Graphic Social Horror

Oh, this spider bites, alright...

Years ago, I was in film school, and part of the benefits of an overpriced education (which is now far more inflated than before) was the occasional screening of a film banned or too risqué within what was still then a very conservative province.

This was a year after lead smut-snipper Mary Brown was finally gone from the censor board, which under her tenure had demanded all kinds of cuts to films violent, provocative, or bearing genuine artistic merit. The best way to describe the 1980-1986 period when Brown was at the helm was myopic: there was no differentiation between crap and intelligence, and no effort to bring old standards in line with new standards.

Ontario was actually quite stupid within Canada because our board banned movies available in other provinces. We could understand Quebec – they share a more mature, less uptight regard for sex – but why our posteriors were tighter than others was a mystery, because I knew of no other body more conservative than our official censors.

Hollywood locked heads with the censor board when slasher films were in vogue – it was normal to hear of the latest Friday the 13th or Texas Chainsaw Massacre being released with massive cuts – as well as art films, and there were two certain places where Oh-Oh films were exempted: universities and film festivals, which probably still holds true for a handful of current flicks.

Among the more inane ironies within Ontario was the award-nominated NFB documentary Not a Love Story (1983) with its anti-porn message that few would ever receive because the doc was banned due to its hardcore content. The ridiculousness of its status – an anti-porn film whose filmmakers use objectionable material to argue a moralistic point rendered illegal by its argumentative tools – provides a snapshot of how conservative the board was in the eighties, and while the film is available now on DVD from the NFB directly, it’s still limited by specialized distribution towards schools and institutions.

Films with less socially provocative messages were also illegal within the province for a while – the longer version of Caligula (1979), the uncut Man Bites Dog (1992), the uncut Baise-moi (2000) – although a few titles remain technically illegal because they were never resubmitted to the revamped Ontario Film Review Board by the distributors due to the heavy submission fees.

(I’m somewhat fuzzy on it, but 10 years ago it cost something close to $500 to submit a work for approval, and a resubmission also mandated a fee payment, making the endeavor frustrating, and to some filmmakers, a bit of an easy governmental cash grab.)

When it comes to mainstream films, Canada is generally less worried now about bare boobs, bottoms, pickles and beavers than the U.S. (witness the airing of Stanley Kubrick’s un-fogged Eyes Wide Shut on pay TV while all video versions and theatrical prints were then being sourced from Warner Bros.’ U.S. distribution arm), and films like The Brown Bunny (2003), 9 Songs (2004), Shortbus (2006) and In the Realms of the Senses (1976) aren’t that big of a deal because of the context – it’s just sex. It might be orgiastic, indulgent or obsessive (with creative uses of a soft-boiled egg), but there’s nothing really immoral there (except for the egg).

Where things run into the red zone is when it’s sexual violence, and that’s still a problem for artists, filmmakers, and distributors of various materials.

When Abel Ferrara went from short films to porn in 1976 (9 Lives of a Wet Pussy), that one-time side-step likely happened because it was an easy way to make cash during a career slump. It was quick to make, and the adult theatrical market was still viable. The film was eventually released on DVD, but minus a rape scene that may have been fine by sleazy 70s grindhouse standards, but not in the present day. The only glimpses of the sequence seem to be in the trailer, archived on the special edition Driller Killer (1979) DVD.

This is a simplification, but it’s an example where the tone of an era (the seventies) was open to the integration of extreme social inappropriateness because the lack of boundaries (and the breaking thereof) was in vogue, and titillating to a small section of the porn audience and connoisseurs of Wrong Films.

The trailer doesn’t show the assault; the footage isn’t all that different than material in Death Wish (1974), where Michael Winner prolonged the glee of the rapists. Rape as part of the filmic porn experience is also present in some of the Nikkatsu Roman Porn films produced in Japan, and samples of the weird storylines and generally Wrong ideas for sequences are hinted at in the compilation The Nikkatsu Roman Porn Trailer Collection.

This isn’t to argue rape within porn is a good thing; sexual violence seemed to bleed a lot more on film in the seventies because of all the rule breaking going on internationally, via U.S. sexploitation films (begin in earnest during the mid- to late-sixties); the Nikkatsu naughties that must have circulated among collectors and bootleg markets outside of Japan; sleazy Italian crime films where serial killers and bank thieves clearly got off on having a hostage or kidnap victim in the back of a van or a basement; or that weird sub-genre known as nunsploitation, where rape or the stages of violation were allowable because the act was being committed by a demon, a bad priest, or a nun possessed by a demon seeking out untraditional stimulation, as in the spectacularly sleazy Malabimba (1979).

Within the works of major directors, sexual violence should’ve been depicted as non-constructive violence, but there were exceptions of which Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) kind of stands out.

The film is about a nerd with a stunning British wife who moves to the British countryside and retaliates with furious carnage when said wife is raped by local scumbags. The problem for audiences occurs when the dramatized rape includes wife objecting, and then kind of showing a moment of relief – a signal that maybe the violent invasion was not so bad.

That’s the fine line where no director can tread because to infer some form of sexual violence is good is, well, bad. A male character is anally raped in Paul Verhoeven’s Spetters (1980), and to the recipient, it’s clearly not good. Peckinpah’s film treads into Wrong terrain because there’s a slight indication the wife liked it, which downgraded the director’s respectability for that film, and weakened the film’s anti-violence stance into a drama about filthy nihilism.

In an erotic thriller, the filmmaker has a bit more leeway because its characters dabble in forms of sexual gratification. If it’s consensual, sticking needles in privates is what those characters just happen to like. If it’s forced, you’ve got a serial killer erotic thriller in which the investigating detective is the moral auger, and it’s through his/her experiences during the investigation that we’re supposed to decide where things went bad, and why.

Fictional Example A: Roselyn, a bookish bank clerk, sets up a meeting with Roger, a studly companion she met in a specialty dating service called Make It Hurt. Roger arrives at her apartment (decorated in stainless steel furniture and cobalt blue paint), and after a drinky-poo or two, the two engage in roughie-toughie, un-cutie nudie behaviour. Roger gets carried away and does something that really hurts. Roselyn initially likes it, says No, then screams Stop It, but Roger is in a Zone, and not only goes beyond the pair’s agreeable parameters, but breaks her neck. Kind of like what happened in Donkey Punch (2008), except the filmmakers didn’t know what to do with their concept, and just made a stupid movie instead.

The investigating cop is horrified, and in his research finds the two liked being rough in their own worlds, and now the hunt is on, taking the detective into all kinds of risqué locales which start to… affect him… maybe pushing him to experiment with his own girlfriend or wife, and even when the crime is solved, said detective is now Changed, and what the audience is left to contend with is a moral figure / authority who now shares in the Wrong Behaviour.

That will puzzle some movie patrons because it’s a good person potentially validating consensual roughness. That’s sort of what happens in the post-mortem second half of William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), where gay men engage in consensual roughness, and the undercover detective ‘went too deep’ and is now sexually fuzzy about many things.

In horror films, sexual violence is always there because any monster – serial killer, octopus demon, giant cabbage – confronting a cleavage-bearing woman, young adult or teen in the corner of an alley / hallway / bedroom / stairwell / garage / back seat of the car / rooftop / or weird dreamscape is poised to either kill fast, kill slowly, devour, or penetrate; and because any sexual violence (graphic or metaphorically) is done by a monster, it’s okay, because it’s not a real person.

Example B: when the alien creature in Alien (1979) approaches Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), it doesn’t use the double-teeth maw and punch-out her face or stomach; it impales her from behind with its long point tail. Moreover, Giger’s monster is deliberately designed to resemble a big erect penis, and the sound effects for Lambert’s suffering are a blend of hideous forced grunts. That’s sexual violence under camouflage (and black Gigerian humour).

In Takashi Miike’s episode of Masters of Horror, Imprint contains an assault on a woman involving needles by cruel women. Under the fingernails, between teeth and fleshy gums, in the privates, and on it goes, with the woman’s screams going on and on in Dolby Digital 5.1. That’s sexual violence, but the bad girls eventually pay for their nastiness, and there’s no doubt the victim is against the entire ordeal.

Graphic Sexual Horror [M] (Synapse Films), Barbara Bell and Anna Lorentzon’s documentary about the extreme S&M and bondage internet site Insex, implies and contains material that’s equally shocking because it involves women going through scenarios involving roughness, forced penetration, and sharp things, but it’s consensual: the models signed up for and went through various scenes in which levels of sexual and physical torment are prolonged.

That’s what subscribers paid to see online; it’s what the models wanted to experience out of curiosity, interest, and other peculiar personal reasons; and it’s what the site’s creator, PD (aka Brent Scott) brands as art, and for the most part the directors manage to balance excerpts with candid interviews, tracking the site’s genesis as well as PD’s gradual transformation (or natural evolution) into a self-described “monster.”

It’s clear the filmmakers – who worked with PD at Insex – wanted to make a documentary about the weird site that exploded to 35,000 international subscribers before its sudden demise in 2005, but the film’s focus had to be narrowed into something coherent.

Adding too many back-stories, laboring on the validity of porn, pornographic performance art, and the attraction to simultaneously dramatizing sexual violence that’s experienced by models with initially preset parameters would’ve turned the doc into a meandering mush, so they picked specific strands, and often let the material – anecdotes and footage – make their impact, and hopefully allow for some balance between shock and a candid dialectic on a group of people sharing extreme interests.

Is it art? Porn? The product of ill minds? That’s subjective, but Insex was an evolutionary step in the kind of sexual violence that’s been wafting in film for decades, dodging censors, sometimes getting lost on the cutting room floor, but nevertheless worming its way into mainstream media and making its way into a digital cyber medium that creates permanence.

If a film was banned in the pre-VHS era, you never saw it. During the era of home video, an uncut version likely existed as a foreign tape release, and perhaps on pay TV. And while things do get lost and replaced in the mass of crap that floats within the internet, there are always traces floating around.

Insex, however, tested the limits of laws, commerce, and undoubtedly influenced like-minded proponents of extreme adult play because several members from its troupe moved on to create their own venues, so while the original concept was digitally killed, pieces scattered and grew into similar-themed online variations, so perhaps PD won in spite of the government pressures that shut down the original site.

There is a correlation between Insex and the torture porn and exploitation genres insofar as both have pushed visual and contextual boundaries up to their legal limits (and have made inroads in making depicted material more available in the past decade), but the question for which there isn’t a definitive answer is what’s morally repugnant: the filming of extremes with consensual participants, or dramatizing non-consensual acts in a fictional work with editing to prolong torment, layered sound effects to test audiences, music to boost the titillation, and seeing details stylized by special effects to deepen the impact on audiences?

I’ve no idea, but I can understand what PD, in his original wacked-out concept was trying to do before his inner-monster blossomed. With the torture porn realm, beyond being a medium to test one’s limits of audio-visual hyper-stimulation, I don’t understand the torture porn genre because it also fetishes specific aspects of personal, physical, psychological and sexual assaults, 99.9% on an individual who’s been forced into an extreme situation by serial killer personas.

The good news, perhaps, is that Insex didn’t wallow in decapitations or forcing victims to lose appendages and be subsequently assaulted with them in very private orifices, but the site’s creator and came up with its own creative uses of water, metal, rope, and duct tape.

Mark R. Hasan, Editor


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