Murder Collection Volume 1
by Jason Coffman
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Since their founding in 2002, Toetag Pictures has made a name for themselves in the horror community with their makeup work for Nick Palumbo’s infamous Murder Set Pieces and their own notorious August Underground series. A trilogy of “found footage” films, August Underground is presented as a series of home movies made by a group of serial killers. After a detour into more familiar supernatural horror with 2006’s The Redsin Tower, Toetag completed the August Underground trilogy with Penance in 2007 and things have been relatively quiet since. Now they’ve returned with a new film whose title promises more mayhem yet to come: Murder Collection Volume 1.
The premise this time around involves an underground internet show called Murder Collection hosted by a mysterious disembodied “host” named Balan. According to the opening text, Balan hosted the show back in the 90s until it was shut down by authorities, but Balan himself was never caught. Having spent the last decade plus collecting new footage, Balan has returned to share his collection of torture, murder, and atrocity.
Murder Collection’s premise immediately sets the film on a different footing with the audience from the August Underground series. Where those films were meant to be actual home movies of serial killers, the fact that they were mass-produced DVDs automatically put a conceptual roadblock in the way of experiencing them as “real.” Murder Collection, with its framing device of the Balan “host” sequences, puts the footage one remove away from the viewer by giving it a context. This context instantly makes the scenes on display more disturbing than the “direct experience” of the August Underground films, which sometimes felt more like effects reels for Toetag’s formidable makeup skills due to the fact that the viewer’s brain can’t reconcile purchasing a DVD with the idea of watching a one-of-a-kind “found” video.
That said, it wouldn’t be a surprise if anyone who wasn’t familiar with those films or this one might pull a Charlie Sheen and call the cops thinking they’ve seen the real thing if they just catch a couple stray minutes of any Toetag film. It also doesn’t hurt that a good portion of Murder Collection could easily pass as news footage. Among the vignettes on display are a restaurant robbery and an assault at an ATM that are presented as direct-feed security camera footage: no sound, grainy look, and an unsettling uncertainty as to what exactly is going on elsewhere when you can only see part of the picture. Other sequences feel like pieces of larger narratives of which we only catch snippets— a man primping for the camera before terrorizing a couple of teenage boys, some guys giving a nerdy acquaintance some shit during an ominous walk in the wood, and more. Allowing the audience plenty of room to fill in the details around some of the clips is one of Murder Collection’s biggest strengths.
Overall, Murder Collection is arguably Toetag’s best work yet, and goes a long way toward making their “too real for comfort” approach a lot more accessible. Watching the August Underground films could sometimes be a slog through their often protracted scenes of torture and degradation, which was exactly the point— the films don’t present murder as entertainment. Murder Collection’s bite-size bits of brutality lend themselves more easily to the short attention span (although a few scenes do go on for a while) while retaining the idea that maybe you’re seeing something you really shouldn’t be— Balan even gets into some Michael Haneke-style audience baiting as the film progresses. While that may hint at one filmmaking influence on this work, there’s no mistaking Murder Collection for anything but a Toetag production. You’re still not going to find this at your local video store or Best Buy, but for a compelling look at the bleeding edge of underground horror, Murder Collection Volume 1 is the best place to start and well worth seeking out.
You can purchase Murder Collection Volume 1, the August Underground films, The Redsin Tower and various related merchandise through the Toetag Pictures website:
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago.
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