The cover of the DVD has a picture of a man, bloodied and mouth open, being force-fed an eyeball by a woman with chopsticks. The tagline says “SAW was just an appetizer… welcome to the main course.” The movie’s called “Meat Grinder.” I didn’t have high hopes for this one.
I don’t know if it says worse things about me or about the state of horror movies, but in my third decade of horror fandom, I am bored to death by gore. It’s not that I have anything against gore in movies, it’s just that it’s a game of diminishing returns. The first time you see Tom Savini blow up some guy’s head, it’s mind-blowing. The 37th time… well, that’s just what happens to heads sometimes. When I was 12 a film could sustain my interest just by having a few limbs hacked off every ten minutes or so. Twenty years later, a movie that leans on gore to hide the fact that it doesn’t have a story or interesting characters is more likely to put me to sleep than titillate me.
The fact that “Meat Grinder” embraces the torture porn label and slaps a reference to “SAW” on the front cover did not bode well. I was expecting another weird Asian gore movie filled with arterial sprays and decapitations and while “Meat Grinder” was certainly that, it was also a whole lot more. “Meat Grinder” might just be the most densely plotted, stylistically complex, melodramatic torture porn ever made.
The story is essentially “Sweeney Todd” (or “Motel Hell” if you prefer) recast in the political turmoil of 1970s Thailand. Buss, the operator of a noodle cart, finds a dead body in her cart following a violent anti-government riot and decides to listen to the voices in her head and not to let all that good meat go to waste. That’s the gist of the story but it goes much deeper to her relationship with her daughter to her own troubled childhood. The movie jumps between present and past and fantasy and reality with a speed that is disconcerting and will probably prompt many viewers to rewind the movie in confusion, thinking they missed something.
Maybe the best way to describe “Meat Grinder” is as a bizarre mash-up of the arthouse and the grindhouse, equal parts Wong Kar-Wai and Eli Roth. Visually, it uses a mishmash of styles from oversaturated colors to washed out sepia tones to lens flares to handheld cameras to whatever other stylistical trick the filmmakers felt like using on that particular day. There are quite a few stunningly beautiful shots in the movie but with so many different styles at work it all gets a bit busy and dizzying. It’s also interesting to see a torture porn movie that eschews the fast paced editing of mainstream horror and takes the slow, deliberate pace more common in Asian films. Some scenes linger long enough that the caffeinated gore buzz wears off and a sick feeling of disgust at what we’re seeing begins to sink in. The music is also understated, consisting mostly of ambient noises and well-chosen moments of silence with the occasional irony-drenched easy listening love song thrown in for good measure.
Despite all the artiness, “Meat Grinder” is most definitely a gore movie and the effects are handled well. They almost all appear to be practical effects and along with the more typical hatchets to the head and severed limbs there are a few scenes that manage to find unexplored territory in stomach churning torture. When Buss keeps her prey fresh and at hand by nailing a man to the floor by his fingernails it’s hard not to cringe a little bit and even moreso when the man escapes by wrenching his ruined fingertips away from the nails. It’s a hell of a gross setpiece that can take its place among some of the most unsettling gore scenes in recent years.
Maybe the biggest obstacle “Meat Grinder” faces is its schizophrenic nature. It might be too arty and confusing for the buckets of blood set and the extreme gore and subject matter will all but guarantee that many fans of arthouse Asian cinema will give this film a miss. If you don’t mind a little chocolate in your peanut butter (or more to the point, plucked-eyeballs in your art film) then you might enjoy “Meat Grinder” as a torture porn film made by people who are probably far too ambitious and talented to be making torture porn films.