Hollywood ramps up its scare tactics

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Red is the hot color this month - not only on the fashion runway, but on Hollywood sets as well.

A quick perusal of a TV Guide confirms the trend, even on network TV: Earlier this month, "Fear Factor" contestants bobbed for objects in 50 gallons of cows' blood. Last month on "24," one of the good guys was hacked to death with an electric chainsaw. The torture techniques on "Alias" have become so refined that the torturer usually has to explain what's going on to the viewing audience at home.

But the small-screen carnage pales in comparison with the footage scheduled for the big screen. A single scene in a new Quentin Tarantino movie required 100 gallons of fake blood. Scores of moviegoers ran for the exits during an early screening of a new French film. And a horror film slated for release this spring contains enough "sadistic" violence to have caused one studio to pull it from its schedule.

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Horror films have been spooking audiences since Bela Lugosi made his big-screen debut in 1917, but critics say the current roster of films takes gore to a whole new level. They point to a range of possible causes - from ever more realistic special effects to a ratings system that is more lenient on violence than sex. Also, increasingly graphic violence on network TV may be causing filmmakers to up the shock quotient in an effort to get people to buy tickets for what they can see for free at home.

"The bar keeps being raised.... With all the special effects and new technology, you can bump it up another level," says Kenn Viselman, founder of a family entertainment company in New York. "If you've already seen a decapitation, 'Well, we saw that already.' Now you have to find a way to do a double decapitation, or it's not cool."

Another reason the gore may seem even more pronounced is that the events of Sept. 11 had made studios squeamish about trafficking in carnage - but only for a little while.

Prior to that, in 2000 Congress hauled studios over the coals for marketing R-rated material to teens. The year after, 12 horror films were released, a drop of 30 percent. This year, 13 are set to be released.

Since viewers under 25 (primarily teenagers) make up the audience at a typical horror film, R-rated gory films were less attractive financially to studios.

The most recent wave of hit scary movies, from "The Sixth Sense" to "The Others," relied more on suggestion than outright gore. But there are increasing signs that the gloves are coming off - such as this month's "Final Destination 2," which features Death dispatching young, comely actors in a variety of gruesome ways.

At least one expert sees two simultaneous trends: fewer horror films overall, but more extreme gore in the R-rated ones. "We've seen a shift toward a lot of films going for the PG-13 rating," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., in Encino, Calif. "Studios are toning down the violence hoping to attract a younger audience. What they're trying to do is make more money.

"On the flip side," he says, "there's still the R-rated horror movies, which are still in vogue. There's an audience ... who doesn't want the homogenized, watered-down horror. They are looking for the outrageous stuff."

'Irréversible' damage?

One movie that's raised the bar to extreme heights is next week's "Irréversible." Directed by Gaspar Noé, the French film - which opens with a brutal murder and has a nine-minute rape scene - caused 250 people to flee for the exit when it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Several filmgoers reportedly required oxygen to recover from the experience.

But Mr. Noé says he wouldn't have had it any other way.

"You don't do a movie to make people walk out [in disgust]," says Noé. "You just say, 'I want to do the violent scenes really violent.' That's the only useful way to do it.... I could not think of doing a rape scene that would not be painful. Otherwise, you're not [thinking about] what you're shooting, what you're representing."

Mr. Dergarabedian points out that "Irréversible" isn't rated and can "fly in under the radar screen."

"Some of these smaller, independent art-house films ... can go over the top in terms of the violence. Since they're not marketed to a broad audience, they can get away with it," he says.

"Irréversible" won't reach as many viewers as, say, a "Final Destination 2," but the very fact that it's out there may sway future generations of filmmakers.

Two directors known for painting bloody canvases, Martin Scorsese and Tarantino, were certainly influenced by underground films.

Story editor Beverly Gray, who worked for B-movie director Roger Corman in the 1960s, says the Scorseses and Tarantinos of the film world grew up going to movies at the drive-in, where all kinds of gruesome horror films were shown.

Tarantino, director of the action-revenge picture "Kill Bill," coming out in October, "grew up on Corman's style of filmmaking and is consciously paying homage to its gory excesses in his films," says Ms. Gray.

The trickle-down effect

There is at least some anecdotal evidence that the levels of violence are trickling down, with PG-13 films featuring content that traditionally would have earned an R rating, says Ron Leone, an assistant professor in communication at Stonehill College In Easton, Mass., who is researching the escalating violence in PG-13 films.

Take the current No. 1 film, "Daredevil," starring Ben Affleck. The intense fighting originally earned it an R rating from the MPAA. The director had to resubmit the film twice before getting a PG-13, and to this viewer, the bloody violence and nonstop fight scenes still seem on par with an R-rating.

Mr. Leone says the MPAA has been relatively tolerant of graphic depictions of violence. Even David Ellis, director of "Final Destination 2" admitted recently to Entertainment Weekly that the ratings board gave him few problems. "Really, it's kind of sick that they'll let you show all that stuff."

But there are some cases where extreme violence frightens off the studios themselves. Rob Zombie (yes, the rock musician) makes his directorial debut in "House of 1000 Corpses." Its sadistic carnage scared off its original distributor, Universal. Lions Gate (also the distributor for "Irréversible") plans to release it in April. Lions Gate didn't respond to calls from the Monitor.

While critics are quick to indict horror films like "House of 1000 Corpses" for gratuitous violence, Leone asks, what about "Saving Private Ryan," a film many of his students point to as one of the goriest they've ever seen? "Is responsible gore different than irresponsible gore?" he asks.

There is a thin line, say observers like Carol Ferril, president of the Florida Motion Pictures and Television Association. She believes showing the true horrors of war might prevent a repeat of history. "People might think twice before we do this again. We've been watching those types of movies since World War II. There's definitely a place for them," says Ms. Ferril.

As for the effect of at-home violence on Hollywood, at least one film critic isn't convinced there's a direct link.

"Video games and reality TV haven't made film more violent," argues James Rocchi of netflix.com. "Nintendo had never been thought of when Sam Peckinpah created 'The Wild Bunch.' Advances in special effects and artistic courage have made depicting violence with realism more possible, which is, to me, a good thing.

"The lingering gunshot in 'Reservoir Dogs' and the wartime horrors of 'Saving Private Ryan' are far preferable to the Schwarzenegger/Gibson aesthetic of violence, where nothing hurts, nothing matters."

And others say that it's all pretend, anyway. Gore is obviously a staple in the horror-film genre, says Michael Hein, director of the New York Horror Film Festival. "But it's done more in a cartoonish sense. You know it's not real," he says. "It bothers me only when it's done maliciously. [It only works when] a filmmaker's trying to give you a message, which is rare. Usually with horror, it's just for giggles."

Staff writer David Sterritt contributed to this report.

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