Re-released December 2006
Approx. 21 minutes
(Content warning: The Broken Movie is gruesome and disgusting. If you can’t handle gore of any kind, don’t read the summary below. Skip to the “N” logo for more overall analysis and thoughts, or just read some other post.)
The Broken Movie is an anomaly in the Nine Inch Nails visual catalogue. More than just a string of music videos, it seems designed to disturb, to scare, to disgust. In many ways, it introduces the band’s early fascination with grotesque imagery, while flirting with the concept of snuff films, much in the way that the video for “Down in It” was thought to do. That’s not necessarily accurate, but The Broken Movie does feel, in a way, like a response to the controversy surrounding the “Down in It” video prior to its airing, when a weather balloon carrying one of the cameras escaped and was found in a farm hundreds of miles away. With zero context to the footage, the farm’s owner assumed that the footage was of an actual murder, and quickly reported it to police, causing a stir in the area until Trent Reznor reclaimed the footage.
In that case, the footage was fairly tame. The Broken Movie is not tame at all. Directed by Peter Christopherson, it glues Broken‘s music videos (for every track except for “Last” and the bonus tracks) together with footage (also filmed by Christopherson) of a man being captured, tortured, raped, and eventually murdered. The film is shaky and grainy, but it is clear what’s happening, and it is very much a horrific film to watch.
(I mean it: if you’re squeamish on any level, don’t read this summary. Skip to the “N” logo below instead.)
Opening with black and white footage of a convict being executed by hanging, the video cuts to grainy footage of a van driving around a slummy neighborhood (with the video’s title broken superimposed over it). The van stops next to a man, who approaches it. The video then cuts to a basement, where the man is tied to a chair and circled by the executed convict, and is then forced to watch Nine Inch Nails videos on a television. The camera zooms in on the television, fading into the video for “Pinion,” where the camera zooms in on, and eventually enters, a toilet, following its pipes all the way down to a padded room, where a man in a full-body bondage suit is being force-fed the toilet’s contents.
The video cuts back to the basement, where the convict forces his captive to drink gasoline. The television then shows the video for “Wish,” featuring the band itself performing the song in a cage, surrounded by dozens of grimy, dirty people trying to break in. This version of the video features a brief scene of the convict defecating on his captive’s face and forcing him to eat it. When the video ends, the convict watches the section featuring the line “fist fuck” several times, and then goes to the captive, presumably to do so. The video for “Help Me I Am in Hell” plays next, featuring a man eating steak while bugs crawl all over him, intercut with brief shots of the same man in bondage gear. Next, the convict rips one of his captive’s front teeth out, followed by a hard cut to the video for “Happiness in Slavery.”
Now, this video in itself gained a reputation for its incredibly graphic, gruesome content. Featuring Bob Flanagan as the protagonist, he enters a room featuring many torture devices, strips naked, and lies on a machine in the center of the room, that proceeds to torture him, providing sexual pleasure for him. Eventually, having killed him, the machine grinds up his corpse, providing manure for the garden below the machine. The video ends with Reznor entering the room, beginning the process over again.
As one might expect, “Happiness in Slavery” was banned worldwide immediately upon its release for not only its incredibly gruesome depiction of a man’s death, but also for the numerous full-frontal nudity shots of Flanagan throughout the video. I believe that the video was shown exactly once on MTV before being permanently pulled from rotation. The video helped build early notoriety for Nine Inch Nails as they began to project a darker, harder image in the 1990s.
The video for “Gave Up” starts immediately upon the conclusion of “Happiness in Slavery,” but it is not the commercial version of the video; instead, it is based entirely around concluding The Broken Movie‘s story, featuring intercut scenes of the convict’s final torture of his captive (including hanging him from the ceiling by his hands, slicing his body with scissors, burning him, cutting off his penis, dismembering him with a chainsaw in his final moments, and cutting his heart out and eating it) alongside professionally-shot footage of police exploring the convict’s house, finding numerous other victims everywhere, including a freezer in the garage, and the fridge in the kitchen. The video concludes with the same footage it begins with, of the convict being hanged. Following twenty seconds of blank footage, the convict’s severed head flies across the screen to end the video.
Interscope seemed to know that this could never see a public release, as The Broken Movie never saw any official acknowledgement that it existed for years, despite featuring copyright notices from the label at its conclusion. Instead, a leaked copy of the film (with “Help Me I Am in Hell” blacked out as a way for Reznor to know who leaked it) began to circulate through VHS tapes in the mid-1990s, making its way onto the Internet as a ripped, high-generation copy in low quality. For years, this was the only way to acquire it, as no official Nine Inch Nails channel ever mentioned or even alluded to it.
In 2006, however, a torrent file was uploaded to The Pirate Bay, containing a DVD image of The Broken Movie. This copy was essentially source-quality, featuring a DVD menu and chapter indexes, as well as high-resolution DVD-style cover art and a text document giving basic background information for the film. The fan base immediately assumed that Reznor himself had leaked the film, alongside a DVD version of Closure, as a way of circumventing Interscope and granting his fans a Christmas present, though legal liabilities ensure that this will never be a certainty. This DVD image is the best we’re ever going to get.
And that’s probably for the best. The Broken Movie is an exercise in shock value; the film is completely inessential, and doesn’t add anything to the experience of knowing Nine Inch Nails whatsoever. It feels more like an experiment, as if Reznor said “how far can we go?” and produced this as a result. I certainly don’t feel any better having watched it twice now, and I probably won’t really watch it ever again. It’s a product of the “edgy” 90s, part of a culture where it wasn’t so easy to get a hold of something like this, and it stood as more of a prize for fans that did find it.
Playing into this rarity, The Broken Movie was uploaded to Nine Inch Nails’s Vimeo account in 2013, the first release of it through any “official” channel. Two days later, it disappeared, having been taken down. NIN associate Rob Sheridan lamented the film’s release and takedown, noting that it was a product of a pre-Internet age, wondering aloud whether it had lost its value now that anyone could find it with little effort.
Perhaps it has.
Perhaps that’s good.