Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Gore Kulture

No not Al Gore.

Gore as in Grand Guignol as in a specific sub genre of horror movies; slasher films, blood and guts movies like Saw, Hostile, etc.

The Peculiar Charms of the Grand Guignol

by Gideon Lester

"At one performance, six people passed out when an actress, whose eyeball was just gouged out, re-entered the stage, revealing a gooey, blood-encrusted hole in her skull. Backstage, the actors themselves calculated their success according to the evening's faintings. During one play that ended with a realistic blood transfusion, a record was set: fifteen playgoers had lost consciousness. Between sketches, the cobble-stoned alley outside the theatre was frequented by hyperventilating couples and vomiting individuals."

-- Mel Gordon, The Grand Guignol:
theatre of fear and terror.

We can go back to Shakespeare to find the first real case of Grand Guignol in theatre;

Titus Andronicus is a play with "14 killings, 9 of them on stage, 6 severed members, 1 rape (or 2 or 3, depending on how you count), 1 live burial, 1 case of insanity and 1 of cannibalism--an average of 5.2 atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines."

We seem to have moved from a rash of horror films to gore films in four short years. The gore phenomena is specific to the current mass culture we are experiencing.

We have seen an increase in horror films, just as we did during the depression and again during the Viet Nam war, horror films reflect the need for social catharsis during times of cultural stress.

The Gore film on the other hand was an underground phenomena, much like Grand Guignol. It first appeared not in film but in the fifties as crime and horror comics.

It existed since the early sixties, as a b-film phenomena in particular the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, but became popular in the eighties with the works of Stuart Gordon and Sam Raimi. It expanded in the nineties with the work of Clive Barker, in particular the Hellraiser series, now coming to the small screen as a computer game.

But these were horror movies, there was gore, but there was also humour, atmosphere, the gore was incidental, there to frighten you as much as the thing that jumps out of the dark.

But today the movies are Gore for gore's sake. In that they hearken back to Herschell Gordon Lewis work and Romero's Night of the Living Dead. But unlike them they are major studio releases, a popular film phenomena on the big screen and the producers of the goriest of the gore films; Saw I, II and III are Canadian.

It is reflective of the current social crisis of sociopathology that is in the headlines.
Man kills and BBQs girlfriend

Take for instance the Picton murder case and its Edmonton counter part the serial killing of prostitutes, or this recent Edmonton case that was in the news for weeks;

Michael Briscoe, acquitted in the rape and murder of Nina Courtepatte, is haunted by his failure to intervene and try to save her when she was brutally attacked 2 years ago

Edmonton, with its record-high murder rate, is quickly losing its reputation as a safe city.

But it's not just the creeping crime wave that's spooking people. It's the grim reality that we are now known for one of the most odious killings in the country.

Malls are supposed to be places where young people hang out, shop and flirt - not where a strikingly pretty 13-year-old girl is chosen at random to be raped and slaughtered for kicks.

I fear we are raising a society of sociopaths - kids who are so adrift, amoral and inured to violence that they have become completely indifferent to evil. They are drawn to it, it seems, out of twisted curiosity and sheer boredom.

How else to explain how a group of young people could lure Nina Courtepatte from West Edmonton Mall on the pretext of inviting her to a party, only to rape her and beat her to death on a golf course?

Brutality, savagery, gore, and cannibalism all underlie Grand Guignol and the Gore film today, as it does the headlines in your daily paper.

AN ALCOHOLIC who strangled his friend and then told police he did it so he could be sent to prison to exact revenge on a cannibal killer who murdered his girlfriend, was yesterday jailed for life. Alan Taylor said he never got over the murder of Julie Paterson, who was beheaded and partially eaten by psychopath David Harker in 1998.

New Delhi, Mar 22: The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on Thursday gave a clean chit to Mohinder Singh Pandher, co-accused in the gruesome Nithari serial killings in the outskirts of Delhi. CBI blamed his servant for the macabre killings and also confirmed cannibalism in him. It said Pandher's servant Surinder Koli was a psychopath and blamed him for the killings

A religious cult leader who raped, murdered and ate at least three women in Papua New Guinea has been captured by a group of villagers.

Steven Tari, 35, who called himself the "black Jesus" was beaten by locals from the village of Matepi before being handed over to police.

The failed bible student had gathered around six thousand followers as he travelled through mountain villages promising disciples gifts from heaven if they joined his congregation.

But communities discovered he was indulging in cannibalism, sacrificing young women, drinking their blood and eating their flesh.

The Gore phenomena begins with Slaughter of the Lambs, and its overwhelming popularity. It is about the brutality of a serial killer who skins his victims, and the anti-hero is a cannibal; Dr. Hannibal Lecter. It coincides disturbingly with pig farmer Robert Pictons brutal murder and dismemberment of women in Vancouver, and its implication of cannibalism.

The disturbing fact is that our fascination with the Picton case is the same as our fascination with Dr. Lecter. Cannibalism being the final taboo leading to the mass media phenomena of Hannibal the Cannibal.

I'm not alone in my fascination with cannibalism — why else would there be five Hannibal Lecter movies? Soylent Green is made of people; the living dead will eat your brains at any time of dawn, day, or night; and the biggest blockbuster of 2006, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, featured droves of flesh-hungry islanders.

In fact cannibalism is American as Apple Pie. Even before the infamous Donner party case, the founders of America engaged in cannibalism and capitalism.

Jamestown aims for historic reign over Plymouth

JAMESTOWN, Va. -- The first permanent English settlement in North America has more personality than many other historic attractions.
Capt. John Smith, the pint-sized adventurer, left a breathless narrative of his exploits.
Commerce took root here, and so did tobacco and slavery.
Then there was the cannibalism.
Still, as the country prepares to commemorate Jamestown's 400th anniversary in May, many see this swampy outpost on the James River only as a coming attraction to the Pilgrims' arrival at Plymouth Rock about 13 years later.
New Englanders, for example, point to the Thanksgiving feast, the Pilgrims' pure pursuit of religious freedom and the Mayflower.
Jamestown, on the other hand, "is the creation story from hell," Karen Ordahl Kupperman writes in her new book, "The Jamestown Project." Conflict, disease, horrific killings and starvation are all part of the back story of Jamestown, founded in 1607 as a business venture.
But if not for Jamestown, scholars say, there may not have been a Plymouth, and we all might be speaking Spanish. The Spanish, intent on spreading Roman Catholicism, were turned away twice from the nearby Chesapeake Bay during the early years of the Protestant Jamestown settlement.
"There's no question that Jamestown throws down the gauntlet to the Spanish," said James Horn, who wrote "A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America."
Now, during an 18-month commemoration, Jamestown finally could outshine Plymouth and fully embrace what historian and writer Nathaniel Philbrick calls its proper claim as "the rightful birthing ground of America."
"Not only was the [Jamestown] settlement found more than a decade before, but the colony that developed from those beginnings was, in many ways, more quintessentially American since it was all about making money," said Mr. Philbrick, the author of "Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War."

Another gore phenomena in media is the popularity of the Zombie. Zombie parties are occurring across North America. In Edmonton there is a Zombie club of folks who dress up in gory zombie costumes and wander the streets groaning and moaning.

At the University of Alabama they are offering a course on Zombies.

Do you hope that when you die, your corpse will return to life and shamble around, wreaking havoc? Have you ever wanted to taste human flesh? Or do you just want to be able to live your life without that crippling fear of someone eating your brains?

Those who said yes to any of those questions will find a kindred spirit in Sean Hoade, a UA instructor currently teaching creative writing, literature and English. In May, during the interim, he will be teaching EN 311-001, titled, Zombies! The Living Dead in Literature, Film and Culture.

Hoade said zombies are the perfect choice because they are the ultimate metaphor for human life.

"Anything that you look at," Hoade said, "the way we know people by sight but don't really know our neighbors ... race relations and class warfare - all of that is reflected in zombies. And that's why they've become so incredibly popular. [There are] zombie movies, zombie books, zombie graphic novels, so I think that it's only right for the English department to offer a class looking at all things zombie."

Hoade said the class will also discuss what zombies being reanimated corpses indicates about people's fears.

"Death is so sanitized now that [even] being around a dead body that isn't reanimated is incredibly spooky. So we're going to look at how the fear of the zombie is actually a fear not just of death, because we're all afraid of death, but a fear, actually, of the dead also."

The class won't strictly focus on the intellectual aspects of zombies. Students will also be able to participate in a variety of zombie-related activities.

"We're going to engage in mock cannibalism," Hoade said. "We're going to [have] human-flavored tofu. It's based on what people who had to resort to cannibalism, like the Donner party and that plane crash and things like that, what they said human flesh tastes like.

"I ordered putrescine, which is the chemical that dead things give off," he said. Putrescine, which is a chemical compound used by the body for cellular division, is responsible for the smell of rotting flesh.

"We're probably going to do a zombie walk, which is we're all going to get made up as zombies and walk around campus and terrorize it. I'll have to see if that's allowed. We're also going to eat Jell-O brains. [The purpose of the activities are] just to try to get into the zombie mindset ... We might go over to the graveyard and lie down on the graves."

Zombie mindset? Zombies have no brains, no minds, thats why they eat brains, they lack intelligence. Just like the folks at PETA.

The folks in charge of PETA love all of God's creatures—with a few notable exceptions. Asked by BlackBook whether the animal-rights group opposes human cannibalism, Dan Mathews, the group's outrage-provoking vice president, quips, "No, as long as the person being eaten is Anna Wintour." It's far from the first time PETA has gone after the Vogue editor in chief, whom it accuses of doing more than anyone else to keep the wearing of animal pelts in style.

The aristocracy has a history of fascination with death and haute coutoure, they go together like art and suicide.

WHEN Victoria Beckham heard that the flamboyant fashion guru, design muse and socialite Isabella Blow had attempted to kill herself in 2005 by throwing herself off a bridge in London, she remarked, "What genius!"

After school, Blow lived in a squat in London and took cleaning jobs. Then she went off to New York, where Brian Ferry, an old friend - introduced her to Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Blow hung out with artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, who wanted to know her when he saw she was wearing one pink and one purple shoe.

But for all the name-dropping, there have been two main role models in Blow's life. The first is the Duchess of Windsor, of whom a stylised portrait hangs in her hallway. "Wallis was ugly, like me, but she made the best of herself. I wish I'd lured a king." The other is Blow's aforementioned flesh-eating grandmother, Vera Delves Broughton, a photographer, explorer and big-game fisher. Until recently she held the record for catching the biggest fish in European waters (a tuna, which took 16 hours to reel in).

As for the cannibalism, Blow explains, "She was once in Papua New Guinea. She had some dinner and said, 'God, that was delicious. What was it?' It turned out to be a poor local tribesman who had been grilled up. In her Who's Who hobbies, my grandmother listed 'Once a cannibal'. Ha, ha! I'm so like her. Very wild!"
Christianity itself is based upon the disturbing concepts of cannibalism of its God and the idea of the Living Dead; the resurrection.

Or was Pope Benedict biding his time? Last week he published an Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis — The Sacrament of Love. In part it is a summary of the conclusions of the Synod of Catholic Bishops held in Rome in October 2005 — the start of the liturgical Year of the Eucharist promulgated by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II — and as such carries the authority of the whole Church. But it is also a theological tour de force showing the clarity and cogency that are particular to the writings of Joseph Ratzinger.

Sacramentum Caritatis opens with a lucid exposition of the Catholic belief on the Eucharist. The priest’s words of consecration during the Mass turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ — a transformation Pope Benedict describes as ‘a sort of “nuclear fission” which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world’.

This belief, with its connotations of cannibalism and human sacrifice, has always been hard to take. Even in Christ’s lifetime, many of his disciples, according to Saint John, regarded the idea as ‘intolerable ...and stopped going with him’. It was a defining bone of contention between Catholics at the time of the Reformation. Luther downgraded the change from transubstantiation (the bread and wine become the flesh and blood of Christ) to consubstantiation (bread and wine remain bread and wine but co-exist with the flesh and blood of Christ), and Calvin disbelieved it altogether.

The recent rash of zombie and gore films reflect a culture inundated with death. Senseless death, be it wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and through out the middle east, vast unimaginable death from starvation, mass rape and murder in Dafur, or disasters such as Tsunamis , hurricanes and earthquakes that slaughter thousands and decimate cities.

Our fears of death and the unknown are now amplified by our fear of pain. Gore movies are about pain. Blood and guts, yes but the Saw phenomena is about pain, torture and self inflicted pain.

It is Abu Gharib and Gitmo brought to the large screen. We know not what torture Arar Mehar went through, or those held in CIA black prisons. But when we watch Saw we get a gleaming, an inkling of what it feels like to be held incommunicado and tortured. For no good reason. What does the torturer want? Like those held in sensory deprivation in Gitmo, we do not know.

The horror film since its origins in the silent era was fear of the other, the monster. Today with the advent of the Gore film, the monster is us. We suffer the emotional plague of isolation and alienation in a capitalist culture out of our control and dashing headlong into oblivion.


Gothic Capitalism Redux

Jack the Ripper

Emotional Plague


Serial Murder

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Cliff said...

Yeah I've always been a fan of horror movies and not minded a little gore if it was relevant to the plot of an effective film with something to say. But some of the latest batch of what they used to call in the UK 'video nasties' are just over the top celebrations of cruelty and ugliness. Simulated snuff.

It does say some creepy things about our culture that these kind of films are what our collective unconsciousness seems to be demanding right now. There was a big spike in harder edged horror during and after the Vietnam War too. But there's a nasty tinge of mean spirited fury in new films like Hostel with it's exploitive fear of the other represented by a torture club or Captivity the new film that based its marketing campaign on hyping the torture and murder of its lead actress.

I also check in on the porn scene occasionally, as a good indicator of where the head of sensation addicted young male western world is at. I like joyful pleasure oriented porn, but a lot of slapping, spitting and simulated rape has started to really ooze into the mainstream. I think its part of the same paradigm.

There is some redeeming thoughtful work in the mess of stage blood and sadism in horror right now. The Canadian film Fido uses zombie gore to make some interesting points about consumer culture and complicity. Or The Masters of Horror short film Homecoming by Joe Dante that explicitly associates zombies with returning soldiers from Iraq, returning from the bodybag to vote out George W Bush.

There are so many conflicting strains of culture - mainstream, counter, underground and pop - all escalating up to extremes right now it makes the idea of an impending singularity event seem more plausible all the time.

eugene plawiuk said...

Thanks for the insightful comments.

I agree with you there is a disturbing trend of rape porn coming out of Europe imitating the atrocities of the Kosovo war and Chechnya. Most of it is of course Russian.

Cliff said...

What's most disturbing is that there's clearly a market for it.

eugene plawiuk said...

I also liked your comment on Zombie movies, while gory they do tend to be parodies and satires. Romero's first one was an anti-war parody during the Viet Nam war, his second was an attack on Mall Culture and consumerism.

Later Zombie movies have made similar social commentaries, much like the movie It's Alive, these are horror satires. Much like the crime and horror comics published by EC in the fifties.

However the latest rash of Gore, splatter films have moved away from social commentary, into claustrophobic terror and gore for its own sake.

Cliff said...

The original Dawn of the Dead isn't just one of the best horror movies ever, it's one of the best social satires ever made. A brilliant warped mirror held up to consumer culture. The Canadian re-make by the film-makers who went on to make 300 is a fun little horror action movie that should have called itself something else.

There's an argument I've heard, that even slasher films often have a bizarre quasi-feminist core in that the sympathetic view point, ultimate protagonist and usual final survivor is almost invariably female. The latest batch of nasties generally lack even this tenuous subtext.

For that matter even the torture endurance genre -there's enough examples to make it an actual movement within the horror genre- can be subverted to create something with actual insight. The recent Belgian film Calvaire, a disturbing blend of Hostel and Deliverance is a very unpleasant but unambiguously thoughtful and challenging work - not least because it subverts the misogynist core of recent horror nastiness with it's mostly male cast of predators and victims.

eugene plawiuk said...

The standard slasher horror film like Halloween, Jason, Nightmare on Elm street, have as their sub-text an attack on premarital sex, the victims have broken that taboo and die. Most often the victims are women. The Texas Chainsaw massacre, and its multiple offshoots, while having a woman survive is a contradiction being a voyeuristic endeavor of engaging the audience in watching her suffer while engaging in hoping she survives.

This is a similar motif in some more recent horror/slasher films like those of Rob Zombie.

Cliff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cliff said...

Fixed a spelling error.

Zombie's stuff is just serial killer glorification. Perhaps the essential difference between the old school and new school horror films is that identification is now on the predator rather than the victim.

Even in films where a victim turns the tables on a predator, as in Hostel, the victim only escapes by becoming as brutal as the perpetrators. These films have a zero sum view of human interaction.

Contrast that with the Korean suspense film Old Boy, where cycles of offense and vengence are engineered to surreal extremes. Elements of the endurence, bloody violence and gore effects of the recent horror wave, but in service to a bleakly eligiac vision.

eugene plawiuk said...

No no don't lets go wandering into Asian cinema, a whole different set of cultural values and motifs range there, including the Japanese fetish for farting, panties, and torture of women.

eugene plawiuk said...

Ok we can talk Japanese cinema if we stick to the grudge and the the Ring, which were brilliant, because they allowed the Japanese director to remake them as they were, just changing the language.

Cliff said...

So far the only really effective application of the J horror style to Hollywood is The Ring, which was PG but still managed to be authentically creepy. Ring II was awfull, it abandoned the moral terror of the first film's ending.

My favorite J Wave movies are probably untranslatable into Western cinema; Battle Royale would be impossible to film in the West after Columbine and Audition reverses the misogynist nightmare in a way Hollywood may not be up to duplicating. Uzumaki (Spirals) is a film where the horrific force destroying the town is an impersonal force of nature. A geometric quirk.

Great stuff.