Thursday, March 5, 2009

Graphic Violence in the Cinema: A Brief History

Text and photos © Robert Barry Francos
Videos from the Internet

The following is a paper I wrote for an expository writing class in 1992. Of course it is outdated, but I still like it, so I am posting it here. Note how many of these films mentioned either have been remade, or are about to be.

Violence in the cinema is hardly a new concept; its presence has been felt from the first narrative film.

In 1903, Edison and company released The Great Train Robbery, a western shoot-‘em-up involving, naturally, the robbing of a train. What was interesting in a social context was the last scene in the single-reel film (approximately 12 minutes). The shot opened up on a waist-high profile of one of the robbers. He faces the camera, pulled out a pistol, and fired directly at the camera, hence the “audience.” The concept of the cinema was so new, what reportedly occurred was that members of the audience invariably ducked, and some even fainted.
The Great Train Robbery clip: start at 4:05

Graphic violence came to light in 1929, when Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel released La Chien Andalou. In s scene toward the beginning of the film, a man approached a woman from behind. The action is inter-cut between the man and the woman, and the moon that is slit by a cloud. Mirroring this, the man proceeds to slice the woman’s eyeball with a straight razor in extreme close-up. She is intact in the next scene, but the surrealistic film is shocking, even to this day.
La Chien Andalou trailer:

With the advent of the Hayes Commission (an internal morals board created in the early 1930s led by the Postmaster General as a reaction to the response by religious and citizens groups to the violent gangster films of the period, such as Little Caesar, Public Enemy, and especially Scarface), Hollywood was reined in while the rest of the world continued to show violence in a relatively graphic nature. An example would be the samurai films of Akira Kaurasowa, like Throne of Blood (based on Macbeth), The Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo.
Throne of Blood trailer:

In the United States, violence once again took a tack to the graphic extreme in the late 1950s when particular film companies no longer agreed to bring their films to the mainstream Board. The maverick filmmakers whose production companies were not affiliated with the Hollywood “machine” made these. The leaders of this movement were Samuel Z. Arkoff (producer) and Roger Corman (director), who created their own company, titled American International Pictures. They became a film factory, creaking out “B” pictures by the dozens each year, sometimes filming them in less than a week (1).

Herschell Gordon Lewis
In the field of graphically violent films, the “grandfather” of this genre was a real estate agent in Ft. Lauderdale named Herschell Gordon Lewis. With an extremely minimal budget, he co-produced (with David Friedman) and directed a film titled Blood Feast (1964), which contained no acting talent to speak of (though two Playboy centerfold models were featured), little, if nonsensical plot, and many body parts torn from their host (leg, arm, tongue, scalp). The film was distributed to second-=run theaters, drive-in, and art houses. It sold out wherever it played and made a lot of money. His follow-up films in the 1960s included The Gore-Gore Girls, The Wizard of Gore, Color Me Blood Red and 2,000 Maniacs, the latter of which is considered a classic to genre fans. Unknowingly, Lewis has single-handedly created a new subgenre, the gore film, a term taken form his films.
Blood Feast trailer:

Producer Dave Friedman and star Mal Arnold, Blood Feast
The gore genre had laid its foundations. It did not really pick up momentum until the end of the decade and through the beginning of the next. At that time, there were three seminal films that appeared from unknown filmmakers that helped project the independent production field further into the public’s eye.

Kyra Schon, littlest zombie (see image behind), The Night of the Living Dead
The first release was filmed in black-and-white due to its budget, and was produced and shot in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (2). Directed by George A. Romero, who had previously worked on industrial films until this production, Night of the Living Dead was released to a startled, yet receptive audience in 1968. The story of flesh-eating zombies was loosely based on the classic Richard Matheson novel, I Am Legend (3). Although it cost a mere $60,000 to produce, the film has made millions of dollars and is still shown regularly in revival houses, midnight shows, and on college campuses.
Night of the Living Dead trailer

Gunnar "Leatherface" Hansen, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
The second film to produce a profound effect on the newly emerging genre was directed by yet another unknown named Tobe Hooper. His film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, actually shows very little blood, but it is astonishingly brutal in its implied violence. For once, the terrorizing was not by ghosts, zombies, or other supernatural means and beings, but rather by an everyfamily. It was also shocking because it was based (again, loosely) on a real-life incident perpetrated by Edward Gein. In Minnesota, during the mid-1950s, Gein killed an unknown number of people, dug up graves, used human leather (including a “face mask”), and participated in cannibalism. (4) As with Night of the Living Dead, this film was at first a curiosity, and then became a cult favorite.
Texas Chain Saw Massacre trailer:

David Hess, Last House on the Left
The last of the three films of this growth period was not as popular as the previous two, and practically disappeared until video made its appearance (released first in an edited version and eventually uncut, pun not intended). Still the film had enough of an effect to make a dent in the genre and create an advertising slogan that is still famous: “To keep from fainting, repeat to yourself, ‘It’s only a movie… it’s only a movie…’.” Although it too was claimed to be based on a true incident, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left was actually founded on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. In this story, two teen girls are kidnapped and brutally killed by a trio of escaped “lunatics” (one being a woman) who, in turn, are butchered for revenge by the parents of one of the victims (a morality tale).
Last House on the Left trailer:

The latter two of these “reality-based” films set a precedent that would start a brand new subgenre, which is described below.

John Carpenter, the director of Halloween, took the serial killer to a new dimension of nearly mythic proportions. His assassin, The Shape (nee Michael Myers), could be wounded, but could not be killed (for, as the studio learned, if the killer does there could be no sequels). The film kick started the subgenre known as slasher films, the basic premise of which is as follows: a group, usually teens, gather at a physically restrictive space (e.g., a house, camp, island), participate in sexual activity, and then die in gruesome and graphic manners (arrows, hatchets, machetes, etc.). The killer is eventually “stopped” by a female or child-like figure (innocence triumphant).
Halloween trailer:

The unstoppable killer was further extended into the psyche with a new and usurping slaughterer, Jason Voorhees (quickly shortened to just Jason), the hockey mask wearing, machete-bearing “monster”) in the Friday, the 13th series. (5)
Friday, the 13th trailer:

Occasionally, the major studios would put their “toe in the water” and produce a film with excessive violence. Some of these included Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1968), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver (1975). The leading auteur director of mainstream gore of this period was Sam Peckinpaw. He came to prominence in 1968 with The Wild Bunch, a western shoot-em-up to the extreme. Thousands of bullets flew and people died with blood literally spraying out of their wounds, usually in slow motion. (6) Peckinpaw’s other films, such as Straw Dogs, are artistically sound, yet excessively violent in some moments.
The Wild Bunch trailer:

Most of the mainstream films that approached the violent genre were morality tales, showing the results of living an “evil” existence outside the status quo. With rare exceptions, most of the larger budget films tended to place the violence during the climatic conclusions, whereas the independent releases were usually increasingly relentless throughout.

What made the independent films of this genre so successful was catering to its audience (demographically teenage/young adult males), pushing ever further the barriers of taste and sensibilities than had previously been cinematographically tried, enticing the audience with “what will they try next?” While the studios were still mostly reined by the fading system, the freewheeling indies went for the “juggler” (pun intended) by not worrying about “art” and star power, being more character (villain) driven, and using that money for effects.

Eventually, in the 1980s, major studio started to catch on to the financial possibilities of the gore and “splatter” genres. They entered the foray with easy, careful steps, which would eventually be coined somewhere as “sequelities.” Halloween II was followed by Halloween III (7), as were Friday, the 13th II (8) through Friday, the 13th VII. (9)

During this phase in the 1980s, while reviewing one of the Friday, the 13th sequels on WNBC-TV local news in New York City, critic Pia Lindstrom asked why these kinds of trashy films keep being made. She went on to answer her own question by commenting that the film has made much more money than the recent Academy Award winner for Best Picture.

Paramount, one of the larger studios, struck out and released one of the most popular films of this genre, West Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1983). This was also quickly followed by a string of (connected) sequels, each marginally more of less financially successful than the previous productions. A segment of Entertainment Tonight, which was taped during the Second Annual Horror Awards on WABC-TV (also New York City) during 1991, Robert Englund (10) stated that most of the major studios released films of this nature through satellite subsidiaries to keep their distance (and reputation) from them, and yet used the money raised from the low budget, high income films to finance and make up for the losses incurred by expensive flops, such as Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate.
A Nightmare on Elm Street trailer:

As the motion picture industry increasingly moves both physically and spiritually away from Hollywood, the level of acceptance of these films is increasingly making its presence felt in the mainstream cinema. Proof of this is Silence of the Lambs, the 1991 Academy Award winner of many awards, including Best Picture. The film includes scenes of cannibalism and the shearing of human skin (Ed Gein writ large, indeed).
Silence of the Lamb trailer:

With this acceptance of graphic violence by mainstream America and Hollywood, as always there are the fringes of cinema, which is now presented in the field of the home video market. As the marketplace for the distribution of off-center films slowly dries up with theaters only showing single features, and with the closing of many art houses and drive-ins, the route many independent films now take is straight to the home via video. Companies like Full Moon Films (Puppet Master, Subspecies) and Tembre Productions (Abominations, Riot in Redneck County) are examples of the present leaders in the direct-home market.
Puppet Master trailer:

Markets and tastes change, and the mass media follows. There will, however, always be people on the fringes of the masses, whose tastes need to be catered to by some means. As video is now reliable and handy, those tastes are being met, and all is happy in the imaginary land of adrenalin, cinematic fear, and especially violence.

1. Little Shop of Horrors and The Terror, for example. In the first case, Roger Corman learned that a set from another film would be up for a week, so he had the film written in four days and then shot it in 2-1/2 days. Rumor was that Corman had use of another set for a week, and of actor Boris Karloff, so he told his art department if they could come up with a good “one-sheet” poster, he’d make a film using the set and the actor. The poster is arguably the best product of this endeavor, being a close-up of Karloff’s face made up of writing bodies, though the film itself made no sense whatsoever. Coincidentally, both of these films had Jack Nicholson as a principle.
2. Whose nickname was “City of the Living Dead.”
3. Also based on this book were the films The Last Man on Earth (1956) and The Omega Man, respectively starring Vincent Price and Charlton Heston.
4. Other films based on this case include Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Deranged (1973).
5. In the first film of the series, it was actually Jason’s mother who was doing the killing, and in the fourth sequel, a teenager who was possessed by the “evil spirit” of Jason. Jason was “revived” by lightening in the sixth film in the series.
6. In their television show, the group Monty Python’s Flying Circus did a hysterical spoof of Peckinpaw’s style of filmmaking, called “The Tea Set,” in which a miss-tossed tennis racket cases blood and limbs to fly – in slow motion, of course.
7. The latter of which actually had nothing to do with the two previous releases. This precedent has been keenly applied in the video realm. Many so-called sequels are actually original films, but are titled as sequels to cash in on the previous film’s success. As examples, there are Curse II and The Howling II through The Howling VII, none of which are actually sequels of each other.
8. The first true appearance of Jason as a killer.
9. Eventually, the studios started using clumsy subnames to distinguish the films, such as Friday, the 13th V: A New Beginning or Friday, the 13th VII: Jason’s New York Adventure.
10. The actor who played popular Freddie Kruger, the central character/villain of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series.

Naha, Ed. The Films of Roger Corman: Brilliance on a Budget, Third Edition (New York: Arco Publishing, Inc.), 1992.
Phantom of the Movies. The Phantom’s Ultimate Video Guide (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.), 1989.
Stanley, John. Revenge of the Creature Features Movie Guide, Third Edition (Pacifica, CA: Creatures At Large Press.), 1988.
Vale, V. and Andrea Juno. Number 10. Incredibly Strange Films (San Francisco: Re/Search Publications), 1986.

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