By Samuel Barnett | October 2011
Junsui Films takes a look at one of the industry’s most enduring and profitable genres…
A SCARY EVOLUTION
The horror genre has been causing quite a stir in the movie world recently. First there was the banning of Tom Six’s horror sequel, The Human Centipede 2, which was eventually classified by the BBFC after the distributors agreed to make 32 cuts before its release. This was followed by BBFC banning Adam Reheimer’s, The Bunny Game, explaining - ”aspects of the work such as the lack of explanation of the events depicted, and the stylistic treatment, may encourage some viewers to enjoy and share in the man’s callousness and the pleasure he takes in the woman’s pain and humiliation.” – as their reason for denying the film its moment on the silver screen. Meanwhile at the US box-office, Paranormal Activity 3 exceeded all financial expectations with a $54 million opening weekend. That’s an October record. It’s also $10 million more than its predecessor Paranormal Activity 2 opened with in 2010.
Recent times have shown studios and directors rely upon remakes as a reliable source of income and profit, taking a successful franchise from the past and (re)selling it to a modern day market in the hope of making a quick buck. From The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) to Halloween (1978), it’s hard to find a horror series that hasn’t been put through the remake machine.
Film narrative is most effective when the stakes are high and the audience can place themselves within the protagonist’s shoes. You often hear horror audiences unconsciously shouting at the screen “don’t go in there” or “behind you”; horror plays upon our innate and primal instinct – fear. By now we understand the genre’s generic characteristics (mainly thanks to Scream’s (1996) excellent post-modern dissection of the genre). We know that having sex will result in death and we know that the killer is probably suffering from some serious ‘Pop’ Freudian issues. This forms a sense of pure escapism; no one cares about their everyday issues when there’s a killer residing in the darkness.
Then there’s the provocative advertising campaign, ( The Blair Witch Project (1999), Paranormal Activity (2007), which effectively challenges its audience to enter the cinema (cue scary voice) “Don’t watch it alone”, and audiences continue to fall for it time and again, coming out sufficiently scared without experiencing anything new or original. It’s an age old formula that works exceptionally well.
The majority of modern day revamps have traded the staple grainy and gritty style for high production values. In the hope that modern day audiences won’t be put off by the rough and ready style of the originals, the low budget and dirty charm has been upgraded with an MTV sheen, most prominently noticeable in Marcus Nispel’s lacklustre remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) and Friday The 13th (2009).
Yet, as the Paranormal Activity series proved, the horror genre is as popular and profitable as ever. Every generation providing a sizable audience for this formulaic and almost archaic genre, the question is whether or not the genre is in danger of evolving itself to death?
George. A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) showed that there was success to be found in the independent horror industry. Not only did it prove that you could create a successful movie on a shoestring budget ($114,000 dollars), but it also demonstrated that you could release a successful movie outside of the primary industry. From here on in audiences were inundated with low budget gore-fests.
The evolution of horror has been a fascinating yet equally controversial one. The genre has been confronted with hostility and hysteria from the authorities; it has been manipulated and unfairly used as a scapegoat by the media. But how has this affected the industry today? Why are these nasty little VHS cassettes so important to film fans and current filmmakers?
The year of 1970 saw the release of the huge and cumbersome VHS players, and with it came an even larger amount of controversy. The video cassette (VHS) industry saw an influx of unregulated movies from across the world which allowed the general public to get their hands on some truly ‘nasty’ material. These low budget productions would often carry pleasant titles such as Tool Box Murders (1978) and I Spit On Your Grave (1978).
Said films revolved around the analysis of violence and recurring themes of vengeance, torture and the justification of violence. The most important and vital thing that differentiates the video nasties to some of the other popular horror films at the time is that nothing is left to the imagination. Whereas The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would skilfully cut away at the pivotal moment relying upon the audience’s imagination, the video nasties period would show everything up close in stomach turning, graphic detail. Depending upon where you stand this could seem like an evolution or a step back for the genre, but there is no denying that this period highlighted a huge amount of influential and talented directors.
From this period came Wes Craven who released his shocking debut film The Last House On The Left (1972) and Sam Raimi who gave us The Evil Dead (1981). Both of which would later be considered pioneers of horror, but they were damned and dismissed by the media at the time.
Mary Whitehouse and MPs from the Conservative party decided that these films were too ‘evil’ for us to watch and took it upon themselves to compile a of list 72 videos that were considered dangerous to the general public. From then on it was illegal to sell or distribute any of the films on the dreaded list.
Distributors and directors were also prosecuted for their actions within the horror industry. Ruggero Deodato, director of The Cannibal Holocaust (1980), was actually sent to court on account of killing off his own cast for the authenticity of his film. Ruggero was forced to fly over an actor from the film to prove his innocence. If anything, it proved just how well executed the final film was.
The hysteria surrounding the topic has cemented these films as classics, even though the quality of the movies is vastly inconsistent. But the constant reminder that these films sparked such media frenzy gives them a certain historical context that the modern horror film lacks. See director Jake West’s excellent 2010 documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape which offers a fascinating perspective on what is arguably horror’s most defining era.
The horror genre has experienced a radical evolution in the last decade, the ‘slasher’ genre that heavily populated the local cinemas of the 80’s and 90’s have been replaced with a new set of popular sub-genre’s The ‘Torture Porn’ and ‘Found footage’ features.
The ‘Torture Porn’ sub-genre relies upon the same formula of the Video Nasty; that is to attempt to outdo its competition by becoming more violent and visceral. Notable examples, Saw (2004) and its many sequels, The Human Centipede (2009) and most recently, A Serbian Film (2010).
Cannibal Holocaust spawned one of the most popular sub-genres today, the ‘found footage’ horror films. Modern influences from Ruggero’s film are countless; The Blair Witch Project, [Rec] (2007) and the Paranormal Activity series to name but a few.
The further the genre is pushed the more extreme it appears to be getting. Is this a reaction to the Video Nasty scandal of the 70s and 80’s? Do audiences genuinely want to be pushed further and further to the limit of depraved cinema? Or is it an act of protest from the current generation of filmmakers?…
By Helen Adkins | October 2011
The director of Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape talks exclusively to Junsui Films about his acclaimed documentary….
Junsui Films: What inspired you to make this film at this particular time?
Jake West: Marc Morris and I set up Nucleus Films in 2009, which is a UK-based DVD releasing company dedicated to the release of horror films and DVD extras. At first, we wanted to release a film of the trailers of those 72 Video Nasty films that were banned through the Video Recordings Act in the early 80s, but as we started to watch them back, we found ourselves asking why exactly they were banned?
We started looking into it and it sort of spiralled out of control after that into a huge documentary because the subject was so fascinating. There was so much we didn’t know. That the legislation had been pushed through by a group claiming to be a parliamentary group but who had no official status. That the banning of these films was rushed through by people who hadn’t seen the films. It was important because horror films were basically butchered for the next twelve years after that until censorship was relaxed.
JF: What’s your view on the recent censorship of films like Human Centipede 2 and The Bunny Game?
Censorship hasn’t been so much of a problem in recent years, but all of a sudden we’re seeing something of resurgence as effects become more realistic and filmmakers push the boundaries.
The Bunny Game is and Human Centipede 2 are examples of extreme pieces of cinema. Yes they are transgressive and on the edge, they may even be considered silly and bad taste, but I still don’t think they should be banned. Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible was considered an art house film even though it was essentially a sexualised horror film but no one seemed to have a problem with that.
The interesting difference between The Bunny Game and Human Centipede 2 is that the latter had support and money to fight its ban because there was an audience waiting for a sequel. With cuts, they fought the ban. The Bunny Game will stay banned because it hasn’t got that financial support, but that won’t stop a fan of extreme cinema being able to buy it online. So what happens is fans end up seeing an inferior copy instead of the official version, which hinders not only the filmmaker but ultimately the industry itself.
JF: How do you feel the old video nasties compare with extreme horror films of today?
I think it’s interesting that we’re noticing censorship again but there is a significant difference in that recent films like The Bunny Game and A Serbian Film are tricky and extreme, so much more so than the old video nasties that were so inconsistent in quality. Eighty percent of those films should never have been on the list but in those days almost anyone who made a complaint could get a film banned. We don’t have those Mary Whitehouse figures anymore so from that point of view, society has changed.
JF: What kind of reaction have you had from the documentary?
The reaction has been phenomenal. I think because it tells a human story about how the creativity of directors were perceived to be corrupt, when the people making these allegations were corrupt themselves.
I grew up with these films. My sensibilities, my work, who I am today was moulded by them. We thought it was ridiculous that they were banned, but it made you want to see them and the fact that these films were banned makes us question who those people were.
Horror Channel’s SEASON OF THE BANNED kicks off on Nov 4 with the world TV premiere of Jake West’s documentary VIDEO NASTIES: MORAL PANIC, CENSORSHIP & VIDEOTAPE. Full details: horrorchannel.co.uk