I recognise that it must’ve started a lot earlier than this but for the sake of convenience I will start with the film Marathon Man and the infamous ‘Nazi dentist’ scene, in which the aforementioned goes to town on Dustin Hoffman’s laughing gear in the name of torture / information sourcing.
The scene is still referenced today in many lists of the ‘most shocking’ variety, and it must be said it still packs a punch – like clowns and hairy spiders, dentists are always scary.
Before Marathon Man was I Spit on your Grave and Last House on the Left, two notorious early shockers, both remade unnecessarily in the last couple years so I acknowledge Marathon Man was by no means the genesis. But it seems that every decade or so a film comes along that raises the bar and sets the tone – and while it may be controversial at the time within a few years people the viewing audience becomes accustomed to whatever the initial shock was and moves on, until the next filmmaker once again pushes the boundaries.
That’s the way it is, in the 90s Madonna wore skimpy clothes and danced around in front of burning crosses and was panned, nowadays Lady GaGa does… whatever the hell he/she does and aside from the moronic acknowledgment from society at her latest attention grabbing cries for help while it is conversation worthy it is hardly ‘shocking’. Similarly in the 90s ‘gangsta rap was decried from all sides, now talentless hacks like 50 ‘I got shot 9 times! Cent’ and Kanye ‘look at what I sampled’ West are multimillionaires universally lauded as visionaries.
That’s not my point today though. I am more concerned with the direction of modern horror, which has split into 4 paths:
A dying breed. Can you believe some filmmakers have the temerity, the audacity, the balls to try to scare filmmakers in entertaining ways?
2/ The PG. Knowing that cashed up teens only have so many avenues available to blow their parent’s cash and so desperately want to be ‘grown up’ like y’know NOW the number of soft kid friendly so-called horror movies is simply an embarrassment. I actually dealt with this more thoroughly HERE.
I’m finished with this, it seems like they are greenlighting the remakes before the originals are released. (Piranha 3D was a good one though.
Films with the primary goal of shocking above all else.
Today I am all about #4.
As someone who has been watching horror for two plus decades there aren’t too many things I haven’t seen and been shocked by already, now I hardly bat an eye when someone loses theirs on film, and I am far more likely to laugh while my wife and younger audience members are shrieking and covering their eyes with their fingers. It doesn’t change my enjoyment of a good horror film, I just enjoy it in a different way.
To me horror is escapism. Had a rough day? Watch some pretty teens get slaughtered in various ways by a faceless killer. Freddie, Jason and the Halloween guy could hardly be mistaken for ‘real life’, so it’s perfectly acceptable to me to root for them to have a few wins in entertainingly preposterous but creative ways, before whichever large breasted teenage chickie gets to take them down in the final scenes – until the sequel at least.
Giant sharks, snakes, wild pigs and several other creepy-crawlies might exist in real life but don’t harbor any malicious intent aside from ‘please stay away from me’ or ‘gee I’m hungry here’s lunch’, so on film it’s fine to watch them poison, puree or pounce upon characters dumb or unlucky enough to enter their turf. Same goes for the ‘killer vines’ of The Ruins, the killer pig in Chaw, and the umm, ‘killer wind’ of The Happening… OK that was horror for other reasons.
So I’m perfectly fine to watch them chew their way through scenery and the populations of various modern day and future post apocalyptic societies. I’ll continue to go watch stuff like Battle: Los Angeles and The Wolfman even though I know they are likely to be ordinary (Battle) at best and putrid (Wolfie) at worst, just on the outside chance of catching another The Descent or District 9 (hardly horror but you get the point).
But a few years back things changed.
Like most horror junkies I knew well in advance that Hostel was coming and read up on all the advance news and early reviews – a film about young people being dealt with in Eastern Europe wasn’t particularly original but we were reliably informed that this was different, this Eli Roth guy was ‘pushing it’.
My initial reaction after viewing was ‘well that was only OK’. As a guy I took away three things; the nudity (as I said, I’m a guy!) and two notable gore scenes (the Achilles slice and the Japanese girl’s eye).
Aside from that I was a little underwhelmed and though the film was no more than OK. It’s just that watching someone tied to a chair getting hacked methodically might be graphic and bloody, but it is hardly scary and definitely not entertaining.
Apparently though I was in the minority, Hostel made big bucks at the cinema and spawned the unfortunate torture porn sub genre which I continue to find so lamentable.
It is no longer the entertainment value that matters but pandering to gore-hounds to outdo the last guy and push the boundaries of what society dubs good taste.
The unspoken message being ‘if you don’t like it, you don’t get it’.
Well I get it… but I still don’t like it. Not because I can’t handle the long, protracted torture scenes or realistic depictions of violence, more because the quality of the film is irrelevant now.
A couple of examples from recent years – SPOILERS I guess.
Martyrs came out a few years ago, the first half of the film was a typical horror set up, two girls doing silly things which ended with them being covered in blood and surrounded by bodies. No probs there.
The second half of the film has random guys appearing out of the blue and confining the girls to one room where they are systematically and thoroughly tortured for days – in a scene that seems to take forever, a scene with zero suspense or entertainment value, a scene which is more about tolerance and being extreme for the sake of it.
Guess what everyone talks about? Not the intro or the plot.
Martyrs is simply ‘the film where they torture the French chick’.
And where do you start with Human Centipede? Does the director care about things like subtlety and suspense? Not when he is telling one and all in every interview what the ‘big twist’ is. The fact that three morons are linked in their own disgusting private ‘food chain’ is not the twist or the highlight but the only selling point, in fact it would be hard for anyone even remotely likely to rent this sort of thing not to know about the ‘hook’ prior to picking up the cover.
This is now the film where two chicks and a guy get sewn together and shit.
Now the final straw – a film I haven’t even seen. A Serbian Tale is already being extolled by many as a ‘new direction in horror’ and from what I’ve heard it is a direction I am becoming increasingly less interested in.
Without details it involves graphic onscreen acts of sexual violence against women, men, kids and… newborn babies.
If that alone has you exiting to chase it up then by all means fuck off and don’t come back.
I don’t want to hear how this is discussed.
It seems that the trend now is less the movie and more the scene, and not from the perspective of creativity, originality or entertainment value, more ‘how far can we take it?’
The Collector was terrible and blatantly tried to spawn a franchise but at least it sorta tried to be creative in a clumsy way.
The Saw films were over the top in terms of gore and tone but again it was always obvious that it was a film.
Graphic and realistic depictions of gore, rape, child and animal violence and torture for no reason might satisfy the basic criteria as to be labeled horror – they are horrific concepts for sure – but to me it is more horrifying that these things are now being seen as the entertainment.
Put another way, if I flick on the news and any of those topics is raised I don’t want to hear about it, that’s not me trying to avoid the truth, I’ve been around long enough to know the evil, depraved and disgusting things that people can unfortunately do in real life and I am hardly interested in devouring the details about the latest vile act perpetrated by the minority.
I’ll make exceptions from time to time where the aim is to educate and highlight just how bad the outcome of these acts can be, things like American History X had one of the most shocking acts of violence that I can ever recall seeing on film, and it was portrayed realistically. But the main point of the film was to show how a man who went off the rails realised the error of his ways and tried to protect his younger brother from doing the same. Blood Diamond and Hotel Rwanda both showed a lot more than simply ‘genocide is bad’.
But I certainly don’t want to watch these things realistically portrayed on the big screen or through my DVD player in the name of enjoyment. Referencing Hotel Rwanda again; the systematic eradication and annihilation of zombies = potential cinematic gold, the systematic annihilation of the poor and impoverished Africans is definitely not the same.
I personally can’t see how sexual violence, realistic torture and graphic displays of things that we should find disgusting in real life can be used for ‘fun’.
Horror used to be where I could take some time off to derive enjoyment from something that couldn’t possibly happen.
This new direction is potentially raising a new breed of filmmaker willing to take things further and further in the name of entertainment, and not to get on the soapbox but every year we hear the story of a mindless drone copycatting things they saw in films, I shudder at what someone who derives pleasure from any of the highlighted films above might do down the track.