balboni films

Horror and the Spectator (Part 1)

During my senior year of college, I took an advanced course in Film Theory. It was the sort of class most people imagine film students taking: lots of extremely obscure films, scholarly discussion of the various philosophical, psychological, and social impacts of films, and so on. We even had a soft-spoken British professor to top it off. It was out of the ordinary for our film program, which focused heavily on production and hands-on experience, and while I love experimental films and in-depth discussion thereof, the lectures in this class tended to wander off-topic quickly and never return (we once talked about S&M for an hour). To be fair, our professor was brilliant, but in his mind he was ten steps ahead of whatever was coming out of his mouth. Anyway, for the course final I wanted to see if I could get away with writing a fifteen page research paper on what’s generally regarded as the most juvenile genre of filmmaking, and the antithesis of everything we watched in class: Horror films.

With Halloween coming up, I thought it might be worthwhile to post what I wrote. I’ve trimmed a few parts and added some illustration, but this is largely how I turned it in. It’s pretty dry and admittedly overly wordy in places, but in general I’m kind of proud of how it turned out. So without further ado:

Horror and the Spectator

In reality, nobody wants to be scared. The very definition of being scared is to be “filled with terror; frightened or alarmed”- the sort of thing more often associated with dangerous circumstance or environment. As with any species on this planet with the will to survive embedded in their very genes, humans are not apt to seek out such places or instances.

But in 1973, audiences came in droves to see a film by the name of “The Exorcist.” The film tells the tale of a twelve year old girl possessed by a demon, and the priests who must “exorcise” the demon from within her. During their sessions, the child exhibits all manner of paranormal activity, from abnormal voice changes, levitation, contortions, to other impossible physical movement. It was designed, from start to finish, with the purpose of frightening audiences, and it became one of the highest grossing films of all time. (1)

While The Exorcist may be one of the early commercial success stories of horror, it certainly was not the first film having the effect of scaring people- a tradition going back as far as 1896 to French filmmaker George Méliès. Among his many other technical innovations (Méliès was an early pioneer of stop-motion, multiple exposures, and time-lapse, to name a few), he produced a short, two minute film entitled “Le Manoir du Diable” (“The Manor of the Devil”) which is widely assumed to be the first horror film. (2) (3)


The Manor of the Devil (1896)
Before delving into more detail, however, we must ask ourselves: Why? Why do people crave a form of entertainment that heavily relies on an emotion we instinctively avoid in real life? Of course any spectator who enters a theater or sits down in front of a screen inherently knows they have to suspend their disbelief for whatever they are about to watch- otherwise the medium would fall apart immediately- but despite that suspension, can a film actually subject you to the same feelings as real fear (or real disgust) can? It is an oft-cited legend that many audience members have walked out of horror films due solely to fear, which begs the question of viewer boundaries: Is there a point, a universal point, where visual art- due to either discomfort of revulsion- surpasses its use as entertainment and becomes “unwatchable”? These are questions that must be kept in mind when considering the horror film.


As mentioned earlier, the notion of horror in cinema has been around almost since the very beginning of the motion picture. To re-touch briefly on Méliès, though, it should be noted that despite its lofty title as the first of its kind, the only relation it contains to what is commonly referred to as horror today, is in the subject matter. It is primarily concerned with the paranormal, as it demonstrates phantoms, witchcraft, and eventually the power of Christ (which is, technically, paranormal). (3)

The true beginnings of horror, beyond the technical ones, lie primarily with two German filmmakers, Paul Wegener and Robert Wiene, who are better known as being part of the Expressionist movement in that country during the 1920s. Wegener’s “The Golem: How He Came into the World” is based on the Jewish folktale of a golem summoned to protect Jews facing persecution in sixteenth century Prague. (4) In Wegener’s film, The Golem appears as stolid creature (though, to us now, obviously just a costumed man) bent on destruction. It is for all intents and purposes, one of the first monster-horror films.

Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, on the other hand, is an example of early stylistically-based horror, and has been called one of the first psychological horror films. (5) Though the plot of Dr. Caligari is essentially a murder mystery, it is the style that becomes relevant to horror. Set designs and cinematography are heavily influenced by German expressionism, and instill a sense of discomfort and unease within the viewer. Walls curve inwards, windows contort in unusual ways, buildings loom as though being viewed through a distorted glass; all of these aspects add to a general sense of claustrophobia and malaise for audiences. In addition, the cinematography incorporates specific techniques with perspective- such as buildings distorting off into the distance and Dutch angles- to further add to the psychological effect of the film.


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
From these simple beginnings, horror sprouted into a full-fledged genre with the help of Hollywood over the next decade. The 1930s saw the release of Universal classics such as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1933). (6) (7) (8) (9) All releases were commercially successful, proving that American audiences were capable of enjoying being frightened.

Modern Horror

With this history in mind, it is now worth surveying the current state of horror films. Like many film genres, horror can be further sub-divided into unique subgenres, each aiming to manipulate a different element of fright. In the following pages, we will look at a few of the more prominent subgenres and critique how they intend to manipulate the viewers’ senses.

One of the more common stereotypes of modern horror- as a whole, at least- is a focus on graphic violence. For almost half a century, Hollywood followed a specific list of “do’s and don’ts”, better known as The Motion Picture Production Code. (10) This code effectively kept a lid on brutality, murder, graphic detail, and indeed all “unpleasant subjects”. As a result, one of the largest film-markets in the world was also one of the cleanest. However, this all changed in 1968 when the code was effectively dropped (in favor of our current letter-based rating system). While not entirely without potential rebuke, filmmakers had much more creative freedom in terms of violence and gore. Thus, a cinema of revulsion was born.

Grindhouse and low-budget independent films notwithstanding, one of the first major motion pictures to utilize extreme violence comes in the form of Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974). In short, the film follows a group of friends traveling through Texas in search of a homestead, when one by one they encounter a seemingly abandoned household, belonging to the family of a murderous, chainsaw-wielding brute who wears a severed face as a mask (better known as “Leatherface”). The story culminates with one of the characters, Sally, escaping from the family with Leatherface in pursuit with a chainsaw.


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
From the onset, this film sets up a sense of unease: One of the earliest scenes depicts a crazed hitchhiker cutting his hand manically with a blade from his own knife, for no apparent reason other than his own insanity. The shots show it in a casual, almost documentary-fashion with no particular dramatic emphasis, and though there are a fair amount of cut-aways demonstrating the other passengers’ reactions, the slicing of the palm is shown in full with very little left to the imagination. In doing so, Hooper is able to communicate to the audience that graphic violence will not be shied away from.

Later on, Leatherface murders one of the characters unsuspectingly with a sledgehammer. The resulting death is instantaneous, and the victim is shown violently twitching as a result. Given the film’s inherent relation to slaughterhouses (Leatherface’s family operates one), the death can be symbolically linked to that of slaughtering livestock: Impersonal and violent. Which in the context of film and graphic violence, is shocking to the audience. There are many other violent deaths and moments within The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, including death by chainsaw, a woman being hanged on a meat-hook, and a house filled with what are obviously human bones. As shocking and gruesome as these elements may be, they have since been far surpassed.

In 1980, Italian director Ruggero Deodato’s film “Cannibal Holocaust” premiered in Milan. Ten days later he was arrested under suspicion of murder, the Italian courts believing that the deaths in the film were in fact, real. (11) The reason for these allegations stems directly from the content of the film: Cannibal Holocaust tells the story of an anthropologist searching for four documentarians who disappeared two months earlier in the remote jungles of South America while investigating a cannibalistic tribe. The anthropologist eventually finds their lost footage, which is then presented within the narrative. The team’s footage, shot within the “cinéma vérité” tradition and thereby imitating a true documentary, follows them as they go deeper and deeper into the jungle, their encounters with the locals increasingly insensitive and violent.


Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
While the first portion of the film is presented as a fictional narrative- that is, shot with the fourth-wall very much intact- it still has its own moments of brutality: One of the first instances occurs during the anthropologist’s search for the footage, when he and his guide secretly come across a native dragging a naked young woman onto a river shore. The native, in what is described by the anthropologist as a “ritualistic punishment for adultery” proceeds to rape the young woman with a rock for several minutes, then bludgeons her to death. This process is shown in its entirety, with extremely little left to the imagination. (12) Though rape within a narrative film is enough to warrant another discussion entirely, for the purposes of this topic the context should be strictly limited to its sensational appeal and shock value as a cultural taboo.

Another instance of such shock occurs early within the “found footage” itself, after a team member is bitten by a snake. In order to stop the spread of the poison, the team amputates most of his leg (via machete) and attempts to cauterize the wound with a heated blade. All of this is within the frame, portrayed as actual documentary footage. Later, in one of the more infamous shots from the film, the team comes across a native impaled upon a large stake, once again shown in full, and without hesitation (the subject is nude as well, though the shock value of nudity is culturally subjective).

In the end, the “filmmakers” are graphically murdered by the natives for their transgressions, including the cameraman being castrated, beheaded, and his body ultimately torn-apart and disemboweled, followed by the sole female member’s gang-rape and beheading. Once again, as it bears repeating, all of this is on camera and within the faux-documentary style. (12) Pages could be spent detailing each of the graphic moments in Cannibal Holocaust, but also contained within the film are: The team maniacally burning down a village full of natives, a living body in the early stages of decay, a forced abortion (by the natives, including the murder of the exposed fetus), and another rape scene (this time with the team themselves being responsible). The aforementioned instances of brutal, graphic violence are only enhanced in terms of shock value by what are, unfortunately, actual moments of animal cruelty during the film. A tortoise is cut open on camera while still alive, a tied-up pig is kicked and shot in the head, and a monkey is killed for its brains (Deodato originally defended these actions, citing that the animals were all subsequently eaten by the natives, but has since condemned them as “stupid”). (11)

The murder charges against Deodato were eventually dropped, after demonstrating that the actors were indeed still alive (though originally contractually obligated to stay out of media for one year after the film’s release, in order to promote the idea that it was real). However, he still received a four-month suspended sentence on charges of obscenity and animal cruelty, and fought for an additional three years to get the film unbanned. (11)


A native eating a tasty hand (Cannibal Holocaust, 1980).
Cannibal Holocaust serves to ask the question: If there is a line between what can and cannot be committed to film, where is it? Many reviewers were outright disgusted with the film, for obvious reasons, but despite this it has since obtained a cult-status large enough to grant it a sleek, two-disc DVD release. (13) The violence appeared real enough to warrant an actual arrest for murder, showing that at least for some, it is possible for a film to fully step into a realm of “truth”, making it all the more horrifying. It also demonstrates that audiences- perhaps few, but undeniably some- are ready and willing to view some of the largest social taboos in Western culture (namely cannibalism and rape), as part of an entertainment experience.

Perhaps with the early help of Cannibal Holocaust and other films from the Italian horror movement of the 1980s, the horror genre has seen a number of more recent films depicting brutal violence, sometimes dubbed “torture porn” by critics. (14) One of the first films to be bestowed with this title was Eli Roth’s 2005 film “Hostel”, about two young American men who travel to Slovakia in order to pursue its allegedly “free-spirited” women. The two soon find themselves engulfed in an underground practice where seemingly respectable business men pay to torture and murder captives at a secret facility. (15)


Hostel (2005)
Whereas Cannibal Holocaust and the violence contain therein is largely an underground phenomenon, Hostel is in most respects the opposite, with modern production values, recognizable actors, and a major distributor behind it. Despite its Hollywood gloss, though, Hostel incorporates a significant amount of equally grotesque violence: At one point a man’s Achilles tendons are sliced (he then attempts to walk), fingers are cut off, and at another a leg is severed via chainsaw. In terms of cinematography, these instances venture into the overly-dramatized, to the point where it is debatably unrealistic (particularly compared to the cinéma vérité style). But the intention is clear: To shock and illicit emotional response from the audience.

Hostel is far from being the only modern horror film to venture into this territory: The “Saw” series, started in 2003 and now in its sixth iteration, follows a serial killer who traps victims and forces them to escape by testing their endurance of psychological and physical tortures, most of which are extremely violent (in the first installment, a man saws off his own foot in order to escape his shackles). Other entries into the “torture porn” genre include Wolf Creek and Hostel: Part II, both of which were profitable at the box office. (17) (18)

While only a portion of what is considered “horror”, the aforementioned films display something critical about the relationship between filmic content and the spectator: Even as many find the level of brutality and violence to be appalling and unwatchable, there is still a demonstrable audience for it. The Saw series alone, which in many respects epitomizes a cinema of revulsion, is the most profitable horror film series of all time (19), and more films in the same vein are in the works at this very moment. It is a reflection of a shift in culture: The Production Code of the 1930s was representative of a time where taboos in Western society were much larger- violence, death, sex, and so on, were all certainly unacceptable to view and almost equally frowned upon to speak of. In more recent times, perhaps even as a result of the constant exposure to violence in news media (particularly in the post-Vietnam era for America), it has become socially acceptable to see murder, death, and anatomical destruction on screen. Ironically, a line is no longer drawn between violence and non-violence, but between the levels of violence itself.

Within this particular mode of horror, that line has grown less distinct, as audiences have shown that they can and will, happily endure watching what in reality would be some of the vilest and most painful acts we are capable of committing on one another.

(continued in part 2)