There is something truly disturbing about the bodily functions of other people. For instance, I can happily sit through Linda Blair’s head rotating like a tea-cup ride at a carnival but when she’s projectile vomiting bile the colour and consistency of pea and lentil soup, I have to hide my eyes behind my hands and wait for it all to end. Taking cues from a genre that’s been sadly neglected since the 80s, The Virgin Herod is a refreshing return to body horror. The opening scene sets the tone of creeping, awkward and low-key revulsion, with our protagonist picking at his pockmarked, scratched and bloodied skin. The film builds on this concept through to the dreamlike finale.
The plot rests on the socially awkward eponymous character, travelling to see a girl called Mary who’s invited him to a ‘thing’ she’s at. Along the way we’re shown nearly every possible bodily action and excretion, with Herod’s physical deterioration mirroring his psychological decline. On his journey to see Mary, he sweats, scratches, bleeds over himself (and manages to coat himself as liberally as 14 year old with Lynx deodorant), swigs a bottle of mouthwash, and all this before he even arrives at the party. From here on, the story glides over and subsequently dive-bombs into a lake of pretension.
Reminiscent of the Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange, the party scene begins with an orgy where condoms are hung from a chandelier and subsequently drops into even more surreal vignettes as Herod searches the house. These scenes culminate in our protagonist crawling towards a treehouse-like giant papier mache vagina (which, in case you were left in any doubt, even has a clitoris of an unnervingly similar size and shape of a Space Hopper peeping out from the void). Mary, shrouded by a blanket, and accompanied by a Christ-like bearded and long-haired man then slide down from the vagina to the broken Herod.
Let’s be frank, the symbolism wrung out of this second half smacks of a college lecture in Art History: the tree as a representation of fertility and duplicity, the luridness of the dark in opposition to the earnest hope of light, the ‘innocence’ of the woman and the prostrate submission of Herod at the feet of the girl he worships. Yet at its heart is a tale of unrequited love and the harsh dismissal of his crush.
There are aspects that grab your attention by the lapels and force you to watch the unfolding drama, however, The Virgin Herod, is one of those student-made films where a strong premise is undermined by the pretensions of its creators. In addition to some of the other egregious metaphors on show, there’s something particularly hackneyed and jarring about shoe-horning Biblical allusion into the story and not following it through with any purpose (yes, we get Mary’s supposed to be virtuous, and she turns out to have ‘cheated’ Herod’s affections but that name is too symbolic to just throw into the mix like a sprinkle of nutmeg).
At its core is the kernel of an idea that has been mired down in the final half by naive allegory that doesn’t add to the narrative, but it’s truly difficult to cast this film aside when it has a brilliant haunting sensibility to it. Forgive the schlock symbolism because when the film works well, it’s a revolting delight where you will, on more than one occasion, find yourself saying ‘what the…’
This review appeared in Issue 5 of Gorilla Film Magazine, available to buy from our shop.