Color, 2009, 86m.
Directed by Barbar Bell & Anna Lorentzon
Synapse (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9) / DD2.0

One of the more notorious chapters in the history of online pornography, the bondage pay site thrived for almost a decade starting in 1997 (during the good old days of dial-up) by catering to a clientele hungering for more extreme, realistic entertainment. Faster than you could say Videodrome, pretty masochistic models were subjecting themselves to an increasingly ambitious string of brutal scenarios which paid better than average adult work (usually without any traditional sex involved) and often put them through harrowing ordeals even by this subset's standards. However, mounting pressure from the federal government, including some nasty shenanigans that will seem familiar to anyone who paid attention to the news during the Bush Jr. years, resulted in the site's sale and discontinuation of new material.

The founder of the site, Brent Scott (known as "PD" to his fans), is the main focal point of Graphic Sexual Horror, a documentary whose title refers to the disclaimer at the site's entrance, and talks quite a bit about his rationale for jumping into this field after what he terms as a "minor" teaching career at Carnegie-Mellon University. His own interest began as a child when his Wonder Woman-obsessed sister and her friends subjected him to handcuffs and tickling, followed by exposure during his military tensure to exotic bondage practices in Japan. His website became an instant hit, raking in huge amounts of money while pioneering the use of live feeds (some lasting up to two days) and interactive live chats.

Significantly, the two female directors of the documentary also include a large number of interviews with the site models (many of whom went on to future work on other kink sites) and other employees to provide a fascinating if extremely unsettling portrayal of an enterprise that still draws sharply divided opinions. The doc doesn't hold back either, depicting the site's activities with a clinical eye punctuated with occasional, surprising bits of shocking emotion (especially the sad anecdote about model "101," who became attached to Brent but went out in a spiral of drug use). What's most surprising is how a film consisting almost entirely of talking heads and graphic archival footage can remain so tense and gripping, showing a group of people testing their limits for money while trying to never chicken out on camera. In a smart move, the entire feature is still palatable thanks to juxtaposing footage of the sessions with behind the scenes comments from the models like Lorelei Lee and Claire Addams reflecting (either positively or negatively) about what they've just willingly done. For some reason, the larger social commentary of the site's demise only occupies a tiny fragment of the running time (less than ten minutes) and begs for more detail, but what's here is still more than enough to create a snapshot of a unique period in online history.

Shown to more than a few raised eyebrows on the festival circuit in 2009, Graphic Sexual Horror comes to DVD from Synapse in a deluxe edition that fits in well with some of their extreme previous offerings like The Image and even makes a horror connection thanks to Brent's nods to horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and a climactic, jaw-dropping sequence that puts Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS to shame involving two models (one singing opera), cages, rope, and a block of ice. Image quality is excellent considering this was completely shot on digital video; though presented in anamorphic widescreen, almost all of the archival material and photos are full frame while the interviews are wide. Dolby Digital Stereo is the only audio option (in English), which is fine given the nature of the production. Extras include a string of deleted snippets (including a strange additional ending and lots of bonus model comments), an eight-minute interview with co-director Barbara Bell (who had already worked behind the scenes with Insex before the production) including some pointed observations about the blurry definition of consent, and a theatrical trailer. Definitely not for all tastes, but if you can handle something more than your average vanilla adult-oriented documentary, it certainly provides a lot of food for thought.