Amat Escalante’s recent film The Untamed (La región salvaje, 2016) is a harrowing and beautiful work about fear, revulsion, and sexuality. A number of characters deal with interpersonal problems revolving around a meteorite that hit earth and a dangerous, tentacled being that can satisfy sexual needs beyond any these characters had previously imagined. When considering the greater literary scope, The Untamed is undeniably Lovecraftian, with the cosmic catalysts involved and ambiguous, amorous, Cthuluesque tentacles wrapping around everyone in their paths. One thing that Lovecraft feared so much as to render it unspeakable in his writings was sex in general. The Untamed is beyond Lovecraftian in its preoccupation with sexual gratification, which is both Weird and Queer in the vernacular and literary/academic definitions of the terms. Cinematically, it immediately brings to mind Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), which has perhaps the most famous tentacle creature love/sex scene of all time. In it, Sam Neill’s character Mark is cuckolded when Isabelle Adjani, as his wife Anna, fucks a large, undulating, slivering mass. If Lovecraft wanted to avoid the sexuality of The Old Ones, plenty of the other tentacle-curious after him have filled that gap. Yet the film which keeps coming to mind while watching The Untamed is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s erotic implosion of the bourgeoisie, Teorema. In that 1968 film, a haunting fellow played by Terrance Stamp arrives at an Italian household and seduces everyone there into existential crisis.
And now for a brief plot recounting of The Untamed: the picture opens with a shot of a meteor floating through space, slowly followed by shots of an attractive brunette woman named Verónica (Simone Bucio) in a post-coital stupor, an uncanny tentacle slithering away from between her legs. We see an aging couple outside of the room, apparently the keepers of the inhuman creature. Verónica leaves the remote house with a bloody injury in her side, which she gets treatment for from Fabián (Eden Villavicencio), a handsome, gay nurse. Fabián’s sister Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) is a mother of two young children, in a lackluster marriage to Ángel (Jesús Mesa), a homophobic working man who unbeknownst to her, is carrying on an abusive affair with her brother. Verónica enters into the lives of this family, a sexually forward drifter who eventually introduces Fabián to “It”–the tentacled creature. After Fabián is found gravely injured and comatose in a watery ditch, Alejandra finds out about the affair between brother/husband and is understandably upset. Ángel goes to jail after Alejandra tips off the police to him, after which she is lead to the remote house by the forebodingly considerate Verónica. Alejandra has an intense, transcendental experience with the creature and walks away unscathed. Verónica leaves town. Released from jail, Ángel confronts his estranged wife, denying he had a gay relationship with Fabián, and demanding to know who this new man is that Alejandra is having sex with. After accidentally shooting himself in the leg, Ángel is brought by Alejandra to It. She finds Verónica there, dead, killed by the creature. As It comes upon Ángel, he screams in horror, a reaction of pure fear, unlike the previous characters who expressed uncertainty and fascination. With the old man, Alejandra dumps the bodies of Verónica and Ángel in a ditch, and goes to pick up her two children. One of them asks, “Why is your blouse stained, mama?”
Escalante and Pasolini work in different times and spaces, acting in different cultural and economic contexts, but there are similarities among Verónica, the tentacle creature, and Terence Stamp’s character in Teorema, who is nameless and credited as only The Visitor. He shows up at the large house one day and proceeds to have sex with everyone in the family–He starts with Emilia (Laura Betti), the maid, and then goes on to the teenaged children Odetta (Anne Wiazemsky) and Pietro (Andrés José Cruz Soublette), the mother Lucia (Silvana Mangano), and the father Paolo (Massimo Girroti). In the novel version of the story, which was written concurrently with the making of the film, Pasolini explains that the order of seduction does not really matter. Things happen all at once, or in spaces of time that do not need to be chronological. What is important is that the interactions are not only sexual, but also spiritual and psychological. The Visitor brings new perspectives towards life to each family member, which are not always pleasant or easy, but which kick open the doors of perception. These experiences that go beyond sexuality are similar to those of the characters in The Untamed, and to an extent, the ones in Possession.
The Untamed is similar to Possession in that both films are about human emotions and relationships, and how interactions of love and anger can either undo or solidify one’s identity. Taking place in divided Berlin, Sam Neill and Isabel Adjani play Mark and Anna, a couple constantly at odds with each other, at a fever pitch of screaming or solitary chair-rocking. Their son Bob (Michael Hogben) is a casualty of the anger and bitterness. At first it becomes apparent that the rift has to do with Anna’s affair with a smarmy new age guru named Heinrich (Heinz Bennent). Mark, in turn, falls for his son’s school teacher Helen, who is a haunting double of Anna (also played by Adjani). After a series of meltdowns, we see that Anna has another lover–A large, slimy tentacle monster, to whom she shows murderous devotion. The film ends with nothing less than a nuclear explosion.
Possession and The Untamed are both films that rely on nuance and ambiguity. They scream at the audience while also having difficulty expressing themselves. Or perhaps they are both intentionally provocative, reveling in the spectators’ confusion. Neill’s and Adjani’s performances in Possession are noted for the completely over-the-top rage and misery that they bring to the table. The Untamed is more subtle, in a way that only a film about sex with cosmic tentacle creatures can be. What differentiates the two films is that the creature in The Untamed seems to have a familiar of sorts, in the character of Verónica, who facilitates It’s relationships to Alejandra’s family. The creature in Possession does not seem to have any introductions and we are left to wonder how Anna came to know the thing in the first place. The overt conflict in The Untamed always has to do with the anger and frustration of Ángel, whereas Zulawski does not indicate the origin of negative emotion as particularly Mark or Anna. In Possession we have no idea who started the fight, and it may not matter.
For all of the film’s preoccupation with sex, The Untamed never bothers to connect it to instances or themes of reproduction or fertility, except perhaps for one scene in which Verónica menstruates a huge puddle of blood onto a couch in the middle of a party. The film is about attaining a higher state via pleasure, and not any kind of practical usage of intercourse. Within situations of religion or family, relationships are perceived as strained and lacking satisfaction. In an early scene we see Alejandra barely awake and barely reacting to Ángel having sex with her in a completely unremarkable and not even particularly consensual act, followed by a scene of her masturbating in the shower. Their relationship is at the core of the film, and the conflict radiates out from there. They have two children who are clearly loved and cared for, but the kids are secondary to the plot.
If The Untamed has a villain it is Ángel, the closeted homosexual masquerading as a macho straight man. Upon reading the synopsis of the film, one might assume the tentacle sex creature is the nemesis, but it plays much more of a cosmic, supernatural role. There is an ambivalence and ambiguity to the creature, as it does kill–yet it is one of those films in which death is not always looked upon as a negative thing. Ángel and his actions towards Alejandra and Fabián, however, are toxic and boorish. If the characters in this film have a problem, it most likely has to do with Ángel. In the opening sequence, Verónica leaves the creature’s lair with a wound on the side of her abdomen. When she goes to Fabián to have it treated, she lies and says the wound was inflicted by a dog. We get the idea that she is lying because she does not want to reveal that the creature hurt her, because she is inevitably planning to return to it. Fabián’s experience with the creature occurs off screen, and we know that it crushes his skull in the process–Yet this does not stop Verónica from bringing Alejandra to see it later on. Although it may be intimidating at first, the creature is a source of pleasure, solace, and transcendence. The only one who is an anomaly in this respect is Ángel, who is brought to the creature without his knowledge and screams in terror at the sight of it. Verónica, Alejandra, and Fabián are able to open up to it, much in the same way that they allow their sexuality in general to evolve as it will. Ángel, who lives a lie, and literally cannot admit to anyone that he was having an abusive, homosexual relationship with his wife’s brother, is also the character who cannot open up to the creature. It is worth thinking about all of their feelings and actions in context to the characters in Teorema, who’s lives collide into the existential wall that is Terence Stamp.
Teorema is a disarming film that works much like a piece of silent cinema, showing us actions and behavior that are uncannily familiar but weirdly dissonant at the same time. There is no explanation for why The Visitor shows up or why the family finds it a good idea to keep him around–except for perhaps an unexplainable force of attraction. Terence Stamp is a monolithic figure, and each character takes their moment to swim in the depths of his calm, blue eyes before succumbing to a desire they have never felt before; but Stamp does not necessarily seduce these characters. There is nothing insidious or disingenuous in his behavior. In Pasolini’s written version of the story, he explains the gestures of love between The Visitor and the other characters as if it is an automatic occurrence that requires no thought. The family members display feelings of shame, but it is not necessarily because of the sexual desire they have for The Visitor, but a shame and confusion over feelings of pure love, which grate against notions of religious, social, or cultural propriety that controlled them up until these changing moments.
When considering Teorema in regard to horror films, it is most distinctly an anti-slasher picture. The sub-genre which generally came to prominence in cinemas of the late 1970s and early 80s uses the formula of an obscured masculine figure killing off a group of people, one by one, in an impotent rage. In Teorema we see Stamp show up in the cold light of day and proceed to have sex with each person one by one. He does what slasher villains usually cannot, sending each family member into an anxious crisis rather than killing them. The aftermath of their relations with Stamp’s character may be painful, but eventually brings the characters to a higher state, if not literally then figuratively. Pasolini writes that The Visitor is “Extraordinary because of his beauty–a beauty so exceptional as to have the effect of being in scandalous contrast to all the others present.” (Teorema, 14) Even a securely heterosexual man viewing Teorema would be at risk of being brought into an erotic, existential crisis if Terence Stamp showed up unannounced on his doorstep one day. Stamp won’t just fuck your wife, your daughter, and your housekeeper, but your son, and eventually you as well. It is interesting how Paolo, the father, is the only character who spends time flirting with The Visitor before getting intimate, going on long drives and running through fields together. The Visitor is like an exterminating angel, only he exterminates any kind of bourgeois ego you may have previously had, opening you up perhaps to greener pastures… or just a dark, desolate desert where no one can hear your screams into the cosmic void.
And this brings us back around to those tentacles in The Untamed. Perhaps tentacle sex fantasies are a remedy to the mediocrity of contemporary, mainstream sexuality. Don’t mistake this for a call to bestiality with available cephalopods, but a healthy fantasy life that is unafraid to cross boundaries into new realms of imagination, and potentially lead us to new states of being and hopes for more positive futures that are so essential in this day and age. This is why the deaths that occur in The Untamed are less important than Verónica and Fabián’s fearlessness in the face of something so pleasurable yet deadly. If Alejandra decided to stay in her marriage with Ángel, she would likely live a life of fear in cohabitation with an agent of misogyny and homophobia. When Ángel confronts her about the infidelity he suspects, Alejandra says, “For the first time in a long time I am good. I feel good.” Submitting to the tentacle creature is one possible way to contentment. Earlier on, when Veronica is describing it to Fabián, she says, “It’s the most beautiful thing you’ll see in this life. In the whole universe maybe. Nothing will ever be the same.”
With Teorema over 50 years ago, Pasolini suggested new horizons in the form of a handsome stranger, but by now humanity needs further consciousness and sexuality expanding possibilities. Even tentacle sex is quite limiting in the face of greater cosmic inquiry. By 1981, Andrej Zulawski had something new to say in relation to Pasolini’s preoccupation with religious metaphor, as we see the new age absurdity of a character like Heinrich in Possession. But Isabelle Adjani’s Anna fully understood the limitations of a man like that and moved on to something better. I often hear film fans and critics say that nobody can, or is even culturally allowed to, create new, transcendent, boundary-pushing work–this is a bunch of baloney. Great artists and filmmakers are the ones who have an eye to their medium’s history, and who are unafraid of standing on the shoulders of those blazing the trail before them. It is worth looking forward to the next cosmic revelation that Amat Escalante will hopefully bring.