“An artist is forced by others to paint out his own free will.” —Willem de Kooning
“Censorship=Artistic Death” —Skinny Puppy
The art of fear is both a potent weapon and a mighty revealer when placed in the right hands and minds. It can be more than simply being scared. That’s low hanging fruit! When an artist fully delves into the seeds of human corruption, that is when things get no only truly scary, but also creatively rewarding. Ladies and gentlemen welcome to the 1990 music video for Skinny Puppy’s “Worlock.”
One of the iron-strong creators and innovators of electronic and industrial music, Skinny Puppy was formed in 1982 Vancouver by Cevin Key, though they did not quite fully bloom until vocalist, writer, and visual creator Nivek Ogre joined later that year. In an era where music videos were quickly growing into a premier advertising tool for cable subscribers, with MTV in the United States and MuchMusic in Canada being the two biggest outlets in North America, Skinny Puppy were a band that worked explicitly to make sure that the visual end of things fully matched their sonic and verbal message as a band. They smashed the wheel and built their own newer, meaner, and expressive vehicle with the fragments and tar. With such an approach, they were instantly going to be viewed as non-MTV/MuchMusic friendly. All the more reason why they were needed, especially in a musical landscape saturated by overproduced pop music, cheesy sax solos, and faux-everymen singing about the working class while covertly snorting cocaine off of fashion models.
Dealing with censorship, including run-ins with MuchMusic, the Canadian Censorship Bureau, and the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center), led by starch-pants-fascist Tipper Gore, was something the band were well used to by 1990, which is when the band released arguably their most controversial video. (For the record, it was their 1987 album, Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse, that once made the PMRC’s Top 10 list back around September of that year, putting them right next to bands like Simply Red and Cinderella.)
Any piece of art created by someone who has been consistently targeted by an assortment of mal-hearted and mentally and morally stunted entities and individuals as a response to such behavior is going to be good and chewy. “Worlock” is exactly that and much, much more.
The video is built almost entirely out of key clips from a stealthy selection of art and horror films. The two exceptions are some outtakes from the band’s music video for 1987’s “Stairs & Flowers” and an extremely disturbing shot of a Beagle taken from a video on vivisection. Utilizing footage from pre-existing films was not a new technique for the format, with silent films being extremely popular fields to mine in the early 1980’s. (The 1981 video for Queen & David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” and the 1982 clip for J. Geils Band’s “Freeze Frame” being two huge examples of this.)
What makes “Worlock” an entirely different animal is the message, the means, and the clips themselves. First, there is the editing. As someone who has done video editing both for art and profit, the montage going on here is delirious. It’s a tight edit with zero fat or chaff. Nothing is wasted and everything is gloriously gained, making this a testament that Nivek Ogre can literally excel at 98% things in creative life. (Since I don’t know the man personally, I have to give the 2% doubt in the spirit of writerly fairness, here.) Editing as a process can be incredibly rhythmic, making it nearly godlike in its importance when it comes to music video. The music swells and becomes like a bloody-second skin to the montage of guts, grue, and the overall damage that we do to our own.
There are three versions of the video, including the A, X, and R cuts. Unlike the traditional ratings systems, these delineations have nothing to do with any of the main content being excised. Instead, the intro and outros differ slightly, with the A edit being the most comprehensive and explicit with the video’s message. The intro begins with the following: “Dedicated to the Horror. FU Motion Picture Association of America.” The next screen continues with: “The following contains extreme graphic images. Viewer consumption is and should be the right of whoever chooses to participate.”
Note the language of “chooses to participate.” It’s a perfect phrase, firmly and accurately aiming an arrow at the shortsightedness of censorship. With individual free will and choice, it is morally disrespectful to try to control what others hear and see. It’s also sad how an issue like this is always perpetually relevant. It’s the boogeyman that never goes away, growing more and more mean as its mind and morals become steadfastly flaccid.
Invoking the MPAA, an organization so infamous for its lack of sense and blatant hypocrisy that resulted in the excellent 2006 documentary, This Film Has Not Yet Been Rated, a pinpoint accurate move when dealing with matters of censorship. Who wants to be treated like a child, especially by a bunch of repressed, un-diverse dinosaurs? It’s additionally fitting since the lion’s share of the clips are scenes that were excised by the MPAA, often from films that are now considered to be modern day classics of horror. This includes some of Dario Argento’s masterworks, like Deep Red, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Suspiria, Tenebre, and Opera, as well as Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond, Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, Ken Russell’s Altered States, David Lynch’s Dune, and Bob Balaban’s oft-neglected cult gem, Parents, among many, many others.
Utilizing extreme imagery is always going to open up the floodgates of critics missing the finer points of the work. Tone and presentation, though, is the best litmus test to truly separate the mind from the knuckle-dragging, Beavis-like attitude. (Though neither should be censored when it comes to simulated violence.) A band as openly political and filled with sharp thinkers like Skinny Puppy are clearly the former, but as late as 2015, “Worlock” is still misunderstood, as evidenced by Jacob Trowbridge’s “8 Music Videos So Nasty They Were Banned” article for Whatculture’s website. If the click-bait title alone wasn’t enough of a flare gun warning you that some pop-cultural horseshit writing was ahead, what he writes about the video seals it. Trowbridge commented, “Rather than create a video with an interesting narrative to back up the gluttonous scenes of gore and violence, they instead copy and pasted bits of random horror movies, including Hellraiser II and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.”
First of all, how does one “copy and paste” in the 1980s and early 1990s era of tape-to-tape editing? Here’s a spoiler: they didn’t. Also, the beauty and respectful-challenge of a band like Skinny Puppy is that the music alone does not and in fact, steadfastly refuses to bend and fit into a traditional narrative like video. Even when they edge into it, for example the Jim Van Bebber directed clip for “Spasmolytic,” there is still enough surrealism and non-streamlined direction to make it flow with the songs. Plus, it’s Van Bebber, who made some gut-punch underground films like The Manson Family and Deadbeat by Dawn. Also, there is nothing random in this video. Absolutely nothing. Bothering to do some research about both the band and this video, in particular, must have been too much work for this cat to do. Something that he makes perfectly clear with the statement, “There’s ultimately no redeeming qualities to this video, because it seems like there was no thought put into it whatsoever.”
To quote Frank from Hellraiser, “Jesus Wept.” Such brain dead, not to mention shit-on-a-shingle lazy writing can make one feel a bit like they’re getting attacked by some cenobites. Nobody show him films like Ken Russell’s The Devils or Pasolini’s Salo, for crying out loud. You know what truly lacks redemption? Possessing zero respect or objectivity when it comes to art.
But Trowbridge’s short-sighted writing is, bizarrely enough, a strong indicator of how much power the song and the video both have. When art rubs someone the wrong way to such a degree, that means that there is usually some oil burning bright underneath it. If something is truly empty and automaton, then it won’t stay with you. Even the biggest Hollywood wank-a-thons, with air for heart and dust for brains, will fade for you at the end of the road. To think that a music video that to this day remains commercially unavailable and was often shared via bootlegs in the pre-internet era, much like a lot of the films it features, still possesses the power to confound and offend over 28 years later, is nothing short of stunning.
“Worlock” was also, more than likely, the first (and arguably best) song to ever sample Charles Manson. A few seconds past the three-minute mark, you hear Manson’s voice talk-singing lyrics from The Beatles’ classic “Helter Skelter,” along with a mutated version of the original’s guitar riff. There is something naturally eerie but darkly fascinating in hearing Manson intone lyrics like, “Will you, won’t you want me to make you, I’m coming down fast but don’t let me break you. Tell me, tell me, tell me the answer. You may be a lover but you ain’t no dancer.” The visuals accompanying the sample include an apt shot from Peter Jackson’s debut feature, Bad Taste, showing a car full of The Beatles circa “Sgt. Pepper”-era dummies while the windshield wipers clean bright red blood off of the glass.
This is the power of montage. Everything, much less that specific scene, in Bad Taste is over-the-top and fun as hell. But used in this context, especially tied to everything else within the video, it is aptly twisted. It’s akin to Skinny Puppy giving “Helter Skelter” back to Manson, in response to Bono’s unintentionally hilarious statement in the U2 concert film, Rattle & Hum (1988). Right before the band launch into their cover, he grandstands about how they are stealing the song from Manson and giving it right back to The Beatles. With this logic, Skinny Puppy stole it right back and gave it to Charlie. In other words, this is not logic and bloated rock star syndrome is real, kids.
Among all of the grue and tempura-red paint viscera splattered throughout the “Worlock” video, the most unsettling thing is the fear and weakness an individual experiences when having their free will controlled and corroded. It is no mystery that out of all of the clips, the two most truly unsettling are the shots of Barbara Crampton’s character in From Beyond getting shock therapy against her will and the poor Beagle from the vivisection video. “Worlock” is not only one of the band’s best songs, but as a video, it is a powerful testament both to the power of skillful montage art and the evils of censorship.
To quote the last line in the video, “The First Amendment protects our freedom of choice…the choice is yours.”
Watch the most complete version of the video: