As the auteur of the three Human Centipede films – perhaps surprisingly, one of the most interesting and innovative trilogies in contemporary cinema – Tom Six is practiced at a kind of flirtatious transgression. He makes films that are deliberately shocking, but more so when their premises are described to people who’ve not seen the films than when the movies unreel with a cool, calm, dryly witty detachment that takes being deeply offensive as a given but then goes on to do other interesting things.
In the opening of Pedro Almodovar’s Matador, there’s a depiction of the censor’s nightmare fantasy circa the video nasties era – Antonio Banderas masturbates while watching gore scenes from Mario Bava and Jesis Franco films … and a throwaway bit of nastiness in Troma’s eminently disposable Toxic Avenger has a punk girl flicking herself off to polaroids of kids who’ve been squashed under car wheels by her bad-driving gang. The Onania Club elaborates on that theme, with a deliberate nod to Sade (one character is seen reading 100 Days of Sodom) and an almost-parodic conflation of Crash with The First Wives Club as the protagonist joins a circle of well-dressed middle-aged women in Los Angeles who meet to get off on images or tales or incidents of suffering, pain, cruelty and violence. Hanna (Jessica Morris), a Catholic woman troubled by her urges, visits a church and confesses to a priest (Ad van Kempen), unfolding her story in flashback, which contains asides about the particular kinks of her club-mates.
Hanna, married to a decent guy who has MS (John T. Woods), and apparently a good person, struggles when she realises that she is only really stimulated sexually by very bad news – when a friend says her husband has been killed in action she’s turned on, but disappointed when this turns out not to be true … though the fact that this echoes a nasty game played by one of her friends is a hint that, as in Six’s other black and white psycho character study (The Human Centipede Part 2), what we see as she tells her interlocked stories might be as much her fantasy as the actual truth … with a punch line involving the priest that a) it’s not hard to see coming (ahem) and b) is exactly the sort of joke de Sade would have liked. Morris underplays compared with the maniacs of the HC series and with most of her co-stars, and brings a degree of sympathy to the role that anchors the film even as events spiral out of control and things get weirder.
The middle section of the film offers a litany of casual, deliberate awfulness which have an Amicus horror anthology feel, with perhaps a touch of Raymond Carver or Dennis Etchison: an oncologist deliberately gives her wife cancer, a lawyer adopts an African girl only to starve the child in Beverly Hills, a prankster poses as a producer and takes an aspiring actress to an obscenely expensive restaurant to offer her a star role then slips out mid-meal to stiff her with the bill (there’s an Etchison story quite similar to this anecdote); a necrophile collects celebrity corpses for self-gratification purposes. The best joke comes after this stretch as Hanna tells the priest things took a turn for the worst, and he’s appalled that it’s only at this point she thinks the club gets out of hand. The film launches into a climax that offers a couple of ensemble sketches of dreadful behaviour (including a home invasion) that don’t quite up the stakes on what’s gone before, though there is an appreciable increase in the body count.
As in his work with Dieter Laser (to whom the film is dedicated) and Laurence Harvey, Six has a knack for getting grotesque performances – here, he uses familiar, busy faces (Darcy DeMoss of Return to Horror High, Deborah Twiss of A Gun for Jennifer, voice-over queen Karen Strassman, Flo Lawrence of The Lords of Salem) but encourages them to dark diva craziness, more so when they’re talking and making faces than in the (discreet) self-pleasuring sequences. The implication, of course, is that the heroine’s perversion is more mainstream than she thinks – and Six skewers a wide range of hypocrisies as we shuffle through the thought experiment.