Part 1: The origin of extreme cinema through the 1970’s
As a fan of the horror genre, I am often asked what is the most disturbing film I’ve ever seen? I’m sure we all get this question. We all have go to answers, whether it’s Irreversible, A Serbian Film, Salo: 120 Days of Sodom, or even Hostel. What is more fascinating is the history that has lead up to these entries in extreme cinema.
Visceral horror has always been made available to the masses. We can go back to the era of the Gladiator where a battle to the death was on display for all to see. After that, executions were always public displays to deter the population from committing crime. There’s also the inquisition which deterred people from choosing their own religion. Through the ages we may have become seemingly more civilized but as Montag The Magnificent says so eloquently in Wizard Of Gore, “Torture and terror have always fascinated mankind.”
Laws soon governed over public executions when the methods became too gruesome to behold. In Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish: The Birth Of The Prison there is a description of a public killing that churns the stomach:
“…the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and calves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulfur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulfur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds.”
While lethal injection may seem more humane we still give our government the right to murder where it sees fit. When the public was denied these displayed brutalities, The Grand Guigno was born.
Le Theatre De Grand-Guignol or the theater of the big puppet was created in 1897 by Oscar Metenier who originally conceived it as a space for naturalist performance. He constructed his theater inside a small aged chapel with room for only 293 seats. This created the ambiance it needed to propel the shows further into the realm of absurdity. Max Maurey took over the theater between 1898-1926 and created the horror shows it became infamous for. When Andre de Lorde came aboard to write for them, the theater saw its heyday. His plays gave the actors a chance to explore themes of insanity which coupled with the realistic gore caused fainting and vomiting for a lot of the theater’s patrons. Every night audiences paid to see murder, rape, torture, and other forms of brutality play out on that small stage. The plays were bleak and even the interspersed comedic skits played to darker sensibilities. Almost as a rule; most murders would be motiveless and the killer nearly always got away. A lot of the more realistic bloodletting in film came from the Grand-Guignol.
In 1929 Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel gave the world the eye cutting scene in Un Chien Andalou. This 16 minute film may not have immediately brought the onslaught of body horror, but it was a glimpse at what future filmmakers would attempt to top. It took nearly 25 years for another film to disturb its audiences. During this time we had the birth of the Universal monsters, atomic threats, and aliens. In 1955 the short documentary Night & Fog was released which featured actual footage from concentration camps. This sort of extreme would be mimicked in Mondo Cane (1962) and later in Faces Of Death (1978) to a much lesser degree.
The 1960’s saw an increase in violent depictions in film. 1960 alone gave us Peeping Tom, Eyes Without A Face, and Psycho. Peeping Tom dove headfirst into the psyche of a killer and used point of view camera techniques. Eyes Without A Face actually featured a face removal scene. Psycho, as we all know, allowed our imaginations to flourish with violence during the shower sequence. 1963 was the year Herschel Gordon Lewis pummeled the world with Blood Feast and began his run as the Godfather of Gore. In 1967 Fredrick Wiseman’s documentary Titicut Follies showed us the inside of a mental institute and how terribly its patients were treated. The 60’s ended with Vietnam’s influence taking hold of the genre, which would continue into the 70’s. Night of the Living Dead began the explosion of nihilistic violence on-screen.
We begin the 70’s with Kubricks Clockwork Orange. Its “ultra-violence” is post-modern and self-referential. When Alex is sensitized he can no longer defend himself, yet while desensitized he is a menace. We could spend years theorizing Kubrick, so instead we’ll move on. John Waters unleashed Divine in 1972 and made her eat dog feces in Pink Flamingos. Wes Craven remade Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring and let David Hess sing, “the road leads to nowhere,” also in 1972. Originally Craven was looking to do an even more explicit Last House On The Left featuring un-simulated sex. Instead, he created the sub-genre of Rape-Revenge. Following suite you have Thriller: A Cruel Picture and I Spit On Your Grave. Thriller had another eye slicing scene and X-Rated sex, while I Spit had twenty minutes of rape followed by twenty-two minutes of revenge. Rape became the taboo to show if you wanted to truly shock people and get under their skin – the same holds true today.
The early 70’s also gave rise to the Pinky Violence films from Japan. Films like Assault! Jack The Ripper, Rape!, Female Convict 701: Scorpion, and Sex & Fury titillated and shocked but did not seem to cross the line into disgusting.
Tobe Hooper’s first film Texas Chainsaw Massacre is disturbing, but does not quite fit into the realm of extreme cinema. There is little blood actually featured in the film, yet audiences always remember it as very gory. From a psychological standpoint it is terrifying.
The late 60’s to mid 70’s Italy produced a ton of Giallo films which introduced the world to Dario Argento. He was able to transform violence into visual poetry. While never pushing the boundary too far his filmography does include some of the best murder scenes ever filmed.
This brings us to Salo: or The 120 Days Of Sodom which holds the title as one of the most extreme films ever made. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s masterpiece is based on the writings of Marque De Sade, structured like Dante’s Inferno, and a satire about fascism. Salo was released in 1975 and presented male castration, branding, tongue cutting, homosexual and heterosexual rape, eating from a vat of feces, and utter humiliation. Horror films after Salo may have taken a few queues from Pasolini but not until recently have genre entries been more willing to go all the way. A Serbian Film may be the only film to truly be committed to total depravity.
Stay tuned for part 2, where we chronicle the 1980’s-1990’s. Please leave comments below. Let us know what the most disturbing film you have ever seen is. [ Read Part 2 of The History of Extreme Cinema ]