Content Warning: Graphic Depictions of Violence
What is the legacy of Japan’s most violent film series? Let’s dissect the six extreme horror films that make up what is known as the Guinea Pig series.
What do Saw, Hostel, Martyrs, and Haute Tension all have in common? Apart from being labeled as ‘Extreme Cinema‘ or ‘New French Extremity‘ (which deserves its own discussion), they all owe a debt to a series of six horror films from Japan. Known as the Guinea Pig series, these films include content and images such as a woman having a needle stuck through her eye, a samurai dismembering a woman, and even a mermaid having her own pus and blood used to paint her. These movies are known as being some of the most out-there movies to come from the east. Let’s look at these films and their legacy, shall we?
Are the Guinea Pig Films Real?
Before we get into its complete history, the short answer is no. These films are not real snuff films, only posing to be to create further terror and intrigue. They are emulating torture to appear to be as realistic as possible. But to get a better idea of the Guinea Pig series, we have to start at the beginning.
Let’s jump back to 1985 and Satoru Ogura (who’s known now as a producer more than a director) claims to have been given a snuff film. In the opening of the 43-minute movie, this passage can be seen:
Several years ago, I obtained a private video under the title Guinea Pig. Its commentary said that ‘this is a report of an experiment on the breaking point of bearable pain and the corrosion of people’s senses’… but it was, in fact, an exhibition of devilish cruelty as three perpetrators severely abused a woman. Note: ‘Guinea Pig’ is defined as any experimental material.Guinea Pig: Devil’s Expermient (1985)
What follows are ten segments where a woman is severely abused and tortured by a collective of men. The violence towards her ranges from kicking, burning, maggots tossed upon her, sound torture and, in the finale, having a needle stuck through her eye. Now, for modern audiences and fans of extreme horror, this wouldn’t seem over the top or even that disturbing, but what makes Guinea Pig: Devil’s Experiment such a grueling experience is the way it’s presented and filmed.
Since VHS there have been rumors of ‘snuff films’; where an actual person is murdered for entertainment, thus destroying the illusion of safety we find in movies. Now and then a story about a new snuff film surfacing or an old one finding its way into the public consciousness has always been met with both intrigue and criticism. It is this presentation, that of reality, with an unflinching camera never shying away from the acts on display, that help to create a feeling of complete and utter danger. This feeling that even though some moments are obviously fake, this could be real.
We spoke with Zoe Smith from Zobo With A Shotgun about these types of movies, the ‘faux snuff film’ and how it influenced found-footage movies (The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield), she had this to say…
Found footage is all based on feeling real, and the most realistic portrayal of faux has to be within the snuff element. There is nothing that quite blends fiction with reality as a snuff film does, let’s be honest, we’ve all been intrigued about whether or not something is a real snuff film. You hear these stories and we’re all so fascinated yet perturbed at the thought of snuff, which is why found footage films work so well. They take that this is snuff, and present it in different ways with different stories behind them, but actually, if anyone dies in that, then it’s a snuff film. I don’t think the horror audience necessarily are excited by the thought of seeing a faux snuff film (myself and a few others excluded) but that experience of something feeling real is so frightening and exhilarating, but also influenced by the adrenaline that surrounds faux snuff.Zoe Smith
This is why for many Westerners watching any of the Guinea Pig films for the first time can be such a shock.
The Guinea Pig are an exemplary example of how shocking, outrageous and disturbing Asian cinema can be, which relies quite heavily on the particular way they make films and the techniques used. Now I would say I’m not as affected by the films compared to when I first saw them, and that’s purely because I have a better understanding of many of the things that are shown – a lot of it is culture. However, the moment that affected me the most was the violence shown within Flowers and Flesh and Blood, it’s just so visceral that after seeing something so realistic as the gore and violence shown, it’s hard to ever get it out of your mind.Zoe Smith
If one has never seen a J-Horror movie before (such as Ringu or Ju-On), their first time can be frightening. There is a cleanliness, a sheen to most Western Horror that is lacking in Eastern Horror. Look at the American remake of The Ring, it has dirt and grain to the image but there are certain elements that tell us, “Shhhhh it’s okay. You’re watching a movie.” Whereas with Ringu there is barely any score playing. For vast periods of time, there is little sound, it is realistic and when a scare happens, it is even more frightening because of the loudness.
It is the same as Extreme Horror movies. Saw and Hostel have a score. Devil’s Experiments do not. Martyrs and Haute Tension have gritty grainy images but the aspect ratio and clean camera moves show us it is a movie, Guinea Pig has very basic shots and aims for true reality.
There was an uproar from the Japanese public and critics about the violence on display, but the next movie was to push the limit even further.
Author and illustrator of such works as; Hell Baby, Hino Horrors, and Panorama of Hell was the instigator of the Guinea Pig movies. Originally he planned to write and direct adaptations of his mangas, pushing the boundaries and limits of film just as he did with comics.
His first effort of writing and directing for film came with Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh and Blood. In this film, a samurai abducts a woman, hacks her up, and adds her body to a collection. For many, this is the best from the series and it shows the unique and twisted mind of Hino.
How much of the series owes its fame to Hino?
His style and influence within the series made the series what it is, however, it’s not necessarily Hino’s name that helped to drive the film to popularity, not in the Western audience anyway. The shocking gore, violence, and notoriety of nastiness is how the film gained its name in Western cinema, but without Hino, the films wouldn’t be what they are and may have not been as extreme.Zoe Smith
But one thing that cannot be denied is how much flair and panache the famous manga artist brought to the proceedings. The last shot of the samurai spinning with the disembodied head is something that could be pulled straight out of manga by Hino or even contemporary Junji Ito.
Flower of Flesh and Blood is notorious for two reasons, not including the violence and subject. But there are two almost urban legends about this entry into the series.
The first was that a video-tape of the movie was found in the collection of the Otaku Killer, Tsutomu Miyazaki (who abducted and killed four young girls). This is a prime argument for those against Extreme Horror and violence in media.
But is there a link between Miyazaki and the longevity of Guinea Pig?
Not at all. Anyone that I have ever spoken to regarding the films, never really speaks about the fact it was found in a serial killer’s collection. Even though it makes for an interesting point speculating around the psyche and a potential influence from certain films, music, video games, etc. on unstable people, essentially it really doesn’t have anything in connection. As a fan and advocator of extreme films of this sort, I think by mentioning too heavily that it was found on a serial killer’s shelf, starts to open up the ridiculous conversation around how nasty films can influence someone. So, I think actually most that like extreme and the Guinea Pig series don’t talk about it too much as it could make the films be seen in a negative light.Zoe Smith
And in keeping with this line of thought, the other legend surrounding the second movie is that Charlie Sheen was given a copy, upon viewing it the man believed it was a real snuff film and called the FBI. Naturally, the FBI did their duty and discovered it was only a movie. There are some who believe that this notoriety was partly the catalyst and birth of ‘gore porn’.
But is there any validation to this theory?
As much as I love the story around Charlie Sheen and his discovery of these films, I don’t believe it acted as a catalyst for gore porn or extreme horror to become relevant to Western screens. I think it was a part of the growing scene that was becoming more popular with time, and in the 2000s saw this big phase of torture porn films that brought more attention to that particular type of genre. In the 90s there were other extreme films that would have been far more well-known than Guinea Pig including Audition and Braindead (more splatter) and most likely served as more of a catalyst, but they all influenced what was yet to come in the next decade.Zoe Smith
With the third film in the series, 1986’s He Never Dies directed by Masayuki Hisazumi and is the start of the turn for the series into more darkly comedic tones and situations. After this movie, the series would no longer focus solely on the brutality and horror that a human can inflict upon another, but would focus on the absurdity of it all.
For some, this was the beginning of the films losing their identity and also a reaction to the backlash and poor critical reception.
But can such films be worried about the reaction? Should they be worried?
If you start a series with two films like The Devils Experiment and Flowers of Flesh and Blood, I don’t feel there’s any chance of caring about the backlash of the movies. When you put an extreme horror movie into the world, which is just straight-up torture, it doesn’t feel like you would change your direction because audiences were too shocked by it. Personally, I think the direction change within the films was because the series needed to stay fresh and provide something more than just pure torture. As much as I love seeing people being tortured on-screen, there’s only so much you can do to the human body before it’s all been seen and done before. I feel like with the Guinea Pig movies, they realized they couldn’t keep mutilating women’s bodies and it would become very tiresome quickly, and therefore they changed tact. Even though they’re comedic, they are still very dark and gory and Mermaid in a Manhole takes a melancholic approach which feels like a bleak movie.Zoe Smith
Which does bring us to how these movies affected Western filmmakers with the early 2000s era of ‘Torture Porn‘. But has it faded into darkness or can it still be found?
It’s definitely still around and, for more of us that are extreme horror fans, it’s clear to see in many recent horror films. The manipulation of eyes goes back to Un Chien Andalou (and probably older), but in certain extreme films, you can clearly see the inspiration comes from The Devil’s Experiment. One of the most obvious examples would be American Guinea Pig: Bloodshock, in which you can see that Marcus Koch took inspiration from the Guinea Pig films, just from the artwork alone. Another recent hint to the Guinea Pig films is in Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor. I can’t say exactly which part, but let’s just say Dan Martin, who put together the special effects for the film, let me know that there’s a nod to Guinea Pig as he’s a big fan of the movies. So I think there’s most definitely still a big influence from the Guinea Pig films in modern-day horror and extreme cinema.Zoe Smith
But can such a series continue to influence when so many people decry the violence they see in the media or blame TV shows, games, and movies for creating a culture of desensitized monsters with no compunction about killing?
I, for one, think that argument is old hat and needs to be retired. There is always a need for a cathartic release. Now more than ever and extreme horror/torture porn/gore porn, or whatever else you want to label it, is here to stay.
We always need violence, we’re human! For me and many others, extreme violence and depravity is a form of escapism from the atrocities of everyday life that we have to live through. Extreme cinema is a form of catharsis for me, which even though sounds sadistic in nature, it actually a really good way of confronting negative emotions and the extremity of the world around us. Extreme cinema is a niche part of cinema, not enjoyed by many people, which I have always seen as completely fair enough. So of course there won’t always be a huge extreme cinema following regardless of the current climate. Extreme cinema still has so much left to be explored, opened up and dissected that I don’t think that the current climate will make too much of a difference. We might think that when awful things are happening in the world we would shy away from on-screen horror, but it seems we do the opposite, as we find a way to deal with our problems through the worst situations seen through our TVs.Zoe Smith