Sunday, June 01, 2008

Cinema & Revulsion

I have a conflicted relationship with modern horror cinema because, to be honest, I’m a bit squeamish. Maybe this has something to do with my cinema upbringing—in Indian film history, horror has never been a strong presence.

The Indian film market as a whole is composed of three categories: ‘A’ (large cities, where I grew up); ‘B’ (towns); and ‘C’ (rural areas, where the majority of the Indian population lives). In my teen years, the ‘70s and ‘80s, horror films did exist, but they were low-budget films made mostly for the C market. These were films marked by a double disreputability: not only did they contain explicit violence (although nowhere near the extent that their low-budget Western counterparts of the period did), they also had strong sexual overtones. Overt sexuality in Indian films was taboo for a long time; even kissing on the lips didn’t appear on Indian screens until the mid-‘80s. For these reasons, horror films didn't circulate much in A and B markets because producers were nervous about provoking widespread middle-class moral outrage in urban centers with high concentrations of educated bourgeois.

So, being barely familiar with the genre, when I moved to America as an adult and wandered innocently into The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time, the damn thing hit me like a truck. It took me 10 years to return to it, gingerly, and then I quickly recognized its genius.

I find that sometimes I need more than one exposure to such a film in order to surmount my revulsions, to try and push back the limits of my squeamishness. Cinema can be a source of rarefied emotions and spiritual edification but ultimately it’s much more than those things: it deals with the entire gamut of human experience and sensation. To be truly curious about art in all its variety also means opening oneself up to that wide range of experience and sensation. This is the rationale, the mantra I repeat to myself when trying to work on my squeamishness problem.

And sometimes it can be hard. Horror films make special demands on us, even if they ‘reward’ us with special sensations. In her famous, much-anthologized essay “Film Bodies” (1991), Linda Williams speaks of the three genres that have never attained respectability: horror, melodrama, and porn. All three deviate from the norms and economy of classical realist narrative cinema with displays of excess. They strike audiences as gratuitous, viscerally manipulative, and unseemly. Importantly, they collapse the ‘aesthetic distance’ that makes the spectator feel comfortable and safe.

Williams points out that there’s something else these three ‘body genres’ have in common: they create a spectacle of excess that is enacted in the film upon the human body (violence in horror; emotion in melodrama; and orgasm in porn) but they also induce in the spectator a mimicry of these effects (fear for horror; tears for melodrama; arousal/orgasm for porn). In other words, these films brush ‘aesthetic distance’ out of the way and act viscerally upon the spectator’s body. The spectator doesn’t watch these films calmly, but instead convulses with them. Which can result in a certain hesitancy, a squeamishness on the part of the viewer due to the excess of physical and emotional investment these films demand.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Are there certain films or filmmakers you will not watch because they gross you out or disturb you too much? Over the years, has your tolerance/threshold for graphic horror gone up or down? What, in your opinion, are the difficult-to-watch films that are nevertheless rewarding and valuable? And what has been the effect of time: do you approach or process horror films any differently now than you did when you were younger?

* * *


-- Adrian Martin at Filmkrant on Armond White's piece in the New York Press, "What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Movies": "In the field of film criticism, White is against everyone: reviewers, promoters, bloggers, cinephiles. They are not merely myopic, in White's estimation, but 'wilfully blind' to the truth before them on the screen and in the world, because of ideological bias, or their desperate need to flee reality. But what is that truth, this reality? In his essay, White spontaneously offers 'ten current film culture fallacies' - ranging from 'Gus Van Sant is the new Visconti when he's really the new Fagin, a jailbait artful dodger', to 'Only non-pop Asian cinema from J-horror to Hou Hsiao Hsien counts, while Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and Stephen Chow are rejected'. That list is Armond White in a nutshell: it's all dubious assertion (only 'non-pop' Asian cinema is acclaimed?) and even more aggressive counter-assertion (Van Sant is a phony), in a non-stop, strident loop. There is no argument, no development, no depth in this writing - for the simple reason that White is always dancing on the surface of ideas, a polemical 'moving target'. His modus operandi is confusion, as in this thumbnail account of Apichatpong Weerasethakul: all critics (except White) apparently ignore the 'fundamental terms', 'the facts of his Asianness, his sexual outlawry and his retreat into artistic and intellectual arrogance that evades social categorisation'. So is he for or against the filmmaker? Who can tell?"

-- In Artforum, a tribute by several writers to Alain Robbe-Grillet.

-- The summer season at Cinematheque Ontario features the following series: Robbe-Grillet & Alain Resnais; Jean Eustache; Luchino Visconti; Marcello Mastroianni; 24 Japanese Classics; Peter Lynch.

-- Michael Sicinski takes up Serge Bozon's La France, Craig Baldwin's Mock Up on Mu, Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues and Nanouk Leopold's Wolfsbergen.

-- Filmblog discovery of the week: Max Goldberg's Text of Light.

-- David Phelps (previously David Pratt-Robson) on "returns, escapes" in Rivette and Feuillade.

-- Michael Guillen on Joseph Campbell.

-- Danny Kasman's Cannes wrap-up piece with links to his reviews, at The Auteurs' Notebook.

-- via Joe Bowman at Fin de Cinema comes news of upcoming region-1 DVD releases: Demy's The Pied Piper and Jayasundara's The Forsaken Land. Also, picked up from Cannes were the new films by: Lucretia Martel, Arnaud Desplechin, the Dardennes, Leos Carax, Olivier Assayas, Steve McQueen, and Ari Folman.

-- Michael Wood in the London Review of Books on three Bresson films.

pic: Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977).


Blogger Marc Raymond said...

For me, the most disturbing filmmaker is probably Cronenberg, specifically DEAD RINGERS. I think it is his best film, but watching and even discussing the film used to produce a strong physical reaction out of me which is very unusual, although the effect has lessened over time. Horror doesn't often bother me, although I do not see a lot of it. The only other experience of revulsion is I've had is watching those old sex education documentaries about STDs. Polanksi's REPULSION (of course) should be mentioned, but while I found it disturbing it didn't produce a visceral response.

And, to go back to Williams, there is lots of pornography that is revolting, which, as Williams argues, is probably part of a little discussed appeal of the genre. And when a film aesthetically repulses me, it is usually for the reasons cited by critics who used to dismiss melodrama altogether. Lots of melodrama is now respected, but only because it has been aesthetically rescued by autuerism and Comolli/Narboni's "category e".

And one thing Williams also stresses is gender. Why is it usually the woman's body that is forced to convulse (be it in fear, orgasm, or tears)? I'm wondering how much (if at all) this has changed. I haven't seen his films, by Takashi Miike might be worth considering here, especially AUDITION, from what I've heard about it.

June 01, 2008 10:03 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Very interesting comments, Marc.

Oddly, Cronenberg's Dead Ringers (one of my favorites of his films and the first videotape I ever bought because I was wearing out my rental copy) was a film that fascinated me endlessly when I was new to horror. It creeped me right out but never produced an outright physical, visceral response in me. I find a certain cerebral, chilly distance in all Cronenberg, no matter how high the level of gore and body horror, and this makes his films relatively easy to watch for me.

Now, Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left--that's a tough one for me to watch.

I rarely have a physical, visceral response to 'classic' horror, only 'modern' horror, which I can loosely define as late '60s on.

Good point about gender, Marc. I should spell out the entire title of Williams's essay, "Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess."

June 01, 2008 10:16 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

I found your post very interesting. But being - I suspect - older than you and perhaps more immune to whatever a filmmaker can throw at me, I can't entirely think of anything. But I'll add this: I was probably 11 or 12 years old when I saw "Bonnie and Clyde" and I recall the scene in which the gang is nearly caught (Blanche is injure, Buck is killed) as being amazingly gruesome. On later viewings, it turned out to be far less violent than I recalled. Is it possible that there is a level of shock that shapes our perception of violence on films>

June 01, 2008 11:34 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I use to be squeamish. Things started to change when I had an operation that left part of my intestines exposed (and I'm sorry if that image has disturbed anyone). Of course watching lots of horror DVDs has changed my tolerance level. It is interesting that you chose a shot from Suspiria because one of the things I did was slo-mo and freeze on the scene where the witch's hands suddenly appear from behind the window. I still get very uncomfortable watching horror films that take place in hospitals. I do let the suspense get to me sometimes, but what usually happens on screen is much less than what I can imagine.

Context also plays a role, for example the gross out scenes in Teeth.

Not totally horror related, but Paramount has put a slew of films out on DVD for release on Monday. Might I suggest Framed by Phil Karlson, starring the mighty Don Joe Baker.

June 02, 2008 12:26 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I mean Joe Don Baker.

June 02, 2008 12:28 AM  
Blogger Marc Raymond said...

Girish, the point about Cronenberg's clinical distance is a good one, but for me this is what produced the effect. We tend to have the old Cartesian mind-body distinction when it comes to physical responses, but for me, the effect on the mind is what produces the bodily disturbance. I don't see them as separate. If anything, films that try to be overly manipulative in producing gross-out moments tend to leave me cold.

June 02, 2008 6:29 AM  
Blogger Zhanxiong said...

I'd say that watching excessive porn would be repulsive too.
Or such scene like the one in Irreversible when one man beating the other's brain out.
Such kind of scene has a commonality for me: they both are very repetitive rather than instant.
A lot of horror films rely on the rapid cutting, so that one get only one glimpse of the horror and creat a lot of the suspense about when and how it will happen.
But true horror for me is those repetitive long take horror scenes or those same kind repetitive making-love ones.
I think that it's only in such kind of scenes, all of the pleasure,whether it's the pleasure of being aroused or being scared, are stripped away.
And what you get is pure horror+a little bit of boredom.

June 02, 2008 6:36 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Robert, Marc, Peter, Zhanxiong--Thank you!

Touché, Marc: what you say makes perfect sense, of course...

A couple of more links:
-- The newly designed has a new film section which will be continuously updated, 2 or 3 times a week. Right now, it contains pieces on Sokurov's Alexandra by James Quandt; and on the new biography of Godard by Richard Brody.
-- At Film of the Month Club, Brian Darr announces June's film: Cecil B. De Mille's The Golden Chance (1915).

June 02, 2008 8:14 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

This entry's photo cracks me up. That woman looks like she hung herself for eating too much strawberry jam.

The color of the blood has a lot to do with how I react viscerally. Paraphrasing Godard, if there's a lot of red in a film, I can handle it better than if there's a lot of what really looks like blood.

As a member of the Twitch team, I am often asked or often feel compelled to watch genre gore that I would never give a moment's attention otherwise. Case in point, San Francisco's Another Hole in the Head Film Festival is just about to open and one of the screeners I reviewed was The Trailer Park of Terror. It got fairly favorable reviews at Slamdance so I gave it a chance. Yeesh. It started out kind of spoofy and sexy and then devolved into a torture for torture sake kind of flick. Cute boys having their torsos flayed and then deep fried. You know, southern home cooking.

I frequently return to Boris Karloff's distinction between horror and terror. Horror is that which causes physical revulsion, usually brought on by the dismemberment of the human body. I've long said that Euripides' The Bacchae could be one of the most horrifying movies ever. Horror is about the breaking of forms and the loss of security.

Terror, on the other hand, is much more interesting to me. It is about psychological fear. The odd distinction here is that if it's an unknown entity tearing a human body apart--a vengeful ghost or an alien intruder or a giant ant or whatnot--this strikes me more as terrifying than horrifying, and I'm more along for the ride. It's hillbilly sadists torturing hapless victims that I'm not so much into. Perhaps because I get enough of that from Errol Morris documentaries?

But since I think your question is posed truly at the physical response to horror rather than terror, I guess I should stay on track.

Horror becomes palatable for me only if it is evoked through hyperstylizations. The cerebralities of Cronenberg, as you mentioned, or the operatic excesses of Dario Argento.

June 02, 2008 10:59 AM  
Blogger girish said...

As always, Michael, I learn things from you. I'd never heard of that Boris Karloff distinction between horror and terror. And I agree: hyperstylization mutes the revulsion for me too.

June 02, 2008 11:07 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

One other little sidenote. I remember when I was interviewing The Butcher Brothers, I mentioned of fantasy of one day being killed off in the first scene of some horror flick. They didn't even bother to stifle their yawns. Apparently, everyone wants to be a victim. It's so passe. I can't tell you how superficial and transparent I felt at that moment.

Of course, now whenever the subject comes up I pronounce with macho swagger how I just have to be the monster or the murderer.

June 02, 2008 11:19 AM  
Blogger celinejulie said...

Though I’m a fan of horror, there are also some films which I dare not watch because of their reputations—MEN BEHIND THE SUN (1988, Tun Fei Mou), GUINEA PIG (1985, Satoru Ogura) and its sequels, FACES OF DEATH (1978, John Alan Schwartz) and its sequels, CANNIBAL FEROX (1981, Umberto Lenzi) or other films in the same genre, or those beheading clips. I don’t think these films will give me “pleasure”, and pleasure is the main reason why I choose to watch any films.

The film which disturbs me too much is VASE DE NOCES (1974, Thierry Zeno). It has a scene in which a mother pig found her little pigs killed. This scene makes me feel too sad.

The cat torturing scene is SATANTANGO is a bit too much for me. Fortunately, from what I heard, the torture is fake.

A film which has disturbed me lately is PATHOLOGY (2008, Marc Schoelermann). What disturbs me is not the scenes of the brutal killing, but the scene in which a character refuses to save the life of an unknown stranger. I think it disturbs me very much because deep down inside, I’m not sure if I am like that character or not. I’m not sure if I will rush to help a stranger or automatically walk away from a stranger. The brutal killing in PATHOLOGY may be too far from our everyday life, but indifference to strangers is not too far from me, and maybe that’s why it disturbs me.

Talking about this topic somehow reminds me of two paintings—JUDITH BEHEADING HOLOFERNES by Caravaggio and by Artemisia Gentileschi. I like these two paintings, though they disturb me.

June 02, 2008 11:37 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Great post, Celinejulie. And I love that you bring up Caravaggio, one of my fave raves. I've seen all but maybe five of Caravaggio's paintings (and only because I was too lazy to go to Malta when I was nearby). But your example reminds me of his David beheading Goliath. The look of revulsion on David's face aligns neatly with this entry's theme. Where one would think there would be the stance of victory, Caravaggio knew the reaction would truly be revulsion.

As for your comment regarding Pathology, that's very intriguing. I come at it more from the affirmative side, having been trained that way by Joseph Campbell (thank you, Girish, for the link). Joe taught me the mantra tat tvam asi--"thou art that"--which eventual studies in quantum physics have only confirmed. Joe used to ask: What is it that will make a person risk their own life to save the life of another? And it is of course a deepseated understanding that we are all connected. I can see that to not believe this would be a horrifying position.

June 02, 2008 12:00 PM  
Blogger Tucker said...

Interesting post Girish. For me the horror genre is something more of my past than my present. I find horror films in general to be less fascinating than other kinds of films. Maybe this is because horror films were part of my youth and as I got older I felt the need to put them aside. Instead of being squeamish I tend to roll my eyes. And yet, lately I have been wanting to revisit the genre and do some exploring. I've felt the urge to watch a bunch of the old Hammer films, some of the newer Japanese horror films, and many others. Because I "set aside" the horror genre years ago I feel completely uninformed about it now, so I've got some homework to do. On the other hand, I also have to fit my film watching in around the lives of my family members, which means there are a lot of films I can't watch at home until the kids have gone to bed. Alas.

I find it interesting that the horror genre has never been a strong presence in India. My first reaction to that is to think India has a more enlightened culture than the U.S.

June 02, 2008 1:37 PM  
Blogger Marc Raymond said...

Just a quick note on SATANTANGO: I recently attended a screening of the film and there was a Q&A with Tarr afterwards, and of course the cat question came up. According to Tarr, it was pretty easy to shoot because the girl and the cat lived with each other and became comfortable with each other. Thus what looks like torture is just them playing. The scenes with the cat's dead body where achieved by giving the cat a sedative which knocked him out for 20 minutes. When the question was asked, Tarr laughed because it always gets asked. I guess it's a credit to the realism he is able to achieve through all those long takes. And the fact that people are very protective of cats and dogs (as Michael Vick found out).

June 02, 2008 2:10 PM  
Blogger Sachin said...

Actually Girish, similar to your story about horror in cinema, I was shielded from the genre for a very long time. I had my senses jolted when I saw Takashi Miike's Audition and that changed my views about the genre quite a bit. I knew nothing about Audition when I started seeing it and for the first 20 minutes, it seemed like a pleasant film. Although, there were clues that something dark lay around the corner but I never expected what I saw. After that un-nerving experience, I dove into quite a few horror films to see what else I could find. The more I watched, the more I was able to stomach both the horror and lurking terror around the corner. Still, there are some movies I am not sure what to make of. I remember seeing a British film The Last Horror Movie about a man who films his brutal killings of other people (made to look like a snuff video). Personally, it was very hard to see the film but I had to judge the film for a film festival selection and I found myself struggling to differentiate my subjective views vs the merit of showing the film for an audience. Also at that point I had not seen the Belgian film Man Bites Dog and could not pick up the references to that film.

But over the last few years, I have turned away from the genre, partly due to lack of time in seeing all the movies I want to view. Given a choice between a horror film and any other genre, I would gladly avoid horror films. Still, I attempt to pick a few up every now and then. Although, I am not longer jolted as I once was maybe because I prepare myself to see the worst.

oh, regarding those crude Indian horror films made for category C.. I was surprized to learn in the 90's about this parallel film industry which churned these flicks quite a bit (mostly straight to video). At that point, I know in Delhi these horror films were shown in some of the theatres early in the morning (9:45 am or 11 am). And then after 12 pm, these cinemas only showed the regular Bollywood fare. I never thought much about it until a few months ago when I found out some film-makers were still making such genre films. I am not sure how much has changed but from my few limited sightings of this model from the early 90's, I remember the following: an isolated haveli, a girl in distress, rain (you had to have a sequence where the girl ran in the rain), a tortured bhoot, a close up shot of a knief, a hanging (not a close up picture like the one you have) and ofcourse the traditional cries of "bachao" (help).

June 02, 2008 4:39 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Terror is subtler, certainly, but extreme horror--playing the game of 'just how far can we go?' can have its own fascination.

I find that horror done in a faux documentary style is far more repulsive--I'm thinking of Cannibal Holocaust, with its handheld camerawork, amateurish acting, inconsistent sound quality; somehow the misery of seeing horror under these circumstances 'validate' them somehow--make them appear like a documentary where real things are happening.

The killings aren't real, of course, except for one, the butchering of a turtle. That was a little hard to take, pulsing organs and all, knowing the movie didn't have the budget to fake anything.

Pasolin's Salo is actually easier to stomach, because of the aesthetic distancing of his camera. That said, some of the copaphilia did inspire some reaction in me, even more than the torture scenes (except one--some of the men kicking it up in a chorus line with all the suffering around them).

What else? Gerardo de Leon and Eddie Romero's Mad Doctor of Blood Island is surprisingly strong fare, mainly because of the aforementioned no-budget ambiance.

Noe's Irreversible bored me--I thought the fire extinguisher killing too cartoonis, and the rape unconvincing (I thought Peckinpah's equivalent in Straw Dogs was stronger, because there was heat in it).

Gibson's Passion of the Christ I still don't get the arguments that it isn't a snuff flick--it lingers on the blood long enough, just like in porn movies, for the more disturbed to get their rocks off. More than the gore--which is mildly strong fare--this is what I found so disturbing about it.

But a film I actually refuse to see? No such creature. Well, Ron Howard comes to mind. I literally have to drag myself to one of his pictures. Gibson, because he likes to focus unrelenting hate on something (Mayans, Jews, whatever) and there's so little shading to it, so little skill involved.

June 02, 2008 5:01 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Which reminds me, we once had this roundtable discussion on Salo.

June 02, 2008 5:02 PM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

Loved this post, Girish. We once had a discussion about horror, touching on my inability to watch most of the hard-core stuff as well as your mixed reactions to it. I remember vividly you telling me that there were parts of Last House on the Left that you wished you could un-see, because they were still rattling around in your head somewhere. For me that's a very real factor in watching, or not watching, horror. I gravitate toward Karloff's terror part of the equation. I watch movies to add to my mental stock of images, and I want those images to be of a certain tenor and quality. Otherwise it's like litter on my lawn.

I realize that sounds snooty and I really don't mean it to. I have a very, very strong reaction to a lot of scenes, probably for the simple reason that I haven't seen a lot of violent cinema. Familiarizing (or, you could argue, desensitizing) myself with certain movies doesn't seem to have a large payoff. Argento is someone I consider exploring--Joan Bennett and Alida Valli are in Suspiria, after all!--but then I see something like your still and I pause.

Other films just don't hold any allure for me whatsoever, Last House on the Left being one of them. Cannibal Holocaust is another. I have enormous respect for Noel as a writer and a critic. So when he writes about "handheld camerawork, amateurish acting, inconsistent sound quality" and "the misery of seeing horror under these circumstances" I wonder why he bothers. I am quite sure that he could tell me, too, and eloquently, but to quote another movie I'd rather see for the 100th time instead, I don't think there's anything in that black bag for me. I'll happily read Noel (or you, or anyone else in this thread) writing about the topic but I don't want to actually see the movies, I just don't.

What really struck me in your post was this sentence: "To be truly curious about art in all its variety also means opening oneself up to that wide range of experience and sensation." Yes, I won't argue with that. I don't think I am wired, as a person and a cinephile, to get the same things out of the most violent horror movies that some others do. I long ago decided to just live with that fact.

June 02, 2008 6:36 PM  
Blogger Steve C. said...

This post requires more time and response space than I can carve out right now, given my fascination with the extreme. I'll come back to this, prolly tomorrow. The distance conundrum, at any rate, is an interesting one.

June 02, 2008 7:29 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

Salo! Now there's a horror film that inspires revulsion...

June 02, 2008 7:54 PM  
Anonymous AAS said...

I am relatively familiar with Indian cinema, but was unaware of this genre/industry. Could Girish/Sashin mention a bit more about it? Were these Hindi films, or were there regional ones as well? Can you mention any specific titles?

June 02, 2008 9:02 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Hi Girish,

Great post. Here are some of my thoughts:

1) One thing your post nicely conveys is the primal effect that images can have on us, and the collapse of aesthetic distance is like the equivalent of what was once known in the tobacco industry as "impact boosting" -- a quicker, more immediate delivery of certain sensations.

2) Because of this effect, I don't believe what we watch is inherently neutral, and the more graphic the image, the less neutral a film becomes. On a certain level, I completely agree that cinema, like all art, deals with a range of human experience, and so even things like violence, horror, terror, and so on have a legitimacy simply because they are part of human experience. But the lack of neutrality and the power of images does give me some hesitation about the content and (to borrow another tobacco phrase) the method of delivery.

3) This is one reason why I'm particularly concerned about the recent trend in graphic splatter films. My hesitation about them might make me seem old-fashioned or conservative, but I think they tend to transgress the plane from more immediate or primal human experience to something more nefarious -- and they can be awfully manipulative to boot. Add to that the genre's long-standing exploitation of women, and we begin entering very difficult territory (the comparison to porn here is certainly appropriate). I tend to avoid these kinds of films because of this, even though I've seen some in part to understand the genre.

4) Another reason for my general hesitation to certain kinds of horror films stems from my understanding of Western culture, and particularly of modern U.S. culture. I've long believed there's a relatively shallow attitude about death (and violence) here, and so films that break down that aesthetic distance and that exploit our concerns about violence and death only seem to exacerbate certain cultural habits. I think this worries me as much as anything else (in terms of this particular brand of cinema).

5) Having said all that, horror is like other genres of film -- the bulk is largely dross, but there are real gems. I'm a big fan of Carrie and Rosemary's Baby (which, by the way, actually has little to no gore at all). The one recent horror film that I particularly like a lot is The Descent, which is very graphic but isn't a splatter film. It understands the weight of loss (that's one of its core themes) while also using the mechanics of the genre to survey the ways in which human beings inflict cruelty on one another (in an emotional way, but using physical violence as the symbolic manifestation).

6) So I'd say my tolerance over time has diminished, which has the added benefit of being more surprised when I find a horror film I like.

June 03, 2008 12:46 AM  
Blogger Sachin said...

aas: I am afraid I cannot remember any specific titles and only have a few scenes in my memories. In my case, the films I saw were in Hindi. When it comes to Hindi horror films, the Ramsay brothers are well known. A majority of their films were in the 70's and 80's, until they re-emerged a few years ago with Dhund which was surprizingly distributed widely and even made it out to North America (atleast on DVD). Although it made for painful viewing, even by B-grade horror film standards.

June 03, 2008 12:48 AM  
Blogger Mubarak Ali said...

aas - to add to Sachin's comment, some of my earliest film memories are to do with these grade-unclassifiable, low-budget Hindi horror films - especially the Ramsays' Purana Mandir, which completely freaked me as a kid. The Ramsays were very much inspired by the Hammer brand of horror and introduced Indian superstitions to (not to mention, retained the musical/melodramatic/comic elements found in mainstream Hindi cinema in) their narratives. Parallel to their films of 'body horror', I also vaguely remember the more psychological possession stories like Gehrayee and Raat, neither of which I've seen in years. Though, it seems, the best Indian horror films come from Kerala, or so I'm told.

June 03, 2008 4:47 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, everyone!!

Such a great diversity of thoughts here...

AAS -- Just to second what Sachin and Mubarak said: the pioneers of the low-budget Hindi horror film are the Ramsay Brothers, and their first big success was Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche (1975, directed by Tulsi Ramsay). It was the film that made their reputation. I"ve never seen (but heard a lot about) Purana Mandir. The imdb entry for Tulsi Ramsay features a list of representative titles like Bandh Darwaza, Guest House, Ghungroo ki Awaaz, etc. In the '90s the Ramsays started making TV horror films.

Still, the Ramsays are the high-profile Hindi horror filmmakers. I've read of (but never actually seen) ultra-low-budget films which play only in the C market, and feature softcore sex in what are known as 'bits'. The Indian Censor Board passes the film but by the time it makes it to hundreds of rural theaters all around the country, these illicit 'bits' have been spliced into the film, thus bypassing the censors. It's very difficult for the Censor Board to raid hundreds of remote, rural theaters, and this is why the films can get away with it. So, it's sex more than horror that can often be the big attraction for these low-budget films in the rural market.

And Mubarak, you've got me curious about Kerala horror, which I'd never heard of until you mentioned it!

June 03, 2008 8:09 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

In the Sydney Pollack remake of Sabrina, Harrison Ford provides a chilling moment when discussing his cut throat business tactics. That one scene horrified me to the core, because at the time I was under the thumb of a corporate hustler who'd kill his own mother for a share of ConocoPhillips. It's been thirteen years since the one time that I saw that film and it still creeps me out. Regardless of the picture's overall qualities (or lack thereof), something that chilled me on such a personal level means more to me than anything from Frankenstein to Cronenberg.


By the 1970s, the definition(s) of horror evolved, moving away from metaphoric monsters to violence and physical pain. The original Texas Chain Saw Massacre "hammered" this home, so to speak; and Salo may be its zenith. In an interview he had with the BBC in 1967, Fritz Lang pointed out:

"When you talk about violence, this has become in my opinion a definite point in the script, it has a dramatogical reason to be there. After the Second World War, the close structure of family started to crumble. It started naturally already with the first one. There is really very, very little in family life today. I don't think people believe anymore in symbols of their country- for example, I remember the flag burning in the States. I definitely don't think they believe in the devil with the horns and the forked tail and therefore they do not believe in punishment after they are dead. So, my question was: what are people feeling? And the answer is physical pain. Physical pain comes from violence and I think today that is the only fact that people really fear and it has become a definite part of life and naturally also of scripts."

I just wonder if some of those sentiments still apply after the last eight years of jaundiced conservative dogma.

June 03, 2008 9:55 AM  
Anonymous Marilyn said...

At my age, I find a lot of horror films amateurish and dull. I am usually never scared and not even that grossed out. I know it's a movie, so I find my distance that way. I suppose that means I resist the reactions filmmakers want me to have, but that's my choice. The audience makes the film meaningful in its own way. As an longtime theatre goer, I am used to being an active participant in the creative process, and I carry that with me into the movie theatre.

I find Haneke films hard to watch, but rewarding. He gives me experiences I want to have and know more about. As a student of terrorism, I appreciated his take on the lot of refugees in Time of the Wolf, for example.

I will not knowingly watch scenes of animal abuse. There's nothing for me to learn there. It's repulsive without any redeeming educational aspects. We can hurt helpless creatures - what a revelation!

Porn also is stimulating for about 15 minutes and then gets boring. I don't mind porn, I just don't think it's terribly interesting.

The filmmaker who puts all these elements together to wildly varying effect is Coffin Joe.

June 03, 2008 10:07 AM  
Blogger Sachin said...

Girish, Mubarak, aas:
It turns out that now Pakistan has also made a horror film. This Guardian article talks about that and also a bit about horror in Indian cinema.

June 03, 2008 12:18 PM  
Blogger Darren said...

Girish, I'd never heard of "Film Bodies" but am now eager to track it down. Williams's inclusion of melodrama in her grouping with porn and horror is absolutely fascinating. I'm going to be distracted by that idea for days.

I've never been much of a horror fan, and what little fondness I had for it disappeared a couple years ago when, unfortunately, I had first-hand experience with horrific violence. Viewing images of bloodied faces loses its charm after experiencing those images -- and the deaths of loved ones -- in real life. Like Michael, I'm also disturbed by the sexual and political implications of horror porn. I can't not think of the rush to war and America's blase attitude toward torture when I see the popularity of films like Saw.

On a more basic level, once I understood intellectually how easy it is for even incompetent filmmakers to startle us with an unexpected noise or quick cut, I lost interest.

As with every other genre, though, I tend to decide what to watch (and what to avoid) based mostly on the director. Trouble Every Day is maybe the best example of a film that I decided I needed to watch and to engage with on its terms. Even in the most disturbing scenes, Claire Denis's hand is obvious. If I trust the filmmaker, and trust that there's a purpose other than titillation guiding the film, then I'm up for almost anything. The same goes, I guess, for films that could be described as pornographic or melodramatic.

June 03, 2008 12:36 PM  
Blogger whitney said...

On our blog ( we're talking about this right now! We made top five lists of films we never wanted to see previously (most of mine are because of extreme violence and sex) and then we're going to go ahead and see them. The idea is that, as film scholars, we should be interested in all forms of filmmaking, even if only as ways of studying popular responses to film. You should check it out and leave your own top five list!


June 03, 2008 3:16 PM  
Blogger aaron said...

Horror, for me, was my entryway into cinema. My parents didn't hold any restrictions on what I could or could not see (apart from gratuitous nudity, which I would duly get embarrassed about anyway and fast-forward even if alone in the room, or pornography, obviously), meaning that I could freely rent the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE at age eight or nine -- and frighten myself beyond belief while watching it in broad daylight! I think reading about the make-up effects gurus and director interviews in magazines like "Fangoria" and "Starlog" paved the way for my interest in the more headier and intellectual monthlies and quarterlies I began to pick up in my teenage years.

I've never heard of "Film Bodies" either, but I find those dichotomies fascinating and, more importantly, easy to agree with. I'll have to seek it out.

June 03, 2008 3:44 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

My recollections of seeing Texas Chainsaw on opening weekend: click here

June 03, 2008 4:02 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Part of why I suppose I can watch so much of this stuff is because--well, growing up in Manila, you see the kind of squalor and filth and misery Deodato can only dream of committing to the big screen. Not only see, actually; be surrounded by it, even if you're fairly middle class lucky, and not desperately poor.

It's in our cinema too. I remember the New York Film Festival screening of Lino Brocka's Insiang, and a short preceded it--can't remember the title anymore, but it's a macabre Shirley Jackson-like little number about fathers initiating their sons into adulthood by shooting them in the hand. The prosthetic effects were pretty good.

Then Insiang came on, and the very first image is of Ruel Vernal in a slaughterhouse, plunging an unfake dagger into an unfake pig's throat. And so on and so forth.

I do think the opening has a reason for being there--Brocka presents not just physical violence, but brutal, matter-of-fact butchering to set a bar for what follows, as if he's saying "Do you see this visceral cruelty? But what follows is much worse..." I happen to agree with him.

But I don't think even Brocka realized the effect that scene has on foreign viewers--mainly because it was never intended to be screened for foreign viewers in the first place, much less shock them (it took Tony Rayns (or so he claims) leading Pierre Rissent to the picture to get it sent to the 1976 Director's Fortnight).

I love Tourneur and Whale, but also Argento and Bava and Fulci. Craven I think is overrated (much prefer Larry Cohen, Tobe Hooper, George Romero).

These newfangled directors, Roth and the like, I hate not so much for mangling humanlike mannequins as for mangling the footage they so painstakingly shot with slipshod editing (Fulci could teach them a thing or two about how to properly shoot an eye gouging).

June 03, 2008 10:13 PM  
Blogger celinejulie said...

Marc Raymond, thank you very much for the information on Bela Tarr.

Maya, thank you for telling me about that painting of Caravaggio. It is disturbing.

Apart from paintings, I found some photos disturbing and great at the same time, such as NAN ONE MONTH AFTER BEING BATTERED (1984) by Nan Goldin, and some photos by Joel-Peter Witkin.

Talking about gender in horror films reminds me of two scenes which give me guilty pleasure—Ryan Phillippe’s shower in I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (1997, Jim Gillespie) and a scene in which Matt Bomer and Taylor Handley were tied up in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING (2006, Jonathan Liebesman). I wish they were tied up for a different purpose. :-)

As for the question “What, in your opinion, are difficult-to-watch films that are nevertheless rewarding and valuable?,” I think I would like to answer it by making a list of my favorite films which are difficult-to-watch because they involve body pain. Most of them are not real horror, but are feel-bad films. I can’t guarantee that they are rewarding and valuable. I just like them very much.

1.CRY IN SILENCE (2006, J. G. Biggs)
2.EXTASE DE CHAIR BRISEE (2005, Frederick Maheux, Pierre-Luc Vaillancourt)
This short film is included in the compilation dvd called L’EROTISME.
3.IMPRINT (2006, Takashi Miike)
4.IN MY SKIN (2002, Marina de Van)
5.IS IT EASY TO KILL/PRAY? (2005, Sherman Ong)
6.I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978, Meir Zarchi)
7.MONDOMANILA (2004, Khavn de la Cruz)
8.PAIN (1994, Eric Khoo)

June 04, 2008 8:54 AM  
Blogger Matt Durand said...

I don't think I've ever seen a (fiction) movie I found too gross or revolting to keep watching. I often find such material gratuitous and stupid - though it can occasionally be effective - but I've yet to encounter one I just plain couldn't deal with, though I might feel a little ill afterward.

The one movie I can think of that I've avoided for reasons that might be called squeamishness is actually, of all things, ROGER & ME, because of the scene where a woman kills a rabbit on-camera. It's hard for me to watch an animal being killed in general, but depending on context I can usually handle it, as long as the poor thing isn't being tortured; but to see a rabbit or cat or dog actually killed would be just about unbearable. Though for some reason I'm okay with seeing rabbits killed by other animals in nature documentaries.

Faked violence against animals doesn't particularly bother me, either. Films where it's unclear how real the animal's distress is (the girl choking the cat in SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE, the twitching dog in FORBIDDEN GAMES) are hard for me to watch, if only because they take me completely out of the narrative and leave me trying to figure out what the hell I just saw.

June 04, 2008 10:00 AM  
Blogger Matt Durand said...

p.s. - meant to mention this in the previous comment: the skewers-under-the-fingernails bit in IMPRINT is possibly the most unpleasant thing I've ever seen in a fiction film. It didn't help that I was watching it on a laptop with headphones - the sounds are the worst part. The climax of INSIDE, which I just saw a few days ago, would have to be up there, too. While both scenes were disturbing, though, they don't really feel "earned" in the context of the films they're in, both of which are wildly uneven and sometimes laughable - they just feel like the filmmakers are trying to prove how "extreme" they can be.

June 04, 2008 10:10 AM  
Blogger Marc Raymond said...

When the topic of feel-bad movies comes up, one of my favorite films comes to mind: SCREAM FROM SILENCE (MOURIR A TUE-TETE) (Anne-Claire Poirier, 1979). It is little known or seen outside of Quebec and Canada (at least I believe), but it is the most important film about the subject of rape that I have seen. And it is very disturbing. It's the one film in my years of teaching that students email me afterwards and say they cannot handle it and had to leave (even NIGHT AND FOG didn't provoke that reaction, at least when I have shown it).

June 04, 2008 11:28 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Marc, SCREAM FROM SILENCE is certainly known in Australia; it circulated in film socieites and special events and the like during the heyday of film theory in the universities here, in the 80s and 90s. In fact, I vividly remember a famous Aussie feminist critic-theorist introducing the film by offering an intriguing translation of its French title - it was (ahem) 'To Die from being Fucked in the Head'. That was horrifying enough, even before the film began! Did this filmmaker do interesting subsequent work?

I have watched hundreds of horror films and have a high tolerance for the genre, but the scene that flipped me out at the age of 21 was the hand going through the chest (and then getting kinda bitten off) 'heart attack' scene from John Carpenter's THE THING. I wrote one of my early articles to exorcise this very vision, "Bodies in Question" in a long-gone Australian publication called THE VIRGIN PRESS!

June 04, 2008 11:51 AM  
Blogger Kevin J. Olson said...

I wrote an essay on this entitled 'the horror, the horror' for a campus publication. I love all things horror. Especially Italian horror films. I responded to your question in the comments for Links for the day on The House Next Door site...but let em be a little more succinct here:

Aesthetic trumps gore for me.

A film can be cold and nihilistic and I do not require a happy ending (films like The Stranger's don't bother me), but what keeps me away from 90% of modern horror is the sense that they want to make some profound statement about the post 9-11 world we live in by marring their film with dread and nihilism. Their films are so real (hyperreal actually) that they don't just evoke dread, they want you to experience it for two hours. I cannot stand that. These films are usually painted in drab colors and are just bleak.

However, a truly horrifying film like Cries and Whispers, or even something more conventional like A Nightmare on Elm Street or Suspiria trumps something like Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the Craven adn Argento films being waaaay bloodier than the almost bloodless Chainsaw) because the aesthetics are there. The films create dream worlds and exist in the supernatural, therefore I can make that leap that the filmmaker wants me to make. It is much easier to see glass cut someone in half (Tenebre) or spiders eat off a dudes face (The Beyond) because the surrounding scenes are so eerie in their own twisted nonsensical Italian way. There is an ethereal glee to the Italian's vision of horror (something you can see in the Nightmare on Elm Street pictures) that takes you out of reality. Del Toro's films do this too.

I just dislike so much the taste left in my mouth after a film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre -- even though it influenced the genre greatly. That almost bloodless film cranks the terror and hyperrealized horror up too high for my liking. The difference between that kind of unrelenting horror and the machine-gun rapidity of terror found throughout a film like The Descent is that one places in you another world (caverns and essentially, Hell) while the other totally calls into question the stereotype of good country people and the naivety of college students to trust complete strangers, by setting the film in the all-too-real setting of corn fields and farm houses.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for as ingluential as it is, is just too bleak in both message and aesthetic for me to really care to re-visit it or intially view films of its ilk.

So much for the succinct part. Sorry for the long post. But great topic!

June 04, 2008 12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a very different kind of repulsion, but movies that involve people doing gross things with feces are actually harder for me to watch than movies that feature graphic dismemberment, torture, etc. Maybe because so many fewer filmmakers have gone there, so I'm not as desensitized to it. Also, fake shit is generally a lot more convincing than fake gore. The (shudder) kiddie-pool scene in Miike's DEAD OR ALIVE was harder for me to watch than anything in ICHI THE KILLER.

And no, I won't be seeing PINK FLAMINGOS anytime soon.

June 04, 2008 12:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops...somehow I'm guessing "so many fewer" isn't good grammar.

June 04, 2008 12:35 PM  
Blogger Marc Raymond said...

Adrian, good to hear the film is more well-known than I initially thought, although I was thinking beyond the academic setting (I'm sure it was shown in feminist themed courses in the US as well). I like the translation. The literal translation is roughly "to die from screaming your head off", so it's just as close as "scream from silence" really (and hits the meaning of the film better as well).

As for Poirier, she did not do very much afterwards, but did make a real heart-breaking documentary about her daughter's death, TU AS CRIE: LET ME GO (1997), which is worth checking out (but hard to find, I saw it through a NFB videotape at my university in Canada).

June 04, 2008 1:09 PM  
Blogger nitesh said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

June 04, 2008 9:23 PM  
Blogger nitesh said...

The Ramsey brothers single handedly popularized the ‘horror’ genre in India and in the mid- nineties with the advent of satellite TV their focus shifted to television. Even today, the moment you talk about horror films here, we still go back referring to the Ramsey Brothers: with their traditional ‘typical' music which accompanied all their films and even their horror shows on Television, along with their thin plot lines, sexual overtones and regular casts.

Though some of their shows on Television were much better than their films. They were two more quality shows which once a while had really good material: Woh, Mano Yah Nah Mano.

In recent years, Ram Gopal Verma’s Bhoot has been the only significant films in this genre, other than that, most films still go back resembling the Ramsey Brothers. Perhaps, any Indian filmmaker trying out his hand in this genre is somewhat indebted to him. I recently saw Raat again on TV and laughed for most part of the film (even though when I saw the film as kid, I was shit sacred). I don’t know but most Indian ‘Horror’ film does not have the ability to sustain the atmosphere (chill, surprise, choke, shock, provoke) eventually appearing cartoonish over the years.

But when I watch let say, Kim Jae Woon, A tale of Two Sisters, or any Kiyoshi Kurosawa film the whole atmosphere is somewhat sustained. Irrespective of the fact, that Kiyoshi Kurosawa is directly not making a Horror film(though his billed a J- Horror director most of the time), but most , if not all, his film operates on a similar fundamental, even if, it’s a thriller.

Btw those Horror film clichés are every must still present in the C market film which regularly see a release and a healthy crowd, simply for sex value. I remember watching one such film (Chambal Ki Haveli or something like that) along with bunch of friends, simply for the laugh and the curiosity.

Halfway through the C grade horror film, a blue prono film is put, and then it shifts back and forth between the C Horror and pure pornography. (Since they don’t want to be caught in a raid, although I believe police is paid) It was an amusing encounter in Delhi. Yeah, and number of people who still come to such shows (where they have AC) is to sleep for sometime in intense heat- another revelation.

Two recent films whose imagery I found pretty repugnant:
Visitor Q- Takeshi Mike, this film holds more shock value, gasps, compared to most of his films, but nothing brilliant like Audition, but quite shocking and thought provoking.

Taxidermia- I found this film very compelling, but by the end of it, most people in our small screening hall were left shocked- most, took a vow not to watch it again.

June 04, 2008 9:26 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Kurosawa Kyoshi I find much more intriguing than Miike, since he operates in a wider range; he can do horrific scenes (Kyua, anyone?), but there's o much more to his palette--and philosophy--than shock and blood.

Sometimes he can even joke about it. I remember in LIcense to Live the protagonist actually picks up a live chainsaw; you can feel an electric surge go through the audience--will he or won't he?

I was laughing my head off--you don't get that kind of reaction from just any filmmaker! And while I can see Kyoshi doing any number of Miike's films (in his distanced, slow-motion style), I can't see Miike doing a License to Live.

On Texas Chainsaw--bleak in aesthetic and message? I agree with that; that's what makes the film great for me.

June 04, 2008 11:37 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

And whaddaya know--Kurosawa Kyoshi is an admirer of Tobe Hooper.

June 04, 2008 11:46 PM  
Blogger Jamie said...

Just a quick note...this is a a great discussion by the way....Takashi Miike's reputation as a shock merchant isn't particularly well deserved. He's made dozens of films, and a only a small handful of them have elaborate torture sequences or gore. It just so happens that those are his most popular in the U.S. He has one of the most unique and diverse resumes of any director ever, and he deserves more critical attention for films other than Audition. I think it's a magnificent film, if actually a little unrepresentative...he usually uses a lot more distance, humor, and irony than that. His films have lots of gonzo moments, but he rarely goes for the gut in the way that he does in Audition.

As for movies I don't want to see again..."Eraserhead." I love David Lynch, and I admire the film, but it's just too unpleasant an experience. I'm a bit of a horror and exploitation geek (I'm a big fan of several of the films mentioned in this discussion, including "Irreversable," "Last House on the Left," and "Cannibal Holocaust"), so violence and bleakness doesn't send me running. But something about that damn baby thingie just makes me want to die.l

June 05, 2008 5:25 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, all!

If I might be brazen enough to toss one more question at you...

Last weekend I belatedly watched my first Hammer film, Dracula a.k.a. Horror of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958) and loved it--such a measured, elegant film, with great use of color. And Lee makes a dashing, aristocratic Dracula.

If you'd like to recommend any other Hammer films (horror or otherwise), I'd be glad to listen and take notes.

June 05, 2008 9:59 AM  
Blogger celinejulie said...

As for Hammer Studio, I highly recommend RUDE AWAKENING, starring Denholm Elliot. It is an episode in a tv series called HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR (1980), which is available as a four-disc dvd box set. RUDE AWAKENING is included in disc one. I watched RUDE AWAKENING when I was a little child, and haven’t forgotten it for the past 25 years or so. I love the storytelling structure of this TV episode very much. I’m not sure how I will feel if I watch it again. But judging from my first impression, it is totally great.

June 05, 2008 11:13 AM  
Anonymous jmac said...

Hey G.

This is a thought provoking post, and I have been questioning this idea of repulsive, violent imagery lately in contrast to my background in experimental cinema, as well as the new movie, Sex & the City (SATC) and how these different genres have been received . . .

The film still you include is really gross! I have a hard time looking at it. I avoid films altogether that repulse me, because my reaction is a black space, a closed door, the power is off!

Personally, I think that Godard's idea that cinema should show all of life, sounds really nice, but there are a lot of exceptions there. I can find many holes in his theory! I do not understand the appeal of watching any kind of extreme violence for ENTERTAINMENT. What's up with that? :)

Also, this might not be the best forum for this query, but your image included here is a bit gross, I don't find it particularly empowering as a woman, but it doesn't offend me to the core either. No biggie. I just find it perplexing that this kind of image is perfectly cool in the media, but a Louis Vouitton bag in SATC is the height of contempt! The ridicule shown to this film seemed mis-directed . . . I see similar reactions to beautiful avant-garde films, with abstract flickering light. This imagery pisses people off!? But any sort of violent and sexual imagery, which is automatically more visceral, is met with acceptance. So I have to ask myself, are we just being conditioned?

P.S. Poetry is provocative! :)

June 05, 2008 11:34 AM  
Anonymous Marilyn said...

I love THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM quite a bit, Girish.

June 05, 2008 11:39 AM  
Blogger Ed Howard said...

There's nothing much that really revulses me to the degree you describe, although a strong visceral response of one kind or another is one of the things I value greatly in cinema (and art in general). Probably the most intense cinematic experience I can think of was seeing Brakhage's Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes in the theater. Part of what's so terrifying about the most effective, visceral horror films is the confrontation with mortality and extreme deformations of the human body, but even the most gruesome horror will doubtless never come close to what Brakhage achieves in that film.

It's also interesting that you point out horror and porn as two of the genres that have failed to earn respectability due to their visceral body-focus, since so often horror films intertwine sexuality and terror to a large degree (see Cronenberg, Bava, Anger, etc.).

June 05, 2008 1:22 PM  
Blogger Steve C. said...

Okay, so.

I make a sport of collecting the strangest, most disturbing films I can turn up. I'm a card-carrying, Fangoria-subscribing gorehound; though I came late to horror (didn't really dabble in the genre until the age of 14, at which time I saw DEAD ALIVE and had a revelatory experience), I've been determined to make up for lost time. So I'll admit a certain shameful delight in wallowing -- indulging the gross-out and the splatter. It's undemanding, especially at the end of an eleven-hour work day. But... if a film can disturb me, well and truly shake me the hell up, I consider that an experience on the level of the finest sensations available to me as a movie-goer. These films, sadly, are few and far between, so more often than not I'm settling for the cheezy-n-sleezy.

And yet, these days I find myself more intellectually stimulated by/engaged with low-grade "disreputable" cinema than most other forms. Take Lloyd Kaufman's POULTRYGEIST. It's entirely possible to look at that film and see a mere cavalcade of jokes about poop, gore and sex. But I see a gut cry of rage and exhaustion and, ultimately, bitter defeat. Beneath all the fluids and kitsch is a film about seeing your idealism pounded into dust.

I think this strange engagement comes from my familiarity with the genre (the more I see, the more I see), but on some level it's also attributable to my enormous extreme-content callous. Would I have been able to get what, say, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE or A HOLE IN MY HEART (which, though not horror, is pretty revolting) were on about back when I was eighteen? I doubt it. The downside, of course, is a certain level of apathy -- INSIDE, which seems to have hit a lot of people in uncomfortable places, came off as garden-variety to me, aside from the admirable conviction of its icky coup de gras.

I dunno. Maybe it is indeed the collapse of aesthetic distance that attracts me -- true horror can seem such a pure experience. There is, however, a line between a 'true' aesthetic experience and genuine truth (or supposed truth), which is why my sole boundary of acceptable behavior ends at the border of the 'mondo' movie. I'd been avoiding the genre for years before this past March when I saw Climati & Morra's SAVAGE MAN... SAVAGE BEAST pretty much by accident. That right there is one ugly, ugly movie. Makes you feel just a little worse about being human.

June 05, 2008 2:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

if body cinema is used in a broader sense than Williams does (describing only generally films, that have a certain visceral quality and postpone cognitive reflection a little bit), I personally have difficulties discribing which type of film is the most intense - with the exception of porn, to be sure.
But otherwise - Breillats A ma soeur! was way more intense for me than Irreversible, which made hardly any visceral impression on me. I think, one of the reasons is, that Breillats realistic aesthetic strategys (long takes, natural sound etc) are more effective in terms of immersion than Noes pyrotechnics (this doesn't mean that I dislike Irreversible, in fact, when I watch it as some sort of structuralist experiment, I really like it). But then again I recently watched Argentos extremly stylized, extraorddinarily hyprid and unfairly critically panned Stendahl Syndrome and I was blown away dispite this film beeing one of the most anti-realistic I have ever seen (as a side note: the use of cgi in the movie is absolutely terrific). So, my own bodily reactions to movies remains somewhat of a mystery to me.

June 05, 2008 3:15 PM  
Anonymous Sean T. Collins said...

A fascinating post and comment exchange! As a member of the so-called "horror blogosphere," I find it very stimulating to see the genre addressed by cineastes whose primary interests in film lie elsewhere.

Girish, I wonder if you noticed the problem with Williams's body-genre mimicry schematic that struck me when I encountered it: She emphasizes the release of fluids in these genres, but while both audience member and on-screen character cry in a melodrama and orgasm in porn, by no means do both character AND viewer bleed while watching horror! I discussed this in my senior essay on horror films, written back in 1999--here it is, if you're interested...

Thanks for the discussioin!

June 05, 2008 7:08 PM  
Blogger CRwM said...

I've always liked the brilliant and insightful link Williams' made between "disreputable" genres, though I've always had a couple of problems with it.

First, there's a chicken/egg issue about the genres she mentions. Did she find a common thread linking all these films and then realized they were all "body genres," or did she hunt out rejected genres and create a link. If the latter, how do you explain the critic praise of films like Psycho and The Shining? What about the critical canonization of Sirk? And the very notion of "porn" is slippery (so to speak). The moment sex becomes respectable, it becomes "art." You only call something porn if you've already decided it is beyond the pale. One could argue that in all these cases (and the many others we could think up) that there is some mitigating factor: Sirk's ironic; Hitchcock and Kubrick are masters of the form; "it ain't porn, it's erotica." But, even if we grant all that, then we're admitting that the "disreputable" nature of the genres under discussion depends on something other than their content and approach. If you can be considered a mainstream genius and still show an elevator pouring out an ocean of blood, then blood ain't the problem.

Second, she does a bit of a bait and switch. Her theory was originally meant to describe only the most extreme examples of cinematic violence and violation. While constructing her theory, she references films like Autopsy, a fairly artless documentary of the titular procedure. It is easy to apply her concept: that this narrative-less, static shot, dissection of the human form exists solely to cause repulsion. But then she, without any qualification of her theory, begins to expand the area her theory is meant to include to incorporate films with narrative, symbolic meaning, levels of irony - all of which get washed out to prove that there nothing there but repulsion. She makes a theory about extreme cases, and then tries to apply it everywhere. Similarly, most of the flicks that have been offered up as examples so far - even the most extreme, like Cannibal Holocaust - are considerably more nuanced (in said film there's a whole 'Nam subtext and a heavy-handed anti-colonial theme) than the flicks she developed the original critical concept to explain.

June 05, 2008 11:07 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Girish: I wrote about two of my favorite Hammer films on my site, Brides of Dracula and Curse of the Werewolf. I also recommend what was the last, or almost last Hammer production, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter very highly. And for early Hammer, Four-sided Triangle.

June 06, 2008 12:52 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Curse of Frakenstein I liked, Brides of Dracula even if Dracula himself didn't appear, and I can't believe you never saw a Hammer film, because that means you haven't seen a single Quatermass movie. The Quatermass Xperiment, of course, even if the finale is a bit of a letdown, and the great Quatermass and the Pit (even if the original TV series--haven't seen it, pity--is reportedly superior).

I'm all for psychological horror; big fan. But there's a place in cinema, I think, for simple physical revulsion. Gag cinema as opposed to shudder cinema, I guess.

June 06, 2008 2:35 AM  
Blogger girish said...

I'd like to thank everyone for the diversity of ideas expressed here--they made for thought-provoking reading. And thank you also for all the Hammer horror suggestions.

June 07, 2008 8:31 AM  
Blogger girish said...

via Adrian, here is a link at YouTube to Godard's latest film, a 3-minute-plus short that was shown on Swiss TV during Cannes. It uses some elements familiar from Histoire(s).

New releases at Netflix this morning include: Tsai's The Wayward Cloud and Stefan Krohmer's Summer 04.

June 08, 2008 10:03 AM  
Blogger craig keller. said...

Beware -- it's possible that the American DVD of 'The Wayward Cloud' has been self-(Strand-)censored.

As they also did to their edition of Apichatpong's 'Blissfully Yours.'


June 08, 2008 12:42 PM  
Blogger David said...

My favorite horror films, like my favorite melodramas, do allow distance, at least enough for any spectator conscious of the film as a whole to realize his/her own complicity: Sirk's mise-en-scene, Minnelli's self-aware characters, Carpenter's jokiness, Cronenberg's frigidity, Hitchcock's ostentatious structures, ditto De Palma, ditto Craven, ditto one of De Palma and Craven's main influences, Godard, and his own Brechtian devices. The Hills Have Eyes is in Siegel mode: the villains are vicious, but they're clearly just counterparts to the heroes, excuses for the heroes to be vicious as well (to miss this, as its easy to do, and I did for most of it, is to watch a completely repulsive movie). Last House on the Left, which looks like it's still maligned as ever, might be my favorite horror film. I haven't seen The Blair Witch Project, but Last House is clearly about making the "realism" of amateur home movie footage scary. What's usually missed, is that this is still a style affected by Craven, and he wants the audience to realize it: Craven uses blatant discontinuities (easily attributable to shitty filmmaking) to move villains all over space so that the heroes can't escape them; and parallels his violence with the (very) hilarious, awfully-acted shenanigans of the local keystone cops and the racist hillbilly bourgeoisie back home. All of this, completely stylized, is a deliberate affront to realism that makes it all all the more disturbing: people are getting raped and beaten, and we're supposed to be laughing about chickens. (I believe Craven himself asserted repeatedly it was meant to be a response to Vietnam, and to the response to Vietnam). But this isn't didactic, in Godard mode: Craven doesn't just want us to be self-conscious of how we're being manipulated, outraged we're laughing at chickens and enjoying ourselves, but really to laugh at chickens and enjoy ourselves. I think he gets it both ways, and it's the American corollary to Weekend--but much, much funnier.

Thanks, as always, for the link.

June 08, 2008 2:11 PM  
Anonymous thepopview said...

You have inspired my to pull out my copy of The House of Horror: The Complete Story of Hammer Films, which reminds me that Hammer not only made horror and science fiction, but also comedies, pirate movies, thrillers, and films featuring prehistoric women in fur bikinis.

I haven't seen a Hammer film in a long time, but I can heartily recommend all of the Quatermass films, including X the Unknown, which is an unofficial Quartermass film. The best is Quatermass and the Pit (1967) (US title, Five Million Years to Earth).

The vampire films are a mixed bag. Curse of Dracula is fantastic. I seem to remember that The Vampire Lovers, Captain Kronos, Vampire Circus, and Brides of Dracula are also good. Frankly, I always found the Frankenstein series to be more consistent than the Dracula series, because Cushing made Frankenstein such a great villainous protagonist.

The Devil Rides Out is supposed to be excellent, but I've never seen it.

June 08, 2008 2:20 PM  
Anonymous thepopview said...

It's interesting that this dialogue is ostensibly about horror films, but most of the examples here are about grisly films of "horror" in its broader sense of shock, terror and revulsion. I happen to lean towards unseen horror, such as The Haunting of Hill House (1963) or The Innocents (1961) or, for that matter, in many Asian horror films.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is undeniably brilliant and much of the violence takes place off-screen. But the scene where the family taunts Sally is incredibly uncomfortable to watch. On a recent weekend home alone, I watched as much as I could of Vacancy and House of 1000 Corpses. I kept having to periodically tune away and come back. There's a real sense of despair to many modern horror films that's not particularly appealing to me at this stage of my life. Give me a good ol' monster movie like The Host (2006).

(That said, I am fascinated by Audition, one of the most repulsive and sickening films I've ever seen.)

June 08, 2008 2:41 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

On Last House: interesting view, but if the movie is meant to make home movies frightening, then isn't Cannibal Holocaust an exercise in making the travel video unwatchable?

And if we can explain the film's apparent excesses as a reaction to Vietnam (I remember reading that, can't say I disagree with it), why can't we likewise accept Haneke's explanation of both versions of Funny Games (the latter being more directly aimed at its target audience) as being a reaction to media violence?

I don't quite agree about Weekend, though--thought it was a thigh-slapper, if more pretentious of course (the pretentions come with ambition, and I think the film succeeds enough to excuse its failures). And for fairly gratuitous real horror, the pig killing exceeds most of you see in modern cinema (till we come to Insiang, I suppose).

June 08, 2008 7:01 PM  
Blogger David said...

Hi Noel,

I think Weekend is funny too. I think Last House is funnier.

I haven't seen Cannibal Holocaust or Funny Games, so I can't respond, but will, anyway: my impression (which is why I've avoided it) is that Haneke's movie is completely condescending to his audience for buying into any of it, and is doubly hard to take: both for the violence, and Haneke's smug attribution to the audience for being responsible for it. (Again, haven't seen either version).

My point about Last House is that I think Craven's attempting a wake-up call in all sorts of ways, but it's not condescending in the least: the fact that the funny stuff is funny makes it much more disturbing than if it were a post-modern placeholder for a funny scene, mocking the audience for laughing at something they'd supposedly have no business laughing at (and probably wouldn't be laughing at). Craven's disturbing statement isn't that there's no place for laughter and cuteness in a world gone to hell, but that there is. The Keystone Kops are still well worthwhile, even when everyone's getting raped and murdered. These shows and genres aren't wrong. They're just missing a lot of what's going on (and that applies quite literally to the clueless cops themselves).

June 08, 2008 11:41 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Ah, but if you consider that Haneke has built in condescension as part of what makes his movie so hard to take...

I can see Last House's amateurishness as being experimental (don't believe it myself, but I can see it as being so). Haneke goes a different direction--smooth perfection, a box with no exit, no way out (and the one way out is covered in a manner that just maddens you more). It's a perfect mousetrap in its own way.

June 09, 2008 12:53 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi, everyone. Today is an uncharacteristically warm and sunny day here in Buffalo. I'm making a beeline for the outdoors but shall try to return with a post tomorrow.

June 09, 2008 11:28 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

My two cents: Armond White is a contrarian.

June 09, 2008 11:02 PM  
Blogger Zephyr said...

Hi Girish,

just happened to come across your blog and really found this discussion on Horror cinema interesting. I am a graduate student in cinema studies and at present am researching on Horror in Indian cinema. I'm looking at both Hindi as well as some malayalam films.
Are there any theoretical writings on specifically Indian cinema and horror? any advice or suggestions would be really helpful.

February 25, 2010 7:24 PM  

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