The Importance of Gore in Horror

gore hand

I’ve always appreciated the use of good, splashy gore in horror. I’ve never hidden it; I’m a die-hard gore hound, and while some may scrunch their face in unpleasant squeamishness at the sight of organs flopping out of a bisected victim, I absorb it without pause, shoveling pizza and popcorn into my gullet with every ounce of the abandon I possessed before the movie even started.

It’s never bothered me, really. On nights as a child when I would sneak into the family room and watch graphic video nasties (the scary kind, not the porny kind) while my family slumbered, I never became terrified at the sight of splashing blood or axes cleaving through flesh. Sure, some injuries would frighten me – the sight of sliced skin here, the image of a skinned corpse there – but for the most part, I could handle it. I enjoyed it, even – so long as the gore stayed fictional. If I cut my thumb in reality, however, I almost always howled like the ill-fated teenagers in the horror shows I secretly watched by moonlight. But as long as the slicing and dicing stayed on the screen, I ate it up. I still do.

There is plenty of debate out there about the use of gore – how much should be used, how little it should be used, whether it should be used at all, etc. I love the stuff, so that point’s moot as far as I’m concerned. But there seems to be little popular discussion about how gore should be used.

How, then, should one use gore…responsibly?

***

            First off, you don’t need gore to make a good horror movie.

Look at The Wolf Man. Excellent film, widely regarded as a classic. There’s violence, sure, and though it’s implied that the werewolf savages his victims, there’s no actual sight to accompany the implications. The brutality is largely left to the viewer’s imagination; even when Lon Chaney Jr. tears out the throat of a gravedigger, there is no actual blood seen, as Chaney obscures the violence with his own body, and the camera never lingers over the slain character.

Halloween is famous for being a fairly gore-free movie as well, despite the violence of the picture and the brutality in the sequels. For ninety minutes, Michael Myers chops, stabs, strangles, and impales people with wanton abandon, but almost no blood is actually seen.

Even today, gore isn’t a necessity for an effective horror film. The Innkeepers, except for one scene, is entirely bloodless, and it’s so terrifying it caused me and a roomful of friends to reflexively lift our arms to cover our eyes.

So, clearly, graphic violence isn’t inherently necessary for a good horror movie. The same goes for literary horror – except for the collection of body parts from which to assemble the creature, the novel Frankenstein has almost no descriptions of gore in it. The creature primarily kills his victims via strangulation.

But, on the flip side, this doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be any gore in a good horror story. Though it’s largely a sci-fi flick, the absence of gore would have absolutely robbed John Carpenter’s The Thing of most of its visual power. Without the sight of mangled bodies and spilled blood, The Evil Dead wouldn’t have been the shocking hammer blow of a horror film that it was, and An American Werewolf in London would’ve simply been a light-hearted, comedic romp, instead of a cross-genre masterpiece. Night of the Living Dead was pretty much about the dangers of slow-moving old people until we witnessed the ghouls feeding on the strewn remains of their victims.

The same goes for many of Hammer Studio’s early horror features – it was the gore, showcased in those generally bloodless days, that hooked fans and gave those films, some great, some trite, their staying power.

Peter Jackson’s (yes, that Peter Jackson) Braindead, known here in the States as Dead-Alive, is so graphically over-the-top with its level of gore that it approaches a nearly schizophrenic level of jubilation as it washes the camera with organ scrubs and body fluid rinses. But even in its ridiculousness, the gore there still serves a purpose, in this case to make us laugh at its purposeful absurdity.

So while one doesn’t need graphic gore to drive home the horror, completely omitting it would clearly rob other films of their impact, and would cheat audiences out of understanding the level of threat the films showcase. But in the latter case, is it the gore that people enjoy so much, or what the gore represents?

***

            Gore is certainly used gratuitously in horror. The Hostel series was made entirely to show cruel, graphic violence being inflicted on innocent people. Friday the 13th exists solely to display the dismemberment of horny camp counselors at the machete-wielding hands of horror icon Jason Voorhees. Lucio Fulci used gore to such a degree that it nearly gives horror fans the violence equivalent to diabetes; in one particularly nauseating scene from City of the Living Dead, a woman is forced to vomit her own intestines in a scene where actual sheep intestines were used. Fulci was even brought up on charges of animal cruelty after the completion of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, being accused of having used live dogs for a scene in which canines are sliced open, their glistening, pulsating organs exposed to the light. His effects artist, Carlo Rimbauldi, was forced to bring in the props used for the scene in question in order to save Fulci from a two-year prison sentence.

But while there’s no question that the gore in those features is presented solely for gore’s sake, it becomes difficult, at least for me, to determine when gratuitous gore becomes excessive gore.

I know that for a lot of people, there is no level where gore becomes excessive. But while I love a good, spurting decapitation as much as the next guy, there are some scenes, like the intestine purging in City of the Living Dead, that can outright nauseate me. But considering that, in some cases, gore is being presented with the intention of sickening an audience, is the gore really excessive if it was presented to purposefully illicit the feelings that result?

In my own writing, when I write scenes of violence, I’ll often include descriptions written expressly to repulse me. And while the feelings themselves that arise are unpleasant, there is still that rush that comes from feeling them, the rush that comes with feeling any emotion, and even if I do not like what I am describing, I still receive that pleasantness that occurs from the simple act of feeling. Thus, despite some instances of gore in horror being regarded as almost universally repulsive, there are typically large swaths of people who will express enjoyment over it. Troma Entertainment would have a paltry audience otherwise.

One could argue that it is a matter of personal regard. Violence is only excessive to individuals based on each person’s individual taste. While some may see The Beyond as entertaining and satisfying, others may throw up, or even cry, and reject the film for its visual assault. While many people enjoy the rushing sense of wrenched emotion, there are others who will simply be sickened, without any accompanying thrill, and will experience only displeasure at what they are seeing. For them, then, the violence is clearly of an excessive nature, regardless of context.

And while I wave my gore hound flag high, even I have moments when I’ll see a film and think “Well, that didn’t need to be in there.” As much as I appreciated the savagery of The Wolfman (2010), some of the violence bordered on the ridiculous. In particular, the scene when the werewolf eviscerates a man with his teeth struck me as not only gratuitous, but distracting to the feel of the film. The same goes for Land of the Dead, where a coherent story regarding friction between social classes seemed to be almost interrupted at times by outrageous and borderline comical gore.

What I’m saying is, I appreciate gore, but I appreciate it more when the gore is used to help tell the story.

***

            John Carpenter’s The Thing is a sci-fi masterpiece, a brilliant, spooky story about a group of researchers trapped in Antarctica with a shape-shifting monstrosity. The film uses its set-up as an allegory for the futility of paranoia, as the men’s doom comes chiefly from their inability to cooperate against the extraterrestrial threat. But aside from the clever themes of isolation and distrust, the film also boasts some of the most impressive prosthetics and animatronics committed to film.

To be sure, the effects are gory. When the Thing transforms, it often does so by splitting open its body and mutating its organs into mouths with teeth. The famed “Dog Kennel Scene” features the alien, in the shape of a husky, initiating its transformation by splitting open its canine head into something resembling a bloody flower. Later, a team member is revealed to have been taken over by the Thing when his chest opens up into a fanged mouth, tearing the arms off the camp doctor. The man’s head forcibly detaches from the rest of his body, spewing fluid as it rips its flesh trying to escape. The scene is graphic in the extreme (by 1982 standards, anyway) and though some critics complained that the effects distracted from the story, I found that the opposite generally held to be true. The film’s premise promises an extreme and otherworldly threat, and whereas I feel like a lot of sci-fi films fail to deliver the cosmic satisfaction that they promise, The Thing achieved it via the use of its graphic effects. Anything less to achieve its scenes of transformation would have been a cop-out.  Plus, were the effects not as grisly and bizarre as they proved to be, the horrible nature of the men’s predicament, as well as the scope of the threat that they faced, would have been too subdued to be enthralling. When this creature took them over, it didn’t just make them inhuman – it transformed them into true monstrosities, horrifying the audience and making us believe that the terror the men felt would drive them to madness and self-destruction. The Thing didn’t just change you: it ate you whole, and whatever was left would never be you again.

By contrast, the gore and brutality of 2010’s The Wolfman served only to pull me out of the story. While I feel like a high degree of carnage was required – this is a werewolf movie, after all, and werewolves are supposed to be violence incarnate – and while I was completely fine with shredded corpses and even the occasional disemboweling, the violence in the movie seemed to go on a bit longer than was necessary. The Wolfman’s attacks almost seemed to pause in order to allow the cameraman time to show the intricacies of the creature’s violence – a stomach pulled from an open wound here, bone plucked from a rib cage there. I wouldn’t have minded one or two shots of this, but the extended sequences of gore seemed to actually slow the film down, and turn it from a neo-classical horror picture into a high-end showpiece of gore-porn. Again, werewolf movies need high levels of violence – the werewolf’s entire appeal is that it is a pure, violent predator – but when showcasing the violence, even if it is extreme, two things must be considered.

One: do not allow the picture to grind to a halt simply to feature exceptionally violent gore. It can take an audience out of their suspended disbelief, and can prove detrimental to the movie’s impact.

And two: maintain a consistent level of violence in your film. It’s okay to have one or two extra-violent sequences, but care must be taken to avoid an extreme between the casual violence used throughout the film and the level of violence used in showpiece scenes. Otherwise the atmosphere of a film can suffer, and audiences can be stirred out of the rhythm that had hooked them into the story up to that point. You may think that’s a good thing, but it is seriously detrimental to a horror film’s quality of entertainment.

Remember: no matter what level violence you want to showcase, the violence can’t take over for the story. The story is what makes your movie a movie. Without it, you’re simply filming an exhibition. Which is fine, I suppose, just don’t make the mistake of confusing plotless gore-porn for a coherent film.

***

            Excessive gore can work occasionally – the self-aware Wrong Turn sequels feature elaborate, over-the-top scenes of violence, particularly the bisection of a reality star at the beginning of Wrong Turn 2. Those scenes work because Wrong Turn has been a shock-horror slasher series since the first movie, so audiences familiar with the series expect the gore and gross-out scenes that are provided.

The problem with gore used at a consistent level of high exposure is that, if it’s done poorly, it can take an audience out of a film as quickly as gore that is out of sync with the tone of the feature. Several zombie movies are guilty of this – apparently there isn’t a single spot in the human body that isn’t packed to the brim with tendons. And too many films to count apparently forget that human beings have bones, considering how easy it is to lop off limbs in some flicks. And I frequently bitch about how flippantly many horror films show people gushing blood with no real indication that they’re ever going to bleed to death. I get that excessive attention to realism can be pejorative – following a medical textbook would render the film sterile and without personality.

But simply acknowledging medical facts can greatly help a piece of horror. Some of Stephen King’s most well-known work involves an almost clinical understanding of human biology, and he frequently consults with doctors in order to depict as many of the consequences of bodily harm that he can. Jessie in Gerald’s Game almost dies of shock after she has degloved her hands in order to escape from her handcuffs. Mike Hanlon in It is stabbed in the leg, an unimportant injury in most stories, but a mortal one here, as King acknowledges the massive blood vessels that course through the thigh. Mike nearly bleeds to death, from an injury most writers have their characters walk off.

I’m just saying, I know action movies frequently have characters shrug off gunshots to the shoulder, but this is horror: show us the true awfulness that comes with these injuries.

***

            These are just opinions. I’m not one to insist on arbitration for the creative works of others. But it seems to me that, while it is important not to limit the amount of gore that can be showcased in horror, it is even more important to focus on the application of gore, as an effective means of furthering the energy of a film.

Violence without gore is unrealistic and artistically irresponsible. Excessive gore can work, but there must be a reason behind it. And while extreme and gross-out gore has its place, it’s important to resist the impulse to include it without first considering its effects on the overall feel of the film or story.

There can, and should, be exceptions. As a fan of gore in horror, I love a surprise splash of unexpected blood. But it’s possible to get tacky with it, and gore ceases to be enjoyable when it’s done in a clumsy manner. Don’t just dump buckets of blood everywhere, guys; put some thought behind your efforts. Think about why your scenes need violence, and what kind of violence your project should showcase to achieve its goals. Dario Argento used gore to an artistic degree, so don’t tell me blood can only be used for a superficial thrill.

I’m not asking for masterpieces, mind you. I just want fictional violence to be done in a way I can believe. I don’t want excessive cruelty; I just want someone to understand the original function that gore served. Gore, when used right, is used to pull us in, so that we can clearly see the stakes that horror loves to raise.

– The Awful Writer

@TweetTheHorror

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