Butcher Block is a weekly series celebrating horror’s most extreme films and the minds behind them. Dedicated to graphic gore and splatter, each week will explore the dark, the disturbed, and the depraved in horror, and the blood and guts involved. For the films that use special effects of gore as an art form, and the fans that revel in the carnage, this series is for you.
After the fall of the Third Reich, Germany very rarely made horror films in an attempt to shed its violent image. What little horror was released tended to underperform. But in the mid to late ‘80s, an underground movement emerged; a handful of low budget, straight to video extreme films that gained an audience despite a ban from the German government. Films that rode the wave of the splatter movement and placed heavy focus on gore, Satanism, graphic murders, gory sexual deviances, and often necrophilia. One of the most influential on Germany’s underground horror movement was Olaf Ittenbach, a special effects artist and horror movie director that helped bring German underground horror into the media spotlight.
Among Ittenbach’s first was The Burning Moon, shot on VHS in the early ‘90s. Which means every bit of the low budget, grainy aesthetic that you think. Yet, despite this, the movie is far better than Ittenbach could have gotten away with. For one, he’s got an eye for composition that elevates his film beyond a home video quality, and most surprising is how coherent his narrative is- yes, there’s actually a story.
The Burning Moon is a sort of depraved anthology, in which a heroin-addicted teen brother forced to babysit his kid sister and decides to tell her the most warped of bedtime stories. The first, Julia’s Love, doesn’t particularly invoke the taboo horror that’s associated with Ittenbach’s work, in which young Julia goes on a blind date with a guy that happens to be an escaped mental patient. When she realizes who he is, she flees, leaving her wallet behind for him to follow her home. Granted, it does culminate in a gory bloodbath, but still not enough to warrant its banned, depraved status.
Until the brother gets to the second story, The Purity. It’s a strange story of a priest that moonlights as a Satanic priest at night, raping and murdering victims and delivering sweet eulogies at their funeral during the day. Yet it’s poor town villager Justuz suspected of being the murderer instead. This story devolves into pure insanity before Ittenbach goes further and unleashes a 10-minute sequence that’s literally a glimpse in hell. Cannibalism, extreme sadomasochism, a gory orgy or writhing bodies and viscera, and a ton of torture.
The special effects and gore makeup are downright impressive for the budget. Split torsos, burnt bodies, sprays of blood, eye trauma, and so much mutilated organs, and all of it well done. Ittenbach once worked as a dental technician, which translates uncomfortably well in the hell scene that sees a tormenter take a power drill to the front teeth of its victim. The screams of pain amid the intimate examination of enamel being shaved away is downright cringe-worthy.
The special effects and direction feel even more impressive under the context of just how much Ittenbach did behind the scenes. Writing, directing, starring (as the drug-addicted brother) location management, lighting, special effects, and oh yeah, stunts. That scene with the person running, fully lit on fire? That was Ittenbach. There wasn’t a role he wasn’t willing to take on for the sake of his vision.
It’s easy to take one look at the VHS quality and not so great acting, and dismiss something like The Burning Moon. It’s a bleak, nihilistic entry that earned Ittenbach a reputation for splatterpunk. Mean, dark, and earning every bit of its gory reputation, Ittenbach isn’t for everyone. But he’s an important cornerstone to horror, and more importantly, German horror, and The Burning Moon is a great entry into his work. Like most German underground horror that was banned, it hasn’t been easily available here since initial VHS release. Lucky for us we live in an age where services like Shudder and companies like Intervision Picture Corp, an offshoot of Severin Films, pick it up for streaming service and home release.