Do you ever do that thing, perhaps while life hasn’t been treating you too brilliantly, when you start reading up on sicko Nazi and serial killer shit? You don’t mean to (perhaps you’ve got a spare half-hour between charity commitments) but somehow you’re disappearing into the bowels of the internet consuming blood-drenched pages about medieval torture instruments, Jeffrey Dahmer and Treblinka. Half an hour’s slipped by and you’re still trying to find the most fucked-up bit of sadism in history.
Jesus Christ, were people really draped on a wheel in the town square before the executioner broke their arms and legs, threaded their jelly-like limbs through the spokes, and put them on public display where they might take a couple of days to die? Did Ted Bundy bury his kills, dig ’em up after a few days, wash their hair, apply makeup, and then fuck ’em all over again? Were limbs lopped off and reattached to the opposite side of the body by those Jap bastards at Unit 731? Did Eichmann actually say: “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”
Man, maybe I’m not as fucked-up as I thought.
But why would anyone choose to immerse themselves in such mind-bending horror?
Well, dunno about you, but I enjoy it. Vicariously brushing up against murderous whackjobs has long been a source of titillation for yours truly. Now I guess I could be outside enjoying the fresh air, perhaps twirling atop a green hill belting out an off-key rendition of The Sound of Music, but that just seems like far too much effort. I prefer a dingy room’s confines, a few fingers of whiskey, and the existential shivers generated by consuming the hideous misfortunes of other people. You may call for a psychiatrist if you wish, but I insist there’s something curiously addictive about the likes of genocide, sexual torture, mutilation, mass graves and chemical warfare.
And, of course, once I’ve stopped reading there’s always the movies. You remember that bit in Pulp Fiction where the newly freed Marsellus Wallace tells his cowed, mewling rapist: “I’m gonna get medieval on your ass.”
Now come join me in my enchanting world of degradation as I pick out six sickening scenes of sadism that always tickle me pink.
I have no idea if being strung up by the tits is possible but that’s what we get in 1970’s A Man Called Horse. This is a handsome, influential western that spawned two sequels and arguably introduced the idea of a white man being absorbed into a ‘savage’ culture. Two years later Deep River Savages shamelessly copied its storyline, except it took its native quirks (such as grieving women immediately chopping off a finger), upped them to an eye-popping degree and chucked in rapist-cannibals as well. Still, even that energetic horror show didn’t come up with anything as iconic as Richard Harris dangling by his nips.
He plays a rich Englishman in the badlands of early 19th century America. Captured by the Sioux, he’s initially treated like an animal, but once he notices the chieftain’s hot daughter he stops trying to run away and, ahem, opts to hang around. He kills two warriors from an enemy tribe and hands over their horses in a bid to win her hand in marriage.
Close, but no cigar.
He might’ve convinced them he’s a hard bastard, but to get his hands on such top quality snatch he has to make his Vow to the Sun. Good grief, this is one eye-watering initiation rite (and a compelling piece of cinema). Dressed in just a leather loincloth and a thin headband, the poor bastard has to stand in front of the tribe inside the smoky gloom of a huge tepee. There’s a steady drumbeat. A medicine man holds up two severed eagle’s feet with their wicked black talons in front of his face.
Then they’re agonizingly screwed into his chest before two sharpened lengths of bone are inserted lengthways into his pecs. Sweat is beading on his face, but the worst is yet to come. A rope with two nooses is lowered from a hole in the top of the tepee and looped around the makeshift fixtures on his upper torso. The drumbeat becomes feverish. With a nod from the medicine man, our somewhat anxious suitor is hauled up six feet off the ground as the braves use their spears to twirl him.
Here’s hoping that piece of ass is worth it, mate.
I s’pose we’re all guilty of having sucked up to the boss once in a while, but not many of us go to the extravagant lengths of a certain Nazi dominatrix.
In Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS our horny heroine runs Medical Camp 9. This basically means she’s got carte blanche to torture prisoners to death. She takes her work seriously, though, and is keen to impress a visiting general with the progress she’s made. For a start she’s come up with an antidote for gangrene and a way to spread typhoid among enemy troops.
Pretty damn impressive, huh?
But Ilsa’s also desperate to get her private research funded. She’s convinced women are able to stand pain better than men and can therefore play a much more prominent role in the war by taking frontline positions.
The general, however, is not impressed. “You must not waste Germany’s time on your own personal projects,” he sternly tells her.
But for someone as resourceful as Ilsa this objection is a mere bump in the road. And where there’s a will, there’s likely to be a suffering prisoner. “Tonight we have a very special surprise for you,” she replies.
And so what is this surprise?
A candlelit dinner held in the general’s honor. Very nice. But wait, there’s more. A naked woman is standing on the end of the table. The general walks up to her and has a good look at her bush. “Remarkable,” he comments as Ilsa stands alongside. “Remarkable!” Something’s a bit strange, though. He reaches out to stroke one of her trembling legs. “But her legs… They are so cold. Like marble.” The general reaches down and pushes away the numerous vases of flowers surrounding her feet. She’s standing on a block of ice!
Ilsa is beaming. “Look further, general.”
Her boss does just that, his vision traveling up her goosebump-afflicted body to her neck. There’s a noose around it. “While we eat…” He snaps his fingers to illustrate the moment of her impending death.
“Exactly,” Ilsa says, unable to keep the giggly pride out of her voice. “I thought it would amuse you.”
The general loves it. “Wunderbar!” he cries. “Wunderbar!”
And so the general proceeds to heartily eat, sing patriotic songs and get drunk as the ice slowly melts, a lengthy process that ensures we get plenty of close-ups of the victim’s terrified face.
Ever seen a human milkshake?
Then Blood Sucking Freaks AKA The Incredible Torture Show is the one for you. It’s an ultra-camp, enjoyably amateurish piece of exploitation-splatter that has gained a cult following, partly because its two lead actors met grisly ends not too long after filming wrapped. Then again, their deaths are strangely fitting in that Freaks does have meta aspects.
Listen to Sardu (Seamus O’Brien), our Master of the Theater of the Macabre, as he addresses the audience during his latest off-Broadway show: “This is just a theatrical presentation. A show, which offers no reality, not a fraction of reality, and just allows us to delve into our grossest fantasies far beyond erotica. Tonight we begin with torture. I warn you if you find what you see is a little upsetting to your stomachs, then just pretend we’re playacting. Or if you’re skeptical or bored, then just pretend what you see is real.”
As it happens, it is real. A naked woman has her hand amputated with a hacksaw before dying on stage, although a watching critic dismisses the performance as a ‘third-rate magic show’. Can you see what director Joel M. Reed is doing here? Having fun, as far as I can tell, while naughtily prodding the line between illusion and actuality. It reminded me of that bit in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer in which we see a terrified family being assaulted in their living room, only for the camera to pull back and reveal Henry in an armchair watching a recording he made of the event. Yes, we’re repulsed by real-life sadism, yet many of us are drawn to watching it on screen.
It’s not a comfortable question to try to answer because 1) it means we’re voyeurs and 2) it starts gingerly moving us toward the same page as the likes of Sardu and Henry.
Much easier and safer to condemn screen violence instead, a reaction that Freaks certainly prompted back in the mid-70s with its plentiful violence, full frontal nudity and sexual torture, even though it’s obviously all tongue in cheek. For example, take the human milkshake bit. Sardu calls in a doctor to attend to an abducted girl, who hasn’t responded well to her change in circumstances. For a good ten seconds the doc appears sane, but that mask dissolves when Sardu offers him the chance to perform an operation rather than pay a fee.
“What kind?” he asks.
“Oh,” Sardu replies with a twinkle in his eye, “you make it up.”
And so the doc does. After pulling out a woman’s teeth without anesthetic (a bout of dramatic dental surgery accompanied by a snatch of opera singing and a confession he still lives with his mother) he shaves the top of her head. Next he picks up a power drill, unable to contain his boyish enthusiasm as he bores downward. Then he inserts a transparent straw into the six-inch deep hole and starts merrily sucking away, although like all kids it’s not long before he starts blowing down the straw and making bubbles.
A horrifying point
I hate it when I get an eyelash in my eye. Irritating as hell. Still, I guess it’s preferable to a six-inch-long wooden splinter.
Once seen, Paola Menard’s gruesome death in Zombie AKA Zombi 2 AKA Zombie Flesh-Eaters is not easily forgotten. You keep expecting the director to pull away, to have some goddamned discretion. The power of suggestion and all that. But no, he just keeps going and takes the inspired scene all the way through to its bloody, inexorable end.
Paola plays a scared doctor’s wife stationed on a Caribbean island. The dead have recently started coming back to life, the radio’s stopped working, and she’s drinking too much.
“I don’t want to stay on this island one hour longer,” she tells her possibly mad hubby. “You won’t be happy until I meet one of your zombies.”
After Paola treats us to a full frontal in the shower, we know trouble’s afoot when a decaying hand is pressed up against a windowpane. Paola dries herself off and slips on a loose-fitting dress, but gets spooked when she hears something moving around outside. She tries to take refuge by jamming a chest of drawers up against a door, but the zombie smashes through the louvers, grabs hold of her long hair and starts pulling her head toward a nasty-looking sliver. Fair play, this is a well-directed scene as we get alternating close-ups of her widened eye and the tip of the splinter. Paola’s screaming and thrashing, but she’s just not strong enough to break free. In goes the shard, like a needle into custard. It even breaks off, leaving a jagged stump poking out of her ruined peeper.
Beaten for two days and two nights?
Ice pick stuck in balls?
And still no dice?
Sometimes it’s a breeze being a gangster and sometimes you gotta work for your dough. Look at Nicky Santoro in Scorsese’s Casino. He’s been given a job by the bosses, but getting info from Tony Dogs about a fatal bar shoot-up is proving a lot trickier than anticipated.
“To be truthful with you, I had to admire this fucking guy,” Nicky tells us in a voiceover. “He was one of the toughest Irishmen I ever met.”
Nicky’s an enterprising hoodlum, though, and it’s not long before he’s thought of a possible solution for this unfortunate impasse.
Put the motherfucker’s head in a vise.
And so the bloodied and bruised Dogs, who already has one eye swollen shut from the relentless abuse, is laid on a workbench on his back with his head nestling in the device’s wooden jaws.
Nicky leans over, looking down at the guy’s face.
“Dogs,” he says. “Can you hear me, Dogs? Listen to me, Anthony. I got your head in a fucking vise. I’m gonna squash your fucking head like a grapefruit if you don’t give me a name. Don’t make me have to do this. Please. Come on. Don’t make me be a bad guy. Come on.”
Dogs manages a gasping reply.
Unfortunately, it’s not the required one. Worse, it’s impolite. Nicky, never the most patient of men, is sent into a handle-turning frenzy. Meanwhile his criminal associates, who’ve probably seen an eye-opening thing or two in their time when it comes to trauma, grimace and turn away. Nicky, however, gets the name he’s been after.
Not that it calms him down.
“You make me pop your eye out of your fucking head to protect that piece of shit?” he bellows.
I dunno. You just can’t please some people.
Bathroom of brutality
There’s a saying: You are what you eat. Can’t say I’ve ever bought into it, although I occasionally grasp its relevance whenever I happen to spot some flabby, wheezing cunt in trackypants waddling out of McDonald’s.
No, I prefer to believe You are what you think.
And so if your thoughts keep returning to a subject, that’s what you are. It’s your identity, even if you don’t tell a soul. If you dwell on sailing, of cruising across the open sea, you’re a sailor. If you dream of winning the world chess championship and spend every other moment visualizing killer opening strategies, you’re a chess player.
Of course, being consumed by something doesn’t mean this is what you will externally become. Life usually gets in the way. Most people have to compromise. Lots of wannabe actors wait tables, you know. That doesn’t mean the thoughts go away. It doesn’t dampen the dream. Oddly enough, the inner frustration might even strengthen such tormenting fantasies.
Just listen to that Radiohead song about aliens observing us, the one in which they conclude humans are ‘weird creatures who lock up their spirits, drill holes in themselves and live for their secrets.’
To paraphrase, you are what you think.
Serial killers nicely fit such an adage. Ninety-nine and a half percent of the time they wear a mask. They mimic emotions, copy how others behave and do their best to blend in.
And so John Wayne Gacy wasn’t a shoe store manager, Harold Shipman wasn’t a doctor, Dennis Rader wasn’t a security alarm installer, Peter Sutcliffe wasn’t a truck driver and Dennis Nilsen sure as shit wasn’t a copper.
First and foremost they were serial killers. All the rest was bullshit. Beneath the mask they obsessed, fantasized and seethed. All day long and deep into the night. It’s the same with every compulsive murderer. Usually they fixate on sex stuff, but that’s a smokescreen. Sex, or more accurately rape, is merely one of the methods they employ to achieve what they most crave: control over another human being.
Now as we all know the movies have long loved serial killers, an affection that mushroomed after the enormous Oscar-winning success of The Silence of the Lambs. Australia was slow on the uptake, but got in the on the act with the likes of 2005’s Wolf Creek and the socio-realist horror of 2011’s Snowtown AKA The Snowtown Murders. Here we meet John Bunting (an electrifying Daniel Henshall). He’s a man who likes to pose as a helpful neighbor, a father figure, and a moral crusader in a rundown part of Adelaide.
And like all those other serial killers, it’s a bullshit-caked mask.
Bunting just wants to make up for his inadequacy, his failures, his general invisibility in the state of things. At least in his own head. If he can exert control over one of his fellow creatures, then at least he’ll be important in that person’s life. No one can argue otherwise. After all, a serial killer is the most significant person a victim will ever meet.
Nothing illustrates Bunting’s love of control better than the prolonged suffering he gloatingly inflicts upon a rapist. Beaten and chained to a bathroom pipe, the poor fuck even has his big toenail removed with pliers.
This is just the entree, though. Time for the main course.
An accomplice has already looped a cord around the rapist’s throat. Bunting crouches at face level and orders the cord to be tightened, all the while staring into his victim’s eyes.
Not that Bunting wants him dead just yet.
After fifteen seconds or so of acute suffering, he tells his partner in crime to release the tension. And then to ramp it up again, only slackening off whenever death gets near. At this point Bunting retains human form, but everything else is unrecognizable and off the scale.In his world other people exist for his benefit, his gratification. His life is ashes, but at least the fire can be rekindled when someone’s under his power. “Head up,” he tells the rapist before the choking cycle restarts yet again. Bunting doesn’t want to miss a thing, feeding off his victim’s acute distress while perhaps trying to locate the possibility of a soul, the life spark, in the man’s banging, fading vision. Whatever the case, he’s genuinely fascinated, witnessing what so few others have ever seen in this intimate, maskless ritual.
This is power, this is control, this is life and death in Snowtown.