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Sunday, June 14, 2009

The VOH Roundtable: Does Horror Ever Go Too Far?

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 Horror Films 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 Shaun of the Dead.

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 Cannibal Holocaust. 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.


BJ Colangelo said...

damn you Ray and your 5 dollar words.

B-Sol said...

As well as your five-dollar haircut! Way to go, Mrs. Mollica!

Tenebrous Kate said...

Wow--lots of food for thought here on an interesting topic! Each of you has hit on a key element of the issue (the "personal barometer" of B-Sol, the freedom of the filmmaker to go to extreme measures as highlighted by BJ-C, and RayRay's arguments as to the use of graphic violence to convey a message), but I'm kind of torn on the use of the terminology "too far," as it carries the spectre of censorship with it. If a film is deemed, by collective opinion, to have gone further than the bounds of taste (?), what is its ultimate fate?

I think my feelings on the topic come closest to BJ-C's--graphic imagery isn't necessarily the thing that should make a film objectionable. Like B-Sol and RayRay, I disliked "Hostel," due to its flimsy script, odious characters, flat acting and single-note propulsion. I think it's less an issue of sexualized violence than it is of poor filmmaking--it's the cinematic equivalent of a kick to the nuts: direct and unpleasant, and ultimately proving to have very little point once the seeing of stars wears off (ed note: I do not possess nuts, but I have seen enough footage of kicks to the nuts to take the unpleasant sensation to be a tacit scientific fact).

A great post on thought-provoking stuff, sirs and madam!

B-Sol said...

Thanks, Kate. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we are not advocating censorship. Even if I personally might deem a movie to have crossed the line, that gives me no right to call for it to be withdrawn, edited or anything like that. That's what free speech is all about. Just because I may be offended doesn't mean others don't have the right to express themselves.

Anonymous said...

I am a little conflicted here. Whereas I do feel a film like Hostel is completely pointless, I did find a few redeeming qualities. Namely, who doesn't like seeing a bunch of douchey teenagers getting waxed? Going too far? I'm not entirely sure, but Ray and B-Sol do make some valid points of a film at least needing to have methods to its madness. But I think it had a lot of other problems going for it which Kate so accurately described.

So on the flip side, take a film like Inside. Inherently, some may think it does go too far (c-section by way of scissors, egad!) but it tempers my fetal position on the couch self by actually having a story and a sound reasoning to its unrelenting brutality.

So in all, I guess I would say that no, a horror movie can't go too far. And if it does, chances are you won't see it again but you will say to yourself that you saw it, and for better or worse, it was one of the most shocking and deplorable movies you've ever seen. May not be something that you throw on for a nice relaxing Sunday afternoon. But its movies of this ilk, that make horror movies what they are. No reigns should ever be placed on them.

I do disagree with one thing Ray said, you should not rent Faces of Death or scan the interwebs for gnarly pictures in place of watching a film like Hostel. The difference? We know the onscreen violence isn't real.

RayRay said...

BJ-C: The words might sound like the $5 variety, but talk is cheap.

B-Sol: It was the early 80's, and we needed the money.

Kate: Censorship bad. Not on my watch.

Terror: No reins for horror; in the end it is a matter of taste. I always thought Se7en was an awesome movie, I just didn't want to watch it again for a few years. But everyone should become familiar with the real horrors on this planet. Not to wax cheese-mongerly, but to fail to learn the lessons of the past will only doom one to repeat the class. And it is not graded on a curve.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree on the point of learning from the past and not turning a blind eye, I think it kind of goes without saying. But in terms of choosing a mind numbing horror movie (no matter how good or bad) vs. viewing images of something gnarly and horrific that actually happened, I'd choose the former rather than the later.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Much as it might put me on the outs with the horror folks whose opinions I respect, I think I'm going to jump to the defense of HOSTEL here. I don't agree that Roth's sole purpose was to show graphic depictions of sexualized violence for the purposes of titillation. He DOES show graphic depictions of sexualized violence, no doubt, but I don't think he is often given the credit I feel the movie deserves for having a reason for doing it, which I read as the logical, horrible progression of the commodification of human beings.

It all comes down for me to a pair of parallel scenes from early and late in the movie. In the early one, the clearly odious main characters are in the brothel in Amsterdam, having "bought" their less odious compadre a woman for the evening. The shy guy walks down a long, shadowed corridor that's lined with closed or half-open doors. Through the partially open ones we hear moans, groans, and sexual screams, and see strange shadows coming from inside. At the end of the hall, a closed door, where his woman awaits.

Later in the movie, when one of the odious guys is being dragged down a hallway to his room in the Hostel, it's pretty much EXACTLY the same scene. Long corridor, lined with doors, moans and groans and screams, only this time with a different context. However, the visuals, right down to the closed door at the end of the hall, are so similar, it's obvious that Roth as filmmaker is drawing a visual parallel.

The point for me is that the human bodies as sexual products to be traded shown early on is a slippery slope away from the human beings as products to be disposed of in violent ways. Once you reduce human life to something to be bought and sold, it only makes sense that this is where you wind up--and the horror is, you could find yourself on the supply rather than demand side.

Now we can go back and forth on Roth's skill or lack of it as a filmmaker (personally I like what he's done, but I know loads and loads of folks don't feel the same), or how his public persona, whether real or affected, turns people off his films (it does, imo); but I don't think it's fair to say what he did in Hostel he did pointlessly. He could have made the same point differently, of course--more subtly, with more likable characters (though I think their idiocy and cluelessness is part of the point, part of what gets them in trouble--these are the guys who WOULD treat people as product), or with less seeming glee in the mechanics of bodily destruction--but that's something that from a cinematic point of view boils down to a filmmaker's vision and an audience's taste--or lack thereof. Doesn't it?

Anyway, fwiw I *do* think horror movies/gore flicks can go to far for me personally--I can't really see much point in cannibal movies for instance, for many of the reasons listed above--but I also believe that pushing boundaries is something art always does (surrealism, dadaism, punk rock, etc. etc.), or should. If it's done in a way that doesn't achieve anything new or lasting, it'll go away. But the impetus, I think, is worthy.

My comment verification is "relike"--an adjective to describe the experience of rewatching something you hated only to find it's not that bad. ;)

Phantom of Pulp said...

Jesus, what a bunch of fucking pansies! I'd like to hang you all up by a hook!!! Just kidding, of course.

Some good arguments here, actually. I can't see myself picking a side.

Is HOSTEL an excuse for scenes of torture? It's more than that. Every graphic horror film is structured around kills. The zenith of horror is death afterall. A musical is structured around songs and usually has an equally flimsy, convoluted plot. That's because the genre elements (kills, songs) do not occur as naturally as they do in real scenarios, so they need to be contrived to some extent in order to exist.

For me, HOSTEL built to the kills. There weren't a lot in the first 45 minutes. We get a good Euro vibe and characters who are certainly better developed than the carrion in a FRIDAY movie.

Horror goes too far for some, not far enough for others.

Horror should be about cracking boundaries and pushing us into uncomfortable positions. If it doesn't have the latitude to do that, it's a failed genre.

Personally, I don't agree with killing animals for entertainment or to make a point, but I admire CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST a great deal. I respect the "document" that is CH for all its morally questionable aspects, and its "going too far" is part of its charm .

The horror of IN A GLASS CAGE may be too much for some because it involves the torture and slow death of children. To me it's about point of view. If the film had condoned child torture, its point of view probably would have been considered "going too far" in a particular direction. But whether horror goes too far is entirely subjective.

I don't like the setting of limits of any kind with horror. Not surprisingly, the pushing of very uncomfortable boundaries (as in IN A GLASS CAGE, for instance) usually results in low interest in the product, so the market tends to set the boundaries.

"Goes Too Far" ought not be a position to defend with horror. It ought to be a goal. How it achieves that goal is what makes horror interesting.

KT Grant said...

The reason I won't see Hostel is because of the snuff film type tortures. Even killers than seem to be mindless such as Jason and Freddie have some sort of motivation. But torture for torture's sake does not make for good viewing pleasure.

B-Sol said...

Granted, this is a completely subjective topic. But it still provides a lot of food for thought. I'm glad it has inspired a lot of folks to make some very carefully thought out comments here.

Mackenzie Lambert said...

RayRay: Cannibal Apocalypse? Are you sure you didn't mean Cannibal Holocaust? Apocalypse had gore few and far between as well as not be of the same level as say Hostel or Saw III. Plus, you have John Saxon and John Morghen as the two leads.

ps - Sorry for joining late in the topic...

B-Sol said...

Never too late to join in! Yes, I think Ray was talking about Cannibal Holocaust--although Cannibal Apocalypse is pretty heinous too. John Saxon reportedly walked off set once or twice due to being morally disgusted by what was being filmed.

Kels said...

I am actually proud to say that yes, horror absolutely goes too far in some examples for me. I'd explain further but B-Sol, my dear, you've done the job for me.

Why am I proud of this? Because it means I'm still human. I may have morbid fascinations (which totally contradict the fact that I'm not desensitized to the level others kids my age are) but that doesn't mean I can take ANYTHING.

I like sex, for example. Hell, don't we all? And sex in movies is pretty awesome and enjoyable. But that doesn't mean I want to see two characters suddenly turn into hollow monkies that begin a giant porn-off in the middle of the film. If that makes sense. Like with horror and shock, sex can be beautiful and meaningful and powerful and even scary. I am in agreement that art is art because it is teaching us something about ourselves.

Interesting post!

B-Sol said...

Thank you, Kels darling, and I couldn't agree more! Nice to see not all "kids your age" are so desensitized. It's important to retain our humanity...

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