Horror omnibuses skate along the surface of our fears, content to freak us out or give us momentary shivers, and so it is with ''Three . . . Extremes," a trilogy-of-terror compilation from some of the more gifted cinematic sickos working the Pacific Rim.
Gore fans will want to bump the two-and-a-half-star rating up a star, whereas those who can't handle on-screen violence will want to stay the hell away. For those in the middle, fasten your seat belts for a bumpy ride -- narratively and artistically -- and don't go in on a full stomach.
The first and best segment, ''Dumplings," is a 30-minute distillation of a 90-minute feature by Hong Kong director Fruit Chan, whose much-praised films have yet to make it to the US. You can't tell what's been cut, since this tale of a vain older woman (Miriam Yeung) and the special ''youth formula" she buys from a soup merchant (Bai Ling) is elegant, compact, and complete. Also intensely disturbing, once you realize what goes into those dumplings (hint: they crunch). Shot by the legendary Christopher Doyle (Wong Kar-wai's main man), ''Dumplings" starts discreetly and ends in a bloodbath, and women viewers especially may find it unforgivable. It's the only film of the three to push into genuinely taboo territory, and that's its grisly strength.
''Cut," from the Korean bad-boy director Park Chan-wook (see his ''Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" at the Brattle this weekend if you want a second helping) is more for the boys in the back row of the grind house. The plot -- a successful young film director (Lee Byung-hun) is held hostage with his wife (Hye Jeong-kang) by a deranged movie extra (Lim Won-hee) -- bears comparison with ''Saw," but Park has a sense of humor and a gift for nasty play. Trussed to her piano with wires that make her resemble a marionette, the wife will lose a finger every five minutes unless her husband does . . . what? That's the devilish question. It all makes for bloody, shallow amusement.
If ''Cut" is too obvious, the third segment, ''Box," risks being too opaque. Directed by Japan's Takashi Miike, creator of such existential gross-outs as ''Audition" and ''Gozu," it combines dreamlike lyricism and a tactile sense of growing nightmare. Kyoko Hasegawa plays a young calligrapher who sleepwalks through life; in gracefully overlapping flashbacks we see her childhood as a circus performer with her twin sister end in an accidental crime of jealousy. ''Box" feels like a poetic, Lynch-ian response to the films of Hideo Nakata (''Ringu," ''Dark Water"), but its uneasy spell is spoiled by an absurdist oh-wow ending. Some filmmakers shouldn't be rushed, but the very format of ''Three . . . Extremes" puts Miike -- and his fellow directors -- in a box.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.