Written and Directed by: Olaf Ittenbach
Starring: Olaf Ittenbach, Rudolf Höß, and Bernd Muggenthaler
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Dying is a cleansing process; it purifies the soul."
There are moments in The Burning Moon (such as when you watch a man get ruthlessly bludgeoned to death) that convince you that you’re watching pure misanthropy committed to VHS tape. Moments like this (and there are hordes of others) are responsible for giving Olaf Ittenbach’s shot-on-video opus its infamous, blood-caked reputation; that it comes from Germany--home to other such nefarious, snuffy fare such as Nekromantik--only shades its reputation even more. However, other moments (such as a lunatic’s fantasy about frolicking through fields with a dog) feel like such calculated, absurd brilliance that you can’t help but somehow be entertained by a movie that often makes you question how much of the production budget was dedicated to fuelling its director’s coke habit.
Consider its wacky setup, which has Ittenbach himself playing a troubled, delinquent youth who participates in gang rumbles and who hates his parents. One night, he’s forced to babysit his little sister, so he decides to shoot up in his room first, an act that prompts him to go outside, where the moon appears to be on fire. This inspires him to go back inside and tuck in his sister with a pair of demented bedtime stories. The first, “Julia’s Love,” features an escaped serial killer (Bernd Muggenthaler) stalking the object of his infatuation, while the second, “The Purity,” details the exploits of a deranged priest (Rudolf Höß) who rapes and murders girls and lets an innocent farmer take the fall.
In each story, Ittenbach goes right for the throat, as The Burning Moon is littered with more blood and guts than a local meat factory. There’s perhaps an initial dry spell to kick “Julia’s Love” into gear, but, once it gets going, it’s sort of reminiscent of Horrible (which means it’s very reminiscent of a trashier, gorier version of Halloween), as we watch Muggenthaler’s escaped psychopath wreak havoc in suburbia. One part actually feels directly inspired by the scene in Halloween II where Myers drops in on that unsuspecting elderly couple to borrow their butcher knife, only, in this version, the unsuspecting couple ends up splattered all over their kitchen. Just about everyone else is just as unfortunate; many people lose their heads (one of which ends up getting tossed at a police car), and the story climaxes with an outrageous head-pop moment that’s the gory equivalent of seeing someone get splattered with a bloody water balloon.
“The Purity” continues the madness, opening with a girl getting raped and gutted within the opening minutes (all while being assured by the priest that she’s just being “purified’). This second half of the film feels a little uneven at first since it starts as this fairly straightforward tale of psychotic deviancy before spiraling into a coked-up take-off of supernatural revenge stories like The Dark Night of the Scarecrow. You can almost feel the drugs kicking in as The Burning Moon is sent all the way over the edge that it dangles upon for most of its runtime; as slapdash and as wacky as it is at times, it doesn’t fully embrace an abstract, nightmarish rhythm until its climax, which takes us right into one of the most visceral and blood-soaked portrayals of hell you’ll ever see. It’s like watching Jikgou with your brain on fire, as Ittenbach constructs elaborate torments that find the denizens of this underworld being shot, stabbed, and even completely torn apart. By the time it’s over, you feel the need to scrub the bloody bowels off of your own eyeballs; to call The Burning Moon “gory” is an understatement. Instead, it’s more appropriate to call it a tour-de-force of vicious, low-budget ferocity; during its climactic scene, each gunshot and stabbing feels like the staccato build-up to Ittenbach’s incredible and disgusting crescendo.
However, for all its gore-soaked mayhem, The Burning Moon is legitimately effective at capturing what I would assume a drug-addled mind would look like. Many shot-on-video films have a hazy, illogical quality to them, but The Burning Moon is full of bizarre, schizophrenic tangents; there’s the aforementioned sequence involving Muggenthaler’s dreams of romping around with a dog and his intended lover, Julia, which is all a part of his elaborate desire to marry her and let her “absorb all of his love juices.” Other bizarre asides see him flashing back to the death of his family at the hands of his own grandfather (who insisted that he was next), plus Julia has her own weird little micro-nightmare when she blacks out. “The Purity” also has similar moments; it, too, flashes back to the priest’s childhood to reveal the moment where he was talked into joining the cloth by his father, a desire that was soon corrupted by a Satanic force. Even Ittenbach’s narrator seemingly has a weird flashback to his own childhood as well, and you’re almost compelled to say The Burning Moon has that sort of childhood trauma as its through-line (just look at what irrecoverable damage this brother is doing to his little sister by telling her these stories).
That weirdness and other strange moments keep Burning Moon more lively than it probably has any business being. It’d be easy to get hung up on the bullets to the head, the roasted (and defiled) corpses, the teeth-shattering power drills, fiery crucifixes, and more, but it’s hard to consider this to be too grim when it also features a scene where a cop casually explains how he came to rescue a girl as she sits there covered in blood. “I’m a cop. This son of a bitch threw a head on my car--sorry I couldn’t find you sooner,” he delivers with the intensity of a guy who just busted someone for jaywalking. It also helps that Ittenbach stretches the shot-on-video aesthetic far beyond its means (or at least further than I’ve ever seen); while he can shake off the amateur acting (which, to its credit, is better than average for these things), his production values are remarkably high, particularly in terms of lighting and camera coverage. His angles are also often dynamic; at one point, he even captures an eyeball being swallowed from inside Julia’s mouth, and you probably wouldn’t be surprised to know that’s not even remotely the most disgusting moment in The Burning Moon.
Most importantly, The Burning Moon actually seems to have been edited and scored by people with talented eyes and ears; so many shot-on-video films drone on and on, assisted by warbling Casio soundtracks that make them feel interminable. Not so here--you won’t exactly trick yourself into thinking it wasn’t shot-on-video, but it feels rather cinematic at times. In fact, if there’s a masterwork to be found in this dusty corner of cinematic cast-offs, it’s probably The Burning Moon, a movie that often feels like the work of a deranged, hateful genius working without any sort of a filter. Though the film’s release date is often given as 1997, it was actually made in 1992, and it’s become infamous ever since (it was actually banned in its homeland for nearly two decades). Leave it to Intervision to dig it up and give it a proper DVD release; though their disc is lighter on extras than what we’re accustomed to from them, the vintage making-of feature does run for 47 minutes and is quite thorough and takes you behind-the-scenes as Ittenbach is interviewed. Three trailers round out the supplements, including one for The Burning Moon. The film’s presentation is also top notch; typically, I’d say an SOV feature just looks like a healthy VHS rip, but this film's rich, vibrant aesthetic shines through nicely here, so it probably hasn’t looked or sounded this good since it first populated video stores those years ago. I imagine anyone whoever plucked it from one of those shelves back probably felt like they’d had their brain microwaved after seeing it; remarkably, you’ll probably feel the exact same way now. The Burning Moon still scorches with a unique combination of morbid humor and deranged hatefulness; if Sam Peckinpah and Lucio Fulci ever had a crack baby that picked up a camcorder, this would be the result. Buy it!
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