For dedicated horror fans, it’s the hideous Holy Grail, a cup runneth over with as much minced body parts and juiced marrow as possible. It’s the icing on a particularly nasty cake, a filling so foul in a pastry so vile that simply sampling its entrails-laced spice will send your palette to purgatory… forever! Since its popularity as a means of pushing the exploitation film into a new, non-nude dynamic, to its post-millennial pose as a redefining hardcore homage, gore has given the movie macabre its surreal, sacrilegious fascination. It’s also elevated the craftsmen behind the scenes — the make-up artists and effects technicians — to the level of gods, beings given over to unbelievably realistic interpretations of human death and dismemberment.
For those of us who love dread, splatter is often viewed as the drug of the otherwise subtle and subjective fright experience, the next step in our genre appreciation, that uneasy leap from bone rattling to bone breaking. Some cinematic categories couldn’t survive without it. Imagine, a zombie epic without some flesh feasting, or a slasher film where the killer’s injurious intent is illustrated by a simple fade to black. For those who like to think of horror as a disease, a blight on movies comparable to tawdry XXX fare, gore is like the pop shot at the end of a rather aggressive sex scene. It’s the raison d’etra, the punchline, a way of rewarding audience patience and solving narrative incompleteness with severed limbs and missing heads.
And yet, for some fear factions, gore isn’t groovy. It’s a cheap date that puts out, even when you don’t want it to, a shortcut that argues for aesthetic sloppiness and a lack of true imagination. It’s the fart joke in the animated or non-animated family film, the last act terminal disease that makes an already overdone drama more saccharine. While there are bigger abominations in horror — the continued Euro-trashing of vampires, the purposeful PG-13ing of content — many view the excess of blood to be indicative of what’s wrong with the contemporary creepfest. Citing old school scares like the Universal monsters and Haunting style ghost stories, they reject gore’s carnival barker bravado.
Of course, DVD has only broadened the debate, studios and their hired hands using the format’s ability to manipulate and reconfigure footage to produce dozens of unrated and unedited director’s/collector’s cuts. While there are rare cases when the new, MPAA-less version offers nothing new except extended dialogue and expositional material, that the vast majority of the updates are nothing more than moments of sluice originally rejected as inappropriate. Purists tend to balk at such an unnecessary reworking, while the more aggressive in the gorehound community argue that all censored scenes should arrive on home video in contradiction to their previous violated state.
But beyond the “us vs. them”, the classicist’s clash with the craven, the question remains, why is gore so satisfying? Why does it sicken some and excite others? Is there a psychological basis for such a dichotomy, or does it all just boil down to some manner of personal cinematic constitution. After all, there are awarding-winning dramas (Saving Private Ryan) and celebrated satires (anything by Monty Python) that use blood as a means to a much more viable ends. And while there would be some who’d actually enjoy the experience, no one is suggesting that actual autopsies be filmed and featured as the latest horror trend. No, somewhere between realism and revulsion lies the gruesome’s gonzo appeal. Tracing a path to its current controversial acceptance may lend some insight into what is, notoriously, a rather contentious creative predisposition.
For many, gore came to the fore after old school exploitioners Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman decided that the nudist colony film was fading. Always looking for a new way of bringing gratuity to the grindhouse, they decided that violence was the next great unexplored option. Now, substituting terror for titillation may not seem like the soundest business model, but the duo knew that their outsider status mandated moving the film medium beyond the simple and safe. It was their purpose to tweak cinematic taboos, and since sex and brutality had been longstanding Hays Code no-no’s, what better subjects to celebrate. But by 1963, everyone and their ballyhooing brother were filming strippers for cash. Lewis and Friedman saw the wanton writing on the wall, and decided to delve into gratuity’s dark side.
The one-two punch of Blood Feast (1963) and 2000 Maniacs (1964) proved to be intensely profitable. While they may not have started the horror subsect (it is up to others to argue over and determine the first true gore film), their success fueled a fiscal belief that terror could use a little ‘redrum’ redirection. Initially, few picked up on the pair’s slice and dice dictum. It just didn’t seem like the proper paradigm for a softcore smut peddler to play in. Then the MPAA arrived, its “parental guidance” ideals putting a kibosh on everything that exploitation experts were pushing. While many spent the next few years battling First Amendment court cases, splatter gravitated underground. Aside from the occasional appearance in a high minded Hollywood effort (Bonnie and Clyde and The Exorcist, for example), it was film’s fringe dwellers who kept the claret flowing.
For many, the next great wave in motion picture pus came from Europe and the Italians, in particular. Names like Argento, Fulci, and Bava brought the long dormant death dream back to prominence, mixing artistry with atrocity (or in some cases, just plain evil) to forge a kind of graphic Gothic approach. Movies like Suspiria delivered Grand Guignol grotesqueries back to the fore. By the end of the ’70s, Zombi 2 and Cannibal Holocaust were pushing the boundaries of acceptability. American filmmakers were also doing something similar. George Romero reinvented the living dead movie with his organ-caked offering Dawn of the Dead, while Friday the 13th combined slaughter with inventive make-up work by Tom Savini to popularize the soon to be omnipresent slasher film.
By the mid-part of the ’80s, the genre had come into its own, with big name F/X men like Savini, Rick Baker, and Rob Bottin ruling the medium’s cutting edge. Films like The Thing, The Evil Dead, and A Nightmare on Elm Street illustrated that outrageous and excessive violence could be used in undeniably compelling ways, while a landslide of direct-to-video efforts established that – sans intellectualizing or originality – splatter was destined to cannibalize itself. Sure enough, by the ’90s, fright fans were looking for something new to tweak their tired interests. CGI gave imaginary creatures a well-deserved reprieve, while foreign fear factors – especially those from Japan – offered a sly, more supernatural means of macabre. It wasn’t until the torture porn efforts of the early ’00s that gore regained its footing. Today, it’s viewed as a necessary part of the overall horror story.
Yet none of this addresses why ample arterial spray remains so enjoyable. History has a habit of contextualizing something to the point of passivity, yet new grue mavens arrive on the scene every day. As a matter of fact, technology has helped many of them crawl out of their fanboy basements and realize their own repugnant visions. So there is obviously something universal in the fetid format’s appeal. Yet even armchair psychologists and legitimate professionals can’t agree on a reason why. Some point to the adolescent need to rebel (citing that most blood lovers derive from the standard misspent and misunderstood youth movement) while others view it as merely a technique for experimenting with one’s own internal tolerances.
Indeed, the whole double-dare and/or water cooler nature of the set-up could explain its unusual appeal. Since, by its very nature, our social order is tied to competition, being the first on your block to see the latest gross out spectacle – and better yet, thriving on it – could be interpreted as a blatant badge of obsessive dishonor. It’s a calculated cool to be sure, but in a dynamic that tends to reward such unusual accomplishments, being able to tolerate a torso ripping isn’t the worst reward one can seek. Then, of course, there’s the standard human attribute known as morbid curiosity. Tied directly to the above-stated starvation for attention, people are notorious for wanting to stare disgust directly in the face. In addition, such sentiments are usually linked to mortality and a fear of death. Gore, therefore, may provide the panacea that allows the looky-loo a chance to feel more secure as part of this tenuous metaphysical terrain.
Yet the most obvious reason for gore’s continued interest is reflected in its execution. Filmmakers have gotten exceptionally good at such “gags”, while companies like KNB and Digital Domain transformed the terrifying into a viable art. When a throat is cut in your standard scary movie, wound gaping while rivers of blood pour from the slit, it’s not the crime that’s compelling. No, what lovers of such degradation are responding to is the tiny technical elements – the momentary pause before the skin stretches and parts, the realistic look of the flowing fluid, the actor or actresses’ performance and response, the manner in which the director frames and composes the shot. Because it can easily look like the fakest of film propositions, horror fans are particular about their putrescence. In fact, part of the appeal is the very “compare and contrast” nature of such appreciation.
Then there is imagination. Fear fans love to see things they’ve never witnessed before. They enjoy being treated as motion picture archivists, using the past as a means of measuring the present. The splatter specialists understand this, and strive to bring something different and exciting to each new project. Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof contains one of the most disturbing car crashes ever, the effect of the wreck on everyone involved examined and highlighted in horrific detail. Similarly, Saw III contained a sequence of brain surgery so sickening that many wondered if such a procedure was medically sound (to everyone’s surprise, it was/is). When Eli Roth offered up various power tools in his amazing Hostel, they didn’t shy away from their murderous mechanical mayhem, and in the Michael Bay produced Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, Leatherface got to wield his weapon in ways original auteur Tobe Hooper could only imagine.
So maybe it is the need to stare death squarely in the face. Perhaps it stands as a cruel desire to see others suffer for the sake of a thrill. Maybe, like the canvases of Francis Bacon, devotees locate the mastery inside these massacres. Or it could just be the new age equivalent of The Depression’s desire for happy, sappy musicals. In a recent interview, Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon suggested that horror is cyclical, ebbing and flowing based on the political signs of the times. Naturally, his argument took a more liberal bent when he points out that Reagan and Bush have been responsible for the most aggressive of redolent renaissances in the genre. But he may have a point. Gore is an escape, a vision of unreality in a world overdosing on actual information. It stands as a connection to our corporeal being, a way of helping us manage our fading humanity.
And besides, it’s a great deal of illicit fun. Like discovering your Dad’s stash of Playboys when you were young, the shady, antisocial nature of such disturbing imagery represents the heavy metal equivalent of movies, the raised fist anarchy that many horror fans long to embrace. After all, the genre itself stands in direct defiance of everything that makes the artform attractive – the stories are sordid and the images brutal and disturbing. So, in retrospect, perhaps the reason that gore is good stands as part of a more common individual attribute. There will always be those who follow the flock. In contrast, certain individuals will challenge such a corrosion of conformity. For them, the battle flag is soaked in corpse-grinding suet, blood caking every facet of this rage against the mainstream machine. This is one revolution that is frequently televised – and the images are always a deep, dark red. That’s why gore is so grand. It’s also why it’s so good.