It’s Only A Movie

A chat with Dario Argento sets Martin pondering on Hollywood's New Cruelty...

The infamous 'ice cream murder' in Assault On Precinct 13 - that ain't raspberry sauce!

————————-Taboos in horror films are vanishing – anyone can suffer or be killed now, even children. Is it necessary for new horror films to have such freedom?

“Yes – consider Edgar Allen Poe, the kind of stories he was writing in the nineteenth century. Yes, I think so – because we have horror in our lives…”————————-

The preceding is a snippet of a new Den Of Geek interview with Italian horror maestro Dario Argento. Though we have permission to post the odd excerpt in advance, you’ll have to wait until nearer the late-April release of Mother Of Tears – his closure to the ‘three mothers’ trilogy that began with Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980) – to read the rest.

Though I’ve not yet seen the new film myself, Internet reviews from various festival showings mention that at least one child is killed in the course of it. Reading this, I thought instantly of the opening five minutes of the execrable Aliens Vs. Predator – Requiem (leaked by 20th Century Fox some weeks prior to that film’s premiere), where a young boy hunting with his father is attacked by the face-hugger stage of Giger’s nightmarish cycle of creatures. Later in the film, the lad dies in agony as the larval chest-burster exits his rib-cage.

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I’m not saying that this is the first time Hollywood has killed a child, but it is arguably the first time (at least that I can remember) that it has killed one quite so callously in a hyper-budgeted, popcorn-crunching production aiming solely to deliver viscous thrills.

The last time I can remember anyone else offing a little’un quite so off-handedly – the famous ‘ice cream incident’ in John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 (1976) – there was something of a furore, even though, by dint of the victim being an absurdly perfect little pig-tailed child, there seems a supposition in Assault that the audience would view the murder in the light of very black comedy.

Have we segued unnoticed into a new phase of mainstream-narrative morality where we must jettison any conventions which keep our cinematic sensibilities jaded? Or rather are we exiting a cotton-clad dreamworld where our ideals and mores prevented the expression of our ideas, fears and (in an abstract sense) fantasies?

It’s perhaps easiest to discuss the grey area between society’s notion of acceptable and anathematic imagery when discussing sex rather than violence – particularly for the American film-goer, for whom sexual images are notoriously more contentious than those containing non-sexualised graphic violence, and on whose behalf the MPAA wield an astonishingly detailed check-list of no-nos (right down to the number of thrusts that differentiate a PG sex-scene from an NC-17 one).

Therefore I now cast my mind back to my student days working Saturdays and free afternoons at a camera shop, where I would parry endlessly with Stan The Manager – an avowed pro-libertarian and monarchal abolitionist so ferocious in his principles that he would often defend works which personally disgusted him – on matters of censorship and artistic repression. Though I admired his fervour, and often mirrored his beliefs, I couldn’t help playing devil’s advocate on occasion.

In one period, the then-perennial subject of the low age of The Sun’s topless ‘page-3 girls was raging in more serious papers as well as in parliament. Steam was blowing out of Stan’s ears as usual, as he sniffed State Interference In Public Life rearing its head again.

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I asked Stan if it was acceptable for a sixteen year-old girl to appear nude in The Sun. Absolutely, he replied.

What about a 16 year-old girl that looks under sixteen? Stan polished the Nikons with increasing vigour before replying that it was legal (rather than ‘acceptable’).

And a 17-year old girl in the school dress of a fourth-former? More lens-polishing. Absolutely, said Stan, finally, though he was looking uncomfortable.

I was just about to posit the coup de grace – whether or not a 16 year-old model who looked fourteen should be allowed to do a topless schoolgirl layout in Murdoch’s chip-wrappers – when a rush of 24-hour re-prints saved the topic for another time.

Thus AVP – R, which is willing to kill a nine year-old boy in a very nasty way, recoils from depicting the aliens murdering the new-born babies over whom their slimy faces hover with interest when they invade the hospital.

Or maybe they’re saving that for the DVD.

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Certainly the film has no such compunction about pregnant women, one of whom is surrogated (in an absurd 30 seconds) as host to a lethal litter of alien larvae and contemptuously tossed aside as collateral damage both by the aliens and the Brothers Strausse.

From the point-of-view of narrative predictability in horror films, perhaps there is something to be said for abandoning the indestructibility of any child-character with whom the viewer is allowed to become familiar. In knock-em-down horror, ‘the kid’ has always been something of a yawn, a guaranteed survivor.

Perhaps many other comforting parameters have to be abandoned too – the pending remake of Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left (1972) – arguably the first rape-revenge film, and the main precursor to the ever-controversial I Spit On Your Grave (1978) – can only cement the new acceptability of rape as an element of horror, after a long (some would say welcome) absence.

But re-writing the horror rule-book is nothing new: Hitchcock himself famously did it by killing his main character halfway through Psycho. When conventions and formula leave no room for surprise in horror movies, the genre must evolve or die.

The question is whether or not horror should evolve towards previously undreamed-of callousness in order to overcome the increasingly robust firewall of cynicism in audiences now immured to the latest trends in cinematic cruelty. There is nothing stopping us consenting to horror films taking The Next Step – whatever that may be at the time – except the line between catharsis/voyeurism and outrage. That grey area is no wider or narrower than it ever was, but it is creeping forward, and it will eventually run out of land. Where will we go thereafter?

Martin writes his (mostly) sci-fi column every Friday at Den Of Geek.

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