2.2. Controversial issues in film
3. Violence in film
3.1. Eliminating Frankenstein's monster
3.2. "Freaks" ahead of their time
3.3. "Peeping Tom" raises the bar
3.4. Reflecting Vietnam in "The Last House on the Left"
3.5. A "Chain Saw Massacre" becomes a landmark
3.6. Slasher-Boom in the 1980s
3.7. "Natural Born Killers" wreak havoc
3.8. "New French Extremity" and "Torture Porn"
4. Summary and prognosis for the future of violence in film
Image 1: Deformed Cleopatra in the final scene of "Freaks"
Image 2: Promotional Poster for "Texas Chainsaw 3D"
Image 3: A key scene in "Natural Born Killers"
illustration not visible in this excerpt
Over the past decades it is easy to see a development of what is deemed acceptable in movies and what is not - films that were perceived as outrageous in the past are G-rated today; limits that were thought to be uncrossable are broken again and again in contemporary productions. By examining the past, present and potential future of controversy caused by violence in film, especially in the United States of America, the United Kingdom and central Europe, it is clear to see that the overall trend is going towards increasing liberalisation and acceptance of violent content in mainstream cinema.
The trend of movies becoming increasingly violent is very likely to continue in the future.
Films, also called movies or motion pictures are "series of still photographs on film, projected in rapid succession onto a screen"1 in order to create a dramatic work presented in cinematic form.
In the late 19th century the first cameras were built and developed by different scientists such as Thomas Alva Edison, the Skladanowsky and the Lumière brothers. On December 28, 1895 the first paid for screenings took place in the Grand Café, Paris. Only two years later the Lumière Brothers had gathered 358 different films, ranging from short films to documentaries and even trick shots.2
From there the movie industry grew rapidly. "By 1914, every American town with a population over 5000 had at least one movie theater; six years later, 50 million Americans - nearly half the population - flocked to one of the nation's 15000 theaters each week or to one of the 220000 churches, union halls, schools, or voluntary associations that screened movies. By 1930, weekly admission figures approached 100 percent of the nation's population."3
After "Black Thursday"4 many theatres had to close down, production costs increased and the movie industry faced its first big crisis.5 At the same time religious groups and governmental bodies, unsettled by the increasing influence movies had on their viewers and consequently on society, were pressing for stricter control over what was shown in films.6 To draw a larger audience the studios had to innovate and elaborate filmmaking.
As a result of that and the slow decrease of the church's influence on the government and therefore the movie industry in the second half of the last century, movies' content became more explicit for standards at that time, picking up on issues that were either very controversial or strongly avoided by society. This initiated an evolution of both cinematic directions and censoring control, which would lead to the current form of the movie industry.7
While film rating systems and their standards have clearly gone through a liberalisation process, especially over the second half of the last century, films still constantly cause controversy and are in some cases either strongly limited or even completely kept from distribution.
Organisations like the MPAA8, BBFC9 or the FSK10 are responsible to protect their country from particular films' "allegedly intrinsic wrongness" and "apparent harmfulness"11. Also indirect censorship and regulation often takes place - for example the government relying on such "'arms-length' bodies to carry out the task"12 of restricting media according to their own agenda. Even strong word-of-mouth by a certain lobby can lead to effects on a movie's success similar to old fashioned censorship.
Officially declaring a film not suitable for a certain group of people or the whole public in general usually happens for a variety of reasons. They vary from country to country but can be narrowed down to a group of main issues.
2.2. Controversial issues in film
Since it is generally accepted that films can have a strong influence on their audiences (there is, however no conclusive definition and a multitude of new theoretical approaches to media influence arises on a regular basis13 ), there is a constant fear of films depicting controversial issues too realistically or drastically and thereby being a negative influence on or even a threat to their audience. This includes not only psychological or physical harm caused by strong violence or terror in movies, but also upsetting or offensive controversial ideals, world- views, provocative imagery etc. that might cause "dispute"14 about "cultural, disciplinary and historical borderlines"15.
"From the appearance of the first films in the 1890s until the present, movies were never just a medium of entertainment. They have simultaneously reflected and shaped changes in [...] society. [...] Movies offered filmmakers a new way to reach a mass citizenry, a cinematic public sphere that could be used to communicate ideas and shape public opinion"16
Films can mirror, shape and manipulate society, which makes them a powerful medium. Due to that, controversies occur on a regular basis and for lots of different reasons: films might be too violent or they might touch on sensitive subjects like gender-roles, sexuality, race, politics or religion.17 Deviations from ideological norms or the unvarnished dealing with repressed or oppressed issues unsettles and often offends people.18 The acceptableness of issues always depends on the corresponding viewership. This is why there are hardly any unanimous agreements on rules and restrictions for movies' content. Even the republican and the democratic parties included filmic violence as a central issue in the 2000 presidential campaign, which shows the political and cultural significance of this issue.19
Furthermore it is evident that the common views on cinematic scandals change along with society, the political climate, the liberality or illiberality of the government, current threats, conflicts etc..20
All in all this subject can be narrowed down and split into these main categories:
- the portrayal of gender, race and sexuality,
- the illustration of politics and religion and
- the depiction of violence.
In the history of controversies caused by films, violence is certainly the most consistently relevant issue. Therefore this paper will focus on this issue from now on. The perceptions and definitions of violence have changed extremely over the past. Decades ago sheer innuendo of violent acts was enough for the film to be deemed "immoral"; nowadays movements have pushed the boundaries of violence of all kinds depicted in movies. That includes not only blood and gore, but also psychological and social violence.
3. Violence in film
In order to get an understanding of what role violence plays in movies today and how that role might develop in the future, one must take a look at examples from the past. Due to the fact that there are countless different examples of violence depicted in movies, there will be focus on major examples that will give a general view on the gradual development of how violent content used to be presented and how audiences, censors and suchlike would react. This will result in an overview on the past, present and potential future role of violence in film.
3.1. Eliminating Frankenstein's Monster
In 1931 Universal Studios released "Frankenstein", a monster-horror movie based on Mary Shelley's famous novel. It tells the story of a scientist who creates a somewhat human being through the use of electrical devices and parts of exhumed corpses.21 Regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time22, most of its brutality is "implicit, pointed to by action on- screen that was itself nonviolent"23. Still, for audiences at that time, the brutality of "Frankenstein" was unprecedented. This resulted in numerous problems with censor boards that accused the film of cruelty and moral debasement. They imposed a list of eliminations required to be cut from the film, which shows quite concretely "the types of violence and horror that were troubling [...] and that many felt ought to have no place on cinema screens."24
The list of eliminations included shots of characters digging up caskets, close-ups of dead bodies and monsters. None of this footage contained any overt acts of violence but clearly referenced it. For example, while digging up caskets is not brutal, it stands for the profanity grave robbing represented and additionally hints a subsequent act of violence - cutting corpses into pieces and surgically reconnecting them in order to create a monster. Another aspect was the soundscape and some particular sound effects in the movie, namely animal sounds made by the creature and screams of the creature's victims.
Such non-violent footage had to be cut in order to prevent it from pointing to "violent acts as the antecedents or consequents of the eliminated footage."25 Especially because channels of distribution like home-media or TV broadcasting were not established the way they are today, filmmakers had to succumb to such instructions to prevent their productions from being at risk of failing financially.
3.2. "Freaks" ahead of their time
In 1932, one year after the release of "Frankenstein", MGM-Studios released the Horror film "Freaks". Based on a short story by Tom Robbins it revolves around sideshow performers of an early 1930's circus-crew. Their leader is seduced by a woman who works in the same circus company after she learned of his big inheritance. Once it is revealed that she and her secret lover plan to kill him so they can have his money, the "Freaks" take their revenge by castrating him and deforming her - making the two monsters just like them (see Image 1).26
illustration not visible in this excerpt
Image 1: Once a beautiful trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) is eventually transformed into a chicken lady.
Source: Sumner, D. (2010): Horror Movie Freak (Krause Publications), Iola, p. 184.
Tod Browning, the director made the choice to cast real people with deformities in lieu of using costume and makeup. This and the plot of the movie were heavily criticised even before production began. "By the time Freaks was finally unveiled for a public preview, it had already gone through numerous changes. [...] after the horrified response to the preview screening of Freaks, the studio drastically cut the film from a length of around ninety minutes to just over an hour."27
Critics unanimously gave the film bad reviews and the film quickly proved to be a critical and commercial failure. Civic groups, especially those representing women and the disabled accused the film of corrupting morals, misogyny and a false and cruel portrayal of the disabled.28
"Freaks" was one of the first films to cause (and suffer from) widespread controversy. The decision of the producers to shoot such a film was strongly inspired by the current hype surrounding Monster films. By pushing boundaries like never before in filmmaking they hoped to produce a successful film, relying heavily on 'shock-value' (e.g. provocative captions like "Do Siamese Twins Make Love?" and "What Sex is the Half-Man-Half-Woman?").
1 Encyclopedia Britannica (n.d.): motion picture, in: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/394107/motion-picture, accessed on 27.10.2012.
2 cf.: Thissen, R. (1995): 100 Jahre Film (Heyne Filmbibliothek), Munich, pp. 11.
3 Ross, S. J. (2002): Movies and American Society (Blackwell Publishing), Boston, p. 2.
4 "Black Thursday" describes the American stock market crash on October 29, 1929 which signalled the beginning of the Great Depression which lasted for a decade.
5 Paxton, M. (2010): Censorship (Greenwood Pub Group), Westport, pp. 71.
6 cf.: Malone, A. (2011): Censoring Hollywood (McFarland), Jefferson, pp. 14.
7 cf.: Paxton, M. (2010): Censorship (Greenwood Pub Group), Westport, pp. 73.
8 Administers the major film rating system of the United States.
9 Responsible for the national classification and censorship of films within the United Kingdom.
10 Stands for the Voluntary Self Regulation of the Movie Industry which is the film rating system of Germany.
11 Petley, J. (2011): Film & Video Censorship in Modern Britain (Edinburgh UP), Edinburgh, p. 9.
12 cf.: Petley, J. (2011): Film & Video Censorship in Modern Britain (Edinburgh UP), Edinburgh, p. 5.
13 cf.: Rösler, C. (2004): Medienwirkungen (Westfälisches Dampfboot), Münster, p. 56; cf.: Bonfadelli, H. (2004): Medienwirkungsforschung I (UTB), Stuttgart, ed. 3, p. 28.
14 Merriam Webster (n.d.): controversy, in: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/controversy, accessed on: 4.12.2012.
15 Dascal, M., Chang, H. (2007): Crossing Borderlines: Traditions, Disciplines and Controversies, in: Traditions of Controversy (John Benjamins Publishing Company), Amsterdam, p. ix.
16 Ross, S. J. (2002): Movies and American Society (Blackwell Publishing), Boston, pp. 1.
17 cf.: Ross, S. J. (2002): Movies and American Society (Blackwell Publishing), Boston, p. 9.
18 cf.: Wood, R. (2004): An Introduction to the American Film, in: Grant, B.K. and Sharrett, C. (2004): Planks of reason: Essays on the Horror Film (Scarecrow Press, Inc.), Oxford, pp. 107.
19 cf.: Neroni, H. (2005): The Violent Woman (State University of New York Press), Albany, p. ix.
20 cf.: Petley, J. (2011): Film & Video Censorship in Modern Britain (Edinburgh UP), Edinburgh, p. 9.
21 cf.: imdb (n.d.): Frankenstein (1931), in: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0021884/, accessed on 06.11.2012.
22 American Film Institute (2001): AFI's 100 Years 100 Thrills, in: http://www.afi.com/Docs/tvevents/pdf/thrills100.pdf, accessed on 06.11.2012.
23 Prince, S. (2003): Classical Film Violence (Rutgers University Press), New Jersey, p. 52.
24 Prince, S. (2003): Classical Film Violence (Rutgers University Press), New Jersey, p. 59.
25 Prince, S. (2003): Classical Film Violence (Rutgers University Press), New Jersey, p. 61.
26 cf.: imdb (n.d.): Freaks (1932), in: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022913/, accessed on: 29.11.2012.
27 Stafford,J. (n.d.): Freaks, in: http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/460%7C0/Freaks.html, accessed on: 29.11.2012.
28 cf.: Sumner, D. (2010): Horror Movie Freak (Krause Publications), Iola, pp. 184; cf.: Stafford,J. (n.d.): Freaks, in: http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/460%7C0/Freaks.html, accessed on: 29.11.2012.