May 26, 2010

Grotesque (Japan, 2009) – 3.5/5

One of the more notorious films in the recent streak of gorno movies, Koji Shiraishi’s appropriately titled Grotesque made it to the headlines when BBFC denied it classification. Cuts would not do, only total banning would protect people from its harmful effect. It’s a flashback from the era when British citizens where being charged in court for smuggling Guinea Pig movies into the country. Such feared Japanese splatter films provided inspiration for Grotesque as well – the American Hostels and Saws are referred in the marketing campaign only to reach larger audiences.

While intended as a movie so violent it couldn’t be shown in theatres, Grotesque does, in fact, come a welcome surprise for a viewer prepared for a dull blood and guts marathon. While this reviewer’s personal preferences, experiences and fears no doubt played an integral role in it, Grotesque works above all on a psychological level. While minimal on storyline – only examining two people’s will to survive in the hands of a sadistic psychopath – the film succeeds in engaging the viewer. Rather than only shocking with its graphic imagery, Grotesque attempts to make the viewer bite his teeth for the survival of the characters. Whether it succeeds in it, is highly depended on each individual viewer and their tolerance for ultra graphic imagery.

Technically the film is well made. Cinematography (shot in 2.35:1) and editing are of good quality, music is used skillfully, and special effects are extremely convincing. Yet, all these are there to serve the film’s psychological level. If that is not reached (by the viewer), the technical merits alone become meaningless, and only small bits of extreme dark humor remain. Viewers facing this situation will no doubt question the film’s value and probably see little else than shocking gore in it.

Discussing the psychological levels of a film as graphic as Grotesque may appear a bit comical, even pretentious. This is, however, exactly how many hard core horror movies work. Often not understood by the easily shocked or high morale viewers, the best of the ultra violent horror movies also challenge the viewer on a psychological level – only the method is more primitive. Can the viewer endure such a strong horror experience? Some viewers are scared to death by mainstream ghost stories, others fear only graphic violence. People are different, and drawing a line between acceptable and non-acceptable would be hypocrisy and ignorance – an attempt to declare one’s own moral standards as a universal truth.

Naturally, Grotesque requires a high tolerance level, as its imagery must not push the viewer out of its dark world, but rather trap him in there. Grotesque is a strong and even physically exhausting experience because it succeeds in the latter. Constantly giving its characters – and the viewer – a glimpse of hope for survival, it keeps the participants fighting till the last scene. This element would not exist in the film had been intended just as degraded gore service. Admittedly, though, the film’s nature considered its target audience is strictly limited. Grotesque is a film to scare people – even the ones who haven’t seen it.

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