The term “Torture Porn” was first coined back in 2006 by film critic David Edelstein describing the emerging trend of films like Hostel and Saw which featured very graphic scenes of torture and dismemberment. While scenes of graphic violence have been a staple of horror films for decades the new crop of early millennium extreme horror films brought the violence to the next level by dwelling on graphic and explicit carnage to an extent not previously seen in mainstream films. The structure of these types of films also typically mirrors the structure of a porn, hence the name, in that the primary focus of the film is a series of set-ups and titillating, explicit pay-offs. Now, I’ve seen a lot of Torture Porn films, probably all of them, but none in my experience better capture the essential nature of what a Torture Porn film is better than Koji Shiraishi’s exercise in extreme brutality, Grotesque.
The film opens with a young man and woman (Hiroaki Kawatsure and Kotoha Hiroyama) being attacked on their way back from their first date by a nameless sketchy loner in a van (Shigeo Osako). They wake up to find themselves tied up in a room at an unknown location as the nameless man begins to torture them. What follows is an hour long endurance test for the viewer as the man tests their wills to live, telling them he will free them if they can sufficiently excite him.
It would be easy to dismiss Grotesque simply as shock-value meant to titillate the most twisted and jaded of horror fans with it’s graphic and unflinching depictions of violence but that is far from the whole picture. What you really have here is an incredibly bold and fearless piece of independent filmmaking that gives the finger to every convention of watered-down Hollywood cinema that shoots for the middle and only cares about profits. This is what happens when a filmmaker doesn’t give a fuck what people think of his movie and makes the kind of film that he wants to make. It’s an incredibly punk-rock approach to filmmaking.
However, a film can have all the best intentions of being subversive and shocking but if it can’t properly execute the effects it will come off as nothing more than cheap and laughable. Rest assured though, Grotesque does NOT suffer from this problem and the gore effects are mind-blowingly realistic, making the violence all the more shocking. Eye-gouging, genital mutilation, disembowelment, to name just a few, are all pulled off with the kind of masterful realism that would make Tom Savini proud.
What I also find interesting about this film is how the audience’s emotional journey simultaneously mirrors both the villain and the victim’s. You cringe as they are brutalized and cling to hope for their survival at the same time indulging in the visceral thrill (you know you do) that the villain himself is going to such great lengths to experience. This is of course true of horror in general but it’s far more front and center in this film. It also raises an interesting point about how far some people will go to experience certain feelings, no matter what the cost. Drug addicts, gamblers, murderers, so many people in the real world take the pursuit of feeling a high to extreme and destructive lengths.
In summation, this is a harrowing and visceral experience that is not for the casual horror fan. The story itself is very stripped-down and simple and Shiraishi wisely opts for a tight 73 minute feature that keeps the tension up rather than drawing the plot out further just to reach the 90 minute mark. The story does take an unexpected sharp turn into surreal territory towards the end which is jarring at first but ultimately works to bring the story to a perfect conclusion.