There is no question of suspending our disbelief watching Kahlert’s films, but there does emerge a bizarre unease in the inescapable doom of his scenarios. Unburdened by the need to convince his audience, the director’s shorts instead embrace a maddeningly unhinged vision of the supernatural run amok.
* * *
You aren’t likely to find any serious writing on German super 8 filmmaker Michael Kahlert. Obscure outside of his native country, and likely just as unknown there, Kahlert’s entire reputation in the United States seems to rest on the 2013 review of his short The Bloody Curse by trash horror institution Bleeding Skull! (later updated and included in the 2021 book Bleeding Skull! A 1990s Trash Horror Odyssey). A handful of fans were fortunate enough to catch a trilogy of Kahlert’s films screened at the Alamo Drafthouse, thanks to the Bleeding Skull! team. For the rest of the underground, however, his films remain elusive, only recently surfacing online (https://archive.org/details/michael-kahlerts-gortswill-trilogy), while any additional information on the filmmaker proves nearly impossible to track down. This hardly makes Kahlert anomalous in the world of amateur horror cinema, but his body of work does stand alone in one significant regard.
Unlike heaps of other inspired amateur horror creators around the world, Kahlert’s method of production is entirely unique, his craft meticulous and studied. Each of his five available short films is a micro-scale masterpiece of stop-motion animation, a collision between a craftsman’s obsessive eye for detail and a fan’s devotion to over-the-top splatter and genre conventions. That this blend is achieved through the exclusive use of handmade settings, Star Wars action figures, and toy store gore effects does nothing to undermine the effectiveness of these productions. Kahlert’s narratives may be cribbed from various classic horror films, and his methods hardly innovative, but his insular dedication as an amateur filmmaker is almost unheard of in the underground genre film world. Fan-made works are inherently imitative, but what can we make of projects whose forms so decisively trump their contents? Where excess is removed from the analytical equation because it’s the very reason for the films’ existences?
For American fans of international super 8 and shot-on-video horror films, language and cultural barriers often enforce a shroud of mystery over the works themselves. Films like Kahlert’s, as well as N. G. Mount’s Ogroff (France, 1983) and Antoine Pellissier’s Folies Meurtrières (France, 1984), are fascinating visions, perplexing anomalies; inaccessible at their core to English-speaking audiences, and likely nonsensical to native crowds as well. These films signify that there are always new discoveries to be made, that generic expertise is an illusion and it is impossible to fully grasp every mutation of underground moviemaking. Kahlert’s films appeared during the 1980s renaissance of German underground horror: fueled by the repressive policies of the BPjM (Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien/The Federal Review Board for Media Harmful to Minors) censorship board and its widespread prohibition of horror films, a score of young directors began to emerge with outrageous homegrown efforts. The major auteur of the German underground, Jörg Buttgereit, came to prominence following the release of 1987’s notorious Nekromantik. Never comfortable being pigeonholed as an extreme horror director, Buttgereit made each of his subsequent films more challenging, embracing philosophical and feminist themes, as well as confrontational experimental techniques. Working primarily with video technology, Andreas Schnaas became infamous for his shot-on-video Violent Shit films (Kahlert assisted with super 8 work for 1993’s Violent Shit III: Infantry of Doom, his only other listed credit), pushing the envelope of homemade gore and genital mutilation in the crudest renditions imaginable. Olaf Ittenbach likewise made a splash with his shot-on-video efforts Black Past (1989) and The Burning Moon (1992). Other filmmakers from this period have remained more obscure, attracting only retrospective appraisal by diehard trash horror connoisseurs, including Ralf Maier’s Videomania (1991), and Michael Pollklesener’s Fuck the Devil duology (1991/1992).
According to German zine Splatting Image, who conducted the only interview I have encountered with Kahlert, the director self-distributed his films throughout the 1990s. Given the 1980s production dates on the majority of the shorts, Kahlert was likely producing works for his own amusement before attracting an audience in the blooming German underground film scene. In 1995, Scream Video, an obscure outfit itself, released a limited-edition PAL VHS compilation of his shorts, The Best of Michael Kahlert, featuring five films. The tape also has a preview and advertisement for the standalone title Dead End Horror, which is only available as an excerpt online (https://archive.org/details/dead-end-horror). In between the shorts, Kahlert introduces his films, looking like an average German man in his twenties, his apartment a picture of middle-class normalcy, though prominently displayed Godzilla and Darth Vader busts betray his fan status.
The tape begins with Der Blutige Fluch (The Bloody Curse) (1987), the first part of Kahlert’s Das Buch der Blutigen Geschichten (Gortswill) trilogy and his most well-known film. The director’s commitment to detail is evident from the establishing shot, a fade-in on the constructed miniature Castle Gortswill set. Kahlert’s entire exterior world is comprised of impressive, hand-built miniatures, including even power lines dotting the rural roadside. The first character we see, young student Peter Lawson per the explanatory scroll preceding the short, is a Han Solo action figure. After arriving at a vacation house opposite the castle, he is shown walking down a long corridor, a rounded dormer window awaiting him at the end; in a quick cut, the camera shifts to the house’s exterior, and a zoom puts us in the perspective of some force watching Peter from the castle. Throughout the short, Kahlert employs his set’s window frames to peer in on his characters, to obscure actions, and most importantly, cheat the limited space of his designs, imbuing an impressive depth to the decrepit castle. The camera moves fluidly, with very few of the shots being simple setups, instead employing consistent zooms and pans to bring an urgent sense of life to these still images set in motion.
The most ingenious and painstaking work is reserved for the castle itself, a fully constructed miniature set complete with staircases, winding hallways, and dark corridors. Kahlert’s Old Dark House is detailed down to its wooden floorboards and wall panels, each lovingly crafted with grain and cracks that look to be hand-drawn marker lines. Similarly, the lighting is masterful, considering the tight dimensions of the cardboard and Lego settings. An amber fill light drowns the castle’s corridors in stifling shadows, leaving doorways and brief glimpses of drawn brickwork the only illuminated surfaces. Sunlight shines through the castle’s windows, adding a hazy brightness to the dim setting. Clearly versed in the full spectrum of genre cinema, not merely the splatter offerings that inspired his contemporaries, Kahlert’s amassed influences informed a distinctive aesthetic, defined as much by the bridging of quiet and explicit horror types as the uniqueness of his devices. These impressive elements successfully override the inscrutable plot and emphasis on bloodshed, inspiring in their technical proficiency where one struggles to grasp the narrative of each film. The other entries in the Gortswill trilogy follow much the same pattern, demonstrating that the director’s ambitions extended to his creating a mythology around the cursed dwelling.
Nuklear Zombies (1989) is equally impressive, bringing Kahlert’s claustrophobic horrors into the exterior world. Miniatures and prop sets are replaced by natural settings, reduced to a microcosmic scale that robs them of their familiarity, recalling the occasional model work of Long Island auteur Nathan Schiff. His cast of action figures has swelled to greater proportions, comprising a full zombie hoard, and several more familiar faces from George Lucas’ universe appear. This also opens the film up to more classical narrative representations, with early scenes relying on dialogue, allowing Kahlert to try out shot-reverse-shot editing between his figures. The film’s gore is also more impressive, with wisps of cotton affixed to weapons to simulate firing, and zombie characters dissolving into mounds of clay as the camera captures them frame-by-frame. Mangled zombies emerge from mounds that look to be piles of quinoa and swarm yet another Han Solo figurine, while Kahlert’s camera stages distressing close-ups on the dissolved faces of his antagonists. Even removed from the impressive interiors of the Gortswill model, Kahlert makes creative use of piled twigs and grasses, obscuring his characters with both the natural elements and impressively devised shadows. In fact, the roaming camera places far greater emphasis on the isolationist properties of the short’s scenario than the Gortswill trilogy. Still, plenty of attention is devoted to a wire trap that sends two sticks through a zombie’s head, pulping it graphically for an extended stretch of screentime.
There is no need to analyze the rest of these shorts; each one is clearly derivative of its influences: George A. Romero, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and especially Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. Without fail, Kahlert’s methods outshine his content. For many this would reduce the shorts to marginalia, novelties fit for a single viewing and adding to a checklist of impossibly obscure films. The director’s dedication reveals far more at work, encouraging repeat viewings and deeper critical appraisal. Nacht des Grauens (Night of Horror, the second Gortswill chapter) (1988) is essentially a retread of Der Blutige Fluch, albeit with more over-the-top gore and a pronounced emphasis on nightmares and subconscious visions. The Gruesome Twosome (1989) is obviously inspired by H. G. Lewis’ 1968 film of the same title and is dedicated to the director. Rather than making a straight rehash of Lewis’s deranged co-ed scalping gore comedy, Kahlert indulges in the tale of innkeeper Art Pringle and his murderous, mutilated brother Rodney (the film’s credit for “Director of Photography: Jan Utko, A.S.C.” seems dubious at the very least). The film also features live-action effects more extensively, with (presumably) Kahlert’s hand employed to stab a painted face in the eye and hold its devastated severed head aloft.
Gortswill—Der Fluch III (1991), the final chapter in the trilogy, opens with Kahlert gouging the eyes out of a life-sized rubber head before severing it with a cleaver. Perhaps the limitations of action-figure gore were proving a dead end as far as fulfilling expression. There’s an impressive dungeon effect, with an under-lit iron grate bellowing smoke and later birthing a malformed Godzilla toy. This matches the altogether more ambitious fortress employed this time, complete with multiple watch towers along the squared curtain wall and a spiral staircase that is matched with radial camera rotations. On a technical level, Kahlert is at his disorienting peak with this chapter of the story. Doorways at the end of shadowy corridors drip green slime, and Kahlert plays with depth of field to shift our orientation, obscuring background details and rooting our perspective in the foreground (all the more impressive given his cinematic plane could not have been more than a single foot or so). As much as one marvels at an oozing corpse disintegrating in real time, there’s just as much to impress in the harnessing of the camera’s pure mechanical possibilities.
For all of his isolationist minutiae, Kahlert’s films demonstrate an intensive engagement with the properties of the real world. Cars pass one another on the freeway, most of his characters have companions, and the dwellings and interior sets are often fully furnished and detailed. Moody and expressive lighting not only illuminates settings, but creates a fully constructed world of shadowy depth. The transitory settings are stunning in their details: fully painted two-lane roads, greenery and forests, and elaborate mountain sets. Kahlert’s entire miniature world is as convincing as possible. Likewise, the characters do not simply shift around lazily, rather their limbs are fully articulated, moving to open car doors, raise various toy weapons, and place one another on circular saw tables for dismemberment. The demands of stop-motion production necessitate the employment of classical silent cinematic techniques, particularly intertitles; though, by the same token, they also fail due to the plastic actors’ inability to emote or express themselves in any manner whatsoever. Still, these achievements are not merely adequate for the chosen subgeneric style, but are legitimately impressive examples of low-budget animation. There is a deep understanding of cinematic techniques on display, a pronounced effort to construct films as formally interesting as their miniature mise-en-scène.
As the preceding summaries make clear, for all his cinematic wizardry, graphic gore effects largely remain Kahlert’s raison-d’etre. Blades are pushed through plastic heads, mangled bodies are creatively mutilated and entirely stripped of their familiar origins. Blood and green slime pour from ceilings (again reflecting Raimi’s stature among German horror fans) only to dissolve away in an instant. The trick to these representations is that Kahlert’s stop-motion work frees him from the limitations typically imposed on amateur filmmakers. Everything looks fake in his films, and no attempts are made to hide this fact due to the sheer plasticity of what is on-screen. Via the manipulation of his camera’s technical properties, however, images can appear in an instant, blood splatters and unholy creatures materializing out of nothing through simple dissolves. There is no question of suspending our disbelief watching Kahlert’s films, but there does emerge a bizarre unease in the inescapable doom of his scenarios. Unburdened by the need to convince his audience, the director’s shorts instead embrace a maddeningly unhinged vision of the supernatural run amok. Each image is presented at face value, a logical progression of an illogical scenario. The cavalcade of horrors in Nacht des Grauens is as feverish and inventive in its own manner as Ittenbach’s Inferno sequence from The Burning Moon. No other filmmaker so disturbingly depicts a severed toy head vomiting out pulpy red clay to bury itself in gore.
This also frees the shorts from the trap of heavily effects-based filmmaking, for at no point is there ever the distraction of wondering how a particular effect was achieved. There are no secrets to be had in these clay and paint displays of gore; they never threaten to steal the show from the films themselves as they are all parts of a single, efficient whole. The films may never generate legitimate suspense, but there is always an anticipation of what could possibly come next. Regardless of their production dates, as they’re curated on the Best of tape, there’s an escalating sense of madness to Kahlert’s works, the gore and derangement of each subsequent film becoming more confrontational and indulgent. There’s never a loss of the films’ technical elements, but the mounting bloodshed gives the impression of a filmmaker completely unrestricted by the confines of taste or audience.
These are not films that would have worked in any other genre; as compelling as Todd Haynes’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is, that film used live action to represent its tale of the singer’s life through Barbie dolls. Where Haynes shaved down his primary doll to simulate the toll of Carpenter’s anorexia, Kahlert was no less devoted to detail in his own way. Most appraisals of amateur and underground films focus on the naïve charm and unabashed enthusiasm on display. There is often a sense when reading criticism of amateur horror efforts that they are granted a consolation prize, an acknowledgment that they never stood a chance of legitimate reception and must be handled entirely as outliers. While they certainly operate on different scales from mainstream and modestly budgeted independent films, amateur and underground genre films are also unencumbered by the demands of adequate presentations. Kahlert’s fandom and passion sustained his productions through several years of laborious work, and it is within his own generic community that they are likely to forever find their audience. Such is the standard reception of amateur films that they rarely are accorded the respect they merit as creative undertakings alone. Even if his films will convert no one to the fan filmmaking form, Kahlert stands out from the many inspired imitators to deliver works of genuine vision.
Frederick Exley wrote, “I fought because I understood, and could not bear to understand, that it was my destiny … to sit in the stands with most men and acclaim others. It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan.” This sentiment defines the course of amateur filmmaking, save the lucky few who manage to breach the world of careerism. The beauty of Kahlert’s short filmography is the fact of his shouting into the void, toiling away for untold hours over elaborate projects likely knowing that only a small handful of converts would ever see them. These short films are the definition of thankless tasks, the moment where pure amateur expression and subjective satisfaction alone define the creative process. Unlike Exley’s realization, that reality of fandom and its limitations seemed to suit Kahlert perfectly. These shorts were staged and completed with the sole aim of expressing his personal infatuation in a singular manner. I can’t say what Kahlert did to get his films seen, nor do I know if he had resources to shoot live-action films and simply elected to work with stop-motion. What remains is that he pursued his chosen methods with a feverish dedication unmatched by any of his peers, regardless of their global location.
* * *
Note: All images are screenshots from the films.