Disturbing Films for a Curious Mind: The Guinea Pig Series (1985-1989)
*Warning: Extreme content and spoilers ahead*
Post by: Jessica, Spinster # 1
If you have been following the Spinsters of Horror since our inception in 2018, you will know that my co-host/close friend Kelly has been broadening my horizons in the horror genre in various ways. This first started with “Let’s Scare Jessica To Death '' which was a monthly challenge in which Kelly would select a film she knew would make for a difficult viewing experience. The films would be shocking, weird, macabre or downright disturbing. These challenges forced me to explore other films of the genre that were not in the mainstream and were often transgressive, artistic, or had some sort of cult status due to its reputation in the horror community. Here I was introduced to films of the New French Extremity like Martyrs (2008), Trouble Every Day (2001) and Inside (2007); experimental films like Begotten (1990) (listener’s choice); German splatter films like Premutos (1997) and Asian extreme films like Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) and Ichii the Killer (2001). But something unexpected occurred from viewing these films - my interest and curiosity peaked. I wanted MORE!
When Kelly started the podcast series Shock Talk for Taboo Terrors, we talked about my interest in these more transgressive and extreme films. I would often ask Kelly about various films and which ones she thought I could watch. We then started the podcast series Disturbing Films for Curious Mind, where Kelly and I would watch an extreme film and then we would record my reactions. We have done a few of these episodes and you can go back and listen to my reactions to American Guinea Pig: The Song of Solomon (2017), Nekromantik 2 (1991), Salo: 120 Days of Sodom (1975) and American Guinea Pig: Sacrifice (2017). Only one of these films I could not finish and I bet you can guess which one that was!
We have yet to do more of these episodes, however, I have started to branch out on my own. I have always had an interest in cult, foreign, subversive and obscure cinema, and many extreme films fall into these categories. This is particularly true when it comes to Japanese cinema. It is not a secret that I am a big fan of Japanese cinema and for the past year I have been working through the Japanese Horror Iceberg that I found online. I have come a long way from watching supernatural folk horror films from the 1960s like Kuroenko (1968) and Onibaba (1964), to the extreme absurdity of Takashi Miike in films like Visitor Q (2001),Yakuza Apocalypse (2015) and more. This dive into Japanese horror cinema has introduced me to a variety of directors, styles and subgenres such as Japanese Cyberpunk (my favorite so far) with films like Burst City (1982), Akira (1988) and Anatomia Extinction (1995).
But the one thing I have discovered that I hadn’t realized before with Japanese horror is that there are a lot of extreme films, particularly ones that were shot on video, that not only have lots of blood and gore, but also brutal violence and disturbing imagery. And while I could stop my exploration at any time, I feel I would be missing out on those films and the various ways in which they influenced other Japanese horror films that are more “mainstream” or that they were films part of a director’s filmography.
Which leads me to the intent of this piece: the original and infamous Guinea Pig Series (1985-1989). This film series is considered essential for fans of extreme cinema. After a couple of years of listening to Kelly talk about these found footage style films, and intrigued by the perspective of other fans during Kelly’s 2022 Visceral Pleasure and Extreme Cinema panel focused on the series, I decided to kick off my journey into Japanese extreme cinema with finally watching these films for myself. Now, just to note, I watched three out of six films with Kelly because sometimes you need the guidance of someone who knows what you are getting into to make the experience a little less trepidations.
As well, I recently obtained a copy of the book Japanese Horror Cinema edited by Jay McRoy, which is a collection of academic film essays about various trends and themes in Japanese horror films. In this one particular essay, “Aesthetics of Cruelty” Traditional Japanese Theatre and The Horror Film” by Richard J. Hand, he discusses how Japanese horror films and their elements of cruelty have been inspired by the cultural styles of Noh and Kabuki theater. These were traditional theater styles in Japan that presented audiences with unrealistic art and devastating plots.
He discusses the lengths stage actors would go to in Kabuki theater to make the “unreal look real” (Hand 21). He defines the “aesthetic of cruelty” as “highly aestheticized, even fantastical world where the inherent sadism is muted by artistic techniques” (Hand 21). Often the narratives would be straightforward with an emphasis on the “uncanny” in sequences of violence, torture, suicide and elaborate fight scenes. These scenes would be brought to life with stage tricks to create moments of an irrational scene that the audience would need to ingest and make sense of. What really piqued my interest in this discussion on the style elements was how the author equates t he scenes of cruelty that are displayed in the Guinea Pig Series as “modern Kabuki” for a digital audience. Instead of watching women being tortured (simulated) on stage in inventive ways, which was a common trope in Kabuki theater, people could now watch it in the comfort of their own homes. He describes the Guinea Pig films as “a disturbing yet obviously aestheticized spectacle” which really struck a chord for me. The displays of violence and cruelty have been a part of their culture of entertainment exploring the taboos of sadism through stylized art such as Kabuki theater. That what was being depicted on screen in these films was not anything new for the Japanese audience.
Yet to North American audiences, this is not something we are used to witnessing on the stage or on screen, unless you are familiar with the horrific and sensational theater experience of the French Grand Guignol (1897-1962). Art of this nature is either heavily censored, shoved into the underground or outright banned. We are not used to such levels of cruelty acted out in such mesmerizing and stylized performances. Even the found footage elements adds to the film's allure. This is why we would see other extreme films coming out to imitate them, especially in Unearthed Films’ own American Guinea Pig series .
Now granted, not all of the Guinea Pig films are in the same style and their stories each address a different taboo subject. The narrative is used in such a way that allows for its creators to experiment new ways to make their audience spend hours processing what they have just seen. The following section is a brief write up of my thoughts on each of the films as I watched them.
Guinea Pig: The Devil’s Experiment (1985) directed by Satoru Ogura
The first film of the series is one I personally think is the more brutal of the six. You spend an hour watching three unnamed Japanese men brutalize a captured unnamed woman. Filmed in found footage style, you watch several acts of torture being inflicted upon the woman that assaults all of her senses from sight, sound and touch. The only times she gets any relief is when she is left overnight suspended in air in what appears to be a fishing net. It was definitely a hard watch as the violence towards her escalates and appears unmotivated other than for an experiment.
In watching The Devil’s Experiment, I couldn’t help but be reminded about the history of torture and the various methods created over the centuries to gather information, whether for punishment or sadistic pleasure. I was also reminded of the unethical experiments done during the Holocaust, how mental patients were treated to further the advances of science, and particularly the brutal torture Japanese soldiers enacted on Chinese POWs during WW2. It’s heart wrenching and chilling the extent humans will go to hurt others.
Guinea Pig 2: Flowers of Flesh and Blood (1985) directed by Hideshi Hino
The next film in the series and the most infamous because of Charlie Sheen, where he came across it and firmly believed he was watching a snuff film so he reported it to the FBI. The investigation took them to Japan and revealed that it was just a film written and directed by famous horror manga artist Hideshi Hino. His works are a bizarre world of horror stories that involve blood, gore, sex, and torture, as well as stories based on some of his real life events during World War II and the life of his Yakuza grandfather. He created the television series, Hideshi Hino’s Shocking Theater (2004), which has each episode being an example of the bizarre world of horror filled with devil children, lizard babies, and decaying corpses. To dispel the public’s fear around Flowers of Flesh and Blood, he created a “making of” documentary to alleviate people’s discomfort around the subject matter. The subject matter being, the kidnapping, drugging and dismemberment of a young woman by a clearly deranged man.
Flowers of Flesh and Blood has a loose narrative which you piece together as you watch. A man dressed in traditional Samurai garb ritualistically dismembers a woman he has kidnapped, reciting poetry about feminine beauty and flowers. This one is very different from the The Devil’s Experiment, which displays the torture with a sense of detachment to it. This unnamed man is participating in some sort of artistic devotion to the beauty that is female flesh. Before dismembering the woman, she is drugged with a concoction that allows her not to feel pain as she is taken apart one piece at a time.
In each stage of the dismemberment he changes the lighting to enhance the altar in which the woman is placed upon, and while this is all happening to her, she does not scream in pain yet moans in pleasure. At the end of the film, he takes the remaining body parts to a room that displays a tapestry of demons taking a woman apart and you see various body parts on display creating a grotesque vignette. You then find out that this film is actually part of a larger criminal investigation tracking down a serial killer.
Special Note: I watched these first two films back to back with Kelly and it was a visceral experience. I definitely needed a palate cleanser after the fact to get my mind off the image of eye gouging that not only happened once - but twice!
Guinea Pig 3: He Nevers Dies (1986) directed by Masayuki Hisamzumi
The third entry in the series goes into a completely different direction from the first two that were displays of grungy brutality. While still a display of gory practical effects, they are portrayed in a comedic way, as we watch an unhappy salaryman Hideshi trying to end his life, but discovering that he can’t die. He is disillusioned by his life and experiences beratement and verbal abuse from his superiors at work. When he misses work several days in a row, no one even calls to check in on him, let alone fire him for his unexcused absences. Hideshi decides to end his life.
When he slits his wrist, which he had attempted to do earlier but he chickened out, he notices that not only does he bleed very little but doesn’t experience any pain. He then continues to experiment with slitting his throat, stabbing his arms and legs, and then impaling a protractor into his head, all with the realization that he can’t die. When he calls a co-worker over to deliver gardening shears and a hatchet so he can continue his self mutilation, he then disembowels himself in front of the shocked co-worker. The entire time all this is happening he is laughing in disbelief.
The film gets so ridiculous that it ends with his co-workers shaming him for not being able to die, cleaning his apartment and having his severed head sitting atop the table laughing along with them. This one definitely reminded me of Bloody Muscle Builder from Hell (1995) with its bloody practical effects and comedy that focuses more on the absurdity of it all rather than how sad it is.
Guinea Pig 4: Mermaid in a Manhole (1988) directed by Hideshi Hino
This entry into the series was the only one that made me lose my appetite The first two made me uncomfortable with the torture and violence, three and six made me laugh with their outrageous stories and practical effects, but this one had me both entranced with its sad story, and nauseous from the scenes of rot and decay. It is moist, gooey, slimy, bloody, full of bile, boils, pus, insects, worms, maggots and viscera that will make your stomach turn.
This film would be Hideshi Hino’s return to the franchise since the controversial Flowers of Flesh and Blood, and it is a welcomed one. It is based on his manga story of the same name that follows the story of a depressed artist who finds a mermaid in the sewers that he once befriended as a child. Noticing that she is ill he brings her home to paint her as she slowly dies. Boils and worms develop all over her skin and fins. The audience spends the next hour in this one room that would smell overwhelmingly of death, as the artist slowly loses his grip on reality and the mermaid pleads to end her suffering. In the climax of the film, the artist completes his painting and releases the mermaid by dismembering her.
What becomes even more shocking about this story is that the dismembered mermaid was a delusion - she was actually his wife who had been eight months pregnant and dying of stomach cancer. Mermaid in a Manhole is a story about a man who can not let go of what he has lost - his wife, child, and his mind - all to disease. We learn from the police investigation that he was suffering from schizophrenia.
The film is a physical representation of how diseases can ravage both the mind and body - transforming someone beyond recognition and altering reality. When you look past the gross out factor of this film, it can be seen as a beautiful, sad story about grief, loss, obsession, and love. As well as the lengths someone will go to end the suffering of someone they loved and the price that comes with it.
Guinea Pig 5: Android of Notre Dame (1988) directed by Kazuhito Kuramoto
This was the first film of the Guinea Pig series that I watched once I decided I was ready to. I had just discovered the subgenre of Japanese Cyberpunk and after a weekend of watching films and doing some research, I discovered that Android was considered to have some cyberpunk elements. After checking in with Kelly first, I was given the green light to proceed since it has been described as the least favorite of the series. At first, I had no reference to go by since I hadn’t seen the first five, but after having seen them all, I can definitely see why it's the least favorite, as I also find it the weakest of all them
The story focuses on a scientist with dwarfism who is trying to find a cure for his dying sister by manipulating DNA with computer science. However, he lacks access to human bodies to continue conducting his experiments beyond using animals. This changes when he is blackmailed by a corporate suit who wants to profit off the scientist's medical research, not realizing that he will provide to him exactly what he needs. This is where the Japanese Cyberpunk elements of the film come to play, however light they are. The audience is given an extensive scene of the scientist trying to reanimate the corpse of a dead woman with circuits and computers. He also decapitates the man trying to black mail him and attaches it to a computer as he continues his experiments to push the body past its physical limits and conquer death. This is a classic theme in cyberpunk cinema with the amalgamation of the human body and machine to create an android. But, that really is the extent of it. The rest of the film focuses on the relationship of the brother’s unethical actions in denying the reality of his sister’s desire to die.
The title Android of Notre Dame is in reference to the French Gothic novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo published in 1831. Considered a cruel romance between the deformed bell ringer Quasimodo and the Romani dancer Esmeralda, who’s dire fate of death is sealed when the religious Chief of Justice Frollo sets his sights upon her and Quasimodo is unable to save her. The film is also toying with the themes of unrequited love and doom despite all efforts to avoid it. It follows along the same lines as the other Guinea Pig films with blood and gore, I just found its story not very effective.
Guinea Pig 6: Doctor Devil Woman (1990) directed by Hajimbe Tabe
This first shot of the sixth entry of the Guinea Pig series sets the tone for what Doctor Devil Woman is all about. A striking woman dressed in black holding a scalpel stands poised in front of a geyser of blood coming from a child’s doll hints to the absurd ride you are about to embark on over the next 48 minutes. We are introduced to the very stylish Devil Doctor Woman (played by Peter the infamous queer drag actor, known for his role in the 1969 cult film Funeral Parade of Roses, a film about the underground gay scene in Tokyo). Named by her patients, she is an unlicensed doctor who specializes in curing “heretical” ailments by unconventional means. She breaks the fourth wall as she explains that we will be following her as she relates the history of dealing with real devils - who she calls her patients.
She demonstrates her various treatment methods with different cases almost like a variety show. We have various ailments such as congenital brain or heart disease that causes people to have their head or heart explode from either getting mad or scared. It is beyond ridiculous watching an exploding mannequin, a man display both Jekyll and Hyde mannerisms, a stomach tumor with a human face/identity and more. The Doctor Devil Women’s help doesn’t come without a price. She tends to create new terrible situations to help her patients overcome their pre-existing affliction by either focusing on new suffering or inescapable death. Each case is a display of cheesy and over the top practical effects with each method of treatment becoming more absurd than the next, as someone gets flayed alive in a tattoo removal experience.
This film uses stories of the uncanny intermixed with comedy and splatter that are subtle commentaries on politeness, identity and loneliness with the Devil Doctor Woman as your sadistic guide.
Mainstream audiences tend to get upset when people call extreme horror films like the Guinea Pig Series works of art. The movie's transgressive nature defies the mainstream conception of what art is “supposed to be'' which is appealing, beautiful, peaceful and inspirational. The art displayed in the Guinea Pig series is grotesque, dark, cruel and disturbing, but still art nonetheless! I consider The Guinea Pig series modern works of art replicating the tradition of Kabuki theater and the concept of the “aesthetic of cruelty” in a digital format. I find them fascinating displays of cultural ingenuity and insight. These films are considered extreme horror classics and you can see their influence in various other Japanese horror films that like to border along the edges of the extreme, or dive right into the excessive side of artistic cinema. Each film in its own uncomfortable way tells a story and gives a peek into Japanese culture, and philosophies. I honestly enjoyed watching and learning more about them, so I would highly recommend them to people interested in exploring the transgressive side of film and especially international cinema.
Hand, Richard J. "Aesthetics of Cruelty: Traditional Japanese Theatre and The Horror Film" in Japanese Horror Cinema edited by Jay McRoy, University of Hawai'i Press, 2005
Redfield, Neil. "Violence in Kabuki" 22 September 2019 https://www.neilredfield.com/post/violence-in-kabuki.