The evolution of gore

`Splatter' movies used to be a fringe preoccupation. How did they become so mainstream, and so accepted?

December 9, 2006
Toronto Star
By Geoff Pevere

Christmas Day moviegoers will no doubt be tempted by a special symmetry on offer this year at the multiplex. On what other yule in history has it been possible to spend the morning stuffing the carcass of a dead turkey and the afternoon watching a Mayan high priest rip the still-beating heart from a sacrificial victim?

We have Mel Gibson to thank for such a thoughtfully integrated seasonal experience. As the writer and director of Apocalypto, which opened yesterday, he is the person responsible for possibly the goriest mainstream movie spectacle ever to be released at eggnog's high tide. While the roadside-rant prone writer-director is touting the movie as a bloody metaphor for the imminent collapse of this civilization, it's the bloody part that will provide the most effective means of stuffing turkey-padded bottoms into holiday-season multiplex seats.

While Gibson's movie may offer the most seamless transition into high gore territory for year-end moviegoers, it's not the only amusement offering sloshing buckets of crimson cocktails. Cheer-fatigued viewers can also watch scantily clad American backpackers being tortured and dismembered in Turistas, Sylvester Stallone running rivulets of red in Rocky Balboa and sorority girls being systematically slashed apart in Black Christmas. In brief, there is no shortage of digestion-challenging things to see on a full stomach this Christmas.

How did we get so sanguine with all this blood and guts? When did the mainstream become so accepting of such excessive forms of simulated carnage? And what does it say that we seem to have grown quite comfortable with it?

Today, even Christmas is a fine time for movie in which people do to other people what dad does to the turkey.

Like all forms of pop-cultural phenomena, the mainstreaming of what was once disreputably referred to as "splatter" entertainment is both deep in its history and varied in its causes. But this much is simple: Where one was once compelled to seek out gory movies in the margins — and one did so for that very whiff of spluttery disreputability — one need now travel no farther than the neighbourhood 'plex.

But let's not confuse gore with violence. While it's possible to have the latter without the former — and bloodless violence has been a movie cliché since cameras got rolling — the reverse is impossible. Gore is violence with the messiness left in, and that is its appeal. It's like watching sex without the hard stuff blacked out. To gore aficionados, it's way more visceral and satisfying.

Certainly no one needs reminding that bloodshed as a form of spectacle is as old as human narrative itself, which would suggest something innate, and possibly quite natural, in our fascination with the idea of the body's destruction. Since the body is the primary medium through which we experience the world, the prospect of its corruption is as preoccupying to us as the prospect of its expiration.

Just as gore was a staple ingredient of pulp and popular fiction from the inception of the printing press, it found a natural home in the era of mass media within such lowly regarded cheap forms as paperbacks, comic books and magazines.

Or low-budget exploitation movies. In the day when the movie distribution market was far more fractionalized than today, small companies made certain kinds of entertainment to appeal to very specialized but perennially exploitable audiences. This meant there was always gore to be found at venues like drive-ins and big-city grind houses, and by the 1960s the outlaw market approached its golden era. Gory, midnight-friendly movies like 2000 Maniacs, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Night of the Living Dead were not only making money, but acquiring a veneer of countercultural cool.

By the next decade, the low-budget, independently made cinema of splatter reached its peak with such gruesome spectacles as Andy Warhol's Frankenstein, Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, It's Alive, Shivers and Suspiria.

By 1980, two things had happened that presaged some serious seepage toward the centre. First, there was the inescapable fact that these cheaply made movies were a cash bonanza. And second, there was Friday the 13th, the first independently made splatter movie to be purchased and distributed by a major Studio (Paramount). If we're looking for moments to mark civilization's end, this might be as good as any.

While all apparent loosenings of society's moral standards can be partly attributed to shifts in values, there are usually equally strong commercial pressures at work. It may be that the only thing that's kept the current abundance of nudity, sex, profanity and gore out of the mainstream for so long hasn't been moral restraint but enforced industry regulation. If mainstream movies (and TV) could have gotten away with more blood and sex in the past, they undoubtedly would have.

Technology has played its part as well. During the 1980s, home video replaced the drive-in as the arena for outlaw viewing, and gore movies entered a new era of even greater prosperity. (Today's primary standard-pushers are DVD and the Internet.)

Meanwhile, the success of the Friday the 13th series saw more studios indulging more graphic forms of violence in ever larger-budgeted movies: Raging Bull, The Thing, Scarface, An American Werewolf in London, Cat People ... Each season seemed to bring a new level of graphic onscreen gore, with the inevitable result that taboos were not only broken but also dissolved, and gore, formerly an outlaw amusement for adventurous geeks, had become a centre-stage spectacle.

Over the course of this absorption, gore underwent more than technological advancement. It changed its tone, as well. Where early splatter movies were low-tech affairs, rich in ketchupy crime scenes, fake limbs and butcher shop leftovers — and therefore pretty easy to laugh at — they have grown far more realistic. It's now possible to see a convincingly beating heart being ripped out of a chest cavity, and to see what the colour of brain matter mixed with blood looks like when it hits a wall.

While special effects have certainly done their duty here, they are also responding to Hollywood's demands for a certain level of plausibility and quality. In technological terms, gore is now given the same professional respect as lighting, makeup and art direction.

But as the depiction of physical destruction has become more convincing, it has not necessarily grown more horrifying. On the contrary, we're far more likely to laugh or yelp in mock disgust as we are to hurl in our popcorn. This is because, for all its leaps in content and quality, the act of watching simulated gore in current torturama movies like Saw or Hostel remains much the same experience today as it was at the drive-in in 1965. We know what we're watching is phony, and the pleasure derived from it comes from our appreciation of the craft of that phoniness.

Context is everything. Thus, while the bullets ripping G.I.s apart at the opening of Saving Private Ryan are terrifying because the film's emphasis is on first-person pain and disorientation, the considerably more graphic destruction wrought by ballistics in movies like Running Scared or The Departed really just graze our sensibilities. For all the superficial realism, it's just show-blood.

Is it desensitizing us to violence? A tenacious question. But now, as ever, it's a difficult one to answer.

We might also ask whether all those movies about romance and family values don't "desensitize" us to romantic love and family relationships, but they don't seem to. The fact remains, for all the millions of people who are content to watch limbs being torn off people for the purposes of an evening's entertainment, the number who actually go out and do the same thing is so minuscule as to not even statistically matter.

I also think people are smart enough to know the difference between phony gore for entertainment and the real thing. Torture in Hostel or the Saw movies is one thing, but seeing the photos of it being practised at Abu Ghraib in Iraq is more immediate and disturbing. Even the most passionate fans of Apocalypto would be horrified by the opportunity to watch some of the same stuff in real life. If there's fun to be had in splatter — and, as troublesome as that may sound to some, there is — it's in the phoniness. No harm done.

Where do we go from here? On, as usual, to the next limit of cultural acceptance, taste and technology, whatever that may be. Future splatter films may offer 3D gore holograms or take viewers on a P.O.V. trip through a world of virtual pain. The possibilities for vicarious sado-masochism are limitless. One thing is certain: Gore, like the depiction of sex, nudity and the use of profanity, shall not disappear now that it has gained its mainstream foothold.

Video games have upped the ante for movie realism (and violence), and advances in image enhancement are immediately applied to violent amusements. This is because we demand it. We like our entertainment bloody and always have.

If we must worry, let us worry about this: How can we eat our breakfast every morning while reading, listening to or watching the news? If there's a sensitivity crisis in our culture, it may begin right there.