“The Universe does not notice or care. All of us are nothing.”
So starts the new short film, The Obliteration of the Chickens, by writer/director Izzy Lee. If you’ve seen her work, that aforementioned quote could be considered a recurrent theme. Or, perhaps a mission statement. However, this new film doesn’t want to freeze a rictus of horror on your face. This time, Izzy Lee wants you to share a sardonic belly laugh while the world burns into a cinder.
Since 2013, Lee has been creating a steady body of genre films that burst with social commentary and are steadfastly uncompromising in their execution. Her horror movies and thrillers comment on the abuse of power in religion and politics, sexual harassment, internet shaming, pedophilia, and cold, hard revenge.
Izzy Lee’s short films distinguish themselves with an admirably tight story structure. The narrative drive of her movies is straightforward and precise, just as it should be in the 10 to 20-minute short film format. Like the first Ramones album, Izzy Lee’s films are all killer, no filler.
Another distinguishing trait is her total willingness to let the nihilism of her stories go full throttle (the name of her production company is Nihil Noctem, after all). There’s a moralistic vengeance at the center of her work, but Lee never lets you forget how vengeance is cold because it always comes far too late. The seemingly endless cycle of evil and darkness in the universe is the focal point. The same goes for her written fiction as well: her short story, “I Did it for the Art”, in the anthology book Fright into Flight is grim and despairing.
With all that nihilistic darkness, sooner or later you have to take a step back and have a good laugh.
Maybe it was the one-two punch of the two films Lee released in 2017, For a Good Time Call… and the powerful Rites of Vengeance that compelled her to explore her humorous side on the screen. Her film, My Monster (2018) is a horror-comedy about a woman (Brea Grant) who not only has to deal with the stress of Christmas but also some kind of inter-dimensional demon.
Lee’s new short film, The Obliteration of the Chickens, does something completely unique: the humor derives from lampooning the very nihilism that has been her calling card. She cleverly recognizes and skewers the formalism and academic distance that can turn concerned outrage into a schitck. What is amazing is that Izzy Lee elicits belly laughs while still making tremendously dark observations about the pointlessness of existence and the insignificance of suffering. The Obliteration of the Chickens is not only a new tonal direction, but it may also be the birth of a new sub-genre. Absurdist Existential Horror? Cosmic Farce?
I like to call it The Herzogalypse.
The film uses the formalistic techniques of the experimental film to take a piss on formalism by using stock footage clips (very reminiscent of Bruce Connor’s legendary 1958 film, A Movie) and augmenting them with visual effects, dramatic music and the disembodied voice of a narrator known only as “Existential Man” (played by author Bracken MacLeod) who is barely stifling his contempt for…well, everything.
“Nietzsche said that if you stare long enough into the abyss, the abyss stares into you. The abyss is stupid.” -Existential Man, The Obliteration of the Chickens
Did I mention that Existential Man is doing a spot-on impression of the Patron Saint of Nihilists, director Werner Herzog? Not just his accent and his cadence, but also his deadpan delivery of lines that any other human on the planet would suffuse with empathy. The dialogue is spiked with observations about the indifference of the universe and the delusion of free will that are so absurdly dour as to induce giddy laughter. It’s a burst of knowing giddy laughter, especially if the viewer has endured more than one self-important documentary that was as subtle as a tire fire.
Izzy Lee presents the absurdity with deadpan seriousness in a way that reminded me of Fellini’s The Clowns (1970). Even though the experiment would have been successful with just that panache, what makes this film so entertaining is that there’s still some of the darkest observations possible playing out in the film.
The spirit of Herzog and Fellini are present, but there is one more specter conjured into this short movie: H.P. Lovecraft.
Under all the absurdity is a visual story being told through stock footage that is the essence of Cosmic Horror. In just slightly over three minutes, Lee and editor Michael J. Epstein go from a macro version of our planet by using grazing cattle on a hillside to slowly, shrinking human civilization into an insect colony that is micro in size and vulnerable to the cruelty of an unthinking universe full of Elder Gods.
And what represents Lovecraft’s Elder Gods? Well, you’ll have to watch The Obliteration of the Chickens to find out.
Izzy Lee has gotten up in Lovecraft’s grill before with her great Innsmouth (2015), where she went right at the controversy of the notoriously racist horror author by changing the characters to women and blowing open stale archetypes around gender.
And that’s another earmark of the films of Izzy Lee: she refuses to allow her work to be kept in the “genre box”, even when she’s doing an adaptation of an author whose fanbase is notoriously “steeped in tradition.” Her stories continually sidestep traditional expectations. Even though Lee has recurring themes in her short films, her approach and visual style are very different on each project.
Nevertheless, Lee has run into resistance for her new vision within the genres she’s most associated with. In a brief internet chat with the director, Izzy admitted that she was getting resistance from festival programmers and horror fans who wanted more of what she’s delivered previously.
“I’ve gotten resistance, but I don’t care. It’s annoying that some people want to put you in a box. Fuck yo’ box.”-Izzy Lee
The good news is Izzy Lee refused to back down and now those festival programmers and horror fans have caught up to her. The Obliteration of the Chickens has been playing film festivals to acclaim.
And Izzy Lee hasn’t slowed down her pace or desire to tell strong stories. Her newest film is Re-Home, which I haven’t seen yet, but the plot synopsis shows that the director is yet again diving headlong into the seemingly endless permutations of the evil in the universe and the indifference of humans to the suffering of others.
However, The Obliteration of the Chickens is an experiment you should observe. It’s a truly unique experience that gives you a constant chill of dread, no matter how much you laugh while you watch. It may be the start of a new subgenre. Absurdist Existential Horror? Cosmic Farce?
Consider The Obliteration of the Chickens as the First Horseman of the Herzogalypse.
The Obliteration of the Chickens will be screening at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. on August 11, 2019 (with the film, The Unthinkable) https://popcornfrights.com/
Nihil Noctum Films: http://www.nihilnoctem.com
Watch Innsmouth on Shudder: https://www.amazon.com/Innsmouth-Phil-Healy/dp/B01MXI87R1
Nihil Noctum Films presents ‘The Obliteration of the Chickens’ (2019): written, produced and directed by Izzy Lee. Edited by Michael J. Epstein. Featuring Bracken MacLeod as “Existential Man”. Stock Footage provided by Archive.org, AudioBlocks, Pond5, StoryBlocks.