The splatter movie exhibits the body in new, repulsive forms. Limbs fall prey to chainsaw murderers and cannibals, heads swell up, burst and explode. Through transformation, mutation and birth, each human being is the breeding grounds for a monster. Gore is a constant revolt against wholeness, health and the beauty of the body. It excels in trickery and is capable of producing all of the ingredients of a rancid comic strip, from alien to zombie.
In the splatter movie, destruction and metamorphosis are meant to inspire fascination, not panic. To inspire the ecstasy of a world in which death and the form of the body are fluid and fantastic. This pleasure is not comparable with the effect of Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty. Theatre, which like certain dreams, is bloodthirsty and inhuman (he theatre et son double, 1938), was to reveal a new consciousness, a single, true relationship with reality. The introduction of cruelty to the theatre would free us from a state of pre-formed individuality. With the advent of splatter movies, this kind of thinking seems to have been passed by. Gore isn’t aimed at catharsis; it’s aimed at a lasting rupture with reality. The tourist in the splatter movie, wide-eyed, sees the limits of his imagination expand, his filmic expectation pierced. This doesn’t provide him with any purification, but, rather, with a happy conspiracy between film and spectator. A shared orgy in which shock, astonishment, challenge and humour increase the festive joy.
Scenes in a Gore movie are so manifest and autonomous, that their bond with the unconscious of the spectator seems to have been broken completely. Right in the midst of the bathtubs full of blood, the turning inside out of the body, the most rotten corpse, and the slimiest Invader From Outer Space, is where the self-conscious play and pleasure in the splatter movie is to be found.
Hollywood Meatcleaver Massacre
The horror film, the mother of all the splatter movies, cultivates its bond with its audience. The spectator who allows himself to be given fits of fear, is served with effects which his expectations and reactions have already been taken into account. The rise of Gore in this genre took place in the wake of the technical developments in the science fiction film. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (1977), and the special-effects boom which followed set new standards in the portrayal of the fantastic. Cardboard B-films were transformed into big-budget laboratory productions. In a state of technical intoxication, the impossible was made visible and perfection became a necessity, which carried over into the growing special make up departments. For the horror film, this meant an extraordinary amount of attention being paid to the portrayal of monsters and violence. Death and fright could no longer be kept off screen. Suspense was exchanged for the explicit disrelishes of The Exorcist (1973). Horror shifted from being a narration to a form of theatre, in which the frightening scenes are perfectly visible. Having sunk its roots, the increasing independence of atrocity resulted in the complete stagnation of Gore in The Brood (1979), Dawn of the Dead (1979), and Evil Dead (1982). The original Gore was embedded in a plot which amounts almost to nothing.
These stalk 'n slash movies are vehicles that lead from one slaughterhouse scene to the next. In The Mutilator ('This time, his prey is... people’), a psychopath lives under the house in which six teenagers are spending their vacation.
Next to the open hearth, a sort of meat hook is hanging on the wall (once used in whaling). The first slaughter sessions serve to get the spectator somewhat into the mood. A dead girl is dragged to the garage; her panties, on the door knob, attract her boyfriend. I’m coming in to get you he pants, only to run into the murderer, who lays into him head on with a chainsaw in the chest. The mutilated body is impaled on a pin. The blood orgy begins in earnest with the next murders. The sharp penetration of the cutting implements into the flesh, and the soft resistance of tissue, muscle, skin, is meticulously portrayed. The slaughterer will end in his own blood, torn in two, down the middle. A half of a hero, who, before dying, just manages to hack off the leg of the sheriff. The Mutilator only permits one explanation: Mutilation is the message.
From the opening onwards, even earlier, from the Active image which the film succeeds in creating of itself in the title, trailer, and the text on the video tape, the destructive outcome is established. The murderer lasts the longest. The important thing is to follow him, just as the camera does, while he works: his observation, determination of the moment, choice of tools, and the actual slaughtering. The film exhibits a perfect simplicity; there is a killer and there is a prey Murderer and victim will encounter one another in a staged meeting; the bloody bed is already spread.In high-tech splatter movies, destruction has become a sport, in which the spectator succumbs to technical perfection. The stalk ‘n slash, which reached its peak in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), has been outrun. Splatter can't keep up with the expert bloodbaths which this household killer performs. Fantastic, impossible portrayals are convincingly shown on the screen. That which used to happen discretely, in the shadows, is made visible by special make-up and effect teams. The transformation of man into mutant, in The Fly (1958 and ‘86), and the bizarre actions of The Thing (195a and '82) and The Blob (1958 and '88) are then portrayed explicitly. The splatter remake films the gaps in the history of horror and sells them to a demanding public.
Save your Screams until you see it’s Face
In the modern splatter movie, the human body is completely amorphous. Monsters exist. In full colour, perfectly focused, and moving. The spectators let themselves be carried away by the pleasure of seeing unknown, unimaginable things.
Whoever wades into them discovers creations which are horrible, but addictive. In Brain Damage (ig88), an alien which feeds on human brains makes its appearance. In exchange, he provides a boy, Brian, with hallucinatory drugs. When Brian can no longer keep his brain under control because of them, he puts a bullet through his head. The camera is outside on the street, among the bystanders. Inside, we can observe the Gore. The boy is sitting perfectly still, with a gaping hole in his skull, in his room. A very intense light comes from inside his head, which gives the apartment an unearthly appearance. The long-lasting shot challenges the spectator. The image has a nightmare beauty, the trick photography is absolutely invisible. The illusion has been maximalised.
The visibility of Gore shouldn't be accepted at face value. Is it indeed close up, real time ? The splatter movie requires the development of a critical sense, which is sharpened by fanzines with titles such as Fangoria, Slime Times, The Gore Gazette. In extensive articles, Gore’s inner workings are unraveled. The methods of special make-up artists like Tom Savini, Rick Baker and Rob Bottin are painstakingly documented.
The designer of transformation and destruction is no imitator of the actual, lifelike behaviour of flesh. More than the anatomical form of a body under pressure, he constructs an aesthetic destruction; the special demonic visage and the more-than-jugular bleeding which much increase the effect. The make up specialist is, without a doubt, the author of the splatter movie.
The spectator won't put up with being denied Gore any longer. A film which allows the best part of the show to happen in between the images is anaemic and moralistic. Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1915) suddenly turns out to be a missed opportunity. In the novella, the hero wakes up and sees that he has been changed into an insect during the night. The process has taken place without witnesses. The transformation of the physicist Seth Brundle in The Fly-remake (1986) was at least recorded expertly. Of his own accord he goes on video and shows the world how Brundlefly eats. Neither he nor the film wishes to avoid the registration of the spectacle of his decay. The metamorphosis comes out of the shadows, and takes place, in its full repulsiveness, in front of the camera.
Thought you'd Seen Everything ? So did we...
The great sport of splatter watching is the struggle with expectation. The spectator continually attempts to see through the effects and to get them into perspective. The reactions of the audience in a movie theatre can astonish. Famous splatter heroes Freddy Kruger, Jason and Leatherface are encouraged, their butcher’s work is cheered on. The spectator seems to pick up the genre's craving for effects and throw it back. Is this meant to make us scared, to bring us to the limits of what we can take ? Great fun, isn’t it ? The films take up the challenge and incorporate new strategies.
The contemporary horror film knows that you’ve seen it before; it knows that you know what is about to happen; and it knows that you know it knows you know.
(Philip Brophy Horrality — the textuality of contemporary horror films)
Demoni (1985) is a stencil of this self-consciousness — ‘Laugh at your own terror’. The film is an ode to horror as an event shared between film and audience, and an attempt to hit the audience in its own experience. Thesituation in which the prominent Gore takes place is a movie theatre in which a horror film is being shown. Before the demons leave the screen and move towards the auditorium, the viewing situation is doubled and made ironic. The viewers, lured in with free tickets, sit down, complaining: As long as it's no horror film. The desolate location and the swell of music during the opening scenes speak for themselves. The film within the film unfolds, cross-cut with the reactions of the spectators. In close-ups, we see tense, sceptical faces. Marked with the flickering of the projection, they form a reflection of the action on the screen. The effect of repulsive transformation in the film is made transparent by the immediate reaction of the faces in the audience.
Demoni increases the communication between the film and its audience and tries to deflate it. The film within the film is actually not a portrayal, but a prelude to the Gore which will occur in the movie theatre. More than a mirror, Demoni is a spectacle, which exploits the presumed emotion of the audience.
It is impossible for the real spectators to miss the omens of the slaughter to come. The film-goers on the screen, however, are easy marks. A girl who thinks that she hears something in the aisles is comforted with: It s the Dolby system. After which the bloodbath can begin. The confrontation between demons in the film and in the theatre takes place via the shadow, of a pursued woman viewer, on the screen. The terror of the female viewer is portrayed by the filmed image, which shows a screaming victim. Horror gradually descends from the screen and makes the film superfluous. The film within the film is stopped, Gore takes over and covers the film with demented transformations and slaughter.
No! Don't Eat That! It might he Rudy!
The best splatter movies absorb even the comic exploitation through the spectator. The Evil Dead films (198a /1987) are the most ingenious examples of this. The point of departure is a typical stalk ‘n slash situation, the remote cabin where a group of young people are spending their vacation. In the cabin, they meet up with the age-old curses with which they make themselves into the prey of demons. The splatter expectations, which are evoked by this fact, are defied and carried to their furthest and messiest extremes. Maniacality is already evident from the low-budget look. The lack of a comforting Hollywood nest odour evokes unpredictability. There is a suggestion that it can go further, of the genuine obscenity of the snuff-movie. As an explosion of Gore, which is accomplished with rather simple animation techniques, Evil Dead is more inventive than the more advanced productions. Space, in the films,is fragmented by a neurotic camera gaze, which rages through the woods and places the interiors and the inhabitants of the cabin in searching, slanted frames. The spectator is disoriented, until he recognizes the gaze of the demons in this. For the hero Ashley and his friends, the victims of this perspective, space is never what it is. their perception of the cabin and of each other is untrustworthy and just as double as the spectators expectation about the possible perversity of the film. Props and decors play an insane game. Clock, lamp and wall sometimes take on the guise of living, fluid objects.
The image in the mirror changes into blood, or breaks free of its frame in order to attack its genuine counterpart. Gore, the transformation of the characters into foaming, rotting bodies which fall hungrily upon their friends, appears behind a covering of normality. The devouring, hideous monsters make use, when possible, of their old shapes: that of friends. Let me out, Ashley, begs the temporarily 'cured' girlfriend, who has been locked up in the cellar. Whoever takes the bait risks having a bite taken out of them, accompanied by satanic laughter. Evil Dead puts death, as in a macabre puppet theatre, onto another track. The fact that death is never death, in the best horror tradition, acquires an earthly, plastic form. The demons let themselves be drilled through and through, cut down and beheaded without having it affect their mood. A headless body will do just as well as dwelling, and the head, that of a former girlfriend, is a good object to tease with. If one responds by cutting a demon into little pieces, the separate pieces continue to writhe. They crawl and shiver as they are buried. In Evil Dead 2, Ashley, older and wiser, clamps his girlfriend onto the workbench and saws her completely to bits with the chainsaw.
In the Gore scene with the hand. Evil Dead exhibits the most bizarre squaring of accounts with the body. Ashley now turns out himself to be possessed by a demon, at least in one small part, his hand. The fight with the hand, the breaking of the plates on his head, the throttling takes the form of slapstick. Finally, he lays, apparently unconscious, on the ground. A bit further away, the camera shows, lies a knife.
The hand crawls over to it, pulling along the immobile body behind it. The moment that the hand grabs the knife, Ashley puts a knife through it with his other hand, pinning it to the ground. He grabs the chainsaw and amputates the hand. His face, with its fixed grin, is spattered with blood— the saw roars. To everyone’s complete amazement, the sawed-off hand doesn’t give up, but wanders with a lobster's gait through the room, and continues to attack its former owner. He begins the battle with his limb anew, this time with a rifle. As a demon battler, Ashley is an evil genius who distinguishes himself from the usual slasher victims. His one-liners and mimicry, in which no fear, but rather an enormous astonishment is evidenced, carry the comical undertone of the films. A trend of double entendres, discoveries and astonishment which has a perverse effect. Destruction as a practical joke.
A complete degeneration of the comical strategy occurs in Bad Taste (1988). Less related to horror, than to Grand Guignol and Monty Python, splatter here takes its place in the tradition of a grotesque, Bachtinian view of the body. Bad Taste makes a sport of the destruction of the body, an orgy of blood, which takes place in the most cheerful of moods.
A group of stupid aliens, who have come to collect samples of human flesh for an intergalactic chain of snackbars, is slaughtered by a special commando unit. Typical of the humour is the holding together of the skull of one of the commandos with a (Rambo) headband. This keeps coming loose, after which the hero is engaged in a hopeless attempt to get the brains bulging from his head back into his skull. The shooting away of the tops of skulls and limbs, the eating of brains and vomit, and the separation and fusion of body parts is carefully portrayed. Gore corresponds here completely with the grotesque form of the body, which floods its banks on a colossal scale, in a repeating movement of decay and resurrection.
The finale of the film is a scene in which one of the heroes saws his way vertically through the body of one of the aliens. Emerging from the blood bath, he turns to the camera and remarks drily: I’m horn again. Bad Taste's bawdiness is strongly reminiscent of Jarry’s Ubu Roi. They are brutal anti-art products, which turn the commonly held idea of the body inside out and make fun of it. Deformity, bodily processes and cruelty are placed on a pedestal. Ubu is an oesophagus, and a sinew and nothing more, Bad Taste adds a submachine gun, a cubic meter of artificial blood and a camera.
The new forms of the body in splatter don't cause disorientation or ambiguity. The spectator knows that this genre doesn’t provoke a problem of knowing, but one of seeing. How do we regard the cutting of an eye, frontally, in close-up? Un Chien Andalou told us. The only suggestion still being peddled here has to be fed with fascination. Not horror, but wallowing produces pleasure, immersion in the great destruction of the human figure, in the short circuiting of the categories. Monsters and demons challenge the human form by combining it with the inhuman, animal, thing or alien. This cinema does not maintain any established relations with reality. Gore doesn't proclaim the utopia of the mass murder, the benefit of auto-destruction. The repulsive portrayals are tangible as long as the film is going on, but take remarkably little trouble to encroach upon the world outside.
The splatter movie is no eye-opener, rather, it’s a cosmetic face-lift, of which the plastic effects lose their effect in one night. Gore is no symptom which requires an explanation outside of itself. The anchoring in the psyche, horror as the disguise of fears and desires of the users, has dissolved. When everything becomes visible in its most conscious, tangible form, the explanation of it as the expression of something else, something which is invisible, has been left behind. It places itself manifestly in a fantastic tradition, with a self-conscious, even comical undertone. The portrayal of cruelty, the explicit atrocity, has become fiction, more than ever. The splatter movie isn’t concerned with the catharsis which Artaud attributed to the portrayal of cruelty. What remains is a vision of Hieronymus Bosch which, after the abolition of hell, turns out to have been just a nightmare.
An exellent selection of Splatter Movies is available on video through Film Bookshop Cine Qua Non, Staalstraat 14. Amsterdam.
translation Jim Boekbinder