Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A look at Horror films over the years

Ready for something really scary?

For many years I have been interested in film making. As I'm not getting paid for it yet, I would consider it as a hobby. Not only do I make films, I also write about understanding them. Here is a piece I wrote about the collapse of the British horror empire, and other country's attempts to fill the market.

After the fall of the Hammer Horror Empire in the 70's, Britain was no longer the dominant superpower of the Horror world. With a gap in "the market", a group of Extreme, Explicit and Exploitative, Italian film makers saw a chance to shine. And shine they did.

The tagline above was taken from the video sleeve for Lucio Fulci's "City of the living dead (1980)", but it sums up the entire Italian horror revolution. These films shocked audiences everywhere. Never had films that explicit been made before. But, with no one putting a stop to them, more and more were made and they flourished.
The individuals responsible were Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento, Lamberta Bava, Mario Bava and Michele Soavi. Each bringing their own unique styles to the horror world, collectively, the genre was called Giallo.

As the 70's slowed down and the 80's arrived, so did the UK Video Nasty craze. Mainly down to the opinions of one Mary Whitehouse, many horror films were banned outright, locked away, never to be seen by the public. Unfortunately for the film makers, Britain was one of their main audiences, and so many films never made it here.
When American director Sam Raimi attempted to release his film The Evil Dead in 1983 over here in England, he and his associates Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert were taken to court over some of the content of the film. The case was dismissed, but the film was still banned. Adding to the video nasty collection that was growing bigger.

The Americans joined in with the Video nasty wave and the Italian directors lost another major audience, much to the dismay of the fans. The Gore-masters went "underground" with their films, even though they were still acceptable in Italy. At the end of the 80's and the beginning of the 90's the Video nasty craze died down, and films were allowed through that wouldn't normally pass inspection. Fans got to see what they had been missing for the past 10 years.
Unfortunately for the fans the ban was coming back and it was going to be even more publicly supported. A young toddler named James Bulger was abducted from a shopping centre by 2 10 year old kids and murdered. The kids said they were "inspired" by the Child's play films; in which a possessed doll murders people. The ban was put back on again, and the Italians once again didn't make it over here. Towards the end of the 90's the films that were coming from the age of Italian horror were a mere shadow of their predecessors.

Now, with films such as Nine Songs showing full sex on cinema screens, the public, and the censor's office, seem to have accepted graphic visuals. Yet the Italian directors are nowhere to be seen. Have they lost their crown to another country? If so, to who?

It is undoubted that there was a huge fan base and following for the new Italian horror films. Only people with a strong mind and stomach can regularly sit through the films. In most, the viewer is subjected to a plethora of violence, blood, guts, murders, sexual assaults and bizarreness.
These films are a million miles away from the horror they were used to before. For example "The Gestapo's last orgy (1977) in which in one scene dinner party guests are served and enjoy "pot roast of unborn Jew". Not only is it disturbing, it's strangely surreal. The psychological sadism rife throughout the film cannot be taken seriously after one part when one of the leaders of the Gestapo party forces a girl to perform fellatio on the barrel of his Luger pistol".
This is often the case in the Italian films. There will be a barrage of sickening content, yet due to the almost operatic extremity of what is shown it's almost unbelievable, and in some modern circles the trend is to watch films of this genre, not for fear, but for laughs; The exact opposite of why they were made.

When writing their scripts, the Italians were thinking of the best ways to get to get extreme reactions from the audiences. The best way most of them found was to fill their films with plenty of blood, guts, and rape. The rape fad died out in the late 70's. People and the directors themselves just didn't want to see it.
One director dubbed "the Godfather of Italian gore", Lucio Fulci found a way to get the best reaction from the audience. In Zombie Flesh Eaters (1983) a woman's head is pulled onto a piece of broken wood, penetrating her eye in full detail. He repeated this scene of ocular devastation in 2 of his later films The Beyond and the New York Ripper.
These scenes worked because for some reason people don't like seeing damage done to eyes. Another example of this is in The Terminator when the Terminator cuts his damaged eye out. This got the same reaction as always.
His pinnacle eye shot was in The New York Ripper when a woman is tied down to a bed and a razor blade cuts down her face. We are there for the entire journey of the razor blade no more than 6 inches away from her face, as the killer slides it down her forehead and across her open eye. We see the eye bleed then split slightly open, in extremely realistic detail and horror.

There is no doubt an underlying sense of sadomasochism rife throughout the sub-genre, but due to the extent and depravity of it all, it seems inconceivable that any form of sexual enjoyment could be taken from it.
One German film of the 80's that pushed the boundaries of the sub-genre and perverse sexual fetishes even further was Necromantic (1987). "A Combination of X-rated thrills and nauseating horror, Necromantic is an extreme example of the arthouse film that pushes moral boundaries to the limit. However, exploitative and revolting though it is, this outrageous film is also a poetic and philosophical examination of the power of relationships, sex and death." Unfortunately, this film was deemed too strong and subsequently was only released in 3 theatres worldwide.
The Oedipus complex frequently shows up in Italian gore films. In The Nights of Terror (1981) a 16 year old boy pesters his mum to breast feed him, he then tries to force his hand up her skirt. Later, when the boy has become a zombie, his mum gladly takes her top off for the boy to suckle. Only he bits a chunk of her nipple off instead.
These styles of films (New York Ripper being another example) were heavily influenced by Fumetti; a highly stylised comic strips whose gory art and outrageous sex adorn newsagents and bookstores across Italy.

The material in the Italian films would never be allowed into the mainstream. Gore was still in Hollywood horror, but toned down and with the emphasis more on the blood. Due to the different styles of content the American directors chose to use, different genres and genre styles were born. The teen-slasher faze was starting and going down a storm.
Audiences were treated to such films as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Halloween (1979). The formula of innocent teens (the target audience) and an invincible, knife-wielding maniac seemed to work. But the directors, thinking that if it works then stay with it, kept making films of this style. Many sequels were made to successful slashers, but they ended up getting stale as their numbers increased.

Occasionally a diamond would be found in the rough (the Exorcist, Texas chainsaw massacre, Last house on the left, Evil Dead, Night of the living dead) and often they would be banned. The Texas chainsaw massacre was banned even though there is hardly any blood in it at all.
The Italian/American director George Romero bridged the gap between the 2 worlds of Italian and American horror. His films Night of the living dead, Dawn of the dead and Day of the dead brought all of the styles and panache of Italian horror to a new audience. Still remaining one of the best loved zombie trilogies, Romero's films captured the aspects of American life in 3 periods; Racism in the 60's, consumerism in the 70's and vivisection in the 80's (There is a big debate whether or not Romero's trilogy is classed as an American or Italian series).

The extremist film making revolution wasn't confined to Italy though. An American independent film company called Troma was making films left, right and centre. Believing in the adage "Quantity not quality", they substituted production budgets, acting, even good scripts for getting as many films made as they could. Their film The Toxic Avenger was one of the biggest cult films of the 80's sub-genre revolution. With graphic scenes of drug abuse and a child's head being run over in full detail, Troma films were the American equivalent of their Italian counter parts. They are still the oldest running independent film company in the world. Still producing films of the same style (if not slightly more financed) Tromeo and Juliet, Terror firmer, Sgt Kabukiman NYPD have become well known names in the cult film world. Kevin Costner and Billy Bob Thornton have starred in Troma films in the past.

In lines of competition, the 90's wasn't a great time for the Italian directors. Apart from their "indigenous" fans, there wasn't much call for the Italian's level of extremity in films. The mid nineties was the low period and ultimately, the end, for the Italian sub-genres. After certain video nasty bans were lifted, a company called Vipco started releasing all the old trashy b-movies that had been previously banned. Seeing as though most of the Italian films never made it to the big screen, there was now an even greater threat, this time to their video empire.
Though not the same standards as the Italian films, the Vipco films were trashier but not as sleazy by any means. Try as they might, the American directors could not bring the level of sub-human depravity and sleaze.
As with the other groups of sub-genre directors, the Vipco styles were easily recognisable. Often, the films looked like they had been shot on standard 1980's home video cameras. Vipco was the ideal distribution company for many first time indie directors. Production quality can be abysmal yet, like Troma, there is a huge amount of films in their collection.

With technology increasing in the 90's, computer games became a multibillion pound industry. The extremely popular series Resident Evil, about a Special Forces unit sent to investigate missing scientists and are besieged by zombies. Resident Evil, and its sequels were mainly based on Romero's Living dead trilogy and the Italian zombie films that inspired him.
These games were just as contextually horrifying as the films before. Using the same camera angles and techniques, acting, gore and plot, these games were just what cult fans had been waiting for: a gruesome zombie film that they could control.
George Romero was given the task of writing the script for the long awaited movie. Once complete, he was dropped: studio execs said the script was too much like the game, and the bought in Paul S Anderson. Unfortunately for Resident Evil fans, the game did not make the leap to the big screen successfully. The film was nothing like the game, with a nobody at the helm.
This is an example of Hollywood unsuccessfully attempting to make a zombie film, based on the old masters, with some standing, but failing miserably. First time directors don't seem to grasp the fact that simply watching a few of these films will not give you the talent to make them. You need to watch all of them religiously, get underneath the visuals and the audio, watch the sub-contexts, and get in touch with the sleazy, degenerate ambience that protrudes from every word and gushing wound.

And so we reach the present. The Italian and American horror markets have fundamentally dried up. Gore films aren't on anyone's "must see" lists, and all that Hollywood seems to be spitting out are hapless re-makes and third rate horrors that wouldn't scare a child. Occasionally a good film pops up Shaun of the dead, Dawn of the dead 2004, Kill Bill for example.
There is, however, one country that is building up steam for a take over. Japan. Deciding to opt for the psychological approach rather than the gruesome, Japanese films are more terrifying than the Italian films they are starting to replace. Ichi the killer is one of Japans most gory films. It is the front runner of a new sub-genre called Hyper-violence. Hyper-violence is the next step up from Ultra-violence (i.e. Battle Royale). The Japanese gore films don't usually involve zombies, though there are exceptions, but involve normal people in extreme circumstances with other people. Junk, Evil Dead trap and Stacie are all Japanese zombie films. The zombies in the Japanese films have been taken down a new route. In each of the 3 noted above, there is a single, female consciously controlling the zombies. Usually zombies don't have any conscious and are driven by hunger.

Not only do the Japanese make exceptional horror films, other genres have been attempted and greatly enhanced. The Sci-fi film Casshern was nearly all filmed against a blue screen. The scenery that was added was beautiful in design, pulling inspiration from Metropolis. This film clearly indicates that not only will the Japanese conquer the horror world, but every other genre they attempt.
The Japanese are just as passionate about there films as the Italians were. The level of technology available to them is used to their advantage in such away that anything they do "turns to gold".

Sadly, the Italian era, like the British before, is over. And whoever takes over next, their time will come too. The clear-cut choice is the Japanese. The Japanese directors (i.e. Hideo Kojima, Hideo Nataka, Takeshii Miike, and Kenta Fukasaka) have one of the most unique ways of viewing the film world around them. They are able to sculpt viewer's emotions and draw them in any direction. Their horror films like Dark Water and Audition slowly creep along, luring the viewer in a false sense of security. There may be only 1 or 2 minor scares throughout the film, then one immense shock at the end. Though many people get bored from impatience waiting for the finale, they are artistic spectacles full of lavish colour use, dialogue and editing techniques.

Apart from the zombie film Shaun of the dead there hasn't been a decent British horror film in years. With America just pumping out hashed together re-makes, there is a market that needs to be re-owned. It would be interesting to see in what direction it is taken once a new "king" of horror is crowned.

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