Last Wednesday, on May 13, The Black Museum presented a lecture called "Deviant Desires: Erotic Grotesque Nonsense in Japanese horror films." Multidisciplinary visual artist Jennifer Linton discussed "ero guro nansensu," more commonly referred to as "ero guro" or "guro," which is described as a "a literary and artistic movement originating circa 1930 in Japan." According to Wikipedia:
The term itself is an example of wasei-eigo, a Japanese combination of English words or abbreviated words: ero from "ero(tic)", guro from "gro(tesque)", and nansensu from "nonsense." In actuality the "grotesqueness" implied in the term refers to things that are malformed, unnatural, or horrific. Items that are pornographic and bloody are not necessarily ero guro, and ero guro is not necessarily pornographic or bloody.
It turned out to be a timely lecture, for me, anyway. As many genre film fans know, UK legends Arrow Films have recently been releasing beautifully restored cult classics or forgotten gems in North America, on Blu-Rays packed with special features. One of today's Arrow Films releases is Brian Yuzna's infamous Society.
Having never seen the 1989 film, but knowing of its reputation, I was still shocked by its content. As someone who watches a lot of genre media, including movies with buckets of blood and gobs of gore, I already know what squicks me out. Although a lot of films disturb or even frighten me up to a point, I rarely feel queasy or ill watching them. (Major exceptions include the leg-sawing scene in 2008's The Ruins and "Tome-wan" from Season 2 of NBC's Hannibal, which might be more easily remembered by Mason Verger's line, "I'm full of myself.")
Perhaps no one was more surprised than I was that the third act of Society filled me with such repulsion. It's hard to explain the film to those who haven't seen it and to do so would likely ruin the "fun." Society could definitely be described as "ero goru," but would most likely be defined by the more familiar term of "body horror." Most film fans would associate that term with David Cronenberg, but Yuzna's film is unlike Cronenberg in a distinct way.
While Cronenberg has frequently explored the confluence of disease and sexuality, with the exception of Dead Ringers and Crash, few of his films have evoked an erotic response, at least in me. Society, on the other hand, posits the idea of a grotesque, sexual orgy early on.
For one, there are the darkened but decidedly unpleasant visuals that peek from behind the opening credits. Then there is main character Bill's (Billy Warlock) slowly growing knowledge of the big secret in the film. Bill senses rather than witnesses that something is amiss; he thinks he sees strange things out of the corner of his eye; and he hears recordings of things that don't seem right, but he can't prove that such horrific events are actually taking place. He feels alienated from his own family and mentions their disapproval of him to his therapist, even using the word "incest" in a half-joking manner. Like Billy, we can't put our finger on exactly what's wrong; we only know that something isn't right.
This sets up an expectation of dread in the viewer that pays off spectacularly by the end of Society. Yet, there is no blood in the climactic scenes. It has been replaced with viscous, flesh-colored ooze, which in many ways is more disgusting than blood. The slurping, the nakedness, and the orgasmic pleasure that takes place during the final scenes is overtly sexual in nature, which makes the imagery that much more appalling.
There's something I found even more upsetting about Society. During the aforementioned scene from The Ruins or that Hannibal episode, I literally had to look away from the screen. The atrocities depicted were too much for my eyes and stomach to bear.
Yet in Society, despite being absolutely appalled, I couldn't stop looking at the screen. I don't know what is more frightening to me: the grotesque eroticism of the film itself or the fact that I couldn't take my eyes away from it.