The Masters of Horror series came up in discussion after I wrote about Incident On and Off a Mountain Road. The inevitable happened: a talk about why Takashi Miike’s installment, Imprint, was not aired. It was labeled controversial, and I can see why it was handed that label: it’s brutal and a complete mind-fuck. However, this isn’t the absolute worst thing that could have (nor has) aired on Showtime. I’m left scratching my head because, despite its brutality, it wasn’t mindless in its violence. If anything, the violent and unsavory nature of some of the acts depicted in the installment furthered the plot – everything had a purpose, so it was merited. It told one hell of a story; it was beautiful to boot. One entry that disturbed me a lot more? John Carpenter’s Pro-Life. Here’s the interesting part: both featured incest, torture and abortion. I’d be willing to wager that the brutal honesty of the torture and abortion in Imprint versus the death of the provider and live birth that Pro-Life allowed is what got it a pass over Miike’s unrelenting look at the same subjects.
|Disturbing? Yes. Unairable? No.|
Let’s start at the top with the similarities. We don’t actually get to witness an incestuous act in either piece – Miike doesn’t show the young girl’s rape by her father, and Carpenter doesn’t show father Dwayne (the ever-fantastic Ron Perlman) having a go at Angelique (Caitlin Wachs), though it’s heavily implied that there was at least something going on there. Both directors don’t have to show this taboo – they alude to it, but neither explicitly demonstrates it. Interesting that this one is actively avoided, but I digress. We also get to see torture in both pieces: between the dreadful interrogation of Komomo (Michi Ito) and Dr. Kiefer (Bill Dow)’s “abortion,” there’s more than enough physical torment to go around. Both have abortion surrounding them. In these respects, the pieces have a lot in common.
From there, Imprint deviates from Pro-Life in that Miike offers an unflinching, honest look at the realities of torture, as opposed to Carpenter’s approach of allowing the audience to look away. Let me put this out there right now: this is in no way a criticism against Carpenter (more on that in a minute). So, Miike. When Komomo is tortured, we get the full impact of her suffering. Miike shows us the torment she endures: the burned armpits, the under-the-fingernail needles, the contortions, the needles in her gums, the way she’s left to suffer. Part of why we’re so horrified is due to the fact that this girl did nothing wrong – she was kind and sweet to the deformed prostitute, and we like her. We don’t want this to happen to her, and in showing that extreme violence, we get the full blast of her horrifying fate. Miike didn’t show this to be gratuitous; he showed it so that it could add to Christopher (Billy Drago)’s sense of guilt. Part of what makes this so difficult to watch (aside from the realistic visuals) stems from the knowledge that people were actually tortured like this. The punishment of a perceived thief – particularly a Victorian Japanese prostitute – is something that we don’t normally get to see up close. We read about it, sure, but the visuals really help the gravity of it sink in. Miike doesn’t shy away from the truth of the situation, and I can respect what Miike shows us. He doesn’t flinch or sugar coat. He presents a fact, even if it makes the audience uncomfortable.
|Do not envy her in the least.|
Carpenter, on the other hand, takes a different route on the same subject that’s nonetheless effective. Let’s cut right to the most uncomfortable part of this experience: the “abortion” performed on Dr. Kiefer. I applaud John Carpenter for the way he handled this torture scene because he didn’t show us a lot for the drastic impact we received. We see Perlman’s Dwayne holding a scalpel. We see Dow’s legs propped. We hear screams, and we see the blood and tissue in the old-fashioned machine. The script called for Kiefer to be slit balls to ass; Carpenter could have shown us everything, but chose instead to let us imagine what was happening. I’m a massive fan of this type of horror because it treats me as a person with an imagination rather than a dumb cow that can’t conceptualize it. Man, were the visuals I generated akin to what Miike showed us (to the point that, despite that it doesn’t show me much, I have trouble watching this one again). The other component to this scenario, though, is the fact that in real life, we don’t get abortionists tortured this severely. In America, they get shot or bombed; they’re not mutilated ala Kiefer (side note: it’s never okay to think about or actually kill someone because they provide abortions. PERIOD.). Carpenter takes this real-life scenario and tweaks it a bit to make us horrified. We cringe when this happens to Kiefer, and yet we’re also not in the front-row. The concept is what makes us uncomfortable, in part because people can really be that crazy.
There’s another key difference between these two: we don’t get to witness an abortion in Pro-Life, and there I feel is the rub. Carpenter’s tale allows for a live birth without having to show us the aborted children as well, despite that it takes place in an abortion clinic. We know that something is wrong with Angelique’s pregnancy. We know that it’s a demon – however, we get to see it being born. This makes it okay when Angelique kills the child afterwards – it’s already evil, and there’s nothing that can be done to stop it from being evil. The perceived bad is punished. Miike, on the other hand, doesn’t allow children to live; in fact, we see a deformed child that gets molested, teased and driven to madness before being sold into prostitution. We see women getting half-developed babies pulled out of them and aborted children thrown into a river. Miike doesn’t just stop at showing the business-as-usual fact of abortion in 1800s Japan – he manages to combine calm water with the rich, red prop fetus into beauty that marries tranquility and death, and that’s what I think left people unsettled. The babies are unwanted, and so they’re discarded. The river was the easiest way to get rid of the byproduct of the procedure in a destitute, rural area. There’s reading about it, and then there’s actively witnessing it. Miike shows us something that many would like to pretend isn’t there. There’s still a lot of anxiety in the U.S. over this topic: there’s a sense that babies come first, that the woman becomes second to that of what she’s carrying, that the child should be saved at all costs, and that abortion is somehow wrong because the existence of the child is valued over the rights and health – physical and mental – of the mother (note: this does not reflect my personal views – you do whatever the hell you want with your body). Miike calmly presents a fact of life, whereas Carpenter smites the evil. Thematically, the latter is far easier to process than the former for quite a few people. It’s far easier to accept that a mother would kill something evil that she happened to carry, like a parasite, rather than admit that some women, for whatever reason, decided to terminate their pregnancies. It’s not the extreme violence of the torture – it’s the unflinching acknowledgment and flat out stare into the realm of death before life begins.
|Brings whole new meaning to “the pregnancy from hell.”|
In the end, Imprint deserved to be aired because it was a true piece of art, just as Pro-Life deserved to be aired because it was deeply unsettling. Both covered similar material in a fashion that allowed genre appreciation, and proved worthy entries. However, the simple act of honesty, combined with a type of dark fairy tale style, damned Imprint to the shelf over Pro-Life‘s more acceptable conventions. Either that, or someone at Showtime was looking to drum up business by marking one piece as notorious so as to drive up sales and interest (c’mon – it’s Takashi Miike. You get what you fucking pay for.). But that is a story for another day.