Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Afterman (1985): or, Apocalypse When?

We begin: a bearded, slightly dumpy man sits in a darkened, presumably underground room, surrounded by dot-matrix printers and TRS-80s. Barely decipherable alerts flash in blocky green letters, monitoring something or other that's bound to be important. The Man watches news footage of atomic bombs dropping, and wistfully stares at old photos.When he gets hungry, he goes to a huge storeroom filled to the rafters with cardboard boxes. The boxes contain cans of futuristic spray-food substance, which he devours greedily. He stares at the screens, falls asleep, twiddles his thumbs. Apparently this is all he does; this is what his life is like.

Well, it's not quite ALL he does. A man has needs besides food and shelter, after all. When the Wily Worm of Wantonness rears its cyclopean dome, he waddles to another part of the complex and, shirtless, enters a walk-in freezer. There he finds the frost-flecked body of a woman, upon whose nude, frozen flesh he satiates his wicked urges.

At some length. In the first 5 minutes of the movie.

So many questions.

Cold hands, warm heart

Ladies and germs, welcome to The Afterman, Belgian director Rob Van Eyck's bleak vision of a speculative future, circa 1985. Executed entirely without dialogue, the flick is half art-house sci-fi, half grimy exploitation road movie, and 100% MAD. It's a movie that feels simultaneously thoughtful and incoherent, skillful and inept, intellectually serious but at times deliriously dumb. Take a bit of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, filter it through Quest for Fire, and dunk it in the boiling effluvia of the grindhouse melting pot, and maybe you're almost there. It's a movie that, quite frankly, I can scarcely believe exists.

Shortly after his necro-tryst with his Passed-On Popsicle of Passion--who may be his deceased wife, but is not certainly such--the Man (Jacques Verbist--NOT the guy on the VHS cover) is forced to evacuate his bunker due to a massive system failure, which leads to an off-screen explosion. We are left to infer that he's been waiting out the apocalypse, which has dismantled civilization--deserted, crumbling buildings dot the landscape, and abandoned heavy machinery returns to rust all around. Whatever brought about the fall of society was presumably not the atom bombs he was watching earlier, at least in my reading, since lush forests and fields stretch to the horizon and no one evinces the slightest radiation burns or tumors. Still, whatever happened isn't terribly important; the point is, the End has arrived, and the remaining humans must survive as best they can.

Immediately upon his emergence, the Man sees a group of other men watching him from a nearby ridge. With an inarticulate cry of glee, he rushes to them, while they calmly, ominously watch him come. He's clearly overjoyed to meet fellow survivors, and embraces their tough-guy leader. Unfortunately for him, his gesture is disastrously misread, as the wordless myrmidions lay the boots to him, after which the Leader sardonically rapes his ass while his henchmen circle-jerk around them! Welcome to our Brave New World, Bippy!

"Wait a minute...YOU'RE NOT A PROCTOLOGIST!"

At this point, we're still less than 10 minutes in, by the way.

Left bloody and now understandably shy of strangers, the Man sets about surviving without his cans of Post-Apocalyptic Cheez Whiz to rely upon. Despite his doughy physique and post-traumatic stress, he proves to be quite the trapper, snaring a muskrat underwater with his bare hands! It's a hard-knock life out there, but as long as there are aquatic rodents to be had, our Man will never go hungry.

I have seen the future, and it needs salt.

What happens next is hard to explain--the Man follows some strange sounds to a cave and sneaks inside, where he finds what appears to be a fully functioning day spa! There's tile, potted plants, patio lounge chairs, and a clearly man-made (and well-chlorinated) swimming pool, in which a beautiful woman is swimming nude! "Dude, where's the power for the filters and lights coming from if the world is over?" you might well ask--but don't expect an answer, since nobody talks.

As the Man watches from behind some palm leaves--which he sometimes rustles meaningfully--another naked woman joins the first for a dip, which quickly becomes an aquatic lesbonic sex-up. This goes on for quite some time--not that I'm complaining--but comes to a surprising end when the first water nymph goes down below the water line to pleasure her lover, who holds her there with her strong thighs until she drowns! (And from the sadistic look on the survivor's face, this was clearly the intended result.) Our Man zips up and freaks (the fuck) out, then runs weeping from the scene--as would we all.

Fifteen minutes now. Try to keep up.

When she was bad, she was horrid.

And so the movie goes--we traverse the post-Apocalyptic landscape with our portly, hollow-eyed hero, and through him we discover just how far into savagery the human race descends without the burden of the Social Contract to keep us in line. At his next stop he spies on an agricultural couple who have vegetables, livestock, and a beautiful slave woman (Danielle Detremmerie) in a chicken-wire pen. The bald, shirtless Farmer leads Slave Woman around on a swing-set chain, and periodically takes advantage of her from behind as she bends at the waist to weed the cucumbers. The girl submits without a struggle, used to this treatment. The Farmer's wife continues feeding the chickens without batting an eye.

Later that night, while the Horny Horticulturist has more loud sex with his wife (this guy plows more than soil, if you get what I'm sayin'), the Man sneaks in to steal some food--but is quickly captured and enslaved himself! Over the following days he is whipped viciously, teamed with the girl to till the Farmer's fields--literally, not figuratively, this time--and never seems to understand that a cage made out of chicken wire and extremely thin sticks should not be an impediment to his freedom. Then again, he does get a little non-rodent grub and something to do all day, so maybe it's a measured decision. He's the Cube Monkey of the future!

"Well, we might as well face it--we're here for good. So, wanna do it?"

Eventually he does break free, however--beating his Priapic Prison Papa with a post--and takes off cross country with a sack of ham and the beautiful slave woman on his heels. At first he doesn't want to share his booty with her--nor she hers with him--but that all changes when he wanders into a cliche pool of quicksand and she pulls him out. From there on out they share and share alike, both in sustenance and sexiness.

They have sex a lot.

In fact, it becomes clear as Van Eyck draws us along that, at least according to him, when you remove all the social constructs and rules of behavior, only two things matter to the human creature: food, and fucking. And not necessarily in that order. Every vignette in the movie incorporates the two: something always gets eaten, and someone always gets fucked. (Though there's no actual food in the lesbian swimmers scene above, the previous statement still holds--IYKWIMAITYD.) This was clearly one of Eyck's main philosophical points of the movie, and his dedication to it is admirable. Sure, it's not exactly a ground-breaking anthropological theory, but it does lend the flick a certain pseudo-intellectual aspect that, if missing, would lessen its impact considerably in my humble.

The parallel lines of human desire intersect most pointedly when the Woman is captured by a hard-partying Cannibal Clan, who really enjoy playing with their food. (Ba-dump.) Later they are taken in by a group of monks who have a hot-tub in their monastery (wha?), worship a statue of a man's ass, and accept payment for their B&B services by forcing the Man to fellate them. They also sacrifice wayward travelers by cutting out their hearts and eating them, but luckily the Woman catches them at it before Manny's on the menu and they make good their escape.

Freaky Friar Loves Huffing

As the film winds down, love continues to bloom between the Man and Woman. They steal clothes from a man bearing a strangely well-stocked suitcase. They forage. They have sex. He fights off some would-be rapists, impaling one on a bed of exposed rebar. Conflict arises when they are taken in by the Castle Woman, an aristocratic Zsa-Zsa Gabor type who totes an elephant gun and has an exotic, scantily clad pianist-cum-housemaid. The Man has sex with the Castle Woman, and his jealous Woman nearly freezes herself to death in the wild out of spite. They make up, have a kid, and finally arrive at the ocean. The End--or perhaps, just perhaps, the Beginning?

The Afterman is a film made of incongruities. Whiplash editing and the lack of exposition or context make for some confusing transitions and plot-points (for instance, the Man figures out what the cannibal clan are eating well before we do, making his retching reaction explicable only in retrospect). Other times, though, the flick feels extremely well-made; some of the shots of the post-Apocalyptic desolation are quite beautiful and haunting, as when the pair hole up in a disintegrating greenhouse, or walk through a crumbling factory that feels like a ruined cathedral. The lack of explanation regarding the nature of the social downfall is often frustrating, but also frees Van Eyck to create scenes of both medieval squalor and modern opulence, which may or may not be a stab at the persistence of class consciousness even after the supporting struts are kicked away. The loosely stitched vignettes never really pretend to a coherent plot, and yet still manage to draw the viewer along as well as any carefully woven narrative thread--partly because we want to see what madness the film will throw at us next.

"Okay--whoever wants to be tonight's entree, hands up!"

As I mentioned above, the quest for sex is pervasive, and so is a strain of brutish violence, executed with special effects that gain rather than lose power by their gritty, low-rent appearance. I've no reason to think the muskrat Man-snack is not a real dead creature; similarly, when the freed cannibal captives attack their guard and graphically gouge out his eyes, I think we're looking at actual ocular orbs--though hopefully those of a sheep and not a human being. Other scenes, such as the rebar impalement, the Farmer's crushed head, and a monk who takes a pitchfork to the neck, are no less visceral. Through repetition and commitment, Van Eyck creates a believably dangerous world for his characters to navigate.

Lead actor Verbist does a fine job as the Man, who learns about this terrible new reality along with the audience. Hollow-eyed, terrified, and perpetually confused, he's pretty much the perfect stand-in for the viewer. Detremmerie is lovely and believably tough, pulling her Man out of the fire as often as he returns the favor. The rest of the cast does well too--everyone has a lean, hungry look appropriate to the material. It's a compliment to both cast and director that even without dialogue we sympathize with the characters and become invested in their plight.

When she plays Peekaboo, she plays for keeps.

In closing, The Afterman is a movie that made me wonder aloud from whence (in ye fucke) it sprung. It fascinated me, held my interest, and stayed in my brain long after the end-credits rolled. Morality play? Speculative picaresque? Blood-and-boobs exploitational drive-in fodder? Maybe all, maybe some, maybe not. But it's certainly unique in my experience, and a film I enjoyed immensely. 2.75 thumbs. If you can find a copy, check it out.

Nota Bene: according to imdb, a 25th Anniversary Edition DVD was released in 2010 at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival. Also, in 2005 Van Eyck directed Afterman 2 which has no plot description on imdb but does show Jacques Verbist returning in the cast. That's a movie I'll definitely be seeking out by hook or crook to see how, if at all, the director updated his vision.

A few more images from The Afterman (1985): 

Even after the Apocalypse, programmers are all the same.
"You're SO lucky you're the last man on earth, buddy."

The Duke of DVD initiates another manservant.

The Louvre, circa 3535 AD.

Now THAT'S a spicy meatball!

No one steals Zsa Zsa's turnips.


Sir Jorge said...

i remember renting this one as a kid...i was fascinated by terrible movies, i need to see this one again

Andrew Green said...

This looks absolutely awesome....
Thanks for an excellent review!

Yum-Yum said...

Call me, oh, let's say, crazy, but this looks like something I should watch, like, immediately.

WWOW! Wily Worm of Wantonness.

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