IN THE MIDDLE of My Year of Horror I awoke in a dark wood, blinded by blood, an unmovable witness to attacks by a variety of sharp and deadly objects, used in increasingly creative ways. I set out this month to find the goriest films imaginable and write about them. But after about the third film, I found that I was immune to the shocks they are supposed to produce.
Richard Roeper writing for Roger Ebert.com (How I lament the passing of Mr. Ebert!), said of Evil Dead, which goes into wide release today, “I love horror films that truly shock, scare and provoke. But I’m … sick to death of movies that seem to have one goal: How can we gross out the audience by torturing nearly every major character in the movie?”
By now you have at least seen a poster, if not the uber-gory online preview of Evil Dead, the remake of Sam Raimi’s 1981 cult classic, The Evil Dead. (I suppose the radical choice of dropping the definite article is supposed to make it easier to distinguish between the two films.) Enough has been written about Sam Raimi’s breakthrough 1981 horror-comedy that I needn’t mention its enormous cult following, its worldwide distribution grosses, its budget of $90,000, and the fame it brought to Sam Raimi and the film’s star, Bruce Campbell. (One fact you might not know is that Joel Coen helped edit the film and imitated the film’s fundraising model as a way of raising cash for the Coen brothers’ excellent sleeper, Blood Simple.) The Evil Dead is a worthy film that draws fond cries of pleasure from horror fans.
The Evil Dead and, reportedly, its gory remake, would have been perfect entries in this month’s abandoned subject: April Showers of Blood. I had hoped to explore the “revulsion” Stephen King speaks of in Danse Macabre, his treatise on horror mentioned in My Year of Horror: 13 Fundamental Films for October . This month, I was looking for the gross-out.
In searching for these bloody trophies I made a list: Cannibal Holocaust, Blood Feast (why?), a couple of George A. Romero’s zombie films Dawn of and Day of the Dead, Peter Jackson’s Dead-Alive, titles from the new extreme French horror cinema like Martyrs, Frontiers, Inside and High Tension (mentioned in December 2012 Home is Where the Harm Is), The Evil Dead I & II and 40 or so other splatterific films which, for the most part, left me feeling very little. All that gore was like binary code – the same two numbers arranged in different patterns wherever they might fit. Only a few of the films were as gory as I’d expected and I was almost never afraid. I winced, I laughed, I was sometimes surprised, once or twice I was shocked, but only in one film was I really and truly afraid. And only two of these films got under my skin.
One film this month featured an exploding head (no, it wasn’t Scanners, though that exploding head is impressive, as is the full-body explosion in Brian de Palma’s The Fury.) Special effects keep me interested for a few minutes. I’ll even admit to an addiction to SyFy’s Face Off – the reality show about special-effects make-up artists. But in the context of a thriller, is anyone who enjoys gore really experiencing fear or merely riding on the gleeful anticipation of the next severed limb, popped eyeball or exploding head?
What reviles is not what frightens. Why, then, are chat boards filled with arguments about how “scary” a movie is based on the gore quotient? As Stephen King proposes, we experience revulsion, not fear. I agree and must add: if we see too much, we go numb. My mind drifts from the story. I start wondering, “How did they do that?” Or, “What is the film-maker trying to say,” or I start praising the make-up artist. So impressive! Did they research that blood splatter? How did they make the fake brains? Does the zombie extra chomping on those intestines really have to put that stuff in his mouth? Does it smell? How much is he getting paid?
At first view, a well-done gory shock is a kind of assault – ideally the filmmaker takes us to a new level in the story; it might heighten our dread, which is where the fear lies. “Imagine getting your tongue cut out? How horrible!” vs. “What is that stranger doing at the foot of my bed… or what will he do?”
In a recent episode of Talking Dead, AMC’s tele-zine where fans get to discuss The Walking Dead, one of the creators (I believe it was Greg Nicotero, co-executive producer, make-up effects supervisor and occasional episode director), said he was shocked at what AMC allowed them to do. The popular series usually features CGI variant of a knife through the head: machetes, spikes, knives, rods, crowbars have all been featured. Then of course there is Michonne’s katana (samurai sword) which she uses to do one of three things: slice vertically, slice horizontally or drive through the skull. Zombie heads are bludgeoned, blown up, shot and, in one memorable sequence, crushed by the hatchback of a car. All of this makes for entertaining zombie splatter. It induces winces but also a safe sort of giddiness – we can enjoy these “kills” because the zombies are just meat to be butchered.
Television continues to push boundaries in violence. M*A*S*H two decades earlier broke ground by using medical gore to deliver the effect of the stress on the medical staff and deepen our understanding of the trauma of war. Now, gore is part of the entertainment. It is a relationship to sensation rather than anticipation.
I’m not judging – I can’t. There’s a foul glee in seeing the outlandish lengths gone to by the creators of Spartacus to make us feel like ancient Romans. There is also a childish pleasure in getting away with it, as the network execs say, “sure, go ahead and chop off that extra head.” Creatives like Nicotero on The Walking Dead, enjoy the sense of play; they’re getting away with something. There’s also the pleasure of watching the reaction to the most extreme moments. The Walking Dead lies outside Ebert’s exasperation with horror. What Ebert lamented was that torture has replaced fear.
Movies like Hostel, the Saw series (which grows increasingly torturous as it goes on), and the new French horror, have put a freaky emphasis on torture. The pendulum does seem to be swinging the other way and, even in Inside, one of the most revolting of this month’s films, there are moments of creepiness which the film sacrifices to the witnessing of a (*spoiler alert*) Caesarian section performed with a pair of scissors on a victim who is wide awake, among other things (including an abyss of “dumb horror movie” behavior which sinks the movie’s potential.)
There’s a certain amount of squealing that is part of the game in horor. But should we be feeling glee – should we be waiting for the next “kill?” I suppose that’s a philosophical conundrum. Film-makers have been provoking us for a century. Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou gave us the cringe-inducing razor blade across the eye which, even by today’s standards, makes you wince. Lars von Trier’s Antichrist redoubles that effort in the vision of a woman cutting off her own clitoris with rusty scissors. (Oh, Lars, you’re such a provocateur!) Antichrist is a sort of horror hybrid and its violence doesn’t reach the goretastic spillage I was looking for this month, even though its self-mutilation scene is one of the nastiest things I’ve ever seen. (That is, if you don’t count the actual animals murdered in Cannibal Holocaust.) To be fair, von Trier uses his violence sparingly in Antichrist – he wants to shock us. He doesn’t want us to be numb. He wants us to walk away in the resonance of the extreme.
In movies like The Evil Dead (the original – note the definite article), the bloodshed is so over-the-top as to be ridiculous. But once you get to Martyrs, I’m starting to question the motivations of what seems like pretentious Grand Guignol. To reference Roger Ebert, I don’t want to see the torture of nearly every major character in the movie – unless there is some redemption. Unless there is some release. Gore is a one-trick pony – once your characters are covered in blood, missing limbs, ripping knives out of their own foreheads, what else is left to do in art?
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes bloodshed is wildly cathartic. Sometimes it’s just brutal. And sometimes it’s mind-numbing. And I did like a few of this month’s films. I’m including a few them here along with a couple that left me shaking my head:
The Evil Dead (1981) Five teenagers decide to spend a weekend in the woods. You know that spells trouble. (Call it a “classic” set-up.) When they find an old reel-to-reel tape recorder (this IS 1981 we’re talking about), they make the mistake of listening to its demon-raising incantations. The only way to get rid of the demons, according to the tape, is dismemberment. Let the bloodshed begin. What makes this film so successful, despite some dated stop-motion animation and hilarious puppetry, is a careful balance of dark comedy and real horror. Raimi’s vision gives us skewed angles, warped sound design, grisly violence and the thematic repetition of mesmerizing tracking shots through the woods. Like Peter Jackson’s Dead-Alive, Raimi’s film walks a creaky, wooden balance beam between madness and wackiness. Suspend your disbelief through occasionally dated special effects and give in to Raimi’s masterful control. You’ll be surprised at how this one leaves you. Nutty and wonderful.
Martyrs (2008) In a nail-biting opening sequence, a pre-pubescent girl flees in terror, her body bleeding and bruised as she runs through the grounds of an abandoned factory. During the credits we learn the girl, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) was held hostage and brutalized for unknown reasons by unknown abductors. Lucie refuses to talk about it in the institution where she is cared for but is befriended by Anna (Morjana Alaoui). It begins as the story of a woman haunted by her past before turning into vigilante mode, until it seems we have entered the world of Hostel before one last, haunting shift. It’s superbly acted and photographed, with very good direction by Pascal Laugier (who also wrote the screenplay.) The film’s sanity-threatening level of cruelty, however, is in keeping with the new breed of French horror. There are buckets of blood, explosive shotgun murders, knives taken to all kinds of body parts, violent hand-to-hand physical abuse, psychological torture and even a woman flayed alive. The director claims the film is about pain and not torture but, in Martyrs, the achievement of the one is only arrived at through the other. I liked all of this film’s technical aspects but I have no desire to watch it again. Except for its enigmatic and fascinating final moments (featuring a marvelously restrained Catherine Bégin playing a mysterious character known only as Mademoiselle), the film is a twisted maze of gore and torture.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980) – This movie has everything you don’t want to see: egregious violence toward women, abortion, beheadings and castration. The controversial footage, retained in the edition I saw, involves the actual slaughter of animals for the sake of the film: a muskrat, a turtle, a snake, a macaque, a wild pig, and a tarantula. Then there’s the depiction of cannibal tribes as if they are mentally handicapped flesh-eating zombies. Shock without substance, the movie leaves you feeling dirty for having viewed it. It’s all couched in the grand hypocrisy of being a film about the examination of violence in western society. Our hero, a professor at NYU who sets out to locate four missing film-makers and recovers their footage from a cannibal tribe. (The film’s found footage framework predates The Blair Witch Project.) He spends most of the time watching scenes of brutality and murder from afar so that the viewer gets to watch him watching violent things happen to other people. Most of those events have nothing to do with the story – including the “ritual punishment” and slaughter of a woman for adultery in such a brutal way that it makes you question the film-maker’s sanity. This is nearly an foray into snuff porn. I don’t believe in censorship but there’s a line I don’t want to see crossed. I can’t erase the images of real animals being tortured and killed.
Maniac (1980) – Joe Spinell (who also wrote the screenplay) brings dimension to this portrait of a diseased mind. Unlike most horror flicks from the decade after Friday the 13th, the movie isn’t populated with a gauntlet of cardboard characters. Spinell plays, Frank Zito, the anti-hero whose indeterminate mental illness drives the film and makes this movie a lot more interesting than it should be on so little plot. You’ve surely seen Spinell in a few dozen 70’s and 80’s films including The Godfather Parts I & II, Cruisin’ and Rocky. He reportedly convinced Sly to keep going when he was on the verge of giving up on Rocky.) Living alone in a New York apartment populated with mannequins, Frank deals with his mommy issues by murdering women in gruesome ways, taking their scalps when he is through. But outside of his bursts of rage, Frank is basically a big, sensitive lug. Then there’s that bit where he blows up Tom Savini’s head with a shotgun. There’s a very good suspense sequence at the Columbus Circle subway station – from the days when public bathrooms were available underground and tokens were just as difficult to use as the new Metrocards which never swipe when you need them to. It’s a good argument for manned, 24-hour token booths. Maniac is a film about a man murdering women, like so many slasher flicks, and its surface misogyny is hard to ignore unless you look at the women in the film who, even the smallest roles, are given surprising development. The most brutal murders are actually reserved for the men. As an examination of one twisted male, it’s effective, brutal and chilling.
Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) This low-budget shocker, directed by John McNaughton in a vérité style, with a bleak point of view, leaves you with a painful afterburn. In a wildly effective opening sequence, still shots of Henry’s crimes are the backdrop for the sounds of the crimes in progress. It’s a chilling effect – opening our imagination through the horror of the scarce images. Henry, (brilliantly played by Michael Rooker) is no slick, Hollywood serial killer who tosses off charming one-liners. This is a psychopath who spends his days cruising parking lots for victims, murdering at whim. Rooker, with his cold remove, is perfect. The other principle characters are barely likeable but their pathetic lives haunt the film. The performances are sometimes lackluster and occasionally just plain bad. I suspect whatever money was available to the film-makers was put into the graphic effects and make-up which happen later. The feeling of dread which begins with a glimpse of Henry’s first victim continues through the first few moments of the final credits. A grim film, sometimes hampered by its low budget, but one with vision.
I recommend Henry, Maniac, The Evil Dead, Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (not reviewed here) but, otherwise, I’d rather feel gersberms.
As a lifelong fan of horror films, I’ve found that the best, most effective and scariest films are the ones that show you only what you need to see, and leave the rest to your imagination. No rubber severed limb covered in movie-blood can ever equal the scene your own mind can cook up when fed with the right ingredients, because your mind’s eye can not only make it look and sound absolutely real, but has the added ability to include your other senses as well. You can imagine what the knife cut FEELS like, smell the smoke from the chainsaw and taste the blood of your own severed tongue.
It’s also the anticipation of violence, the lead-up, the tension and suspense that deliver the scares. When a filmmaker tries to show you too much, it inevitably disappoints. When you finally see it happen, what you feel is more relief than fright. Too much gore (unless in a film that’s deliberately over the top like Dead Alive or The Evil Dead, in which the gore becomes comical) may make you squirm in discomfort, but isn’t the same as fright.
There are films where a really violent scene can be extremely effective, though rarely when the goal is to scare. One of the most effective I’ve seen comes at the end of Martin Scorsese’s Casino, when Joe Pesci’s character Nicky Santoro and Nicky’s brother Dominick are beaten to near-death with a baseball bat, then buried alive. Everything about this scene is masterful, — the way the dirt sticks to the blood on his body as they shovel it over him, the bloody mat of his ruined face, and most of all, the flat, undramatic whack of the bat on Pesci’s skull. It’s not frightening, exactly, but it is horrible — Scorsese makes you feel as though you’re standing in the scene, helpless to even look away. It’s brutal. I’ve watched a lot of gore-fests without flinching, but if Casino is on, I have to change the channel before the end.
I enjoyed reading your article.
Thanks, Brian. I obviously agree with you. Gore, used judiciously, is wildly effective. But when it becomes mind-numbing, I lose interest. LAKE MUNGO (mentioned in my November entry) creeped me out beyond belief, as did the recently watched THE PACT (though it is not a perfect film, its creepiness was consistent.)
One point of correction: the Roger Ebert line quoted above is actually from Richard Roeper’s review of Evil Dead, which was posted on Ebert’s site last week.
The correction has been made. Thank you for pointing that out.
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