Let’s spin back to summer, 1999; Big Brother launches in the Netherlands, the public is slowly becoming acclimatised to words like “webcam” and “JPEG”, and the two big horror talking points – Ringu and The Blair Witch Project – take the genre’s regular voyeuristic concerns into an age where VHS and camcorders are no longer a novelty. You’d think this would be a fine time to launch a horror movie inspired – as the directors and producers cheerfully admit on the extras to this Arrow Blu-Ray – by watching MTV’s The Real World and fantasising about a masked killer slaughtering the whole cast. Instead, Daniel Liatowitsch and David Todd Ocvirk’s Kolobos went straight to video, slowly acquiring a big enough cult following to make this set possible.
Actually, as Liatowitsch notes ruefully in one of the extras, the Blair Witch lead-in hurt Kolobos substantially. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s film was celebrated for its ambiguity, leading some of the more excitable critics to declare that horror movies had now outgrown the need for gore. One of the most striking things about Kolobos, on the other hand, is that when it gets violent it goes all-in. The first death involves a character being hit by flying circular saws, exposing quivering intestines. From here on, it’s the kind of film that won’t show someone’s head being slammed into a table unless it can go in for a big close-up of the table’s corner ramming through their cheek. Skin is flayed off, acid burns through flesh and there’s even a tribute to that moment in Zombie Flesh Eaters. If you’re in the target market, you know the one I mean.
Post-Blair Witch American horrors would shy away from this level of viscera, before the industry over-corrected with the ‘torture porn’ wave of the mid-2000s. At the moment a kind of unsteady equilibrium exists, where it’s normal for an American horror movie to have an R rating but extremely unusual for it to take as much glee in mangling human bodies as Kolobos does. I rather enjoyed the cathartic pleasure of all this old-school practical effects carnage, even when I recognised a subtler touch wouldn’t have gone amiss. To bring in the other influential horror release of 1999, both Ringu and Kolobos feature an ominous videotape. The one in Ringu consists of a series of indecipherably menacing images on grainy black and white film. The one in Kolobos consists of a man monologuing and cackling madly as he peels the skin off his face. Ironically, the one involving flaying is less likely to get under your skin.
That man – “Faceless” – is played by the Ukranian actor Ilia Volok, who gets a disarmingly genial interview in the extras. The younger characters in Kolobos are designed, quite successfully, to recall the character ‘types’ that usually populate reality TV shows; your enjoyment of their deaths will depend on which stock characters you find most annoying on these shows. Faceless, on the other hand, is a masked, black-gloved, traumatised killer drawn straight from the gialli Liatowitsch and Ocvirk are avowed fans of. This side of the film isn’t bad as giallo pastiches go, aided by an efficiently Goblinesque score by William Kidd. It’s just that the expected moment of alchemy – where the contemporary, MTV-age concerns of the set-up merge with the retro element to produce something new – never arrives. Kolobos begins like a low-budget Truman Show and ends like a vintage Italian horror. You want the two halves to intersect more meaningfully, for the setting to give the film more opportunities than just an isolated location and a steady supply of irritating victims. But it never does.
Perhaps a part of the problem – and it has to be said this reflects rather well on Liatowitsch and Ocvirk – is that the directors didn’t foresee just how horrible reality television would become. When the movie unpicks the troubled back-story of its heroine Faye (Amy Weber), you recall the reality TV talent scout in Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test who admits she actively searches for contestants with mental health issues. Kolobos was made too early to address that kind of banal, cynical cruelty, but it still could have had sharper teeth. The usual central question of snuff-themed horror movies – who’s the audience? – is strangely ducked completely, making the film less of a social critique than dopey 2000s chatroom-paranoia movies like FearDotCom or Untraceable.
Still, it makes up for a lack of nuance in good old-fashioned retro-horror fun. The acting is variable – though, to be fair, nearly all the characters are trying to put on a false persona, so it gets away with it. Arrow’s 2K restoration shows a film punching above its budgetary restrictions in terms of lighting and cinematography, and the extras are plentiful – including, rather sweetly, a Super 8 film Liatowitsch made as a child.