Back in the early 2000s, film critic Alan Jones coined a phrase for a new wave of horror filmmakers: the Splat Pack. These directors were making names for themselves with low budget, massively violent horror films that earned the disparaging label “torture porn” – and they were making lots and lots of money for the studios that hired them, too.
These guys were brought up on video nasties, and their movies reflected their love of the genre, packing in references to 70s European horror and 80s splatter… but with much, much more gore. If you liked their films, they seemed bold, daring, and angry; if you didn’t, they were crude, vile, and disgusting. It was an interesting few years for horror.
But nearly a decade on, things have changed. Having pushed the boundaries of gore and bad taste as far as they could go with films like The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film, the horror genre rediscovered ghost stories, and handheld cameras, and the PG-13 rating, and started to feel safe all over again.
So what happened to the Splat Pack’s bold new world of ultraviolence, and what are they up to now?
Aja’s breakthrough film was Switchblade Romance (aka Haute Tension, aka High Tension, depending on which territory you’re in) in 2003. It was basically a slasher, but a super gory one with an awful twist ending; it had a cruel edge that many of the early slashers were missing, and which had been entirely absent from the ironic teen slashers of the late 90s.
Unlike later Splat Pack movies, Switchblade Romance was generally well received by critics at the time, but it did attract some criticism for its nastiness. But it was pretty much the last of Aja’s films to be generally well liked: he followed it up by directing The Hills Have Eyes, a spiteful remake of Wes Craven’s 70s hillbilly horror; Mirrors, a CGI-tastic remake of Into The Mirror; and Piranha 3D, a, um, 3D remake of Piranha.
He also wrote and produced an original film in P2, a daft thriller starring Wes Bentley, which was directed by Franck Khalfoun. Despite the silliness of the concept (a woman gets trapped in a multi-story car park on Christmas Eve with an attendant who’s in love with her) it has several moments of extreme gore, which might just qualify it for a place in the Splat Pack canon.
Aja’s most recent project was another remake, and again he was on writing and producing duties, with Khalfoun taking the director’s chair. Maniac is a remake of the 1980 film of the same name, starring Elijah Wood, and it’s another extremely brutal bit of cinema. Unfortunately for Aja, since this is 2013 and not 2003, it only got a limited theatrical release in the UK, and also attracted a slew of bad reviews.
His next film is due to be an adaptation of Joe Hill’s novel, Horns, which stars Daniel Radcliffe as a man who gains devilish supernatural powers in the course of investigating the rape and murder of his girlfriend. That’ll probably be cheery, then.
Eli Roth was clearly a kid who grew up reading Fangoria and watching age-inappropriate films on VHS. His knowledge of and affection for the genre is evident in the way his early films both embrace and overturn horror movie cliches; there’s something almost gleeful about them. His first film, 2002’s Cabin Fever, saw a group of kids head out to the traditional cabin in the woods, only to contract a hideous flesh eating disease and kill one another. It was pretty gruesome, but most of the gore was disease-related, not torture-related – not that that makes it any less difficult to watch.
As great as Cabin Fever was, it was 2005’s Hostel that really put Roth’s name on the map. It’s one of the films most often namedropped when people are talking about the kind of films they don’t consider to be true horror films, but it’s a fantastic piece of filmmaking. It takes a bunch of fairly unlikeable kids and ships them off to eastern Europe, where their ignorance and arrogance lands them right in the middle of a nightmare. It’s tightly scripted, and makes you imagine more gore than it shows you – though it shows you a fair bit, too. The film also attracted attention thanks to its “Quentin Tarantino presents” label, and it’s one of those films credited with kicking off the whole torture porn wave.
But Eli Roth has only directed one more full length film since: Hostel Part II, which was released two years after the first Hostel. Although it upped the gore quotient and packed in some more horror-related guest stars, it felt slapdash and unfocused compared to the original.
Another Hostel sequel was made, though not by Roth. He was busy with other things, doing a bit of acting in Tarantino projects like Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds, and becoming a producer on nonsensical handheld horror The Last Exorcism. But he’s not out of the directing game just yet: he’s got a horror TV series, Hemlock Grove, landing on Netflix in a couple of weeks, and his cannibal movie, The Green Inferno, looks potentially amazing…
The lone Brit in the Splat Pack, Neil Marshall’s films dealt more with monsters than torture, but by virtue of being a new horror filmmaker in the early 2000s, he tends to get lumped in with the others. His debut movie, Dog Soldiers, was a lot of fun, but not quite gory enough to grab itself an 18 certificate. Not to worry, though – his 2005 follow up, The Descent, definitely was.
If there’s any justice in the world, and there probably isn’t, The Descent will be recognised as a horror classic for the ages. It’s unbearably tense right from the very beginning, and only gets scarier as it goes on, until you feel like you’ll never be able to go anywhere in the dark ever again. Basically, it’s about a group of friends who love extreme sports, and decide to go caving; but the unknown caving system they’re exploring turns out to be more than slightly dangerous, and soon they’re fighting for their lives.
The Descent was re-edited for its American release, to give it a (slightly) happier ending, but the original version is bleak as hell. (We don’t talk about the sequel.) And it’s also the last real horror movie Neil Marshall made: his next film, Doomsday, was a not-very-thrilling apocalyptic thriller, and 2010’s Centurion was about Roman soldiers. Maybe Marshall figured he’d made one unspeakably brilliant horror film and didn’t need to make any more.
Most recently, he’s been directing episodes of Game Of Thrones, which may or may not count as torture porn, depending on your perspective.
James Wan and Leigh Whannell
Although it seems a bit like cheating to lump these two together, it’s also almost impossible to separate them. Leigh Whannell and James Wan are the Australian writer/director team behind Saw, and thus can be credited/blamed for pretty much every horror film that came out between 2004 and 2010.
Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. But Saw was a massive phenomenon, spawning six sequels and countless imitators, and it also defined the visual style for horror for years afterwards. Its low budget meant the filmmakers had to get creative, and the way it raked in profits meant that studios were more willing to take chances on cheap, nasty horror movies.
Wan and Whannell stayed involved with the Saw franchise as producers until the end, and Leigh Whannell is credited with writing the first three movies, but after that they moved on. In 2007, they wrote and directed Dead Silence, a film about an evil ventriloquist that was all but buried on its UK release (mostly because it’s terrible). Wan went on to direct a revenge thriller, Death Sentence, that was a bit lacklustre, while Whannell starred in Dying Breed, a fantastically gory and bleak Australian horror.
Then, in 2010, Wan and Whannell worked together on another film that captured the zeitgeist all over again. Insidious was a ridiculously creepy supernatural horror movie; it’s flawed, and has near crippling structural problems, but it’s insanely scary. And like Saw before it, it tapped into a growing trend, and made truckloads of money.
It also spawned a sequel, which should be out later this year. Wan and Whannell also have a couple of solo projects coming out soon. James Wan directed The Conjuring, a supernatural horror movie based on the exploits of real paranormal investigators, and he’s apparently in talks to direct Fast & Furious 7, his most mainstream gig to date. Meanwhile, Leigh Whannell racked up a couple more acting credits in Crush and The Pardon, both also slated to be released this year. If anyone’s managed to ride the wave of emerging horror trends over the last decade, it’s these two, so it’ll be interesting to see what their new movies are like.
Darren Lynn Bousman
The other Splat Packer associated with the Saw franchise is Darren Lynn Bousman. Bousman directed Saws II, III, and IV, and developed the franchise’s style – the first film was grimy and full of quick cuts, but with Bousman at the helm, the editing became more and more frantic, and the lighting more and more unrealistic, until, in Saw IV, whole scenes were so green-tinged that even Dario Argento might have baulked. (Actually, Argento probably would’ve just chucked in some blue and red light to even things out.)
Post-Saw, Bousman wrote and directed a horror musical, Repo! The Genetic Opera that… well, it’s sort of a cool idea, but it’s a weak story with weaker songs that just needed to be better on every possible count.
I’m kind of ashamed to say that until I started researching this article, I didn’t even know Bousman had made any more films after Repo! But in 2010, he directed a remake of the 1980 slasher Mother’s Day; in 2011, he wrote and directed a thriller called 666: The Prophecy (a retitling, from 11-11-11, presumably to make people think it had something to do with The Omen?); and in 2012, he made a movie called The Barrens about the Jersey Devil, and another horror musical called The Devil’s Carnival. Right now, neither of those last two have UK release dates.
Bousman’s still busy, though, working on a serial killer movie, Ninety, and something called Abattoir, which is apparently about an estate agent trying to sell a murder house, which is slated for release around Halloween 2014.
This’ll be the shortest section of this article. Greg Mclean directed the Aussie horror Wolf Creek in 2005; like Hostel, it was a story about backpackers who travel somewhere they really shouldn’t, but on a smaller scale, as its three hapless travellers just run afoul of one individual lunatic. It was brutal, gory, and kind of rapey, but attracted largely positive reviews on release.
Mclean’s follow-up was Rogue, another Australian horror: this time, about a killer crocodile. (You can make up your own jokes about Crocodile Dundee here, if you want.) It got a limited theatrical release in the US, and eventually limped its way onto DVD in the UK in 2009, but was mostly ignored. Mclean went on to produce a couple of thrillers (Red Hill and Crawlspace) and is now, rather sadly, working on Wolf Creek 2.
Rob Zombie is probably the one member of the Splat Pack who’s been most consistent in his filmmaking; all of his movies kind of fit the template. But there’s a self-indulgence to his films that lets them down, somehow.
After nearly two decades as a musician (first with White Zombie and then as a solo artist) Zombie wrote and directed the horror movie House Of 1000 Corpses, released in 2003. He’d been talking about making a film for a while, and finally got around to doing it in 2000, but Universal thought House Of 1000 Corpses was too extreme, and shelved it for a few years. Until, suddenly, there was an audience for extreme horror films.
Despite fairly negative reviews, Zombie went on to make a sequel, The Devil’s Rejects. That, too, was a nasty, gory, extreme bit of filmmaking – maybe even nastier, gorier, and more extreme than its predecessor. Like so many of the other directors in the Splat Pack, he went on to do a remake in the form of 2007’s Halloween, and followed that up with Halloween II, in 2009.
Also in 2009, he directed an animated film, The Haunted World Of El Superbeasto, which I can’t tell you anything about because I turned it off after ten minutes.
All of Zombie’s movies have things in common: they’re packed with references to the music and movies he loves; they’re full of people shouting at one another; and they star his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie. Those things tend to get in the way of telling a coherent story, too, and there’s just something exhausting about watching his work. His newest film, The Lords Of Salem, is basically more of the same, though at least he’s abandoned the dysfunctional rednecks this time round.
What became of the Splat Pack?
So what became of the Splat Pack? Well, they’re still making movies. But they’re not making the same kind of movies – or, at least, the ones who’ve managed to build successful careers aren’t.
Maybe the only conclusion that can be drawn, based on these directors’ careers, is that the ‘torture porn’ trend was never really any kind of organised movement. If anything, it was a moment. For a couple of years, audiences were hungry for extreme violence in their movies; we wanted to be shocked, and horrified, and grossed out by our entertainment.
But the directors whose films fed that appetite? They seem to have been coming from different places. Maybe some of them were angry, maybe some of them just liked horror, maybe they wanted to make a statement, maybe they wanted to show off, or maybe they just wanted to get paid. Looking back, it seems almost funny that anyone ever thought these guys were dangerous.
In another ten years, some of these movies will endure (if I had to guess, it’ll be Saw, Hostel, and The Descent) and others will be forgotten. Despite all the handwringing and column inches dedicated to dissecting these movies and the potential damage they were doing to their audiences, they already feel like they belong to the past. Horror has cycled back round again, as if nothing had ever happened. What does that say about us? Uh… I’ll get back to you on that one.
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