Guinea Pig: The Japanese ‘Snuff’ Films Charlie Sheen Reported to the FBI

Have you heard the story of the horror film so convincing, so brutal and so disturbing that Charlie Sheen (yes, that Charlie Sheen) reported it to the FBI as a snuff film? It is a story, a somewhat apocryphal one, that has overwhelmed the franchise itself. The story is fun, an enticing narrative that grabs attention and that gets so many (myself included) to track down these films and watch them. There is a certain type of horror fan that craves the extreme, or is just fascinated by how far film can go. These people, sooner or later, find themselves with the Guinea Pig franchise. It is a film series that is just pure sadism, or so people will have you think. It is sold as out of context torture and mutilation. Just gore. Pure gore. None of that story stuff, just targeted cruelty that cuts out the middle man (by cutting into a passive woman). With a reputation like this, it is unsurprising that people want this stuff off our shelves and out of our houses.

To explore the history of extreme cinema is to engage with the history of censorship. Though, to explore the history of art in any way is also to engage with the history of censorship. What is interesting is how the story of the films intertwines with censorship, and how the history of suppression and cultural disgust has both made and marred this franchise.

Let’s return to where we started: the Charlie Sheen story. In 1991, apparently (the beauty of all stories about Guinea Pig is that they are all adjacent to myth, so proceed with caution) horror critic Chas Balun was asked to compile a film for a birthday party of a fellow writer. The brief was simple: a tape of the most extreme stuff you can find; the goriest of the goriest. Balun supposedly put together a mix-tape, just of extreme gore rather than summer jams. The first part of the tape was a sequence from Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh and Blood (1985). So the story goes, Sheen watched this and was so shocked by it he reported it to the MPAA. You see, Sheen thought it was actual murder and mutilation on screen – not simulated – he thought it was a snuff film. However, the MPAA were already familiar with the film. This specific film had already gone through similar cycles of controversy. That was almost the point of it (the film very much courts controversy, presenting itself – in a way that is obviously false – as actual, found footage snuff). Apparently, Sheen continued to kick up a fuss and the film was reported to the FBI, which opened it up to official investigation. The film was found to be definitively not snuff but not before US press outlets grabbed the story and ran with it. As far as the media were concerned, the film was snuff – that kind of story grabs a paying audience. It did not matter what the FBI said, what the courts said or what the filmmakers had indisputably proved. You see, there already existed a making of film – covering the first three films – that shows you how it is all done.

Yes, the first two films – and the third to a much lesser degree – present as snuff films but that is part of the ‘joke’, so to speak. It is part of a wider tactic frequently used by horror films, one that the audience knows is not true (and one famously used by the Coen brothers in Fargo, 1996): present your fiction as fact to shock the audience, to give your imagery – or your narrative – another layer of extremity. The posturing as reality is a code of the genre, and speaks to the work’s status as outsider film (films made outside of the studio system, and outside of conventional cinema). The Guinea Pig films are straight to video films, made to be such, and therefore circumvent a whole lot of rules and regulation. The format is also part of the game, it feels like it could be a bootleg tape – an actual found horror film – a layer that even works like The Blair Witch Project (1999) miss out on (though that may not be true of its first festival appearances where the film could have come from anywhere). These films are not actually trying to trick people though; they are not exercises in sadism. The making-of film proves this, and exists for that reason. The found footage lie is a knowing lie; there is a presumption the audience is in on the joke – that it signals a willing suspension of disbelief. It is just part of the extreme aesthetic. Therefore we have a documentary that is willing to show us behind the curtain, the reality of these films is beyond an open secret.

The documentary is not a very good documentary. It is aptly named Making of Guinea Pig (1986) and that is all it is. There is no real structure to it, beyond putting behind-the-scenes footage of each film in order. The film is just a collection of clips that showcase how bits were made and lets those involved explain themselves. What comes across more than anything is the joy of the filmmakers. These films are not exercises in sadism, nor are they cruel or damaging, these films are made by passionate people desperate to create. They want to push the boundaries of gore on screen and, at the time (and still now, to an extent), this was not possible in the cinema or on TV. Also, these projects would be financially unviable for a studio. Fundamentally, they would be seen as being too risky and a legitimate production compromises the purity of vision, so to speak. This is a portrait of people who love what they do and are so happy that their particular brand of madness is going to be watched. The real star of the documentary though is the special effects work. We see how robotics and prosthetics are created – which is fascinating – and this gives us an insight into the real purpose of these films. These works are stunning technical creations, in which talented individuals pull off wonderful results. Yes, a certain viewer gets glee out of watching eyes getting popped out and limbs being hacked off. However, so much of that glee is in marvelling at how they did it, in celebrating the verisimilitude.

The second film in the franchise (a very competent gore film in its own right), Flower of Flesh and Blood, recognises this the best. The entire film is just focused violence: a passive woman is mutilated in brutal ways. This sounds horrendous, almost indefensible, but the portrayal is everything. The victim is presented, knowingly, as a special effect. They exist as a canvas for gory expression. There is no focus on suffering (they are drugged the whole time), and even the perpetrator is shown as cartoonish. He is dressed as a samurai, but obviously in theatrical make-up. The film is not emulating reality, it clearly does not take place in reality. It is knowingly Grand Guignol horror, gore as theatrics to entertain an audience. Even the gore itself seems impressionistic. We see bits get delved into and torn off, with a focus on what is inside. What is inside is often meat and the like used for gore, it is not convincing in a biological sense – at no point do you think that is what the inside of an arm looks like – but it is convincing in the theatrical sense. It looks as grotesque as you would want it to look. It looks like a spectacle, and the film is all about spectacle.

Thankfully, the Guinea Pig films have survived their treatment, though this is not the only controversy linked with them (there was an attempt to link a murder case to the films but this was disproven). In 1992, a Swedish Lawyer apparently ‘found’ (God knows how) a copy of Flower of Flesh and Blood and sent it to the police. Once again, it was found to be just a film. The same year, in Britain, a man tried to bring some horror tapes into the country. One of them was Flower of Flesh and Blood and it was seized and he was arrested. Southward Crown Court were told it was a film of an Asian woman (their words) being tied down and dismembered by a man dressed as a samurai. They claimed this was snuff, before it was proven that it was not so they settled with the claim that it is so well simulated that it gives the impression of snuff. This made it still ‘dangerous’ and, therefore, the man was fined £600.

These stories are fun but they are also a shame. They overwhelm a franchise that is genuinely interesting and worth the time of any fan of extreme cinema. Fundamentally, these films are not what they are presented as, and are therefore denied an audience they could probably otherwise reach. It is worth noting that the Guinea Pig films were hugely successful. Extreme tactics work and snuff tactics work. This has been proven many times, the first notable example being the 1975 film Snuff. This film, now famous as a ‘Video Nasty’ (a group of films banned in the UK under the Video Recordings Act in 1984), started life as a low budget slasher called The Slaughter (1971). It was a film going nowhere so the producer, unbeknownst to those who made the film, created a final sequence that revealed the film was just snuff. It is an out of context scene of one of the ‘assistants’ on the film (really another actor) killing and disembowelling somebody whilst a camera operator secretly films. It makes no sense, is tacked on for no reason and is obviously fake. However, the producer hired fake demonstrators to protest the film at Times Square (getting it on people’s radar) and tipped off the police that actual snuff was going to be shown. A film going nowhere turned into a film that made over $300,000 in three weeks.

The more notable example of snuff tactics paying off is, of course, Ruggero Deodata’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) – another Video Nasty – the film that got is director taken to court. Another high-profile example of a filmmaker using this illicit idea as a marketing stunt because, you know what, it works. Why this is particularly relevant is because this exact stunt was what inspired the Guinea Pig filmmakers. You see, Cannibal Holocaust was huge in Japan. So huge that, at the time, it was the second-highest grossing film in Japan after E.T the Extra-terrestrial (1982). To producer and writer Satoru Ogura, this showed an untapped market, and therefore we have Guinea Pig: Devil’s Experiment (1985). He just wanted to make the worst of the worst (much like how viewers wanted to see this) so decided the fake snuff route was the way. Interestingly, people were also very excited about being involved. The first Guinea Pig film, which is an awful movie, is just about sadistic acts being done to a woman. It is shoddily made and ultimately very boring, and it does linger on pain in a way that the sequel completely evades – and is therefore not an entertaining watch at all. However, there was a market for it, even before it released. There were hundreds of women who turned up to rehearsals with the wish to be humiliated on screen. It was the right time to make these films.

The first two films were even made back-to-back, the rehearsals covering both. Satoru Ogura was convinced this was going to be a hit, and he was right. The shops that were selling the Guinea Pig films did not want to sell them, apparently appalled by their content and worried it would reflect on them, but the films sold. The first film outsold most mainstream Hollywood releases in Japan, an immediate success (the second was the same). People wanted more and the back-to-back filming meant that a sequel could be released almost straight away, capturing a hungry audience.

This back-to-back filming is interesting, revealing itself in two different sensibilities. The first film, Devil’s Experiment, is exactly the kind of trash people think it is. It is pointless sadism with nothing beyond. It found an audience but it is nothing but a novelty, a film to have seen rather than a film to see. It is also so poorly made and executed that it bores more than offends. Satoru Ogura helmed this one and this one only, for the sequel he reached out to acclaimed horror manga writer, Hideshi Hino. This was a brilliant decision.

If you want to understand Hideshi Hino’s sensibilities, read his mangas. Works like Hell Baby (1995) and Lullabies from Hell (1995) show a playful love of transgression. They also include moments you will see in the two Guinea Pig films he made: eyes pop out, limbs fly off and maggots infest bodies. His aesthetic is interesting though, as the art is cute. This adorable style is a far cry from the content, which is ridiculously extreme gore and violence. What the style does is obfuscate the cruelty and make it all tongue in cheek. Here, violence and mutilation is an aesthetic mode. The artistry of gore is on show, not the reality of it. This is a sensibility that carries over into his Guinea Pig films, and is why they stand out as superior works. They do not wallow in cruelty and instead use gore artistically. The whole exercise is twisted but there is a pervasive sense of fun – or of something artistic. His first Guinea Pig film, Flower of Flesh and Blood, is the embodiment of this, as previously mentioned.

From this point onwards, the series gets strange. Very strange. The Guinea Pig of the title was the central subject: the victim being a guinea pig for mutilation. Eventually, the series itself becomes the guinea pig, as it evolves into a series of films that are defined by experimentation. It becomes an exercise in what you can do in straight to video film, using name recognition to legitimise (to a degree) these experiments. This change in tone was also signalled by a changed in ownership. Orange Video House handled the first two and then Japan Home Video took over, the films were a success and people were interested. This leads us to a film called Guinea Pig 3: He Never Dies (1986).

With this film, they try their hand at more of a narrative but the real change is that it is a knowing comedy. The film is still experimental and weird but no longer presents itself as filmed reality in any convincing way. The title is very literal, it is about a man who never dies. So we watch him get attacked and mutilated, often by himself. It is a fun subversion of the franchise which reframes the premise as never being exclusively about harming women, it was always about gore. This man can produce gore so now he is the subject. The issue is, the film is bad. It lacks the flair of Hideshi Hino and lacks his more singular focus. Here, we have weird framing devices – introducing a random talking head presented called Rick Steinberger who tells you about ‘videofilms’ – and then you just watch a bunch of stuff. It is vaguely extreme but it is just assorted nonsense. It is somewhat fascinating in its strangeness but feels, ultimately, rather dull.

After this, the series chronology gets confusing. Whatever the order, the same logic applies to Guinea Pig films that, arguably, applies to Star Trek films: only the even numbered ones are good. So, let’s skip to five: Android of Notre Dame (1988 or 1989, sources differ). This film is an attempt at narrative cinema. Even going beyond that, it’s an attempt at high concept literary pastiche. You would think it would be an adaptation of Victor Hugo, but, no, this film is most overtly inspired by Frankenstein. Here, the franchise overreaches, and does not have the talent to back it up. In reality, this horror film is a bad version of Re-Animator (1986) and includes homages to – or overtly stolen moments from: Phantasm (1979); From Beyond (1986); and Hellraiser (1987). The film’s focus on narrative is belied by it being incomprehensible and is further damaged by poor acting. Gore does come eventually but it is not the focus and, even when the gore is, in theory, fun (we have somebody rifling through an open chest cavity and pulling out body parts like it is a tool box), the film has lost the audience to such an extent that it is hard to even care.

Then there are the other two Guinea Pigs and arguably a seventh film. 1989’s Lucky Sky Diamond is produced by Satoru Ogura and is a Guinea Pig-like, often confused for the series. It only exists, at the moment, untranslated and is therefore less accessible. It is reminiscent of the more tonally confused Guinea Pig films yet the gore is not as good as the actual franchise films. It also seems more sadistic and exploitative than the series but, to be honest, I do not understand Japanese and the film is incredibly confusing. Luckily, Guinea Pig Four and Six are just brilliant. But which one is which?

Well, apparently the film commonly known as Guinea Pig Six, Mermaid in a Manhole (usually credited as 1988) – what a title – actually came out fourth. While the film commonly known as Guinea Pig Four, Devil Woman Doctor (usually credited as 1986), came out last. Their proper release dates are debated by the community. For now, we will deal with Mermaid in a Manhole, the second Guinea Pig film from Hideshi Hino and, for most, the standout film of the series. In his manga Lullabies of Hell, Hideshi Hino touches on a lot of the themes his Guinea Pig films would explore. You can tell a Hino Guinea Pig film is different because you can actually talk about it dealing with themes. One story in Lullabies of Hell deals with a horror writer – a thinly fictionalised version of Hino – wanting to enact horrible death onto people he knows, dealing vengeance through his art. He draws them as being murdered and it happens. It is a playful take on the responsibility of artists who deal with violence and on the impact of violent imagery (it fits nicely with a film like Dario Argento’s Tenebrae, 1982, a giallo classic that was also a Video Nasty). This idea links to the very first Guinea Pig, and the continued snuff setup of the second. But Mermaid in a Manhole also deals with violence as art and artistic responsibility.

The film is actually one I would rather not spoil as it has moments of actual beauty and poignancy, outside of the really disgusting (brilliantly so) gore. Some of these gore moments exist in another story in Lullabies of Hell, which shares a plot point with Mermaid in a Manhole where an inhuman creature is overgrown with horrible boils, which are then lanced for fluids that are used to make art. It is grotesque. Wonderfully grotesque. However, Lullabies of Hell also shows Hino’s limitations as well as his obsessions. Flower of Flesh and Blood and Mermaid in a Manhole are awesome films, genuinely. They are really satisfying horror fare with smart conceits that are well executed. But, his work ultimately boils down to just being cool and dark stuff that is cool because it is dark. He is great at the aesthetics of horror, and the artistry of gore, but his ideas rarely go deeper than this. The stories in Lullabies of Hell boil down to a sequence of horrific conceits and only satisfy on a visual level or a pulp level. This is only really an issue with Mermaid in a Manhole as the film begins to explore some real themes. Sadly, it does no more with them than introduce them, not knowing how to carve out a satisfying thematic art. Though, it is a good stage to be at when you are underwhelmed by the thematic coherence of a Guinea Pig film.

For me, I have saved the best until last: Devil Woman Doctor. This may often be classed as the fourth but it being the last makes sense. There is a theory that the release of the film was supposed to deal with the controversy of the franchise – linked primarily to violent art being caught up in a murder case. Devil Woman Doctor is a piece of violent art but it is an out and out surrealist, and deeply post-modern, comedy. It is an argument for exploitation cinema, and gore cinema, as riotous fun. The motivating idea behind the Guinea Pig films was always anything goes and this unleashes this sensibility. It has the feeling of Luis Buñuel’s The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) or Phantom of Liberty (1974), just far more chaotic – and lacking the political heft. If anything, it is more of a Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969 – 1973) episode. It kind of links together, and there is conventionality, but it works because it is anti-cinema. It works because it is breaking all of the rules. The heart of this film is a genuine Japanese movie star, one of the very best: Pîtâ. They are most well known for the starring role as Eddie in Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) but also appear in Ran (1985) and Hanagatami (2017) – and did voice work for cult favourite videogames Drakengard (2003) and Nier (2010) – playing Grimoire Weiss in the Japanese version. They are one of the most exciting presences in Japanese cinema and, in Devil Woman Doctor they are our host and compère. The film bends to their will, going wherever they direct it as if they are conjuring up content on the spot. This command of the screen is magnetic and turns the freeform madness – which ruined the third film – into something truly electric. It feels like a truly special film that exists outside of cinematic reality. Something deeply counter-cultural and transgressive, and actually really fun.

Ultimately, that is what these films are. They are a fun franchise of experimental films, born out of a love of movie making and a want to satiate an audience that was not being served. Even the bad films, of which there are a few, radiate this joy. They may always be known as the films Charlie Sheen tried to get banned, though the story is more simple than this, but they are actually a fascinating chapter of Japanese cinema. Exploring these films is a journey worth taking, just know that they are best watched with like minded friends, and an open mind.

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