Fans of Nine Inch Nails and loud music know the story of the Broken EP, but for those less familiar, here is the Reader's Digest version: Upset with his record label Trent Reznor recorded, in secret, an album of loud aggressive rock completely unlike his first album (1989's Pretty Hate Machine). He would eventually win a Grammy for the track "Wish" before finding the biggest success of his career with 1994's The Downward Spiral.
There is a lesser-known story concerning Broken, a story that survived the '90s and early '00s as hearsay on messages boards and 8th-generation VHS dubs found at record conventions. It was the story of a movie, also titled Broken, that was so vile it would never see the light of day.
And then in 2006, everything changed. The movie that was supposed to be the stuff of nightmares suddenly appeared online.
Sharing its name with the EP, Broken can be viewed as an anthology film. It features music videos for five of the EP's six songs surrounded by a narrative concerning a man being tortured to death and the execution of his tormentor. We're not talking about your average Hollywood horror show either: With its low-budget look the video it could easily be mistaken for a snuff film.
Once completed, Trent Reznor made the decision not to release it. The feeling was that the visual content would be so controversial it would overshadow the music. The only copies of it that existed in the wild came from a bootleg that Reznor had given to a friend. (Trent would later point the finger at Butthole Surfers front man Gibby Haynes.)
It's no surprise that the movie went from an analog form of bootlegging to a digital one. After it was uploaded to the Internet (most likely by Reznor himself) it passed from torrent to torrent, eventually ending up all over the information superhighway if you were willing to look for it.
But should you?
Your enjoyment of the film is going to come down to a lot of factors, the most important being how much realistic simulated violence you can stomach. The violence isn't stylized to look cool, and it's not a movie that wants you to jump out of your seat; its mission is to disturb.
Consider the videos that were produced that eventually ended up on Nine Inch Nails' Closure home-video release. "Pinion" features a man being drowned with water that comes from a toilet, "Help Me I'm In Hell" features a man eating flies, and "Happiness In Slavery" features a man being turned into ground meat.
They're all pretty difficult watches for the average viewer and yet Reznor decided to make all of them available. If "Happiness In Slavery" ruins your day, my advice is to avoid the full movie at all costs because it only gets worse. Much worse. Blowtorches-and-razors worse.
But if you can stomach it it's a pretty fascinating watch, and not just for the gore.
Those of us who grew up checking the credits on our favorite videos know the name Peter Christopherson. Perhaps best known for his music career as a member of Throbbing Gristle and Coil, Christopherson was also a member of the Hipgnosis album art team (they did the cover to Dark Side of the Moon) and a director of commercials and music videos.
A look at the video for Rage Against the Machine's "Bulls On Parade" or Ministry's "N.W.O." is proof that the man knew how to put together a video, but the Broken movie is something different altogether: It's incredibly ahead of its time.
Found footage is a genre that's existed in one form or another since at least 1980 (Cannibal Holocaust) but it wasn't until 1999's The Blair Witch Project that it really became a part of the American film landscape. Sure, we get a Paranormal Activity every year now, but in 1992/1993 it wasn't a style that really existed.
And that's what makes Broken so disturbing: while the framing shots are clearly film the actual violence looks like a home movie. The clips wouldn't look out of place in the upcoming found footage anthology V/H/S although they're much more disturbing.
So maybe Reznor was right not to release the movie back in early '90s. It's hard to imagine that it wouldn't have overshadowed the record and that kind of controversy could have eventually prevented him from ever having the success he did withThe Downward Spiral
Twenty years later Broken, while dark and disturbing, is simply another movie. In a world of human centipedes and Serbian films, it's somehow shocking and not at the same time. Even seasoned gorefiends might find it pales in comparison to the August Undergrounds of the world.
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Reznor made the right choice for his career, but I wonder if he made the right choice for art. I'm not saying that Broken would have ushered in some sort of horror-movie revolution had it been released back when it was created, but it's a fun question to ponder.
For now, the movie remains a historical curiosity and only a Google search away.