Back in 2014, Unearthed Films' head honcho Stephen Biro released what many must've thought was going to amount to little more than mere folly: the first instalment in a proposed series of US-based horror films which paid homage to the legendary Japanese GUINEA PIG films of the late 80s and early 90s. You probably remember the infamy surrounding one of those Japanese episodes in particular - FLOWER OF FLESH AND BLOOD - thanks to Hollywood actor Charlie Sheen's laughable reaction to watching it, whereby he duly reported it to the FBI as being a snuff film. Idiot.
Anyway, Biro's film was called AMERICAN GUINEA PIG: BOUQUET OF GUTS AND GORE. Which told you everything you needed to know about it: it relocated the original series' concept to the US; it was going to deliver on the grisly stuff; oh, and that title was a fair indication that Biro was paying tribute to the aforementioned FLOWER.
When BOUQUET finally arrived, it was largely met with plaudits from the hardcore horror fraternity. Not only did it evoke the spirit and visceral thrills of its source inspiration, but it expanded upon it - both in terms of length and scope - storyline, ambition, production values etc. For all its relentless gore, BOUQUET was also a very well-made film. And one of its greatest assets was the sterling special effects work of Marcus Koch.
An insanely prolific post-millennial FX artist, his work can be witnessed in the likes of NIKOS THE IMPALER, THE THEATRE BIZARRE, WE ARE STILL HERE and even his own second directorial feature effort, 2007's 100 TEARS. So when Biro announced that a second AGP film was going into production, assisted by an online funding campaign, it was hardly surprising that Koch (pronounced 'Cook') was handed the task of directing it.
Which brings us to BLOODSHOCK. The third feature directed by Koch (his debut was 1999's ROT). When measured against his previous efforts behind the camera, despite 100 TEARS's strengths, the progress he's made as a director between films is quite staggering.
BLOODSHOCK opens with an unnamed man (Dan Ellis) being dragged into a decrepit room, which has been clumsily populated with medical equipment to resemble a makeshift surgery. Two burly stooges sit the man into a reclining dentist's chair and strap him down. A doctor (Andy Winton) sits beside him and tells him he's in for a fun day. He's lying. Rather, he proceeds to latch on to the man's tongue with pincers and hack it off with scissors. The wound is then stitched up and the man is dragged back to his all-white padded cell. As he's tossed into the room, the orderly (Gene Palubicki) callously tells him "for the rest of your life, all you'll know is the taste of iron".
This is just the beginning.
What follows is a catalogue of abuse at the hands of the sadistic doctor and his thuggish orderlies. In-between each physical ordeal - held down while being punched repeatedly in the face; smacked in the kneecaps with a hammer; soles of his feet slashed open with a scalpel etc - the man lies curled in a ball on the floor of his empty cell sobbing.
All of which may sound like plotless torture-porn. But there is a story emerging in the meantime...
While alone in his cell, the man begins to receive little notes scrawled onto small pieces of paper in crayon. The first simply says "Welcome to Hell". The second is a knowing "Cat got your tongue?" Our man has no idea who's writing these or how they're appearing in his cell, but they keep coming. And he keeps eating them to destroy the evidence, as instructed in the fourth note. By the time he receives the fifth and sixth notes - "Friends" followed by a crude drawing of a love-heart - he's witnessed a female hand poking through one of the padded slats on his room's wall. Clearly, the female prisoner in the cell beside his (Lillian McKinney) is communicating with him...
Where will all of this lead? Will the male and female prisoners ever unite? If they do, do they stand any chance of overthrowing their captors? What are the doctor's motives? And why is he experimenting on these two people in particular?
All will be answered. However, BLOODSHOCK adopts a vaguely experimental approach to its storytelling. There's very little dialogue and what there is, is deliberately low in the mix for the most part; the plot's finer points are drip-fed throughout, to the point that two vital pieces of background are not actually given until during the end titles sequence - and when they come, they alter your perception of everything.
It's the manner in which the story comes to the fore during the latter half of BLOODSHOCK that really impressed me. I mean, technically, this is great from the start - all grainy black-and-white photography and oppressive industrial-esque sounds from Kristian Day's disturbing score. But were it not for the fact that there is a brain (and, more importantly, a heart) behind what's going on here, I daresay I'd have admired BLOODSHOCK without actually liking it too much. "Push-the-envelope" extreme cinema does little for me these days if all it has to offer is gore. Happily, Biro's screenplay and Koch's direction combine to twist this into something oddly moving.
I've watched this three times so far. Ordinarily I try to give review discs two viewings but this warranted an extra sitting, as it reveals more each time you see it. Ultimately I viewed it as a touching portrayal of how human interaction, of knowing that there's someone there that you can reach out to on any level, can get you through almost anything. It is, in its own way, a love story. With one of the most beautifully perverse love scenes in memory (a 6-minute burst of bloody colour during the film's final third).
Ellis is outstanding in a silent role which calls for his expressions to run us through his inner feelings. The confusion, fear, pain, resilience, despair, grief ... it's all there in his eyes and facial nuances. He never overplays it: there is plenty of subtlety in evidence, ensuring his character is always relatable. McKinney's not introduced to proceedings until later but makes her presence felt, her haunted eyes suggesting those of someone who's stared straight into the face of Satan. But her existence brings strength to both under the most adverse of conditions, and when this happens it's oddly beautiful to watch. The villains - Winton, Palubicki and Alberto Giovannelli - are quite broadly performed in comparison, but never to the overall film's detriment.
Strikingly shot and making fine use of its crumbling interior location, BLOODSHOCK is clearly a labour of love. This, naturally, extends to the special effects by Koch, Melanie Dean and Cat Bernier which are excellent. Even in black-and-white there's some grisly stuff going on here (though for whatever reason I was surprised that the film shies away from genital violence). It's all very convincing, though never excruciatingly nasty. As gritty as the torture is, it sits on just the right side of the "fantastic" to prevent it from becoming overbearingly ugly. In fact, the film's most oppressive quality - in a good way - is its unrelentingly bleak tone. The misery is piled on, and is accentuated both by the stark photography and incessantly grinding score.
The film comes to disc courtesy of Unearthed Films (of course). Quickly becoming renowned for their fantastic multi-format releases, BLOODSHOCK is no different: the film is prepared and packaged in a beautiful fold-out digipack case, and comes with three discs - a blu-ray, DVD and the soundtrack on CD.
Looking at the region-free blu-ray, the film looks great in 1080p HD. Clearly shot in HD but distressed in post-production to achieve a grainy sheen, images are nevertheless clear and sharp throughout, with a keen sense of depth and a convincing filmic texture felt throughout. The colour sequence removes the grain and really impresses with its pin-sharp, vivid cleanness. Presented as a generously sized MPEG4-AVC file, there's nothing to grumble about here.
English audio is provided in a sturdy 2.0 mix. As I mentioned earlier in the review, there's very little dialogue in the film and when characters do speak they tend to be all-but drowned out by the churning soundtrack. This is clearly by design. The sound design is great from beginning to end (with help from Palubicki and Jimmy ScreamerClauz) and is conveyed really well through this presentation.
The disc opens to an animated main menu page. From there, pop-up menus include a scene selection option which allows access to the film via 11 chapters.
Extras are plentiful.
They begin with a fascinating audio commentary from Biro and Koch. They offer a fluent, engaging chat which is affable without ever descending into them speaking over each other. It's loaded with insight: the film was shot in an abandoned medical facility in Florida which was closed down following a suspicious death; a double-bladed bone saw from World War 2 was bought by Biro off eBay; Koch is generous in revealing how many of the special effects were achieved; the doctor's X-rays were bought from the Philippines; the shoot was conducted over 6 days, usually entailing 13-hour stints; DEVIL'S EXPERIMENT was a major influence. I could go on. Interestingly, Biro hints that a full colour version of the film could be a future possibility.
A second audio commentary comes courtesy of co-stars Winton, Palubicki and Giovannelli. This is a more drunken-sounding affair but it's a lot of fun, offering plenty of insight into the shoot's vibe and how it was working alongside the sterling FX work. Steven Nemeh's "Making Of" is an exhaustive 92-minute collection of behind-the-scenes footage which shows the shoot to be a well-natured but physically demanding one, working in oppressive heat and with lots of elaborate FX shots to consider. Still, the small crew toil together extremely well and it's fascinating to see a lot of the gore scenes being created - in colour!
We also get 6 minutes of production videos from Nemeh's archives, which shows in more detail how the location was chosen an adapted.
A thoroughly enjoyable Q&A session follows, recorded last year when the film screened at the Days of the Dead festival in Atlanta. It's an informal affair and at times you can't always hear what's being said because of the audience's tendency to speak over each other, but by and large this is a great little addition. Over the course of 21 minutes, Koch and Biro speak about the film's soundscapes, the FX, the source inspiration, plans to one day release a colour version and more.
Next up is an optional 5-minute video introduction to the film from Biro (as well as having written the screenplay, he produced the film). He shows us where his old video store used to be in Tampa, and then walks two doors down to take us into the old medical centre where BLOODSHOCK is actually being filmed. Good stuff.
Ellis is in fine fettle for an engaging 39-minute on-screen interview. The interviewer is on the other end of a telephone line (by the sounds of it?) but Ellis is good-humoured and keen to talk about his experience. He speaks of the bruises he acquired during filming, makes mention of the hot weather conditions, how it was working for Koch and Biro, creating a back-story with Koch to help him better understand his character, and how he really had to eat pieces of paper for his art. Thankfully Ellis looks a lot healthier in reality than he does in the film! My only beef here is that this interview ends very abruptly, mid-sentence even.
McKinney is also interviewed in a different environment, but by the same interviewer (again, over the telephone/Skype). Over the course of 11 minutes she giggles affably while discussing the long process of having prosthetic scars applied to her torso, having her head shaved for the part, and revealing the one scene in the film that it really disturbed her to be a part of.
All of the above are presented in HD.
The second disc is a DVD. As well as featuring the film in standard definition and both commentary tracks, this disc boasts some interesting alternate bonus features.
First up is a 12-minute interview with Palubicki. He speaks of his introduction to Koch's work via watching 100 TEARS on Netflix, and reconnecting with old pal Biro - all of which eventually led to him bagging a role in BLOODSHOCK.
Giovannelli covers the same ground but from his own perspective. He met Koch through the convention scene and admits he was worried about "screwing up" on set. This is a 5-minute interview.
It's very interesting to hear Koch speak during his own 30-minute interview segment. He's an erudite, considered guy who has clearly shared Biro's ambition from the very start of the AGP journey.
Winton is full of smiles and anecdotes during his 10-minute reminiscence of the shoot. He obviously had a great time making the film, and I agree with his assertion that there should be a BLOODSHOCK 2...
Biro puts on a slightly more serious face for his own 11-minute address to the screen. He speaks of how he introduced America to the original GUINEA PIG, first releasing them as bootlegs and then later releasing them legitimately on DVD. He also goes more into the background of BLOODSHOCK's location, his aims for the AGP series and more.
"Bloodshock Deconstruction" is a 12-minute featurette in which Koch insists audiences don't need to be spoon-fed details and that the action should be, to an extent, left open to interpretation. "You make it your own" he sagely states. Biro adds his own take on events: "relationships can be Hell". He elaborates, of course, putting across a convincing argument. Palubicki, Winton and Giovannelli also have their thoughts on the matter - the latter observing that "ultimately, it's (about) love tearing us apart".
Disc three is the soundtrack on CD. This is a nightmarish 78-minute affair, filled with sounds that are at times ethereal and at others downright terrifying. It all plays as one track, so come prepared to take the whole thing in, in a single sitting.
We also get a 4-page booklet containing brief but worthy liner notes by "Ultra Violent" magazine's Art Ettinger.
BLOODSHOCK is highly rewarding experience. It's intelligent, it's challenging, it's surprisingly moving and it speaks a lot about the human condition. It pulls the rug from beneath your feet right at the very end, and delivers some of the most artistic moments of torture-gore this side of MARTYRS along the way.
In short, AMERICAN GUINEA PIG is a great film and has been fittingly treated to a tremendous release from Unearthed Films.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Unearthed Films|