The cinema of the horrendous has always relied on a combination of reality and special effects to achieve its ends—the manipulation of viewer emotional state through a sequence of shocking / disturbing images.
An extreme example are the films of the Viennese Action movement, particularly Otto Muehl's. These films include real blood, real feces, real animal slaughter, and, famously in one instance, a woman pleasuring (?) herself with the neck of a beheaded swan.
A less extreme example, perhaps, is the Mondo genre of films, initiated by the brilliant documentary Mondo Cane (1962). Though it started with the travelogue depiction of bizarre practices around the world, the genre quickly degenerated into a reliance on faked events. Already in Mondo Cane 2 (1963) the self-immolation of a Tibetan monk is faked (though, in fact because, such events actually occur, the filmmakers simply happened not to be present).
Japanese fetish cinema of the 1970s and 1980s also combined actual bondage and torture with simulated violence to create an overall atmosphere of deprivation. Notable examples here include Wife to be Sacrificed (1974) and the significantly more offensive (and less poetic) Captured for Sex 2 (1986). The Japanese also, however, introduced a brand of gore so excessive and minimal there was no room in the plot for real acts at all, most famously with Flowers of Flesh and Blood (1985). Significantly more excessive, though in some respects exemplifying similar spirit (drained, however, of the aesthetic vision provided by Flowers director and mangaka Hideshi Hino), is the utterly repulsive Flesh Daruma (1998), which combines real hardcore sex with simulated torture and murder.
Contemporary shock cinema has sought a happy medium between the real and the fake. The real aspects of the film lend plausibility to the fake, yet frequently now involve willing, even enthusiastic, participants. Here again we can see two dominant strategies for imbuing simulated violence with the veneer of reality: i) the inclusion of real acts of a shocking or graphic nature between simulated ones; ii) a documentary filmmaking style. Obviously, some films choose to employ iii) a combination of the two.
Falling into the first category are the recent films of Andreas Bethman, José Mojica Marins, and Randy Greif. Bethman's Angel of Death II: The Prison Island Massacre (2007) and K3: Prison of Hell (2009) both combine real (and graphic) hardcore sex with simulated torture and violence (via the special effects wizardry of Olaf Ittenbach). Marins' Embodiment of Evil (2008) and Greif's The Three Trials (2006) both feature performances by body modification enthusiasts intermingled with simulated torture and domination.
In the second category, one need look no farther than Fred Vogel's August Underground trilogy and Murder Collection, Vol. 1, discussed in some detail here. These four films all utilize a gritty verité / faux documentary style in order to heighten the effect of scenes of simulated gore.
Perhaps the grandest recent exemplars of the combined strategy are the "vomit gore" films of Lucifer Valentine 666, Slaughtered Vomit Dolls (2006) and ReGoregitated Sacrifice (2008). Both films combine real stripping, domination, and vomiting with simulated torture and murder, all shot in a documentary style. One hesitates to describe them even as "faux" documentaries given that the documented events (domination and vomiting) are frequently real, and the voice one hears of the satanic narrator is that of the director himself instructing his (willing) actors.
This brings us to the latest offering of ToeTag Productions, Maskhead. I have to admit, however, some befuddlement about the exact goal of Maskhead. It is noticeably lacking in any of the three strategies for combining realism with simulation displayed in the shock cinema genre. As a consequence, although the effects are, as always, up to ToeTag's high standards, the atmosphere of the film is confused and lacking in intensity or focus.
For example, Maskhead revolves around a couple of porn producers who lure would-be amateur porn actors and actresses into snuff films where they are slaughtered by an enigmatic masked figure. The trailer promises a puzzle concerning the identity of this "Maskhead"—is he "The Cowboy"? Will he turn on his employers? What are his motivations, his history? None of this is revealed. Furthermore, although the characters are ostensibly shooting porn, there is hardly any nudity in the film. The supposed "fetish porn" which introduces every Maskhead scene is extremely prudish, featuring actors in underwear or neglige. This is all especially surprising given that earlier ToeTag films (Redsin Tower (2006) and Murder Collection, Vol. 1 (2009) both feature sex scenes more explicit than anything in Maskhead (though obviously still simulated rather than real).
As a second example, consider the fisting scene, a scene played almost entirely for laughs. The scene works because of the charisma of the only interesting character in the whole movie, The Cowboy. But, again, it feels out of place. In a world where fisting, if not commonplace (though surely becoming more so), is publicly available through the magic of the internet, why not secure a genuine enthusiast to act in the film? The obvious answer—that such an amateur would not be able to uphold the acting standards of the film—doesn't seem applicable. In fact, uniformly, though not engaging in any pornographic acts, the level of sophistication of most of the acting is no better than that in the average porn flick (the notable exception, again, being The Cowboy).
The point here is not that one wishes to see fisting in a gore movie. In fact, quite the contrary. However, it is precisely because this is not the gut desire of the viewer that inclusion of such scenes would have heightened the realism, intensity, and atmosphere of the film as a whole. Surrounded by the implausible and the cartoon, the gore scenes themselves feel confusing and random. There is no build-up, no tension (at least not after it is revealed, early on, that The Cowboy is not Maskhead).
What about the second strategy for imbuing a shock film with a veneer of realism, a documentary style? In many ways the style of Maskhead is documentary-esque—handheld, shot-on-video, sporadic in image quality, etc. However, there is none of the artifice needed to make this interpretation convincing. The August Underground trilogy relied for its success on a compelling and convincing simulation of the homemovie. Murder Collection, Vol. 1 successfully simulates a lone collector's selection of accidental death videos. In both cases, there is a consistency of vision and style that supports the artifice, lending it plausibility. It is the very sporadic character of Maskhead that prevents any such illusion from taking hold. It is not the homemovie of the porn producers, it is not an accidental document, it is not even one of the videos they themselves produce (though there is an episode along these lines).
So, what then to make of Maskhead—who is it for? Why is it? As a piece of shock cinema, it largely fails (speaking by comparison here, of course). There is indeed extreme gore, but it is linked together by unfocussed vignettes featuring bad acting and zero plot development. This sounds suspiciously like porn—not capital-P Porn, but rather any exploitation genre film, serving the sole purpose of delivering the enthusiast his desires mounted on a pointless facade of filler. In this sense, the chop-sockey film is also a type of porn, and Maskhead itself is gore-porn.
Ironically, if Maskhead had included scenes of actual porn, if the fisting, for example, had actually been depicted, it would have been less porn-like in this exploitation sense. For then the gorehounds would have been shaken from their comfort zone, they would have been truly shocked and disgusted, rather then pleasantly titillated. If the viewer of Maskhead were truly made to feel horror and fear, disturbed and disgusted by his own emotional trajectory, then it could have risen to the level of some of the earlier ToeTag offerings.
Alternately, the film could have embraced a more traditional narrative structure. Perhaps if there had been tension, a reveal, a mystery, or retribution—some arc or change in the characters—the film could have avoided the gutter of shock and exploitation entirely and aspired to a more mainstream style. Perhaps this was the filmmakers' intent; though, if so, it leaves one puzzled about why the character of Maskhead was not developed more. Maskhead himself is not even developed as a mystery. We very rarely see him when he is not performing. How does he live? Where does he live? Why does he live? His enigma could have been served as the driving force behind the story, but by the end we have learned nothing. Nothing has changed but the death of some irrelevant (and also underdeveloped) amateur porn actors. Boo-Hoo.