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Within two minutes of The Onania Club, women reach euphoric climax to a hanged man, a grotesquely-burnt infant and footage of 9/11. Tom Six is back, and he has such sights to show you.
Schadenfreude is the sensation of deriving pleasure from another’s misery. How unsurprising it is that the auteur behind The Human Centipede trilogy, spawned from childhood jollity about punishing child molesters, has a fascination with this emotion.
The Dutch filmmaker’s latest project – his first in the five years since Final Sequence – is a starkly satirical, low-budget neo-noir with less ass-to-mouth and more hands-to-loins. For reference, the tagline is: ‘Come And See, See And Come.’
Hanna Vertree (Jessica Morris) is troubled by her pleasures. As her MS-suffering husband stumbles around their home in pain, her eyes roll to the back of her head in ecstasy. If there’s a mass killing on the news, it’s straight into the virtual wank-bank.
Even when her best friend explains their partner has been horrifically disfigured as a result of an IED in Afghanistan, Hanna has to pop off to the bathroom and actually relieve herself. For our tragically horny protagonist, she’s constantly stuck between a rock and a wet place.
This brand of rotten fetishism is designed to appal. In the rare event she does tell someone, they condemn with the wrath of God (literally, as a Christian Biblical counsellor marches her out the door). For an afflicted soul searching for answers, her milieu is neglectful without compassion. One could argue Six points the finger at society’s performative quest to help – but be honest, how would you react?
Enter Rose (Flo Lawrence), an older woman promising bountiful support and grisly jollies in The Onania Club, an exclusive group for females carnally fond of ‘violence, accidents and any kind of disease’. Masturbation-and-wine days ensue.
It’s an often strange and grim reverie, with early scenes floating through LA with an almost, dare I say it, Wiseau-ian dissonance. Although, with Ian A. Hughes’ score see-sawing between the cool, smoky jazz of tinseltown and suspenseful, head-tilting percussion, there’s always a sense of a greater game in play.
There’s also James Ruffell’s vivid black-and-white cinematography; less grungy than David Meadows’ work on Full Sequence, it’s particularly commanding in the increasingly tactile, ahem, intimate scenes. Blandness can creep to the fore in transitioning moments, though.
Depravity is a given in a Six joint. While his Cronenbergian flair attracted infamy (and a fair degree of praise) in the first Human Centipede outing, the sequels – which featured a woman being raped with barbed wire wrapped around a creep’s member and a baby’s skull being crushed on a gas pedal – felt not just amoral, but fruitless.
The Onania Club is different; a wittier, authentically nastier beast with a compelling (and actual) agenda. At a crisp 80 minutes, there’s no time for riffraff – for better or worse, pretty much every moment is designed to get under your skin.
The cult of cream’s cruelty is diverse: on one hand you have an oncologist getting tricksy with cancer cells; on the other you have a girl’s trip to Africa that unfolds like a Twilight Zone‘s Sex and the City 2.
These showcases of gratification vary in impact – one impersonation-based vignette (featuring an unexpected appearance from Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration) is a little too sketch-showy. But when Six hits a nerve, he pulverises it. There’s a brutal home invasion sequence here reminiscent of Lucio A. Rojas’s Trauma – afterwards, I felt the need for a bath in holy water.
You’ve got to commend the performances. As the soul of the film, Morris has more meat on her character’s bones – but the real sickly joy stems from the other members of the club, bolstered by the director-writer’s hammy penmanship. You’ll never hear the words ‘Hello, Mr Bogart’ the same way again.
Lawrence boasts a malevolent aura much like Dieter Laser’s Dr. Heiter (to whom the film is dedicated), while her pantomime-esque cohorts add a much-craved degree of theatricality. Their committed turns may draw criticism for Six’s ‘male gaze’, but this would be misplaced. The erotica is icky, not sexy – it’s rightly wrong.
Yes, it’s a fairly merciless provocation. Yes, people will decry its lechery. And no, it’s absolutely not for everyone. But The Onania Club has a topical current that gives cause for pause – it’s all goes back to schadenfreude.
The internet is a bloodbath – clicks afore principles. Every day, across Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, ghastly images are shared, retweeted and liked. Oh, sad react this! Oh, laugh react that! More and more, people have become desensitised to suffering. The throes of contemporary life are increasingly at our disposal.
Look back to March 2019: New Zealand’s Christchurch shooting, in which a gunman opened fire on two mosques, all while livestreaming. Obviously, people watched. Even worse, the 15-minute-plus massacre did the rounds afterwards. With Six’s film, he ponders: how far removed are some from the point in which morbid curiosity evolves into something sensual?
Social media’s horror provocateur has returned. Love him or hate him, Six is on morbid form. But with a newly-refined nihilism, he’s crafted a smart, punchy vision of humanity’s burrowed darkness. Remember: ‘These violent delights have violent ends.’
There is currently no release date for The Onania Club.
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