In 2006, I was working at Fangoria Magazine, and each week the staff waited with excited glee for new episodes of MASTERS OF HORROR. This anthology show, conceived by director Mick Garris, allowed legendary horror filmmakers to craft their own one hour stand-alone stories. Some of the episodes were amazing and some not so much, but it was always a blast to see what each director would create. And because it was Showtime, the directors seemed to have full autonomy when it came to gore and sex, both of which the series was full of. They went wherever their twisted brains wanted to travel.
By this point Takashi Miike had gained international notoriety among diehard horror fans for his hyper-violent, transgressive, and bizarre movies like AUDITION, VISITOR Q, GOZU, and ICHI THE KILLER, but he was still relatively unknown with the general movie-going populace in America, at least compared to some of the show’s other directors like John Landis or John Carpenter. I recall being incredibly excited that they had included Miike in the director selections. J-horror was soaring in popularity, and it was nice to see some Japanese stylings in the mix.
Then the news came that Showtime had banned Takashi Miike’s episode because it was too extreme. Too extreme for Showtime? Too extreme for a TV show that had prided itself on being extreme? Showtime eventually released the episode to DVD several months later.
I recall hearing fan and industry chatter that the producers should have known what they were getting themselves in to when they asked Miike to be part of the mix. Though he directs everything from musicals to kids’ films in Japan, his horror films are always incredibly brutal. I would venture to say VISITOR Q may be one of the most distressing movies I’ve ever seen.
I think that Miike’s inclusion was a very active and smart choice to add variety and a sense of danger to the show. While the bulk of the filmmakers were known to US audiences, Miike was new, transgressive, and threatening. We all knew that Joe Dante would deliver a charming horror comedy. But god knows what horrible debaucheries Miike would deliver!
So what made this episode so extreme that it had to be banned from one of the most progressive cable channels? Is the episode still as intense and disturbing now a decade later? Let’s take a closer look.
The episode, called IMPRINT, stars veteran horror actor Billy Drago as a gentleman who has traveled around Japan searching for a prostitute he fell in love with years ago and promised to come back and marry. He takes a river boat to an isolated island brothel where he spends the evening with a deformed prostitute who informs him that his love was there, but killed herself. Deep in sorrow, Drago begs her to tell him what she knows about his love and her demise. The prostitute spins a disturbing yarn full of deceit and torture. Drago insists the prostitute is lying, so she then reveals the truth about his now deceased love as well as the story of her own life which is downright soul shattering.
IMPRINT is surreal. The garb and surroundings are uncomfortably colored in bright hues including Kool-Aid red and blue hair. The characters themselves are from a David Lynch-esque nightmare including a dwarf missing his nose who wears a chicken on his head, a number of deformities and odd-looking performers, and also for good measure, a clown.
The camera lingers in stagnant, unmoving shots for an uncomfortably long time, usually centered on heinous atrocities like graphic rape, pedophile priests, and spousal beating. Though the audience is mentally praying for the camera to shift or for an edit point, there is no visual relief until the violence has fully peaked. The strange style is also amplified by Billy Drago’s peculiar acting choices, which range from subverted, down-gazed mumbling to chewing the scenery in flamboyant outbursts of passionate despair.
The segment also, somehow, feels like a satire. Though the content is clearly transgressive and extreme, it at times is presented in an almost comedic fashion. The episode opens with a river boat ferrying a group of brothel patrons across a body of water. While in transit, they happen on the floating bloated corpse of a very pregnant woman, implying that she was a former prostitute who had become pregnant. The ferryman tries to re-sink the bloated pregnant body, poking it repeatedly with an oar. The scene is highly distressing, but as the corpse bobs up and down stubbornly refusing to sink, it also seems rather comedic.
In addition to scenes of graphic torture, incest, urination and more, the main storyteller assists her mother in her work as an abortionist. Let’s just say the episode likely had a sizable “dead rubber fetus” budget. And even the show’s creator, Mick Garris, seemed to understand where Showtime was coming from in their decision to halt the episode’s screening. In a New York Times article from 2006 announcing that the episode would be shelved, Garris stated, “I think it’s amazing, but it’s even hard for me to watch. It’s definitely the most disturbing film I’ve ever seen.”
So yes, IMPRINT is extreme, and it is easy to see why Showtime may have felt the need to relegate this one to a DVD release. But I think the producers of MASTERS OF HORROR were fully aware what they were getting into from the start when they asked Miike to join the show. Additionally, I’m fairly certain Miike knew the boundaries and sacred motifs he was stabbing at. He employed a RASHOMON tactic of storytelling (which is a great choice for a horror plot requiring shocks and reveals), but chose to include a heap of controversy, throwing everything from incest to abortions to extreme torture sequences into an American-made TV show. So no one should have been that surprised by the “banned” outcome.
Ultimately, the most important factor is how the episode was received by the audience and fans of the show. As happens with most banned material, I recall hearing the bulk of sentiments fall into two camps- “that was so extreme and disturbing” or “that wasn’t extreme at all”. I don’t recall any comments on the actual content or segment outside of “it was extreme” or “not that extreme”. And such is the problem with labeling a piece of media as “banned”. Instead of being able to judge the project as a piece of art, the media tends to then only be seen as a test of mental vigor. The question of “is it actually good?” gets lost in the “can you stomach it?” challenge.
IMPRINT certainly does seem to be saying something larger than all the controversial subject matter. The theatrical nature and hyper-stylized look seem to be taking aim at a deeper message. But I fear any larger message and the rationale for the show’s cynical viewpoint (beyond just prostitutes having shitty lives) has been lost in a sea of carnage and torture.
That said, IMPRINT is still worth watching if you can stomach it. The episode is a unique blend of beautifully stylish filmmaking and repugnant moments. But this segment is by no means for everyone. Even a decade later, it still is an outrageous and unnerving array of atrocities. And I warned you about all the dead fetuses.