[NSFW warning: graphic and disturbing images ahead]
Not too long ago, we corralled a collection of the most extreme Nine Inch Nails music videos ever made, and you should definitely check those out pronto. But as my fellow NIN superfan Rob Galuzzo rightly pointed out in that article, many of the most eyeball-burning, stomach-churning clips featured therein are parts of a larger project — the 20-minute-long promotional film for the band’s 1992 mini-album BROKEN.
Never intended to be officially released, BROKEN was co-created by Reznor and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson (of industrial bands Throbbing Gristle and Coil) in 1993, as a framing device for the majority of the album’s music videos. The framing story was designed to look like a “snuff” film, presumably comprised of edited highlights from a sadistic serial killer’s home video collection.
The framing story, which ranges from crude, fragmented camcorder footage to widescreen black & white 35mm film, centers on the actions of a nameless psychopath, who abducts a young man and subjects him to an increasingly horrific gamut of tortures — which begin with a gasoline can and a pair of pliers, then progress to a straight razor and a blowtorch, and conclude with a large chainsaw.
Throughout the victim’s ordeal, the killer screens music videos from the BROKEN album, beginning with the Grammy-winning “Wish” and ending with a blood-drenched interpretation of “Gave Up,” during which the killer dispatches his prey and does unmentionable things to the corpse.
The latter video was obviously replaced with a completely new “safe” version for MTV, which shows Reznor and other musicians recording the track (look closely for a makeup-free Marilyn Manson on guitar and backing vocals).
Even this clip generated some controversy, as it was filmed in the house where actress Sharon Tate and several others were murdered by the Manson Family in 1969. Reznor had famously rented the house in 1992 for use as a recording studio.
Interspersed with this footage are short black & white films by Eric Goode and Serge Becker, showcasing the brief instrumental breaks on the EP including “Help Me I Am In Hell” (which was missing from some early bootleg copies) and “Pinion” (later appropriated in part by MTV for the opening of the program ALTERNATIVE NATION). You can watch them in their entirety here.
Also included is the infamous and often censored film “Happiness in Slavery,” directed by Jon Reiss, which stars late performance artist Bob Flanagan as a man who voluntarily sacrifices himself to a nightmare machine that simultaneously pleasures him and tears his body to shreds.
The tale closes as it opens, with the execution of the grinning killer, who looks strangely satisfied with himself… until the noose around his neck snaps taut and rips his head off.
Why, you may ask, would an artist deliberately create a “promotional” film that he knew could never possibly be used for promotional purposes? A film which remains shocking and grotesque over two decades later, even to the eyes of today’s jaded horror audiences?
Only Trent Reznor knows the full answer to that, and he’s not telling… well, not officially, anyway. But he’s certainly given us some hints.
To begin with, the now-revered EP itself was conceived as a kind of rogue project — a rage-fueled, toxic spit in the eye of the record label executive through which Reznor released his smash debut album PRETTY HATE MACHINE, and who subsequently tried to seize control of the licensing rights to any follow-up material.
That resentment against music industry suits might have influenced Reznor’s decision to create an “unwatchable” promo for the EP, which could have further distanced execs from what they might perceive as a dangerous, unmarketable artist.
Trent himself was ultimately a bit shocked at what he and Christopherson had wrought, and initially distanced himself from the film, believing that its extreme shock value would eclipse the impact of the music. Only a handful of copies were struck from the original master tapes, and given only to select friends and fellow artists.
Curiously, Reznor embedded different anomalies in each of the copies he handed out; his intent was to discover who might be inclined to create and distribute bootleg copies of the tapes, and those variations enabled him to trace the bootlegs to their source. Not that he did anything about it; it seems he was just testing how trustworthy his “friends” really were.
Apart from the Grammy-winning video for “Wish,” most of BROKEN became the stuff of urban legend and was only available in low-quality traded VHS copies for many years… at least until December of 2006, when high-quality DVD files for the entire uncut film were uploaded to former torrent aggregator The Pirate Bay, by a user known only as seed0.
It’s now widely believed (though never proven) that seed0 was Trent Reznor himself, thanks to the following cryptic message on his own blog:
12/21/06: Happy Holidays! This one is a guilt-free download. (shhhh — I didn’t say that out loud). If you know what I’m talking about, cool.
Those fans fortunate enough to download that torrent were gifted with the only DVD-quality version available outside of Reznor’s own master tapes.
Finally, in May 2013, the full and uncut BROKEN was uploaded to Vimeo, from which it could be accessed through the band’s social media accounts… but it was almost immediately taken down, due to Vimeo’s content rules against “excessive violence.”
In spite (or perhaps because) of its graphic torture imagery and notorious reputation, BROKEN steadfastly refuses to go away… as proven this year, when the film was made available online yet again, this time via Archive.org.
If you think you’re up to the challenge (and presuming you’re able to deflect it from more sensitive viewers), I’d advise visiting that link as soon as possible, before BROKEN goes slipping away…