From one extreme to another

A film aficionado has had it up to here with blood, guts and gore.

Graham Barnfield

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Recently, the gap between the grindhouse and the multiplex has been narrowing. Everywhere you look, it seems that the difference between mainstream movies, exploitation flicks and Sight and Sound’s stock-in-trade is becoming less clear.

I’m all in favour of uncensored films. I worked hard to get Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre screened in the UK, before the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) lifted its ban. I’ve interviewed controversial French director Gaspar Noé, been delighted by the new version of Mario Bava’s Kidnapped, and even appeared momentarily in the chilling Mr In-Between.

I welcomed the re-release of Straw Dogs and despaired at nearly four minutes worth of cuts made to the UK release of Ichi the Killer. While the BBFC’s arguments change over time, its assumption that adult viewers can’t be trusted to make up their own minds informs much of what the gatekeepers and moral guardians do.

Yet something is not quite right. I often attend late-night shows at the local UCI and wonder what exactly I’m watching: juvenile storyline, ultraviolence, 15 certificate. Scream aside, slick production values and mobile phones as props can’t disguise the fact that the slasher flick has barely changed in three decades.

Back in the 1980s, at least before the Video Recordings Act, many of the grisly and bizarre films caught up in the panic over video nasties featured a large quota of blood and gore.

In my youth, a nearby Scout pack would raise funds by screening a pirate video of a recent Hollywood hit – followed by ‘a nasty’. In the absence of a local fleapit, a double bill of An Officer and a Gentleman and The Burning or ET and Zombie Dawn of the Dead at the local Scout hut was just the place to do a bit of growing up, taking advantage of the lax adult supervision. This odd mixture of Dario Argento and Baden-Powell helped me to be prepared for my X-certificate favourites getting outlawed amid a moral panic, as I could see them as entertainment rather than the raw evil described in countless newspaper articles.

Today, the likes of The Evil Dead, I Spit on Your Grave and The Hills Have Eyes seem widely available, often in commemorative special edition DVD box sets. Several, including The Evil Dead and Driller Killer, have been reappraised as classic movies (but don’t expect a revival of SS Experiment Camp any time soon). Seeing these titles vanish amid a Tory/media frenzy 20 years ago was an object lesson, to this teenager at least, in the need for free speech and rational debate.

Twenty years later, when the focus of moral outrage has shifted to screen violence and back countless times, do I still feel the same way? Has being a parent, even a libertarian one, changed my mind? Not a jot. I am quite capable of storing my movies out of my daughter’s reach. I’m with film critic Mark Kermode, who complained of missing out on the Italian countryside to watch eye-gouging dross like Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper while on holiday, because in Britain the authorities won’t let him find out it’s dross for himself.

Yet when watching a lot of ‘extreme cinema’, I’m also reminded of Jasper Carrott’s old gag about the B-side of his one-hit wonder ‘Funky Moped’: ‘Why is it banned?’ ‘Because it’s shit.’

Few of the new grindhouse directors are interested in getting their movies suppressed. Instead, the same sort of gore that saw nasties being grabbed in the 1980s is a regular feature of the mainstream action and horror flicks clogging up the multiplexes. Four blocks from my apartment is a queue of teenagers waiting to see Freddy vs Jason. They’re not that different from my mates and I outside the Scout hut 20 (gulp) years ago.

Yet whereas we got gore from primitive US slasher pics and dubbed giallo movies, rushed on to video in pursuit of a fast buck, today’s teens get a sleek, CGI-led and aggressively marketed version of the same thing. Technology aside, the main difference is that studios have learned to trim just enough to guarantee a commercially viable PG-13 or R certificate (the equivalent of a British 15), rather than the financially suicidal NC-17. No wonder staff at Birmingham’s Star City Warner Village accidentally switched Wrong Turn for Piglet’s Big Movie (1).

Move over to the self-consciously ‘extreme’ directors and things appear different. Gaspar Noé said he would sooner not release Irréversible in Britain than allow the censors to enforce cuts. Reportedly, part of the delay faced by Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses stems from his refusal to compromise. Such directors put one in the position of defending their right to say something, yet wondering why they would bother saying it in the first place.

House of 1000 Corpses has its moments, particularly in its multimedia format, its fairground/50s-TV visuals and a daringly long crane shot – but beyond that it’s a rehash of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Ditto the mainstream Wrong Turn and Jeepers Creepers. And the official remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre hits cinema screens in October. Jeepers creepers!

The charm, if you can call it that, of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was its economy, its inventiveness and its genuine ability to shock. Same goes for the early venereal horror of David Cronenberg. Overall, exploitation cinema was precisely that: it packed audiences in to see something they otherwise wouldn’t get the chance to see, spending next to no money in the process. Reproducing exploitation movies on a big budget seems a waste of film’s potential, if not a waste of film stock.

Since the multiplexes retread the horror shocks of old and swap tame gore for creativity, can ‘extreme cinema’ offer an alternative? The main problem with ‘extreme cinema’ is treating it as a genre in its own right; at least with ‘exploitation films’ the term related logically to their production and consumption. Too often ‘extreme’ is taken to mean gore, which is where the wheels come off for Rob Zombie.

Gore has its place in entertainment – just think how infuriating the TV version of Robocop is, where cutting out the gruesome moments renders it incoherent. Gore can also be genuinely unsettling – think of the way Audition morphs from a comedy of manners into something quite disturbing. Yet rather than making the shocks an organic part of the movie, too often ‘extreme’ means moving from one set-piece to the next, like There’s Something About Mary, only with different bodily fluids.

The problems of treating extreme cinema as a genre are evident in many Western critics’ reaction to Takashi Miike. The genuine adulation that met Miike’s Audition, including Mark Kermode hiding behind his seat at the Edinburgh Film Festival, is now replicated for every film Miike releases.

Miike is an imaginative jobbing director, but it’s clear that extremism structures his less accomplished movies. Thus the knockabout Visitor Q was praised by many critics as a visionary piece of work. (For those who haven’t seen it, it starts with an incest scene and ends with a journalist using shit as a lubricant during necrophilia.) Likewise, his Ichi the Killer became a ‘cult classic’ on the strength of its multiple mutilations, and is championed by reviewers who ignore its Manga origins, which help to account for some of the onscreen mayhem.

Similar things can be said of Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (this time Kermode got to rescue a fainting audience member, who passed out during the scene where a fire extinguisher is used to pulp someone’s head). Noé serves up an inventive and visually bold movie, albeit underpinned by mock philosophical profundity – but treating it as anything more than an exploitation flick is to give it too much credit. And however Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill turns out, its pre-release reputation makes it a place where all of these trends coagulate – Miramax backing it to the hilt in pursuit of profits, critics drooling at the prospect of a new movie from Mr Brown, and gore aficionados anticipating a high body count.

You don’t have to be Mary Whitehouse to be uncomfortable with these trends. By all means shock me at the cinema, even to the point where, as with Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, you are telling me that no sane person should want to stay and watch the outcome of the movie. But am I alone in thinking that there’s something misanthropic in seeing gore and mutilation as the most viable challenge to Hollywood sequelmania?

Graham Barnfield is currently a fellow of the Wolfsonian-FIU. House of 1000 Corpses and the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are released in October.

(1) Cinema mix-up airs horror flick in place of Piglet, Gerard Seenan, Guardian, 14 August 2003

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