In the mid-90s, conservatives and parents’ groups grew alarmed at what they perceived to be the cultural threat posed by supposed shock rock acts like Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails. Both pushed sexual and violent lyrics and imagery into the mainstream, finding sympathy in the ears of your ordinary, everyday, disaffected teenager. While editorial pieces and op-eds tried to figure out what responsibility artists had to younger listeners, in Temecula, California, another band was pushing things to extremes that Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails could never conjure in their worst nightmare.
Fronted by Edwin Borsheim, Kettle Cadaver waded into waters perhaps only previously occupied by GG Allin. Their shows became notorious for their violence, and Borsheim’s own dedication to extreme behavior, which often included genital mutilation, and a performance in which objects were placed and pinned among various parts of his body, would erupt into fountains of blood. With this background, the danger facing the documentary “Dead Hands Dig Deep” would be sensationalizing Borsheim and making heroes out of Kettle Cadaver. But 19-year-old director Jai Love is less interested in the on stage antics and literal open wounds (though there is a decent enough share of tough to watch footage, that those with weak stomachs would be advised to stay away), than the off-stage persona of Borsheim, what pushed him toward the darkest edges of metal, and whether or not he’s able to return.
Featuring insights from friends, band members, and family, and centered around Borsheim himself, Love has a simple but clever two-act structure for ‘Dead Hands.’ The first half of the movie presents in no uncertain terms that Borsheim’s lifestyle when Keddle Cadaver was active, and afterward, is one that is deeply unsettling. The archival footage of the band’s live act is frequently wide-eye horrifying, but when you realize that it’s catharsis for Borsheim, who is working out deep-seated issues, that’s when ‘Dead Hands’ gains resonance. And it’s the back end of the documentary where Love gives three dimensions to Borsheim, presenting him not as an oddity on the fringes of culture and society, but someone who has carved out his own, admittedly disturbing, corner of the Earth.
However, perhaps as a result of being too protective of his central figure, or perhaps inexperienced at pushing a documentary subject down tough avenues, ‘Dead Hands’ does miss some compelling opportunities. At one point, it’s mentioned that Borsheim earned money by being hired by people to torture them in his own chamber of horrors with his handmade weaponry. But this is an allegation that goes unquestioned. Meanwhile, there’s not much investigation into Borsheim’s personal beliefs, and what exactly his music is about in particular, and when a copy of “Mein Kampf” casually comes off his shelf, the obvious line of inquiry that you’d expect to follow goes unasked. It would’ve been nice to know if the filmmakers tried to track down Eva O, Borsheim’s ex-wife, particularly as many around the musician credit their divorce with his personal downward spiral, followed by a heightening of his perverse behavior (one friend describes Borsheim’s relationship with Eva O, appropriately, as Norman Bates-esque).
From a kid who grew up loving “Mad Max,” backyard wrestling, and more benign heavy metal like Slayer, Love doesn’t quite the connect all the dots to what made Borsheim who he is today, but there’s enough here to fill in a compelling picture. An unstable childhood, and the death of a beloved sibling, put Borsheim on a path that allowed him to work out a painful web of emotions in an authentically pure and violent way. That might sound contradictory, and when Borsheim’s mother, Laila, says early on in ‘Dead Hands’ that she doesn’t agree with her son’s actions, but admires the honesty, it sounds absurd. But as the film rolls on, that notion isn’t so out there. You can say a lot of things about Borsheim, but his adherence to his own vision, as affected by a damaged personal history as it is, is inarguably the real deal.
The success of Kettle Cadaver was never going to be tied to record sales, occupying as they did a severe niche of the heavy metal sphere, but their success can be measured in how it allowed Borsheim to cope with the turmoil that clearly powered whatever he unleashed on stage. The disquieting conclusion ‘Dead Hands’ comes up with is that, for all the gore, blood, misery, and brutality Borsheim endured, and his audience experienced, he has come through Kettle Cadaver perhaps more lonely and despairing as ever. Love’s frequently chilling film is a reminder that sometimes you don’t win the battle against personal demons. As we leave Borsheim, you hope he finds his peace, and wonder, with fearful curiosity, what might happen if he’s overcome by the darkness he’s been trying to control for so long. [B]