Welcome back. Are you ready to dive a little deeper into the world of disturbing and disgusting cinema? Of course you are. If you missed the first part of my article you can read it here: The History of Extreme Cinema Part 1
While slasher films dominated the United States in the 1980’s, other countries provided the truly shocking films. In Italy we begin the 80’s with a true landmark in horror cinema: Cannibal Holocaust.
Ruggero Deodato redefined the genre, he gave us not only the Jungle-Cannibal boom but also the prototype for “found” footage films. Later, Deodato would cast David Hess as another rapist in House On The Edge Of The Park. Cannibal was so extreme a lawsuit ensued after its initial release. Due to the found footage element the courts believed Deodato murdered his cast. It wasn’t until the cast was forced out of hiding and the special effects crew recreated the impaling scene, did the judge finally dismiss the case. It would have been a major win for the film and its publicity, but soon after, it was banned by the video nasties. How could Michael, Freddy, Pinhead, Chucky, and Leatherface (children of Reaganomics) compete with a film so controversial it was nearly banned from existence? The slashers carried on.
In 1982 while the slasher boom was going strong The Killing Of America came out. Ironically, it has never had an official release in America. This documentary feels like Faces Of Death, but all the footage is real. All of the Zapruder footage of JFK’s assassination is featured along with clips of serial killers.
1982 also marked an important year in the UK. The word “nasties” enters the public’s mind. UK papers spread fear about films like I Spit On Your Grave, Driller Killer, and SS Experiment Camp. At first these films were not damned by the Obscene Publications Act, but soon after the public outcry, distributors of these films were prosecuted. Some companies were forced to stop distribution and even give up their master copies. A classification system for VHS was created, but that did not satisfy Mary Whitehouse.
During her reign as the head of the National Viewers And Listeners Association she spread the word of fear and hate like gospel. By 1983 the phrase, “the movies made me do it,” was attributed to many of the violent crimes committed. What followed was the Video Recordings Act of 1984. Films placed on the “Video Nasties” list were to be confiscated and anyone found with them in their possession was charged a fine and had the possibility of a jail sentence. This lead to video store raids and unjust fines handed out to the owners even if the films were not on the official list. The result was chaos, fear, and the partial destruction of the horror industry.
The most fascinating information about the VRA came to light in 2009. Due to a technicality, the act turned out to never be an official law. So the wrath felt by everyone in the industry: the individuals who went bankrupt, the people falsely imprisoned, the stores who were forced to close, and the potential horror that could have been was destroyed by a non-existent law. By 2010 they followed the correct procedures and the VRA is now official.
In 1985 the first in a series of seven depictions of snuff was released. The Guinea Pig series from japan was another entry into the annuls of horror, where its creators had to stand trial and prove the events in the film were indeed fake. The notorious films became more “dangerous” when Mermaid In A Manhole (fourth film) was found in a serial killer’s VHS collection. The series stopped production due to its controversy, but the tapes made their way to the USA. Of all people, Charlie Sheen, believed Flowers Of Flesh & Blood was an actual snuff film. He contacted the FBI and they investigated its creators. As one could guess, the films have no real plot to speak of. Instead, they were created as faux snuff to push effects further and make you believe the torture and murder were really happening.
Even though Troma Entertainment was established in 1974 they had their first gross-out hit The Toxic Avenger in 1985. Providing a blueprint for shoe-string budget horror. Lloyd Kaufman and his basement empire has become a modern day Roger Corman with a lot less class. Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole terrorized Chicago in John McNaughton’s 1986 film Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. In 1987 Jorg Buttgereit’s Necromantik offended German audiences with its dramatic telling of a couple obsessed with loving corpses. In A Glass Cage was also released in 1987. This Spanish film features an ex-Nazi sadist child abuser who botches his suicide attempt and ends up paralyzed. He is then taken care of by a boy he molested years before and instead of direct revenge the boy becomes the man. He performs the Nazi’s old experiments on the people the man holds dear. In the same year director J. Michael Muro perfected the art of melting homeless people in Street Trash – he would go on to be a regular director of the show Southland.
We close the 80’s with Men Behind The Sun. This 1988 Japanese film attempts to recreate the war crimes committed during WWII with a secret bunker known as Unit 731 – also the central theme of Philosophy Of A Knifie (2008). Akin to the exploits of Dr. Mengele, this bunker was home to experiments with germ warfare, survival statistics, and effects of plague. The film features a lot of these experiments but was found depraved due to a scene in which a live cat is thrown into a room filled with aggressive rats and is torn apart, then later the rats are all set on fire. There is also an autopsy sequence which many believed was a real autopsy of a young boy. Historical exploitation at its finest.
By 1990 all the slashers had died and horror was in its own recession. The distribution companies decided to promote a new label. Horror no longer sold like it used to, so therefore we will call them thrillers. Misery toted this title and won Oscars, so did Silence Of The Lambs. These films featured elements of horror, but did not show the extreme.
E. Elias Merhige did not get the memo. In 1990 he finally finished his masterpiece Begotten. Shot in black and white on 8mm then rephotographed for high contrast Begotten thematically deals with the story of Genesis. It is difficult to hold on to any plot while viewing since it is basically a barrage of disturbing images that your mind cannot fully piece together. The silent film quality makes its viewing a chore, but a rewarding one. You may not know what you’ve just seen, but you feel as though it has made its way into your psyche.
Jorg Buttgereit continued his taboo filmography in the 90’s with Nekromantik 2, which became one of the first films to be banned outright since WWII. Part 2 continues where the first left off, and while the same themes of necrophilia are exploited they fit within a better storyline and a better production aesthetic. Buttgereit also directed The Death King and Schramm in the 90’s.
Gaspar Noe’s career as a prolifically profane filmmaker began with his short film Carne in 1991, which featured a brutal attack. He later toyed with themes of pedophilia and suicide in I Stand Alone (1998), and of course rape-revenge in Irreversible (2002).
In New Zealand a thirty-one year old director had built a name for himself as a grossout filmmaker. Peter Jackson’s debut film Bad Taste in 1987 was a gory recreation of alien invasion films, while Meet The Feebles in 1989 was The Muppets on every drug known. In 1992 he released Dead-Alive which reinvented the zombie subgenre and still holds the title as one of the bloodiest films ever made.
In 1992 another black and white film was created by a trio of student filmmakers in Belgium. Man Bites Dog features the mockumentry style and presents a film crew following a serial killer. There is a lot of humor to the film’s killer Remy, but it is at the moment you let your guard down about him he does something despicable. Later, Behind The Mask, uses a similar technique.
1994 marks the release of Natural Born Killers, a film that seems to show a Marshal McLuhan approach to extreme cinema. This mixed media opus written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Oliver Stone has scenes of brutal violence but truly fits within the history by exploiting the audience’s own need for viewing the disturbing. Aftermath was also released in 94, this short Spanish film features a mortician who mutilates a corpse and has sex with it. Michael Haneke’s Funny Games plays with audiences in 1997 and proves as Scream’s Randy said the year before, “its the millennium, motives are incidental.”
In 1996 Wes Craven brought the slasher formula back with Scream. Taking elements of Student Bodies (1982), Craven successfully created a post-modern slasher, filled with self-referential dialogue. So while America was inundated with the onslaught of Hollywood slashers the Asian market was readying itself for their own extreme movement.
Takashi Miike ushered in a new form of diabolic horror with his 1999 film Audition. He had already directed a number of bloody Yakuza films during the 90’s but Audition’s slow burn and horrific climax became a new landmark in the genre.
In part 3 we will take a look at 2000-present day and how even the most extreme films prior to the 21st century pale in comparison to the wave of depraved violence depicted now.