In the early 1990s, Trent Reznor should have been on top of the world. The release of Nine Inch Nails' debut, Pretty Hate Machine, in 1989, had produced two alternative-rock hits in "Down in It" and "Head Like a Hole," cementing the multi-instrumentalist frontman's position at the forefront of industrial metal and earning him a spot on the bill for the very first Lollapalooza. But behind the scenes, Reznor was miserable, and that misery would fuel the dark EP that would arrive in Pretty Hate Machine's wake: 1992's Broken. Even more infamously, though, it would inform the deeply disturbing, still legendary promotional video he'd make in connection to that EP. Almost 25 years after it was unleashed upon the world, the Broken film remains the most graphic and unsetting piece of art Nine Inch Nails have ever produced. The fact that it's still so hard to find only adds to its notorious reputation.
When Reznor returned to the studio after the Pretty Hate Machine tour, he was beset by personal and professional woes. "I was coming out of a weird relationship," he told Spin in 1996. "I really fell in love with someone and we lived together for six or eight months. But it went from being the best to the worst."
Plus, friction with his label, TVT, had made Reznor long for a new creative home. "They signed us under the misconception of what they thought we were going to be versus what we really were," Reznor said in a 1992 interview. "And it's a label that has no idea of what integrity means and they thought we were a nice pop band. So when I delivered [Pretty Hate Machine] they hated it because it wasn't as radio friendly as they would have hoped. They wanted a very commercial, easily digestible, disposable product that would sell a lot, make them a lot of money right away and then who cares if they're around in a couple of years."
All that conflict and drama found its way into the Broken EP, a collection of eight songs stacked with hooks but also uglier in texture than Pretty Hate Machine. Working with his production collaborator Flood, Reznor had to record in secret quickly because he didn't want TVT to know that he was finalizing a new deal with Interscope. But Broken's shorter running time was also a byproduct of Reznor's desire to escape that particularly jaundiced headspace. "[Broken] was hard to make and it was an unpleasant experience throughout the whole thing," he later explained. "I wanted it to sound that way and I didn't want to bog down a whole record of that sound."
When the Broken EP was released in September 1992, it peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard charts, further burnishing the band's reputation and commercial standing — which was ironic since, as Reznor told Spin, "After Lollapalooza, I had this snotty, elitist mentality — you're not cool enough to like my band, don't buy my records. I wanted to make a 'fuck you' record. It was also a bit of a knee-jerk, 'I'm not a pussy,' 'I'm not a sellout' attitude."
If Reznor was worried about becoming a shiny, happy radio-friendly unit shifter, his next move would obliterate any such illusions. The frontman decided to make an art project around the EP, using the film as an opportunity to spend time with a personal hero. Reznor had been a fan of Peter Christopherson, a musician and visual artist who had been part of the pioneering industrial groups Throbbing Gristle and Coil. "I was always more attracted to Coil than Throbbing Gristle," Reznor admitted in 2014. "The darkness and the scatology really chimed with me … So I figured that if I hired [Christopherson] as a director then I could at least meet him and hang out for a bit."
Without running it by his new label, Reznor envisioned a short film that pushed the boundaries of good taste. His guiding principle was simple: "What if we built a framework around these songs, what if we took an approach where it really was scary, instead of a cop-out horror movie nod to the camera? What if it felt real?"
Using that as his marching orders, Christopherson started work, while Reznor began recording what would become The Downward Spiral. Later, while holed up in Los Angeles in the house where Sharon Tate was murdered by Charles Manson's followers — a fact Reznor didn't know until after he'd selected the place — Reznor got a call from Christopherson, who had finished the assignment but was nervous about the results. "Basically the video was what I intended to be a comment on the existence of snuff movies and people's obsession with them," Christopherson, who died in 2010, recalled. "And I did it without regard for MTV and what was showable and not showable, because that's what he asked me to do."
Christopherson succeeded brilliantly — but also horrifically. The Broken film, which is about 20 minutes long, is structured to look like a discarded found object. At the film's start, we see polished, professional footage of a man about to be hung, but then the scene shifts to shitty-looking handheld VHS footage as a car drives through town, eventually stopping in front of another man, who is then filmed in a basement while he's tied up and held hostage. Broken doesn't get any less nerve-racking from there, featuring images of a person being drowned, Reznor and Nine Inch Nails performing in a cage surrounded by lunatic fans trying to attack them, and a sequence scored to "Happiness in Slavery" involving performance artist Bob Flanagan as he's strapped naked into a torture machine while his body parts are prodded, pulled, stabbed and grinded into meat.
When Reznor saw the film, he freaked out: "It felt like we'd crossed over into territory that was perhaps too far." The disturbing video, along with the fact that he was now cognizant of the terrible history of the house where he was recording The Downward Spiral, made him wonder if he wanted this art project out in the world. As Reznor put it, "I thought, 'Enough. I don't know that I need this kind of thing.' With the house it felt too stunty, and Peter agreed. So we shelved it."
Well, not entirely. Reznor, ever the provocateur, decided to give a few VHS copies to select friends — but each copy had its own unique dropout so that he could later identify which friend had leaked the film to the public if it ever got out. And leak it did: The video started being sold as a bootleg. Rob Sheridan, an art director who has worked with Reznor since Nine Inch Nails' 2000 remix album Things Falling Apart, was one of the people who stumbled upon the fiendish curiosity in his youth. Writing on his blog, Sheridan noted, "I found this video at the bootleg VHS stand at a local comic book convention, sitting between duped Red Dwarf compilations and home video of early Nirvana shows. There was no context provided, no Wiki page to reference … And when I unveiled it with my friends on my bedroom VHS player, it was worth every penny: Scary and gross and awesome."
What added to the shock and mystery was that, with each new dubbing of the video, the film looked grubbier and more degenerate and illicit — something terrible that had gotten out into the world that you weren't supposed to be seeing. To this day, most of the Broken cast has not been identified, and while individual segments' directors are known, the grubby anonymity and mixed-format presentation keeps the Broken movie from feeling like a respectable artistic endeavor.
Some of the inspirations came from the artists involved. For "Happiness in Slavery," Reznor tapped Jon Reiss, who made documentaries about punk bands, to direct the segment. Reiss thought of Flanagan — as Flanagan's wife Sheree Rose later explained, "[Reiss] attended the 'Nailed' performance in Los Angeles in 1989, where he witnessed Bob in a torture chair being 'attacked' by clothespins attached to his genitals." That paved the way for the "Happiness" video, an increasingly painful and gut-churning experience, which was banned on MTV and elsewhere, but helped raise the profile of the masochistic performance artist. (His life was later chronicled in the 1997 documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist.)
But Broken's brilliance was also a product of its time — something that couldn't be duplicated today. In the pre-internet era, bootlegs were much more prized items because of their physical, analogue nature. Sheridan spoke to the difference between the early 1990s and now on his blog, writing, "Kids today can't possibly appreciate the feeling of tracking down a rare video artifact, because everything now is a mere Google search away … [Broken] was never meant for searchable, on-demand access, never meant for the soft-hearted masses who put no effort into seeking it out."
Like earlier exploitation videos such as Faces of Death, Broken and its series of WTF horrors — including scenes of a rotting corpses, decapitated heads, a lunatic wielding a chainsaw and a man eating a meal covered in flies — elicit thrills that didn't just come from absorbing the images but from being lucky enough to have even stumbled upon them in the first place. When something goes viral in 2017, there's an immediacy to the sensation that makes the experience a little less special. In the 1990s, discovering Broken was personal and individual. It was your own dark, little secret, which made it all the more powerful.
In the modern age, Broken has found its way to the web through BitTorrent and the Internet Archive, but has never been released commercially. In 2013, Reznor tried putting the video on Vimeo, which quickly spiked it for violating the platform's content guidelines.
The environment that produced Broken — both Reznor's tortured mental state and an age before the ubiquity of the web — may no longer exist, but the film's grisly, unfiltered menace continues to echo through the culture. Everything from Seven's jagged opening credits to the post–9/11 torture porn of Saw owes a debt to Broken's jarring visual disharmony. The Japanese horror film Ringu (which was remade as The Ring in the States) weaponized the individual, viral nature of bootleg VHS videos, while The Blair Witch Project became a sensation by making audiences wonder if what they were watching was real. And don't forget enfant terrible Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers, which was made to look like an amateur VHS video that had been copied and passed around for years, depicting the bizarre behavior of a group of guys dressed in old-man masks.
All of these films share with Broken a love of the dank underside of polite society, tapping into our fear and delight in uncovering what should not see the light of day. But Broken has lost none of its power to shock in the last two decades — it still feels legitimately gruesome and evil.
Even its makers remained uncertain of the project's merits. A year before his death, Christopherson expressed regret about Broken.
"Because everyone was making bad dubs of bad dubs," he told The Wire, "what I considered at the time to be pretty obvious clues that this was a fake and actually making a comment about those things, were lost by the bad quality. So unfortunately a lot of people, especially kids, started to believe that it was a real snuff movie."
"[It] was never my intention to bring harm to people," Christopherson added. "I do think people can be harmed seeing things, especially unexpectedly, that put them in the position of empathizing with someone being tortured and murdered. That's a hard thing to watch. I guess it's interesting that it's achieved a certain notoriety. But to me, because truth has always been pretty important to me, I think that the way Hollywood presents horror … actually encourages kids to go, 'Yeah, that was fucking awesome, man, you could see their eyes popping out.'"
But for those who came of age during the Broken film, it left an impression and served as a landmark. "I felt I had something truly rare and unique, possibly dangerous," Sheridan recalled. "And that was what rock music was about in the [Nineties]: It was danger and dirt and hate and anger and pissing people off. There isn't any of that left in mainstream rock anymore."