For this second offering in my series on snuff-themed cinema I want to begin by discussing one of my bug-bears in genre film journalism. Torture Porn. Nope, it’s not the films themselves I have an issue with, in fact a number of my favourite flicks could come under that banner. And there lies the problem. It’s one of those generic phrases used to lump together a range of films that are vastly differing in theme and content bar the fact it’s heavy on the gore and sadistic violence. It always strikes me as a very condescending dismissal from the mainstream done in attempt to reinforce their own superiority over those with extreme tastes; as an example of the range of titles lumped under this preposterous header, what the hell do Hostel, Salo and Antichrist all have in common apart from a bit of fake blood and gore? The word “porn” to me implies something that is created with (sexual) arousal as the primary motivation and with very little, if any at all, artistic value, yet all of the aforementioned films have fairly strong plots, strong characters and the “torture” is well justified. Take a film like Martyrs; in my opinion a very powerful film that would not be anywhere near as emotive and hard-hitting without the brutal imagery to enhance the plot. Watch it looking for pure nastiness and you’re going to be disappointed as the true horror lies beneath the surface.
If anything can be described as “torture porn” albeit in a firmly tongue-in-cheek way, then it is these movies discussed below that I’d more accurately deem “pseudo snuff”. Unlike the aforementioned films, many of these are almost completely devoid of plot, the dialogue so insignificant to events that in some cases they are watched with no English subtitles and quite honestly if you took away all of the severing of limbs, lightbulb rapes, disembowelments, splitting of tongues and general sickness then you’d be left with nothing. There are exceptions, but the majority of the films discussed here are unlikely to ever be submitted to the BBFC and if they were would stand as much chance of getting through the censors as a tiny Japanese schoolgirl has of escaping a madman with a chainsaw in a locked room.
So where did the trend for “pseudo snuff” begin? Arguably the first person to direct such a movie was Hideshi Hino when he emerged with his film debut ‘Guinea Pig: The Devil’s Experiment’, a 45 minute brutal shocker presented as found experimental footage of a gang of anonymous men torturing a young woman as what is supposedly an experiment into the human pain threshold. Divided into segments, there is an artfulness to the way this movie is laid out and it plays out in a rather linear sequence. There is minimal dialogue and where there is any it just reinforces the visual onslaught and adds to the brutality; for example, as the captors casually slap the victim across the face 100 times (as the counter at the bottom of the screen tells us) one of them complains his hand hurts allowing one of his compadres to take the reigns. This shows the men in a “human” light, while dehumanising the victim. The tortures in this film I would regard as being deliberately un-sexualised, in stark contrast to some of the films discussed below such as Red Room and Psycho: The Snuff Reels. Boiling water poured over the arms, hand flesh twisted with a wrench, 10 hours of extreme noise filtered through headphones, maggots thrown on the face, being spun around on a chair (wheeee!!!!!)… There is no flesh on display so to speak of, and it does strike as purely a sadistically scientific experiment, especially the meticulous attention to detail in the times and numbers documented on screen. Of course the final scene is the eye-opening showstopper and one that any respectable gore-freak should see at least once in their film-watching career.
The follow-up to this film, entitled ‘Flowers Of Flesh And Blood’, is perhaps most renowned for being the video that Charlie Sheen stumbled upon and handed in to the authorities convinced it was a genuine snuff film. Here, a man in a samurai helmet is shown performing an operation of sorts on a girl where he carves her into a flower of flesh and blood, adding her body parts to his collection…as he is shown at the end to repeat his mantra of kidnapping and drugging another unsuspecting victim coming full circle. As with the other films in the set, this is taken from a manga story and after this goes on to more comic stylings with for example Mermaid In A Manhole, a love story about a man who while coping with the death of his wife, discovers a mermaid in the sewers. He keeps her in the bathtub as he paints a picture of her, using her blood and pus. Although it bears little relevance to this piece, it’s a total gross-out fest and a good fun movie worthy of your attention.
Does Red Room belong on this list? Well, half and half really. It has the filth-sodden aesthetic of faux-snuff but while parts of the violence are captured on camcorder, it’s clear this is not intended to be the main focus. This is one of several films discussed here that until quite recently was available only in Japanese language and with no subtitles (picked up by Unearthed Films in 2009), which reflects on the fact that these are not the sort of films to be watched if you’re looking for something really intellectually engaging with lots of dialogue. In contrast to Devil’s Experiment, there is a heavy sexual angle to this film and is perhaps “shocking” in a different way to other films here. The basic jist of things is that a group of four people are thrown together in a room together for a game show where they must take turns at performing shocking acts on another player. The winner walks away with $1m while the losers quite simply don’t get to walk away at all. It’s a bit of a twist on the whole game-show and reality TV culture which seems just as bonkers and over the top inJapanas their movies. What kind of “games” exactly are played? Well we have a man with a hairdryer shoved in his mouth blowing hot air down his throat…someone spun around really fast on a swivel chair (what is it with the Japanese and their swivel chairs?) and a girl raped with a lightbulb which shatters in her vagina causing one of the few actual gory scenes in the film. And then there is the scene involving a girl taking a whiz in another contestants mouth where it becomes very clear she is in it to win it and doing a convincing job of looking as though she is really “getting off” on the games. And then there’s the blow jobs, forced rape, breast fondling (which is uncomfortable to watch if for no other reason just the victim’s mixture of irritation, boredom and repulsion that shows on her face)…some fairly “adult” stuff and it does veer quite heavily into pornographic territory.
Psycho: The Snuff Reels (aka Tumbling Doll Of Flesh) is one film that without any shadow of a doubt belongs on this list. Similar to Red Room, the plot is simple enough to follow with no subtitles. We begin with a group of actors being handed what is presumably either a script and/or contract for a pornographic movie they are about to film. Next we arrive at the studio where the actors are getting down and dirty infront of an audience of cameras (that don’t look especially hi-tech it has to be said and personally if I was going for a role in a movie of that nature I’d question just how legit the crew were). Bad news if you’re hoping to see some pussy as in typical Japanese style all pubic regions are fogged out (including most bizarrely a pair of loose testes later in the film). This is all low budget, grainy footage that almost resembles that of a CCTV camera and as with most films of this ilk it’s really part of its charm.
So a bit of a break for the actors and returning on set things now turn kinkier with our diminutive starlet getting roped into takate kote shibari and subjected to a bit of a flogging, candle-wax and play-rape which by now is hard to tell whether the actress consented to or not. I guess not, as next she tries to escape though her attempts are thwarted when the director clobbers her over the head knocking her unconscious and then ties her securely to the bed, uses her bra as a hat (your guess is as good as mine) and rapes her. Mid-way through limbs being chopped up she wakes so at least she’s not missing out on all the fun. The real action starts here, as things descend into remorseless blood-soaked carnage. The gore in the final sequence is fantastic; very realistic and a good reminder of how CGI has soaked a lot of the appeal out of modern horror. One has to admire the creative sadism on display here as our starlet is reduced to a mere tumbling doll of flesh severed of all limbs, disembowelled and raped in the gut (yes you heard correct). For me the best scene here is where the girls tongue is held out, stripped of flesh with a potato peeler and then cut clean down the middle with as much ease as if it were a piece of card. It’s one of those scenes I find a little sickening but cannot take my eyes off the screen.
Now, I’m pretty good at arguing a case for contentious films and pointing out there’s more going on beneath the grimy puke-encrusted surface, but to say this is anything more than pure filth would be rather naïve of me. Seriously, this is a film designed purely with sick fucks like me (and you?) in mind who want to see lashings of gore and nastiness and entrails ripped out and limbs torn off, and to look into its underlying message and to say it’s a socio-political allegory would be as futile as dissecting Horny Housewives 3 for its social commentary. If you’re looking for an extreme gore-fest then this really is a must-see.
The Spanish contribution to the genre, Snuff 102, starts out with a scene of a woman clearly in a spot of bother who has locked herself in someone’s bathroom. Just as you wonder how she got there and where she came from, this film at times had me wondering where it was going, but in the end it will all click into place. The basic premise of the film is that of a young researcher looking at the impact of screen violence who goes to interview an expert on the subject. Her questions and his responses are illustrated with an array of video clips some of which the researcher found via snuff webrings on the interweb…animal cruelty mondo footage which some will no doubt find difficult to stomach, a breast nailing clip, images of mass genocide and such and such. The first half of the film seems to be a lot of talking…just an interview peppered with a few random clips and a bit of psychoanalytical claptrap. Mixed amongst this are clips of what would appear to be a genuine snuff movie…girls one by one dragged into the dungeon and locked in there and tortured over a length of time. One chick is repeatedly punched in the face and head, periodically asphyxiated with a plastic bag and has her teeth knocked out with a chisel. Then there’s the abortion scene, which is severed short with the disclaimer some things should be left to the imagination. When this gets right down to business in the basement the visuals are really quite stunning; I love the use of colour with the vivid greens and reds really bringing out the gore and creating an almost surreal look to the film. This is in stark contrast to the bright whites on the surface where the interview takes place which is very cold and mundane. At 1hr40mins this film could do with being a little shorter but it is still a very enjoyable film with some nice cinematography, good gore and despite being a little long winded and occasionally disjointed a reasonable plot.
Daisuke Yamanouchi’s Mu Zan E (aka Celuloid Nightmares) is one film that really needs a mention, although I was unable to obtain a copy with subtitles which made it difficult to follow the film. Unlike Psycho: The Snuff Reels which this is sometimes compared to, Mu Zan E does have an actual plot and a fair amount of dialogue, so while sickness-seekers should get a mild thrill from this there is too much padding between gore-sequences to hold my interest for its duration (I’m sure I speak on behalf of the entire non-Japanese speaking horror community). From what I can gather, the plot runs in a similar direction to Tesis; a journalist researching porn stumbles upon a snuff movie and ultimately sticking her nose where it is not welcome she lands herself in hot water. The Japanese have never been ones to shy away from the sick and bizarre especially where the pornographic is concerned and if you enjoy seeking out general extreme oddities in the Squirmfest/Gusomilk etc vein then how about period-gorno (and I’m not talking of the Downton Abbey definition). I’m talking bound women forced to chew used tampons and squirting blood from their vaginas – all visually vile and sure to cause great offence should it ever make its way from the cinematic-sewers where it is only reachable to us filth-loving few. Due to the fact this is currently unavailable with English subtitles, Mu Zan E is one for genre completists only. It does have its moments, but expect wall-to-wall blood and guts and you’re in for a let-down.
This article would not be complete without discussing the notorious August Underground Trilogy. Director Fred Vogel set out to create something that would shock, which in the 2000s is not an easy thing to achieve. Back when home video was an emerging technology, British audiences were suddenly exposed to new extremes in film making from countries likeItalyand theUSthat the censorious government had previously kept hidden from the great unwashed masses outside of the BBFC boardroom. Cannibals, zombies and ne’er-do-wells hacking up innocent victims who squirted tomato ketchup at the lens were enough to gross out the viewer and to attract attention from tiresomely tireless busybodies such as Mary Whitehouse and Graham Bright. This just doesn’t cut it these days. Everything has been done a thousand times over, audiences have wised up and what was once regarded as edgy film-making is now incredibly passé. Films 10x more gruesome and a whole lot more realistic are being passed uncut that once would have caused an absolute outrage. How do you shock a generation that has grown up seeing the Saws and Hostels as part of acceptable mainstream entertainment? What is particularly shocking with these films is the absolute realism they convey; it strips horror filmmaking down to its crudest form, totally devoid of plot or narrative that one would expect and showing just pure undiluted brutality. Taken from the cinema verite angle, these three films follow a bunch of quite reprehensible redneck morons who not only torture and kill people to get their kicks but clearly are having a whale of a time in doing so. These guys (and girl) are particularly casual and playful about their business, laughing and joking, clowning around…it’s kind of like an episode of Jackass, with that immature sense of humour and obnoxiousness to it. The verite style use of camera makes this a convincing pseudo-snuff film, it doesn’t look acted or staged at all. The gore is very realistic and definitely in plentiful supply, in fact there are very few scenes in these films where there is no blood and guts or tortured screams or general unpleasantness. A yummy bowel-removal in the third offering makes a guy vomit from the odour; the gore is messy and chunky, a lovely river of blood spilling out across the floor.
These films are so filthy and underground they belong in the sewers of the film world. It is quite frankly one of the few films out there that makes me feel slightly uncomfortable to watch, and leaves me feeling in need of a nice hot bath to rid myself of that filthy feeling. There are no redeeming qualities; while much of horror is based on a Grand Guignol mix of terror and comic relief, this offers no let up from the onslaught of cruelty and brutality.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes approaches the snuff theme in a different light, assuming the guise of a true-crime documentary. While showing some bits of “snuff footage” that was supposedly found in the cupboard of the captor, interviews with family and friends of the victims, police officers and criminal profilers involved in the crime and finally an interview with the main victim give this a far more dynamic story than in the standard “here’s some footage we found” PS movie. The first piece of footage we see is of a little girl being harassed in her front yard by the man holding the camera, who ignores the girls pleas to leave her alone as she’s not supposed to talk to strangers. The main storyline comes to light when a teenage girl named Cheryl Dempsey wakes up hogtied in a dark room with a man in a plague mask trying extremely hard to break her down psychologically, which over the course of time he succeeds in doing as she becomes his pet, helping her captor to kill his victims by slashing their throat from behind when they least expect it. This macabre tale takes a really frightening glimpse of the fragility of the human psyche and the Stockholm syndrome at its most repugnant and its ending is one of the most chilling I have encountered recently. Highly recommended.
If this all sounds a bit lowbrow then Boy Meets Girl takes the idea of the fake snuff movie theme and gives it an arthouse twist. A bloke in a bar thinks he’s got lucky when a smoking hot French woman invites him back to her place, where she shows him one of her “private collection” of dirty movies before drugging him…our boy awakens to find himself strapped to a chair in a dark room where the vivacious but psychopathic Domme-gone-wrong reveals her true intentions as a director of home-made movies. However, there is method to her madness and she has a more sociologically motivated agenda than getting a cheap thrill out of killing on camera as she seems hell bent on punishing her captive for his so-called “crimes” in this case playing around behind wifey’s back, and one ingenious punishment for being a chain smoker…for which I’m sure he regretted asking her for a cigarette. This is very dialogue-heavy and offers lots of food for thought. It has quite a feminist slant, or at least that’s what I read from it. As one of the captors (yes, later on it is revealed she is not alone) points out, it is assumed that women are incapable of violence, they are to be used rather than feared. Having automatically presumed the assistant holding the camera, wearing balaclava and shades, was a man, it is revealed as in fact a rather innocuous looking young lady whose mannerisms while tormenting the poor bloke bring to mind that of a 7 year old girl playfully mutilating her dolls or perhaps a pet in the back yard (regress much?!) with a psychotic gleefulness. There is naturally a claustrophobic feel to this film, given that it all takes place in the single dark room, which makes it quite an intense viewing experience. The prose throughout this film is rather poetic, especially towards the end and there are certainly Nietzschean values that shine through, the idea of good vs evil in human nature and questioning why normality is so highly valued. This isn’t a fun film by any means but it’s intelligently done and a thought provoking, yet disturbing movie.
So that concludes part two of this series. In the final part I’ll wrap up the various loose ends of the theme and conclude with films that haven’t fitted in to either part one or part two including A Serbian Film, Diary Of A Porno Gang, Scrapbook, Tesis and more.