This piece of extreme horror is more than just skin-deep in more ways than one.
The conflict between our physical bodies and the self that inhabits them is one that anyone can relate to. We all have certain things that bother us about our physical forms, be it simply cosmetic issues, the ability to express ourselves a certain way, or not identifying with our birth gender. I personally believe that this is powerful territory to mine in a film. It can be such a universal experience and, at the same time, incredibly specific. Movies have a powerful way of interfacing with the human psyche. It allows us to relate to them while also adding a bit of ourselves to how we interpret the films.
One of the best extreme horror films to accomplish this is American Guinea Pig: Sacrifice. What seems to be a straightforward extreme display of ritualized violence instead becomes a powerful statement about the will to be as one wants. It serves as a metaphor for many different queer lifestyles.
A Primer on Guinea Pig(s)
For those unfamiliar, the American Guinea Pig films are an anthology series of Western Guinea Pig films. The original Guinea Pig series is both notorious and heavily lauded in extreme horror circles for graphic, extended sequences of realistic violence. It varied in tone and plot structure, including the melancholy Mermaid in a Manhole and the black humor/satire of Devil Doctor Woman. The original series of films wrapped up in 1990, but have remained highly praised, if hard to find in recent years.
The main DVD US release for the series came from the company Unearthed Films, run by Stephen Biro. Biro managed to keep the rights to the name and launched his own series of Guinea Pig films in 2014 with Bouquet of Guts and Gore. The first film is a faux-snuff replication like the infamous Flower of Flesh and Blood. But the series has expanded its ideas rapidly while working with a different director for almost every film. Biro directed Bouquet and The Song of Solomon, while Marcus Koch directed Bloodshock and Poison Rouge directed Sacrifice.
The series has long been a subversive cornerstone of the extreme horror landscape. While I could write at length about many of these (One of these days, Bloodshock, one of these days), American Guinea Pig: Sacrifice is perhaps the most thematically interesting of the entire series.
Destruction of the Past
The plot of American Guinea Pig: Sacrifice follows a single day/afternoon with the protagonist: Daniel. Daniel is covered with scars and has recently lost his father. The reasons for his trauma and the passing of his father are all left vague. But we are aware that he has a history of self-harm. The film takes place almost entirely within a bathroom in Daniel’s apartment. There he endeavors to summon the goddess Ishtar (potentially a wink towards foundational extreme film Blood Feast) from within his own body.
Before I dig into the film, I would like to say that I take a lot of the film at a metaphorical level. The violence itself is immediate, unflinching and unsettling. However, much of the thematic intent uses violence as a way to draw attention to the internal conflict and struggle within Daniel. That being said, a lot of the coming description and analysis is based around very graphic depictions of self-harm. I’d like to proffer a bit of a warning in advance.
Daniel believes that the goddess Ishtar resides within his own flesh. The purpose of this day, for him, is to release her from his body for the purpose of “fucking the goddess”. He uses straight and gendered terms for the process; it’s the last vestige of straight masculinity that will be cast off with his past skin. It could also be due to a limited understanding of the language and terminology for the process Daniel will undergo throughout the film. It’s shown and hinted that Daniel is doing this based on an innate feeling. He’s simply moving towards the outcome that his body desires.
The first injury is a cut that Daniel opens on his hand. The cut forms into a vagina. Daniel then performs cunnilingus on the wound in maybe one of the bloodiest metaphors for masturbation that I’ve ever seen. This is the first time we hear the voice of Ishtar, who speaks to him and urges him forward. At the disappearance of her voice, he opens a hole in his forehead, in an explicit presentation of the opening of the third eye. From here, the violence grows in the damage done and the required lengths that Daniel must go.
It should be noted that there is a very occult and ritualistic nature to the violence presented within. Each act of violence is drawn out and purposeful. Daniel does exactly what each step requires to reach his desired endpoint: to become Ishtar. This focus on the occult and ritual gives the film a languid, yet purposeful tone. The acts are not carried out in huge passionate strokes, but instead from a purposeful desire. This makes it more clear that what Daniel is doing is something that is regimented and desired, rather than a sudden idea or flash of passion.
But Daniel doesn’t always maintain a stoic determination. He occasionally finds himself overcome with shame or worry. This is akin to the process of displaying your true self, where some internalized ideas and prejudices can make the process more painful or distressing. This could apply to any queer lifestyle, whether it be gay, lesbian, non-binary, trans or anything in between. The worry, for Daniel, is overcome very quickly as he posts his actions to social media and continues after short, introspective moments of concern.
The rest of the violence in American Guinea Pig: Sacrifice is targeted towards the complete destruction of the masculine past that Daniel finds himself trapped in. He sees Ishtar in the mirror, beckoning him towards change and the transformation of his body through the removal of outward masculinity. Then, he starts with his final male sexual act, where he inserts a screwdriver into his urethra and masturbates. He describes this as the act of “fucking the goddess”. He’s essentially playing out the sexual act through penetration of his male genitalia while also making it a stand-in for a vagina. This is followed by the removal of the penis, and an attempt at female masturbation.
After all of this is complete, he falls below the surface of the bathtub. Emerging from the bloody water is Ishtar, exactly as she had been seen in the mirror. She posts her new form to social media, then we see the shell of Daniel, blue and covered in maggots. The past self has been left behind completely and the new, comfortable form has taken its place. With this, the film ends with some information on Ishtar as a goddess of war and sexuality, hinting at previous castration rituals in the goddess’ name.
Invoking the Feminine and the Husk of Masculinity
I know that’s a lot to take in, but American Guinea Pig: Sacrifice lends itself to interesting readings and interpretations. The film is about the destruction of the past self and reveling in the desired form/image that the self desires. It’s explicitly about the destruction of the masculine form in order to produce the image of the feminine self that is internally desired, which would lend itself well to a trans reading. However, I believe this is better explored by a trans writer. So we’ll focus on the release of self in general.
The film approaches the rigorous divide between the masculine and feminine in heteronormative society and essentially dismantles it. The shame and worry that Daniel feels are from internalized prejudices that attempt to stop him from reaching the state where he becomes Ishtar, the desired projection of self. The arc of ritualistic transformation and changes in outward appearance is a literalization of the inner struggle that many queer people feel. It can be scary and painful to live how you see yourself on the inside. The film makes these points through the high levels of extreme violence. It makes the ideas impossible to ignore, and the thoughts that the film brings up must be reckoned with.
Beyond that, the film successfully shows how strange heteronormative gender ideas truly are. This is based on the conception of the goddess Ishtar, who is a goddess of both sexuality and war. She reaches into a space that would be considered masculine by most cultures (war). But she also represents sexuality and sex in general. Ishtar was not considered a motherly or nurturing character. Instead, she existed as a carnal force that held sway over both violence and sex. That idea itself is a knock against heteronormative values. It’s interesting how looking to the past can inform us about how much things have become regimented in the current day.
This information at the end forces a new lens on the actions that preceded it. It plays more to the idea of gender and sexuality as a spectrum, rather than demarcated lines of desire and gender. I personally believe that this lends a lot more thematic depth to the picture as a whole, and adds more to dive into. The film itself isn’t very long. But it’s laden with metaphorical significance that is only drawn out further by the connections to ancient goddesses and occult rituals. This could also be a subversion of modern religious belief, which also places queer individuals as outsiders and sinners. It plays very neatly back into the ideas of displaying the self but having to get past internal prejudice to arrive at pure self-understanding.
American Guinea Pig: Sacrifice can be a difficult watch. But it’s one that produces a lot of introspection and interesting thoughts in the viewers. It stands as a stellar example of the way that extreme horror can force us to confront difficult topics, while also showing the transformation of a character into their idealized, queer form. Using violence to portray the struggle between the inner self, outside appearance and cultural forces makes for a compelling mixture that leaves a strong mark on the viewer. It is not a film that is very easily forgotten.
A side note before closing this out: there has been a lot of mention of inner turmoil and self-harm throughout the article. If anyone out there is reading this and finds themselves in situations like these, remember that there are many different places to reach out. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 800-273-8255. Find someone to talk to and take care of yourselves, whoever you may be. Stay safe and stay beautiful.