Color, 1999, 80 mins 25 secs.
Directed by Karim Hussain
Starring Brea Asher, Ivaylo Founev
Cinestrange Extreme (Blu-ray & DVD) (Austria RB/R2 HD/PAL), Elephant Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (France RB/R2 HD/PAL), Sazuma (Austria R2 PAL), PAND (Japan R2 NTSC)
A loosely constructed, visually rich and highly explicit meditation on man's relation to himself and the world around him, Subconscious Cruelty further blurs that already shaky line between art house pretension and unrepentant sleaze. Though the framework revolves around three (or arguably four) stories, this Canadian time bomb concealed in celluloid is definitely way beyond the land of Amicus and EC Comics. Best known to the film festival crowd at the time for their involvement in the annual Fantasia film festival, director Karim Hussain (who later went on to shoot Hobo with a Shotgun and multiple Hannibal episodes) and producer Mitch Davis (who previously collaborated on Davis' directorial debut, Divided into Zero) had to endure an obscenity bust and the near loss of the film's negative due to legal entanglements, finally completing this opus after years of work. The final result is so odd, aggressive, and perpetually vicious, one has to admire the spirit of the piece even if it can't be termed "enjoyable" in the traditional sense.
The opening urges viewers to reject the left, "rational" side of the human brain and instead indulge in a world of free association, bestial instinct, and irrational hallucination. To back this up, viewers are treated to "Ovarian Eyeball," a quick, gruesome study about the primitive nature of childbirth. The first full segment, "Human Larvae," establishes an unhealthy relationship between a young man and his pregnant sister; his obsessive, sexualized need to control her leads to a particularly nasty birthing scene that no doubt sent unprepared viewers scrambling for the exits. Things take a turn for the lighter in the nonlinear second act, "Rebirth," a sort of nature worship bacchanal in which naked free spirits form a bloody communion with the earth, trees, and each other. It's quite upbeat and funny in a particularly bent way; pagans in particular should find this one enjoyable. The harshest of the bunch, "Right Brain/Martyrdom," is saved for last; s a man indulging in some mechanical self-gratification is suddenly transported into a nightmarish landscape of genital mutilation, clawed female demons, and a mock crucifixion tableau with a particularly nasty punchline. Don't say you weren't warned!
The first DVD release of Subconscious Cruelty came courtesy of Japan, whose relaxed censorship standards allowed the film's plentiful frontal nudity to pass without visual blurring or digitizing. Some glimpses of hardcore porn on a television remain understandably blurred, but for some reason fogging also pops up during the aforementioned weenie torture scene (done with prosthetics and fake blood), making one wonder exactly what the problem is when material like Men behind the Sun gets through unscathed. The film is transferred in its original 4:3 aspect ratio and looks quite detailed and colorful; grain inherent in the picture is due to the original materials. Though light on dialogue, the film can be played either dubbed in Japanese or in its original English with non-removable Japanese subtitles. The audio is more immediately impressive; a great deal of work went into the disturbing, heavily layered soundtrack, and the oppressive surround mix featuring Teruhiko Suzuki's score often equals or even overwhelms the already extreme visuals. Extras include the festival and Japanese trailers and a delirious making-of featurette, which includes some handy tips on how to create living, writhing maggots for the budget-conscious filmmaker.
A more lavish option is the 2005 deluxe PAL two-disc edition from the now defunct Sazuma, which contains a completely uncensored version of the main feature on disc one either in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio or an optional 1.66:1 matted option, which improves some compositions but also masks off some nasty details on the periphery of the frame. Audio options include a jolting 5.1 remix as well as surround and stereo options. The disc is rounded off with an introduction by Hussain and the original trailer.
Disc two kicks off with a making-of documentary (77m22s) expanding on the aforementioned featurette, going deeply into detail about the arduous process of bringing this nightmarish vision to the screen. Both director and producer are heavily featured, along with plenty of behind the scenes anecdotes and a framing device connected to... Christmas? Davis' Divided into Zero (34m14s), which presents a harrowing look at one male persona through the prism of three different ages, turns up here as well, completely uncensored, along with a making-of featurette, a trailer, and a frank, down to earth Davis intro. Not enough? You also get text interviews with Hussain and Davis, the short film "La Derniere Voix" by Hussain and Julien Fonfrede, snippets of Davis' early short films, unreleased audio tracks by David Kristian, a photo gallery, and Rick Trembles' appropriately over-the-top comic strip rendition of the main feature. The whole thing comes packaged in a nifty fold-out (and very brown) cardboard case with an insert booklet containing notes by Marcus Stiglegger, in both English and German depending on which way you start reading it.
In 2018, Austrian label Cinestrange issued the film on Blu-ray in three different mediabook editions limited to 2,000 units, still for the collector's market but more accessible than the 2013 French Blu-ray (same extras and transfer) that went out of circulation very quickly. As Hussain explains on the disc, this HD transfer was taken from the 16mm answer print and reflects the intended look: colorful, dark, imperfect, and gritty. It's definitely several notches above past releases in terms of clarity with the darker scenes in particular faring better as those hot, intense reds don't bleed anymore. DTS-HD 5.1 English and German audio options are both strong for a low-budget '90s mix, with optional subtitles in both languages also provided. The full making-of doc is included along with Divided into Zero (both from the usual preexisting SD masters), while a new interview with Hussain (16m17s) takes a look back at the long process (over six years) of getting the film to completion, the 16mm lensing, the reason the credits look so rough, and the logistics of doing the new HD transfer for this "fun, charming time capsule." Also included are an image gallery and the bonus Davis short, "God's Little Girl" (15m54s), which is visually stunning and very, very grim. Also included are an image gallery, couple of trailers, German liner notes by Marcus Alexander Stiglegger, and bonus trailers for Stelvio Massi's Il commissario di ferro and Sergio Martino's insane American Tiger.
Updated review on January 3, 2019.