In part two of the My Life In Horror Ginger Nuts blog tour, Alex Davis of Film Gutter fame agreed to write about the origins of his own interest in extreme horror cinema. Enjoy, and if you’re interested in my own take on extreme art house horror movie Flowers, you can find my Film Gutter guest blog here.
If you'll forgive me a slight run-up before I get to the 'horror' bit...
That title is, of course, ripped from the autobiography of infamous wrestling promoter Eric Bischoff, who built WCW to the point that it nearly knocked WWF (now WWE) from its perch as the number one wrestling company around. I must admit I've never read the book, but the title has always stuck with me because I feel it applies to two of my loves – wrestling and horror. The most exciting and dynamic time in wrestling in recent years was the so-called 'Summer of Punk' of 2011, in which leading star CM Punk announced he was leaving the company and was allowed to let loose with his infamous 'pipe-bomb' promo. You may or may not appreciate wrestling, but this one cut hugely close to the bone in terms of the real-life politics behind the scenes in WWE and his true feelings on his fellow performers. No acting here, and a speech that caused a massive stir among fans. Check it out and you'll see what I mean... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Ms0DFxpptk
When I was generously invited by Kit to write a piece for My Life in Horror I was a little nervous to do so, because Kit explores so many wider issues for the genre in such a fascinating way. And it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to talk about, and what lay at the centre of my own experience of horror over the years. And that thing is controversy – put simply, I can't help myself being fascinated by and wanting to experience anything that rankles with people, that offends, that causes unease and discomfort. Case in point – I'm watching Frankie Boyle's stand up as I write this.
Anyway, back to my opening point, wrestling folks would tend to agree that controversy creates cash. And I would say the very same holds true for horror, especially when it comes to movies that might have more of an independent outlook. 'Hollywood Horror' as I tend to dub it goes out of its way to avoid controversy, because any kind of stink might mean that the movie gets pulled from theatres, hitting income hard. Besides, many of these are angling for 12 or 15 certificates, so too much controversy would also limit the audience attending.
Now, whether indy and international movies are deliberately seeking out controversy is probably a much larger discussion than I can tackle here. Having watched a lot of extreme movies in my capacity as Film Gutter reviewer, I think some are very much aiming to be shock for shock alone, whereas many that have kicked up a real fuss do have genuine vision, quality and artistic value.
But controversy – undeniably – can help a horror movie greatly. Many indy movies can pass by the press practically unnoticed, but those that have people fainting or throwing up in theatres, offending certain sections of society or having shocking tales from behind the scenes will reach media online and – occasionally – into the mainstream.
And I must admit, controversy has always been a huge draw to me where it comes to a movie. The minute I hear of something that has caused a storm of anger, outrage and disgust I know that I just HAVE to see it. I can actually track this back to books as a teenager, before I even got into the disturbing horror movies that are my regular fare these days. At college and university I was virtually obsessed with American Psycho, with its wryly humorous look at yuppie life which just happens to include deeply unpleasant episodes of murder and misogyny. The book was accepted for publication initially by Simon and Schuster, who then withdrew from publishing it because of 'aesthetic differences' – which I don't think is too hard to decode – before being eventually picked up by the slightly braver Vintage Books. The column inches grew and grew in that time and I simply couldn't resist taking a read of the book.
There's a lot to like in American Psycho artistically, and Bret Easton Ellis has been a writer of note ever since, a big name in the literary field. I'd argue the same for other books that I loved that promoted various storms – JG Ballard's Crash and Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange – and it's all too often for the artistic merit to get lost in all the noise that goes with such controversy.
Movie-wise, controversy surrounding films is certainly nothing new. Tod Browning's 1932 movie Freaks was banned for three decades, and the 70s were well-renowned for horror movies that received bans, including The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And who could forget the video nasty era here in the UK, that period in the 1980s where the Department of Public Prosecutions targeted 74 horror movies that would 'deprave and corrupt' audiences, even prosecuting people for selling or renting these movies. Even since then, many a film has fallen foul of the censors – some of which I will come to in short order.
One of the unfortunate ironies – for me – in a movie being banned or cut is that it actually has something of an opposite effect to what is intended, because to me it makes it more desirable. And I'm far from alone in that – there is a definite portion of the horror viewing audience that responds to controversy by saying 'you're not going to stop me seeing this' or 'well, I wonder what all that fuss was about?' or 'was it really worth the shitstorm that it stirred up?'
Now I'm two years into Film Gutter, I realise there was a kind of morbid curiosity behind the whole idea. I'd always flirted with some weird and wonderful horror but there was still some sense of wanting to push further, to go to the very fringes, to find out just what people were willing to put on celluloid. And movies that do cause controversy definitely develop a sort of mythical quality – movies like A Serbian Film, Melancholie Der Engel, and Salo are surrounded by a certain air. And in a sense they beg the question – are you brave enough to watch them? Do you dare? Have you got the guts? Some do, some don't. Of course, some just aren't interested, so that question never occurs to them.
One of the things that has always fascinated me about Film Gutter is that a lot of people read the articles without checking out the films themselves. And god bless those of you reading who do! But that's a testimony in itself to the lure, the mystique, the unusual magic that surrounds these controversial movies. We are, in modern society, fascinated by the idea of watching people's reactions, often at the expense of watching what they are reacting to. Much of this started on YouTube – with gamers' reactions to horror games being a huge hit – but if you look at TV, Gogglebox is a prime example of this. We're as interested in what people say about something as what the thing actually is. And while I know Film Gutter readers who will go out and buy or rent the movies they like the sound of, I feel like many people just want to get a sense what my reaction is, in a way vicariously watching the movie with me. The most popular reviews over the last two years are the ones that have absolutely horrified me – Thanatomorphose and Vase De Noces chief among them – which is a thought that always makes me smile. But I understand, and I empathise. I can't help but enjoy watching someone on Youtube playing a horror game ending up jumping out of their skin and crying, so I very much share that feeling and that sentiment.
The extreme horror scene will, of course, continue to bring controversy going forward. You look at movies like The Bunny Game – still banned in the UK, starring two non-actors and featuring women being genuinely (voluntarily) branded – and The Vomit Gore Trilogy, which required disclaimers from the actresses involved saying that they were willing participants in the features, are prime examples of films that have pushed boundaries. And I couldn't finish without mentioning one of my very favourite trilogy of movies, The Human Centipede, which emerged with an awful lot of focus on that ass-to-mouth, feeding one to the other with human faeces angle. Such controversy! And so much coverage that came with it! As a horror fan, loathe it or love it, there's no way you could have missed it. The second and third movies pushed the boat out even further, with part two receiving extensive cuts from the BBFC. To quote the man behind the centipede himself, Mr Tom Six: “I never censor myself. Because in art and in film you have to push boundaries and explore new territories.”
My life in horror might have started like many other people's, but it's certainly taken me down a pretty unusual road since then – I suppose that following the controversy has taken me more than a little off the beaten track...