Karim Hussain is known as one of the best cinematographers working in genre film. With credits that include Possessor, We Are Still Here, Random Acts of Violence and Hobo With a Shotgun. It’s easy to forget he’s also directed several films, most notably Subconscious Cruelty.
Shot over five years from 1994 to 1999 before premiering at the 2000 Sitges Film Festival, Subconscious Cruelty has been the subject of considerable controversy. And, with its surreal, almost avant garde imagery filled with violence and nudity that’s hardly surprising. Even now it remains a polarizing film. Is it art? Is it obscene, (Canadian customs actually seized a copy of it on those grounds.) Is it just pretentious garbage? I decided to go back and revisit it for the first time in about ten years and see what I thought.
Subconscious Cruelty is composed of four unrelated segments, the first of which is “Ovarian Eyeball”. A woman (Sophie Lauzière) lays naked on a slab. A hand runs over her body before placing a red cloth over her face and lightly running a scalpel over her. It seems like a bit of BDSM knife play until the blade cuts in deep and an eyeball is pulled out of her pelvic region.
Beautifully shot with no dialogue and excellent practical effects, “Ovarian Eyeball” is a gentle introduction to what is about to be unleashed on the viewer in the next three segments.
“Human Larvae” introduces us to a man (Ivaylo Founev, Burnt Eden) who lives with his sister (Brea Asher, Coyote Run). He hides in a closet to masturbate while watching her having sex with her boyfriend (Eric Levasseur). And when she becomes pregnant he takes care of her. But he has his own motives, which are anything but brotherly.
Again there’s no dialogue, but we do hear the brother’s inner monologue, and it is dark and twisted. We also see his blood filled hallucinations. The two combined drag the viewer into a world of madness and incestuous longings. It’s a segment that left me feeling disturbed and pulls off an ending that was obviously a major influence on A Serbian Film.
The third segment, they don’t really qualify as stories, is called “Rebirth”. A group of naked men and women roll around on the ground in what appears to be some kind of pagan ritual. As their hands dig into the ground what looks like blood oozes out. Blood flows from a snapped tree branch onto one of them. A woman does some very suggestive things with her mouth to a stick. A guy gives head to a knife a woman holds in her crotch.
I’m pretty much at a loss as to what it’s all supposed to mean. I can tell you that one of the male performers is the film’s producer Mitch Davis, better known as the man behind the Fantasia Film Festival. And that the women are certainly attractive, but not to the point I’d suck on a knife for them.
“Right Brain/Martyrdom” ends Subconscious Cruelty on quite the transgressive note. A businessman (Christopher Piggins, Lady of the Lake, Slashers) masturbates to a porn film before falling asleep. His dreams involve having his dick mutilated, female demons, doing heroin and naked women literally consuming the flesh and blood of a familiar looking guy in a crown of thorns. And did I mention he also gets sodomized with what looks like a small tree?
This was probably the segment that got Subconscious Cruelty seized by the authorities. We see some of the porn he’s watching and it does include hardcore penetration shots. There’s also images of his bloodied gear getting a hand job.
Subconscious Cruelty has some very striking and twisted images, there’s no denying that. However the lack of anything to go with them was a problem for me. “Human Larvae” is the only segment that has anything that even resembles a traditional story or plotline. Unsurprisingly it was the one that had the most effect on me. The others, while they had their shocking moments mostly had me scratching my head trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. I mean it’s obvious the last segment is venting some issues with Christianity. But what exactly?
While I was able to wrap my head around the likes of Saint Bernard, Death by 1,000 Cuts and The Spirit Gallery, Subconscious Cruelty goes way beyond that. Virtually dialogue and plot free this is one for those who are really into the surreal and love figuring out symbolism.
Surprisingly Subconscious Cruelty has a Facebook page. Perhaps not so surprisingly there’s nothing on it but a poster.