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The Fourth Wall

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The Final Word: Is horror better left off-screen?

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May 11th, 2010 at 1:00 pm

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Welcome back to The Final Word, a running feature from me (Julia Rhodes) and William Bibbiani, in which we tackle the hairiest of questions about film and give you a straight answer. This week’s edition is all about the horror movie, censorship, and violence.

The question at hand is this: is horror (the deaths, the evil, the blood and guts and gore) really better left off-screen?

The Final Word: No. Of course horror is not always best left off-screen.

The answer’s not simple, not by a long shot. More than dealing with horror film, it deals with censorship. Should everyone have the right to see a splatter-fest if they want to? Definitely. Should violence be left off-screen all the time? No way. If violence is left off-screen, does it make for a worse movie? Yes, if the filmmakers are struggling to appease the MPAA by giving their movie a PG-13 rating. Is it possible to make a scary movie without graphic violence? Yes, certainly.

Theo (Claire Bloom) and Eleanor (Julie Harris) cringe from an unseen enemy in Robert Wise’s The Haunting–evidence that horror doesn’t have to be gory.

At the heart of the horror film is an innate terror of what lurks in shadow and creeps up behind us in the dead of night. Horror encompasses all aspects of what frightens us, from things that slither and swim, to rape and killer hybrid clones, and it’s always one of the most controversial genres. The Motion Picture Production Code, a censorship juggernaut instituted in 1930 and repealed in 1968, decreed that no violence be shown onscreen—ever. As a result, filmmakers bent and limboed under the Code to create some of the best horror in history. In Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) distraught Eleanor clings to her friend Theo as they cower in pitch blackness from an unseen, malevolent presence, but when Eleanor realizes the hand she was grasping didn’t belong to Theo, she shrieks, “Whose hand was I holding?!” What lurks in the darkness beyond what we can see? is still one of horror’s most pervasive and frightening ideas, and its execution onscreen (or lack thereof perhaps) is evidence that visceral, visual horror isn’t the only kind.

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Then there are the torture-porn movies of the last ten years, the Hostel and Saw movies, whose body counts grow and buckets of blood flow with each installment. The Final Destination flicks are bad movies—all of them—but they’re often worth watching for horror fans because they have incredible, wickedly creative death scenes. But then there’s James Whale’s Frankenstein, in which the monster accidentally kills a little girl off-screen, but the townspeople attack with blazing torches, helping clue in the audience to the brutality of the crime. Critics and audiences still bear those fiery torches when a film is considered too graphic, too gory, too violent, too tasteless (though the flames now happen mostly over the great and magical internet—see this).

The most unspeakable tortures show that sometimes visceral horror is more effective: Saw is one of the most successful horror franchises out there.

When you ask someone if they like horror, the response is often enough, yes, they like either the gory kind or the supernatural, spooky kind. Some people hate splattercore, some people live for it. Some people can’t handle jumpy, paranormal horror, and some can’t get enough. As William said in the last edition, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but sorry to say, not all are equally valid.

Real horror fans don’t find the supernatural and the gory to be mutually exclusive and love the adrenaline rush of goosebumps and racing heart and the shock factor of cringing as a body part flies or guts spurt. What makes horror movies scary and controversial is their ability to make us feel, to insert indelible images in our brains that we may just have to revisit in our nightmares. Since the Production Code was dismissed, violence, gore, and nudity have appeared more blatantly on movie screens, but audiences are still squeamish. Long story short, no, the horror should not always be left off-screen. But when it is off camera, that certainly doesn’t always make for a tamer movie.

Fourth Wall readers, do you have a favorite sort of horror? How do you feel about horror onscreen and off?

  • http://mattsmithonfilm.blogspot.com Matthew Smith

    I find myself enjoying varying levels of explicitness. It definitely depends on the film, and even when there is a ton of gore, if it takes place within a sequence that really pays off for the film emotionally or psychologically, I’m all for it (see all of Cronenberg’s flicks, Carpenter’s THE THING, THE DESCENT, or even (I would argue) the brutal Rob Zombie throwbacks THE DEVIL’S REJECTS and HALLOWEEN II. All are films that have something going on beneath the blood-red surface. That being said, however, I also enjoy some pure gorehound material like some of Fulci’s stuff, the HOSTEL films, and even ridiculous zombie movies that seem to exist only to showcase an effects artist’s ability.

    I have been impressed recently, though with the level of care being shown to atmospheric horror, though, as in Ti West’s THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and Guillermo del Toro’s CRONOS and THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE.

    It’s all good, but if there’s not a single interesting character, plotline or concept (including death scenes) in the whole thing – now that’s a bad horror flick.

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