Recently, a whole host of new horror films have been working outside of the expected conventions of the genre. It Follows, The Witch and Don't Breathe have all pushed the boundaries of what 'horror' can be, ushering in a golden age for independent scares.
But also the Golden Age of Gore. The good horror seems to be split into two categories now: smart, chilling, well composed in art and design, or films that have turned up the gore. This isn't a new thing by any means. Films like A Serbian Film, The Human Centipede and The Green Inferno are gratuitous gore fests. They claim to make audience members faint and vomit, leaving the cinema disgusted. These claims, as part of their marketing, are posed as a challenge to viewers. Do you have the balls? The stomach? The nerve? To sit through it all, in a cinema, and leave with all your bodily fluids and dignity still inside you.
These films have an audience, a growing niche - but still a niche. These films are slowly opening up to a more mainstream audience though. No longer must you go to your local small cinema wearing a long coat and a fake moustache to watch B-movies. It's actually cool to be into that stuff now.
This may be thanks to the drip-feeding of gore in Hollywood's mainstream. The elevator scene in Drive, the multiple mutilations of Kill Bill and the cross-over success of Welsh directed, Indonesian shot The Raid 1 & 2. These stylish films allow narrative and visuals to coalesce, whilst utilising memorably violent scenes as a permanent reminder of your trip. The trend towards ultraviolence is in cinema vogue but hasn't taken off quite so well in art or literature.
American Psycho and A Clockwork Orange, being the two most pertinent, although older, examples of the style, were shot down upon their release. It was the initial backlash that helped them gain their cult status though. The writers approached violence in a way that pushes your boundaries of taste and comfort (American Psycho’s hamster scene, I'll say no more.) Both of these found success on the silver screen too.
In film, these violent scenes are often a plot device to quickly change the tone - sweeping the rug from right underneath your chair. Shock breaks the solemnity of more peaceful moments to contrast what came before and what lead to the sudden shift.
Horror tends to play on the predominant fears of society at a given time. For a while, when technology and artificial intelligence was the hot topic, we were given films like The Matrix and Ex Machina. In the past when blood related diseases like HIV/AIDS in the 80s were dominating headlines, there was a resurgence of Vampire films. So what does it say about us now that we crave such unspeakable levels of violence? Are we so wrapped up in ourselves, our phones, our internet presence on social media that we need violence so horrific and shocking to wake us up from this digital sleepwalk?
Asian cinema has had a strong stylistic influence on this spate of violent-yet-poetic films. The duality that exists in Indonesian and Korean cinema with films like The Raid, Oldboy and Ichi The Killer has a clear influence on the works of Nicolas Winding Refn and Lars von Trier - two figureheads in contemporary arthouse film
There does seem to be a difference between American cinema and Asian cinema's use of gore though. While both are brutal and gratuitous, American films seem to do it less precisely, making it seem unnecessary at times - existing solely to shock. It is the brutality of Asian cinema that gives it a human quality, moving beyond emotions and into the meat and gristle of our bodies. That's why the pleasure the protagonist's of Asian films take in dishing out the violence doesn't seem thoughtless, rather, thought-provoking. Revenge is a common motif in these films. They make us look at ourself and ask - are we capable of that if someone wronged us so badly?
The comments sections of newspapers are full of people saying that certain criminals should be 'hung' or 'castrated', but these hyperbolic and emotional reactions are far removed from the reality of our justice and legal systems.People feel an injustice when reading about lenient sentences. This anger creates a market for these films. Sure, they can't take justice into their own hands, but they can watch people who can. Take Netflix's The Punisher series - hugely successful and recently renewed. It's also an adrenaline soaked series of intense violent retribution with very little room to breathe.
The stylistic features of these films can be traced back to anime and manga. Hyper-sexual and violent realisations that are born out of societies that are very conservative. They depict a reality that is far removed from their own societies. It is no surprise that these kind of films, through our overexposure-by-media of sexuality and violence, are beginning to enter American cinema. It is the only way to make any impact on a desensitised audience that see it everyday in the news.
These films look good and they do well to shock a whole lot of people. Those two things, combined with a unique ability to tap into a visceral part of the human psyche is what makes horror stand at the vanguard of contemporary cinema. But when will the audience think that enough is enough? Are there lines that can’t be crossed?
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