This week in the Vault of Horror Roundtable, we three blowhards answer the touchy question, do horror movies ever go too far? I'm really proud of the variety of responses we've got this time around, so let's jump right in...
This is a very tough question for me to pose, because in my estimation, the answer has changed over time. If someone had asked me 10 or 15 years ago if horror movies ever go too far, I would have definitely said absolutely not. Bring on the gore, the sicker the better! I reveled in it, and look, I'll be honest, to a certain degree, I still do.
And yet, I think some things have changed for me and the way I watch horror movies over the years. Some will no doubt accuse me of going soft because of this. Be that as it may, in recent years I have found I have a much harder time watching certain things than I ever used to. Maybe it's the changes wrought on my psyche by bringing children into the world, or just the accumulated effects of being a grown-up and dealing with the daily horrors of the actual world we live in on a mature level.
Whatever the case, I truly believe that in the past few years, I have found my limit. And that happens to be what is now commonly referred to as "torture porn". Now that term is often used unfairly and inaccurately, so allow me to specify. I think it's probably safe to refer to Hostel that way, since that's basically the flick that the term was invented for. And that's specifically the movie which, after watching a copy of it lent to me by a coworker who heard I liked horror movies, taught me that I do indeed have a limit.
My main problem with Hostel was that I found it to be a movie created for the sole purpose of showing me graphic depictions of dramatized torture. The plot was paper thin, as were the characters, and it was quite obvious that Eli Roth's goal was to titillate through violence, without even the flimsiest of dramatic justifications. Now slasher movies, in their day, were accused of showing contempt for their characters--but that's nothing compared to the way a movie like Hostel invites us to take a sick kind of pleasure out of watching people be mutilated and killed.
I found the movie to be the complete antithesis of entertainment, and could not imagine wanting to ever see it again. Now, don't get me wrong, I believe that not all works of art are required to be entertaining. Watching Schindler's List, for example, is not something I would ever describe as entertaining, but that movie serves a purpose, has something to say, and isn't all about pruriently depicting scenes of concentration camp brutality.
I was shaken up by watching Hostel, and not in the good way I expect great horror films to shake me up. In a disgusted, "what has the genre come to" sort of way. And following Hostel, I came to find the same type of thing popping up in other movies. Saw III, for example, gave me a lot of trouble watching it in a movie theater when it first came out. The original Saw was a clever, original, suspenseful film, that wasn't at all about sadism and gore. But this third installment abandoned all that in favor of following in the footsteps of Hostel, and I found myself depressed by the result. I remember thinking, "Why am I sitting here watching this? What is there that's entertaining or interesting about this?"
One last example I'd like to point out is The Strangers. This was a movie I enjoyed, but there was a bit at the end that really bothered me. It's the scene in which the couple is finally killed. I felt dirty watching this scene, and the simple reason was that I found it to be shot the way it was and included for a sad, sadistic, and anti-dramatic purpose. There was so suspense or narrative function to it at all. We knew there was no chance they could ever escape, and in the end what we are afraid is going to happen is exactly what does. It was drawn out, cruel, and demonstrated a kind of sick glee in forcing us to sit and watch two characters slowly tortured and killed. Honestly, it was repellent.
And so, after all, it seems that B-Sol, the shameless horror fanatic, does indeed have his limits. I will admit that the passage of years has had something to do with it. Extreme, prolonged and utterly gratuitous violence no longer does it for me like it used to. Ah, to be young again...
When B-Sol asked me "When do Go Too Far?" I kept racking my big ol' brain trying to pinpoint an example to rant about for being disgusting, inhumane, disgusting, or emotionally scarring. You know what? I couldn't think of a damn thing. Sure there are topics that upset me like killing children, graphic rape scenes, or eye mutilation, but I in no way would ever claim that exploiting these said actions is going "too far". Torture Porn, Animal Cruelty, Rape Revenge, or Home Invasion Films tend to be the ones that get the most slack for going "too far". My argument is however, who are we to judge? I personally can stomach just about anything, but my Mormon friend (that is one of 17 children) can barely handle .
As a theatre major, I have been trained to see things from all angles. The thing I love the most about cinema, theatre, and the performing arts in general; is that they are all open to interpretation. Everything artistic is always in a matter of perspective. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, doesn't that mean repulsiveness should be as well? Da Vinci even said that "an extremely ugly person is just as unique and special as an extremely beautiful person". Although it is off-putting and sometimes uncomfortable to see these "too far" horror films, I feel that it is just as impressive and draws me in just as much as a beautiful and moving film.
I feel that it also goes along with the saying of "there's no such thing as bad publicity". Just recently, the film Anti-Christ has been getting a lot of shit for having genital mutilation, and unnecessary sex/violence. However, is there any other film at that festival that was getting as much news as Anti-Christ. The answer is no. Human beings retain memory that consist mostly of two options. Extremely wonderful things like a wedding day or a birth of a child or absolutely heart wrenching things like a family death or a traumatic experience. For us to claim that horror films can go "too far" is denying the human psyche to have a contrast to the more "acceptable film".
I had written on Day of the Woman as a hot topic if rape was ever acceptable in horror films. As much as it makes me sound like a cruel and unusual person, I came to the conclusion that Yes. It is acceptable. We cannot sugar coat reality when we put it into a film. Most people are under the impression that performing arts must be "entertaining" however, that was in 1950, and we are long from that. Films and plays have begun to completely say "fuck the audience, i'm going to write what i want to write" and i must say i find that incredibly inspiring. As much as we may not like to hear it, the world is a disgusting, cruel, brutal, and terrifying place. This isn't to say that I don't believe there is hope, but I'm not going to lie and say we live in a peaceful environment. Art is imitating life after all and why should we put a barrier on what is acceptable? Look at the evening news...no one talks about a dog who saved Billy from the well or barn fire, we talk about gang shootings, wars, and the tragic tale of Caylee Anthony. How can we have no problem spreading these stories like herpes on our nightly news, but we can't have a child being murdered in a film? That sounds not only hypocritical, but boarderline unconstitutional.
The same could be said for the Animal massacres in . However, as much as I personally cannot agree with killing animals for the sole purpose of "entertainment", the film was killing the animals to make a point. I can understand along side the creative minds behind the animal killings, however I can not personally justify the actions. I am however only a 19 year old girl, so I have no room to tell anyone how to make a film. Which is like most audience members. It doesn't matter how many films I've seen, how many reviews I've written, or how much research I have done...the films I see are not MINE and the only people who have the true liberty of critisizing or measuring a piece of work, is the creator. You know "God is the only one who can judge me?" Well that's because he is the creator. So who are we to judge other's creations?
Again, I'm about to sound like a heartless bastard, but I LIKE when films push the envelope for me. It sort of pimp smacks you in the face and shoves a hell of a lot of reality down your throat, which to be honest, is something I think we need from time to time. So many people live in this fairytale fantasy land where everything is wonderful and squeaky clean. Which I will firmly say is the single strongest reason why the Twatlight series has such a following. Teenage girls don't WANT fanged, bloodied, nocturnal boyfriends. They want ones that sparkle in the sunshine...so in that sense, I guess I can finally understand why the hell people missed their classes the day after the film came out on DVD. I will however say, I was NOT one of those people. Same thing with the PETA videos. They know exactly how to push the button and make you so incredibly disgusted, you don't want to ever eat meat again. It's a tactic, and it works.
So to put it simply, I don't think films can EVER go too far. Art is meant to be a perspective and what bothers you, may fill others with delight. My whole thing is that if its going to bother you, then don't watch it. No one is forcing you to sit through something, you have the ability to either leave a theatre, or eject your DVD. We as mere audience members however, cannot put a scale in which to measure the fucked-up-ness of a film. Is it mildly fucked up to say that some people get off at seeing torture porn? Mildly. But hey, diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks.
My first reaction to the question of whether a horror movie can go too far was "of course." There have been horror movies that have gone too far and disturbed me. One right off the top of my head was Se7en, with it seemingly never ending mortification of human flesh.
But now I have been asked to think about it and give real examples.
The horror genre, be it by film or novel, is wholly wrapped up in giving us terrible visions of what we would we never normally see. We vicariously experience many things, be they monsters, or ghosts, or killers, or natural events. Part of the point is to shock us.
To that end horror movies have shown us terrible, terrible things: graphic gore, child death, violent rape, intense cruelty, advanced decomposition.
So, even when it is most disturbing, an argument can be made that, in the name of art and terror, that a horror movie cannot go too far. But we all know that isn't true.
So now it becomes my task to figure out a movie has gone too far.
Typically, extreme violence and the resultant gore are the major culprits of going too far. There was an article in the New York Times asking this same question. It was in 1982, and was in response to the gore and slime of John Carpenter's The Thing. Carpenter had just appeared on David Letterman's show, and had showed the clip of the dog-thing. Back then The Thing was widely panned, and the amount of gore, etc., was the cited reason. Yet the massive cult following indicates that The Thing, now hailed as one of the best horror movies of all time, did not go too far
Movies like Cannibal Apocalypse [which truthfully I have yet to see, but am familiar with many of its images], Last House on the Left, and the recent House of a Thousand Corpses all are incredibly violent, sadistic, gory, and while pushing every envelope I can think of, did not go too far. In fact, all three are classic horror movies in their own right.
At the same time, movies like the Hostel series and Turistas, and other so called 'torture porn' I can consider having gone too far. Why? I suppose this has something to d with my distaste of the unnecessary cruelty embodied by such films. "Unnecessary cruelty? But that's what those movies are about!" some might retort. Yes, and that is all they are about. One might even then question me about the difference between House of a Thousand Corpses and Hostel. And I would say that the difference lies in the stresses the director one puts on what we see.
In House of a Thousand Corpses, the director created characters to identify with and against that had substance, and in one or two, they were more than a little campy. The violence was a means to an end, as well as a symptom of some greater sickness in those characters. There was more to the movie than just violating the human form.
In Hostel violence was the goal. While the premise wasn't terrible, the story never carried further than the murder of tourists. When you think about it, the most clever thing about Hostel is the director makes you into one of the purveyors of snuff, because the big payoff is all about watching what's going to happen to that Asian girl. In Turistas the payoff was watching a dissection of a girl. Is it the violence and the guts, though? No. Rather, it is the lack of story to contextualize the violence.
And when you consider that Se7en has some scenes, and puts some truly terrible ideas in one's head to replace what was not graphically depicted, I can conclude that going too far is not about the blood and guts, and therefore violence. Even such things, like violent rape, as in The Hills Have Eyes, or child death, like Pet Semetary or Jaws, are not verboten, so long as the underling storyline supports the relating of these acts or events.
Even mass death is not, in itself, going too far, though film makers might fear it. In the 80's we were treated to docudramas like the unforgettable The Day After and the even more compelling BBC production, Threads [shout-out to my girl BJ-C for reminding me of Threads]. To those of us who have grown up after the threat of nuclear annihilation is no longer an ever present threat to civilized existence, both films depict, at times graphically, the run up, actual event of, and aftermath of a full scale nuclear exchange. The Day After was so graphic [for a TV production] that there were warnings before and during its broadcast, and was even credited by Ronald Reagan in altering his thinking about nuclear weapons. Yet there are tales, as always, about the even more terrible and disturbing scenes left on the cutting room floor.
Threads was an even more graphic telling of a nuclear exchange, often using stock war photos of masses of strewn bodies from the Second World War and other conflicts to bolster the charred corpses actually used on its sets. Yet, considering the purpose and the topic, there is no limit to how much gore a director might use.
And let's be honest: the most terrible thing I can see in a movie is nothing when compared the the very real events of the tribal war between the Hutus and Tutsis, the mass rape and genocide in Darfur, and all other genocides. Even much smaller tragedies, like the euphemistically termed mass suicide at Jonestown is a more terrifying, and was more graphically disturbing to me when, as a young boy, I saw the news footage of all those bodies from the air, than anything I can imagine reproduced by special effects on film. Even "just" wars leave charred bodies in unnumbered piles.
Therefore, I will conclude my meandering with this result: yes, a horror movie goes too far when it seeks to do nothing but to shock without trying to do anything more. If the movie is but violence for violence sake, without story or context, then it is probably going too far. If that's what you want to see, go rent Faces of Death or surf the web for photos of the Holocaust. But if the writer and director give the audience a story, a reason, a cause, a lesson, anything other than rote brutality, then the sky just might be the limit.
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