natural sounds such as bird calls, insect noises, and the sounds of a heartbeat.


black & white, mono, fullscreen, 78 minutes. DVD-R comes packaged as shown in color DVD case, wrapped in plastic!

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