I admittedly have a repulsion/fascination with the film MERMAID IN A MANHOLE, possibly one of the grossest movies ever made. I first watched the fetid flick in college via overly dubbed VHS tape. Part of the larger GUINEA PIG film series (known for excessive gore and torture), I had seen several of the series’ other inclusions and was not a fan. But something about this one intrigued me, most likely the fact that mermaids were not a common topic in horror films. Though I enjoyed the idea that they were somehow transgressive, I had found the excessive torture in the other GUINEA PIG flicks to be quite boring and still do.
Yet MERMAID IN A MANHOLE has actually become one of my more memorable horror movie experiences, not so much for the grossness or hyper-colored pus-filled palette, but more for the weird and awkward underpinnings of environmentalism and art.
MERMAID IN A MANHOLE (1988) is part of the aforementioned, legendary GUINEA PIG series from Japan. The series consists of seven flicks, all notorious for their ultra-gore. Released primarily in the 1980s, the films began traveling overseas via bootleg in the 90s. The movies have little to no connection with each other, making the primary link the ultra-gore and extremity. And while most of the movies focus their plots on “experiments” in pain and torture, some of the series inclusions have slightly more intricate set-ups from which the gore spawns.
The GUINEA PIG series received a good bit of notoriety when actor Charlie Sheen supposedly viewed one of the films and thought it was a real snuff film (according to the 8/7/94 San Francisco Examiner). As the story goes, Sheen reported the movie to FBI which after an investigation determined that the potential snuff material was actually just a scene from the GUINEA PIG movie FLOWERS OF FLESH AND BLOOD. There is also a rumor that the series’ filmmakers were repeatedly called into courts in Japan to prove the fakeness of the shocking content, not unlike the court proceedings for CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.
In MERMAID IN A MANHOLE, a young boy is visiting a beautiful river and sees a mermaid swimming around. He is so inspired that he draws a picture of her. Now, as an adult, the man returns to this same spot but instead of the peaceful river, he finds a grotesque sewer. And there, amidst the filth and garbage, he finds his mermaid, now sick from all the pollution. The man takes her home and places the mermaid in his bathtub. Realizing she is dying from severe skin infections and lacerations, he paints her once again, now as a diseased, oozing creature in his bathtub. But, and here is where the ultra-gore element kicks in, the man decides to use the mermaid’s own oozing fluids as the paint. As her bodily fluids leak out in a RAINBOW BRITE array of colored goo, the man uses that goo to create a painting. BTW- the mermaid leaks in seven different colors (according to the subtitles).
So yes, MERMAID IN A MANHOLE gets really nasty. The movie is ultimately meant to disgust, and it is repugnant indeed. But somehow amidst the bubbling body fluids, there are messages of environmentalism and the poetics of watching a childhood vision die. And whereas much of the rest of the GUINEA PIG series utilizes a found footage or “real” aesthetic to try to push the notion that you are watching actual atrocities, MERMAID IN A MANHOLE is well-shot, leaving the audience to focus on the blood, boils, and an oddly elegiac message attempting to permeate the gore.
For decades the GUINEA PIG films were hard to find in the states, and they still are a bit tough to hunt down. If you are feeling daring (and wealthy), there is a giant box set of all the films that will set you back a few hundred dollars. But, I would only recommend the larger series for diehard gorehounds on a quest for something ultra-shocking. Though MERMAID does have some fascinating tones, the bulk of series is as revolting as you can get. Approach with heavy caution and an empty stomach.