Synapse // 2009 // 86 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Byun (Retired) // August 20th, 2010
"Hot pepper cream has been applied to her genitals."
In 1937, Warner Bros., hot off the popular success of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, were looking to create a third cartoon series. The only question was, what to call it? Luckily for Warners, a young intern named Wes Craven was sitting in on the meeting, and the rest is --
I kid, I kid. But in all honesty, when I was first confronted with the title of this DVD, Graphic Sexual Horror, I thought it was the first in a new line of generically-titled films, like Preachy Urban Drama or Crying Estranged Dad With Cancer. But alas, it wasn't. (And anyway, they already started one of those, with 2009's Fighting.) Graphic Sexual Horror is actually a documentary about Insex.com, a hardcore BDSM pornographic website that existed from 1997 to 2005.
Insex, founded by Brent Scott (a.k.a. "pd"), a former professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, was notorious for its extreme and realistic depiction of ultra-violent S&M scenarios, broadcast via live Internet streaming to thousands of paying subscribers. The twisted acts included in this sado-smorgasbord included your standard bondage, caning, and flogging, but also erotic asphyxiation, humiliation, near-drowning, torture by electricity and other means, and a myriad other forms of brutality.
The participants in these scenarios were (completely consenting, adult) women, most of whom were only known by numbers ("101," "912," "625"), who had answered anonymous newspaper ads and were paid thousands of dollars a day to endure -- and in most cases, enjoy -- intricately designed sessions of emotional and physical agony that could last over six hours. All the models had safewords that they could use to immediately stop a scene if it exceeded their tolerance or if they wanted to quit for any reason.
One of the biggest BDSM porn sites on the Internet, in 2005 Insex.com attracted the interest of the federal government, which was looking to crack down on the porn industry. The Bush Administration attempted to shut down Insex using the Patriot Act, arguing that extreme porn somehow supported terrorism, but when that didn't fly, the government pressured the credit card processing companies that dealt with Insex to stop billing their transactions. With its primary source of revenue cut off, Insex quickly went out of business.
Graphic Sexual Horror is written and directed by Anna Lorentzon and Barbara Bell, who worked for Insex.com (but not as models). As insiders, they offer a view of the porn industry that's much less judgmental and more sympathetic than exposé-type features like The Price of Pleasure. Lorentzon and Bell aren't out to condemn or "reveal the shocking truth about" Insex.com or its perverted mastermind, Brent, so much as explain how the enterprise worked and give the audience some idea of the participants' motivations and the consequences of their involvement.
As someone who's a complete stranger to the S&M world, I didn't expect Graphic Sexual Horror to be much more than a tribute to troubled young women being hogtied and whipped by paunchy 40-year-old guys with porn 'staches wearing leather underpants and calling themselves "Lord Blackthorne." To my surprise, though, this documentary turned out to be a pretty thought-provoking piece that raises interesting questions about the intersection of art and pornography, and how different Insex.com's more troubling aspects really are from any other business.
Picture the scene: tight close up on a girl's feet, on tiptoe. Beautiful operatic singing in the background. The camera slowly pans up, revealing the girl's lower body; she's tied up, naked. The camera continues panning up, and we see that she's gagged, with a rope around her neck: she's being hung. The operatic singing continues as we follow the rope up to where it's tied to a cage. The tiny cage is just big enough to hold another woman -- she's the one singing.
Is this porn? Undoubtedly, yes. But it's also, in its deranged way, far more creative and clever than your typical gonzo orifice-packing extravaganza. Barry Goldman, Insex.com's former model agent, calls Insex founder Brent "the Michelangelo of bondage and torture," and whatever moral judgments one might apply to Brent's obsessions, it's undeniable that the man views what he does as something loftier than mere sexual gratification.
Brent, who states he was inspired by bondage shows put on by Japanese geishas that he witnessed while serving in the military during the Vietnam war, created elaborate scenarios for his videos, involving exquisitely crafted torture devices and other gear, and highly theatrical scenes designed to convey coercion and terror. Some of the more disturbing of these scenes involve screaming, terrified women imprisoned in cages that are slowly immersed in water, women being beaten with sticks and verbally humiliated, and women stripped naked and tied to stakes in the middle of a snow-covered plain.
Taken as isolated images, these would be far too disturbing for the average viewer to take. Fortunately, the documentary follows these scenes with interviews of the women post-ordeal, where we see them (mostly) smiling and laughing about what they've just endured. We're told by participants like "912" that what they're doing doesn't feel like porn -- it feels like something else, more "genuine." Lorelei Lee ("Lorelei") speaks compellingly of being pushed to the limits of her endurance, and then finding a reserve inside herself that causes her to feel empowered by her experience. Instead of being merely exploited for sex, the models are active participants in the scenarios, more like collaborators on an art project than mere subjects of sexual gratification.
Brent claims to have been influenced by Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard, and while that may sound like pretentious hokum to justify his perversion -- and to some extent, it is -- the deeper we get into the participants' experiences and motivations, the more plausible it seems that what's happening here is more complex than "mere" pornography.
Not that the pain and anguish at Insex.com is entirely scripted and intentional. Graphic Sexual Horror, while clearly biased in favor of its subject, is pretty even-handed in showing us the darker side of an already pretty dark operation. Brent allegedly insisted that the models "play with him" off-camera, pressured into engaging in BDSM with him or risk being harassed or fired. And while the models all had safewords and were ostensibly in complete control of their ordeals, it's noted that Brent had little patience with models who actually used those words, and it's made plain that those who did generally weren't asked back.
The implication is that models were tacitly pressured to endure more than they felt comfortable with, an example of which we witness in the film's most appalling scene, in which a model -- who had made clear at the outset that she was not to be slapped -- is slapped, and when she breaks down on camera, she's brutally admonished.
In an interview included on the disc, co-director Barbara Bell discusses Brent's behavior and, while acknowledging it was wrong, notes that sexual harassment isn't exactly confined to the sex industry. One of the more interesting aspects of the documentary is that it raises the question of whether or not the "exploitation" and moral ambiguity we see in this film is that much different from the kind of exploitation of workers and pressure to violate one's ethics that occurs every day in regular, non-porn industries. Is what happened at Insex really worse than what happens routinely at companies like Hewlett-Packard or IBM? Maybe, maybe not. The point is, the documentary gets you asking those questions, which is more than I expected from a film about naked, hogtied college girls.
Video and audio quality on the DVD of Graphic Sexual Horror is uniformly decent, with a clean image and good color presentation during the interview segments. (Video/audio quality varies on the clips of the S&M scenarios, depending on age and source.) Special features include a few deleted scenes (including an odd alternate ending with Brent driving around a country road and running his Land Rover into some branches), extra snippets of interview segments, and an interview with Barbara Bell, along with a trailer.
Graphic Sexual Horror isn't quite an apologia for a frankly horrific-sounding porn subculture, but it does strive to present an alternative viewpoint to most documentaries on porn, which tend to be pretty critical. Since most of the women who had negative experiences aren't present to provide their experiences, the balance of the piece is tilted towards those who had positive experiences, so it's not exactly an objective piece. I doubt that most people who aren't already favorably disposed toward the hardcore BDSM scene will be convinced of the artistic merit of Insex's productions -- if they watch this at all -- but Graphic Sexual Horror certainly is an eye-opener, and considering the subject matter, commendably avoids being sensationalistic or exploitative.
The court finds Graphic Sexual Horror not guilty, but nevertheless
sentences it to be chained to a stake and flogged unmercifully, because it's
just kinky that way.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site