I wanted my first stab at a ScreenAnarchy-O_Meter column to be personal and, for me, there is no more personal type of film than the horror film. But rather than asemble yet another scariest movies of all time type list I've opted for the direction least travelled amongst my spirutla minded fellows. What is it about seeing the human body assembled, dissassembled, re-assembled and justplain membled that draws us all into darkened rooms with strangers. These are the gore moments that most shaped me and I hope the following helps us all remember why we love the classics.
I am eleven and at Jaws. It is the first PG film I have ever attended at the theater and my mother has brought me even though she’s afraid I’ll have nightmares. “We live in Indiana, we don’t even go to the beach” I laugh. The film… is amazing. I am discovering my soul all over again just as when I found my first copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland in the local supermarket or saw my first commercial for our local TV station’s Saturday night Creature Feature. Somewhere out there is a world where monsters are real, where the shadows come to life, where people face down real demons and don’t always come back from hell.
Robert Shaw is sliding down the sinking boats deck. The shark opens its mouth. It’s a visual retelling of what happened to so many of his shipmates from the Indianapolis. His feet kick. He is screaming. The shark’s black eyes stare unblinking, jaws swinging side-to-side and then Quint is inside, his torso fountaining blood. I am lost in the illusion that countless Jaws inspired TV specials on sharks will later deny me- a real life glimpse of a man being eaten by a shark. Shaw slides under the red black water and I slide with him drowning caught in the grip of the moment. The movies will never be the same for me again. I am the shark now hungry for the moment, hungry for wide-eyed belief.
I am 13 and at Alien. It is my first R rated film in a theater. My dad has already grabbed my leg once and sent the popcorn flying in several directions even though I was ready for it. I was not ready, however, to see a phallic lizard thing punch it’s way out of John Hurt's chest. I was not ready to hear the bones and cartiledge snapping. I start to retch, the feeling passes and then comes over me again in a wave. “They can do things like this in movies?!” I think as my stomach finally settles. Later the Alien slips down behind Harry Dean Stanton, uncoiling, slithering out of the ships guts like some grotesque slimy fetus. There is blood, oil and mucous as the alien’s inner jaw punches through Stanton’s skull and the light makes it hard to tell which is which. Hieronymous Bosch never painted a prettier picture. Fear not that which can destroy the body but that which can destroy your soul. The inner jaws, they reach my soul. The spidery fingers grasp my shoulders, I am in the grip of the black night- the space between the stars, I am pulpated into a collection of elements swirling through a starship grating not even worthy for use as food. I am the grease beneath Cthulhu’s feet, I was never as he is, his death is eternal.
I am 13 and at Friday the 13th because of a dare. Some friends are betting I’ll close my eyes during the film’s scenes of intense violence-especially the beheading at the end. They are wrong. I am watching Mrs. Voorhees stalk the survivor on the beach talking in a sing-song voice. I am watching the survivor swing the shovel. As Mrs. Voorhees head flies across the frame her hands reach up grasping for air. No one in the audience knows how they did it. It is incredible. I want them to replay the moment and slow the film down so I can watch it again. But deep down I don’t want to know how the trick works. I just want a better view as I peak out at the cinematic equivalent of a highway accident. “How horrible,” you think as you gawk out the window. “I hope they’ll be okay.” Mrs. Voorhees must live too. She is too big to die up there on that screen. She is madness personified, hands clawing the air as if they could simply find and re-attach her head to her shoulders. If she dies, then so does evil, and in this life evil does not die. Later when Jason leaps out of the lake, his impossible deformation and water bloated stench tell the same story as his mother’s supposed death. A placid calm, a sunlit peace has been interrupted, violated, desecrated. Nowhere is safe but at least now I know it. I need to leave the theater looking over my shoulder. All are lost in the woods, all feel the blade. This I what it looks like.
I am 23 it is the late eighties. I have been living in a large Chicago based Christian missionary community for about two months. I have long ago gotten rid of all my horror related collectables, films and books because , well because that’s what you do , right? . I am part of a small family group that is helping to welcome me and show me the ropes of life in community. Pat, the husband, has become a good friend and has invited me to watch a film with him that night. I ask what film and he says just to show up.
When I arrive he explains that we are going to watch a horror comedy called Evil Dead II. “What?” I say. “Just watch, you’ll understand.” Soon, I am laughing harder than I ever have in my life. “Who’s laughing now?” I am Ash, as we replay the scene of you cutting off your hand over and over again. “We just cut up our girlfriend with a chainsaw. Does that sound like everything is alright?!” My assumptions about culture have been cut apart as well, and everything is alright. I’m laughing at my own hypocrisy. I am laughing at a man on a TV screen having the worst weekend getaway in the history of weekend getaways. And I am laughing at anyone who ever thought they could protect their souls simply by not watching R rated movies.
Just as a demon thing wails “I’ll swallow your soul!!” one of Pat’s more conservative neighbors pops his head in the communal living room looks at the TV and says, “Well, Praise the Lord!” I am laughing because I suddenly realize how little difference there is between The Three Stooges and director Sam Raimi’s swooping camera chronicling Ash’s constant and painful humiliation. By the time the eyeball flies across the room into the girls mouth Pat has to stop the tape so I can breathe. This is the movie I would have made when I was twelve, these are scenarios I imagined with my friends during all that private monster killing playtime. My soul has indeed been swallowed but not by demons. But by freedom. In fact a grace of the grotesque has begun to emerge for me. I am no longer hiding behind a religious culture but finding meaning in the reel world where the human condition is on display, parodied but truthfully presented. Sam Raimi is a child on the playground excitedly warning me how unbelievably gross the wound underneath his scab is- do I still want to see it? Oh…yeah. You bet I do. As he rips it off I say the only thing I can, ….”Groovy.”
I am still living in the community. It is the mid nineties I’m 26 or 27 years old. I have been told time and again that I should see, and warned I might want to avoid seeing, a film called Dead Alive. I am also told I need to see the Unrated version if I do see it because all the jokes are destroyed by the cuts made to get it down to an R. I am told it is the grossest film ever made.
It is literally indescribable. I am awash in every slapstick sight gag the movies ever offered, the sweetest of fairy tale love stories and a lawnmower put to the use every fan of gore has always prayed it would be. The flesh and blood and bone have been blenderized coating everything and everyone in a thick pink slue. And just as Lionel the hero of the film runs in place at one point unable to get any friction on the floor I am also trapped. There seems no way out and I don’t care. I want the moment to last forever.
An old crone grinds her high heel into a squishy muppety rat thing as FM publisher Forrest J. Ackerman goes through the motions of another legendary cameo. Later, the woman is decomposing, her ear falling into a bowl of pudding where she hungrily devours it only to spit the pearl earring out. A dog is devoured as a shrill Spanish voice cries “Your mother….she ate my dog!” A son can’t get his mother’s undead corpse to lie still for her funeral, a nurse’s head hangs by a thread and she gives birth to a monstrous zombie child who plays deadly practical jokes. Uncle Les buries a garden gnome into the stump of a headless zombie’s neck, the upper half of a human head is kicked around a dance floor Countless laughs, countless deaths. Once the zombified intestine has been vanquished, and mother has been exposed as the vile harpy she always was inside, Lionel and Paquita clinch in a slimy kiss that washes the audience clean. Gore was never really the point, it was an irony, a reality, an anxiety, a symbol, a metaphor, something to get up on the screen where it could do it’s job and then fade from red to black and finally clean white passing even as I will pass someday beyond the grave embraced by love. It is the messiness of life, the fear of death and meaninglessness, but it is not all there is.
By the time the screening is over I’m dripping with sweat and not sure I ever want to see the film again even though it’s clearly a masterpiece of it’s kind. Of course someone hears that I have it and begs me to watch it with them the next day and someone else the next. I am genuinely queasy now and won’t watch the film again for quite awhile.
I am 41 now. I am a confirmed fan of horror film. I own roughly 650 different horror movies. Some make me laugh, some make me nervous and some even make me want to cry. Occasionally I even feel a little queasy although I’m much more aware of the effects end of things and so it’s harder for a film to ‘get me. But these films got me (and still have the power to get me) and I’m more thankful than ever that they did and still do.