Friday, February 15, 2019

Vamp or Not? Dis

Dis is a disturbing piece of horror-arthouse, directed by Adrian Corona and released in 2019, which walks a line that perhaps owes a tad to torture-porn but also I was reminded – in some small way – of the starkness and ponderous beauty of Tarkovsky’s Stalker both through the forest scenes and industrial decay.

It is a film that explores the mythology surrounding the mandragora – and the idea that the spilled seed of hanged criminals caused the plant to grow and produce the mandrake's homunculi-like root. So, you might ask, why would I look at this as a ‘Vamp or Not?’ Well, firstly this has a focus both on nocturnal emissions and blood. From that we have a potential joke to thank for the firm place that vampires have when it comes to vegetation.

the garden
Ethnologist Tatomir Vukanović wrote about vampire watermelon, a folklore he came across from Gypsy culture in Serbia (the full journal publication was reprinted within Jan Perkowski’s Vampire Lore). It has been posited that the tale may have been a joke at Vukanović’s expense, but nevertheless the concept entered into vampire folklore. Plants that seek out blood have also appeared in various media vampire stories/films.

witch and devil
Dis starts with the sound of a baby crying, a sound that becomes the squeal of a pig. There is a small cultivated patch with a sigil above it. An interesting aspect of the film is that the abandoned buildings are covered in graffiti and some will be just there but other pieces are clearly designed to have meaning within the film’s narrative. Some are obvious – like the image of a witch and devil that we see in this sequence.

the syringe
A masked person in formal male attire approaches a chained, naked woman. It (the reason for the gender-neutral pronoun will be mentioned later) has a large syringe. It notices a maggot and finds a head wound on the woman that has maggots within it, something that annoys it (a spoiling, perhaps, of the meat). We see the woman, still chained, in the centre of the room. It pushes a bowl between her legs and goes behind her with a sharpened sickle across her throat. It feels her breasts and starts to stimulate her privates until she ejaculates. It takes the bowl away.

Bill Oberst Jr. as Ariel
We then move to see a man, Ariel (Bill Oberst Jr., Black Water Vampire), in the woods with a gun. Ariel is an ex-soldier, it is suggested in the film’s blurb, and he lives out in an abandoned building. We see him searching the woods, perhaps hunting, and someone searching his hut in point of view (possibly the figure we have already seen). We see him find a building that is not as abandoned as it seems, with lit candles creating a shrine and graves out back (I read this as a witch’s home and a witch is mentioned later). He eventually comes across a large building.

the woman
As he explores it, he sees a figure on an elevated floor, cloaked and masked. When she removes the cloak we see she is a woman, her breasts exposed. He tries to reach her but she is moving away from him at all points. When he finds her cloak, I noticed that the graffiti in the background displayed the name Orlock (whether this was a deliberate cross-reference is hard to say). He gets up on a rooftop and watches as she falls from the edge, killing herself. After a while, and more movement through the building, Ariel drops to his knees and lets out a primal scream. The figure comes up behind him and knocks him out cold.

From here Ariel is held by the figure and prepared. He is given water (which might be drugged) and forced to eat a mandrake – this prepares him for harvesting. During this we get backstory offered through black and white scenes of Ariel returning to the bar owned by his brother, Orlando (Peter Gonzales Falcon). Through this we discover that Ariel is a criminal and abandoned his lover, Sophia (Lori Jo Hendrix). We discover that Sophia wanted a baby but couldn’t carry one to term. Ariel got the witch to treat her and claims she almost killed her but Orlando has a different view of the events.

the graffiti says Orlock 
Orlando has flying ointment from the witch (used as a narcotic and named as Devil’s Root by Ariel). He asks Orlando if he knows where it comes from and Orlando confirms that it comes from deep in the woods (a no-no area) and is created from the seed of a hanged killer. He then says that there is a darker version that suggests that people are becoming plants and, certainly, there have been many disappearances and the mandrakes are blooming. Sophia is in the building, a mindless shell in bed, who could clearly never offer consent – Ariel rapes her.

the gardener
I used a gender-neutral pronoun for the masked figure and that would seem to be apropos. We see it in very male attire and also in a wedding gown but when the face is revealed it is a demonic looking thing. The very fact that it steals emissions from men and women, as well as changing the gender related clothing, brings the incubus/succubus to mind. Its mandrake roots seem to pulse with life (there is a dolls head in the patch at one point, perhaps indicating an attempt to make something more than just a root). It feeds the garden with both blood and emissions.

The folklore this plays with is multi-layered and includes the mandrake folklore, witchcraft and the incubus/succubus. The fact that the vegetation is cultivated with blood and nocturnal emissions would connect the dots to a vampiric form of vegetation (whilst recognising that the use of semen was part of the original mandrake folklore) and Vukanović squarely allowed vampire vegetation into the equation. I did look for a connection between mandrake and vampires and found an entry in Bane about the masabakes; a Spanish vampire variant it sends an imp (a tentirujo) to sleeping virgins, which then rubs mandrake into their thighs. The masabakes then feeds from the energy of the resultant sexual desire and intercourse. It should be noted that there was only one source listed for the entry – Jonathan Maberry’s Vampire Universe.

an intense performance
The film itself is one that will be enjoyed or hated depending on the viewer. It is dialogue light, specialises in disturbing the viewer despite a beautiful vista that is wonderfully photographed. Bill Oberst Jr. exudes dark emotion and intensity in it (as one would expect). To me the film managed to capture a slice of the uncanny and that worked in all sorts of ways for me. Is it, however, vamp? It probably depends on your view of vampire vegetation – if you accept it as part of the genre then this is a vampiric plant that is grown exclusively through blood and sexual emissions. If you don’t then it is at least of genre interest and the overlap into the succubus/incubus myth helps that view.

The imdb page is here.


Bill Oberst Jr. said...

Thank you for one of the most insightful reviews DIS has received.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

No worries Bill, and many thanks for the performance :)