Greetings from Captain Howdy.
I recently saw Nicolas Winding Refn‘s Drive and I’ve got to say that it is a truly disturbing film regarding its use of gore. I know that it seems to be a pretty strange thing to notice considering that it is a film that features superb performances from Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston and Christina Hendricks, as well as a gripping 10-minute openings to a film I’ve recently seen. However, this got me thinking about the effective ways gore can be used in order to elicit the proper audience reaction.
For the purposes of this article, allow me to use the following films to illustrate the various ways gore effects are used: From Hell, Hostel, and Drive. These films are extremely gory, but their use of the effect is varied that one can sense a science or a logic behind it (well, maybe not Hostel, but I’m getting ahead of myself).
The Aesthetization of Gore
By “Aesthetization of Gore”, I mean the use of gore effects as an artistic element in film. It all depends on the lighting, the editing, how the blood trickles down from an open wound, etc. One does not simply show blood gushing from the victim’s wound, one has to “dress it up” a little. Properly done, gore effects could be “tasteful” and yet still retain it’s disturbing effect.
Personally, I think the Jack the Ripper film From Hell is a really good example of the “Aesthetization of Gore” in movies. The lighting, costume and production design, and editing are all vital pieces in the violent scenes of that movie. Except for one moment, you hardly see the knife of Jack the Ripper making contact on the skin of his victims. You see the glint of the Ripper’s knife. Then you see a shot of the knife coming down. You do not see it making contact on the victim, but you hear the sickening sound of torn flesh and flowing blood. Only then will the film cut to the image of the open wound with the blood flowing from it.
Another example of how From Hell did its gore “tastefully” was in the scene where Jack the Ripper makes his first kill. The scene starts with a shot of the victim walking down the alley. All of a sudden, she is grabbed by the Ripper to a shadowed area where he proceeds to stab her repeatedly. Note, however, that you do not see the Ripper or the victim as they are in the shadows; you only see the glint of the down as it penetrates the victim. Soon we see the silver blade gradually being covered by blood as the Ripper repeatedly stabs his victim to death. Couple this with, again, the sickening sound effects of torn flesh and flowing blood, and you achieve an effect that is beautiful and disturbing at the same time.
You see, this is an excellent way to use this type of effect as it is your imagination that’s doing the work for you. You know that the knife penetrates the body, but it is masked by jump cuts and dim lighting. Add the sound effects and you’ve got a winner in your hands. Thus we can see how powerful suggestion or implication is if you want a good gore effect. The impact is disturbing, but it is done in an artistic manner.
Gore-nography or Splatter-Porn
From artful gore, we proceed to porn. Well, “gore-nography” to be more exact. It is the explicit and indiscriminate use of gore in films used to achieve a certain reaction to the audience. In the same way that pornography’s aim to show as many sex, nudity, and other naughty bits on camera in order to elicit a titillating effect on the viewer , gore-nography, based on my observations, also achieves to show as many blood, mutilation, and decapitation on film in order to elicit a base response on the viewer, which could either be repulsion or disgust.
Hostel is the best example I could think of for gore-nography as it is a “benchmark” for most of the contemporary horror films released today, namely the remakes of The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left, and even the Michael Bay horror remakes.
Now, I understand that one of horror’s aim is to disgust its viewer, and that the use of gore is a way to achieve that effect. We are repulsed by blood. Seeing blood and gore effects on film is one way to disgust us. In Hostel, there is a scene where a man cuts his victim’s Achilles tendon. When the victim tries to run away, we see an extremely close-up of his heels being separated. His throat gets cut later on. Another scene shows a torturer blow-torching an Asian girl’s eyes that her eyeballs are dangling out of her eye-sockets. The hero kills the torturer and tries to help the girl by, get this, cutting her dangling eyeballs with a pair of scissors in full view of the camera. And as if that wasn’t enough, pus starts to flow from it.
I have to admit, seeing those images on the big screen greatly unsettled me. It disgusted me, it repulsed me, it made me sick. And I have to admit that for those points, Hostel seems to be an effective horror film. However, why is it still a weak gory film as compared to films like From Hell, The Evil Dead, Dawn of the Dead (Romero’s original, not the 2004 remake), and even Drive and Saving Private Ryan? It is a weak film in the same sense that a pornographic image of a porn star spread wide on your Hustler is nothing compared to a nude by the world’s greatest painters. Porn is porn: it is exploitative in nature. Artistic nudes, however, shows the beauty of the human figure. It isn’t meant to titillate it’s viewer, it’s supposed to give aesthetic pleasure to him. And aesthetic pleasure is achieved if one sees and understands the elements used by the artist for his work.
Hostel’s gory sequences are nothing but shock value. They are too “in your face”, too direct, too brutal. And while it is effective, it’s intended effect is only temporary. I’m sure that in a few years time, if one were to watch Hostel again, one wouldn’t be that affected by it’s gory scenes anymore due to the audience’s desensitization.
The Exception in Drive
I mentioned earlier that Drive is a disturbing film due to it’s violent content. Yes, it is indeed one of the best films of the year, and also one of the most violent I’ve seen recently. We have scenes in this film where a woman gets a full shotgun blast to the face, where a mobster gets stabbed in the eye with a fork, only to be stabbed repeatedly on the throat until he dies, and where another mobster’s face gets crushed by the protagonist’s boots. These scenes are brutal, no doubt. However, I would say that Drive belongs to the category of Artistic Gore, not Goreno-graphy.
The difference between Drive and Hostel lies in proper editing, and the force of suggestion. Hostel relishes in showing the violent scenes. There are sustained shots of blood, gore, and decapitated limbs. Drive almost goes down that same path, but as it crosses the boundary, it retreats. The shotgun blast to the face was only a second long, A SECOND. Hostel’s eyeball scene last roughly five seconds, and did I mention we continue seeing that eyeless Asian girl around 15 minutes or so with the goofy eyeless make-up? All that we see of that poor girl in Drive is…well, we do not see her. Instead, we see the bloodied bathroom, it’s walls sprayed with the poor girl’s blood. We do not see her body, her blasted head, nothing.
Additionally, for the scene where Ryan Gosling stomps on the mobster’s head until he crushes it into oblivion, all we see is, again, a second’s worth of footage of his boot making contact where the mobster’s head used to be. In fact, the only clue to the disturbing image we have here is the shocked expression of Carey Mulligan upon seeing what Ryan Gosling has done. We do not see the headless mobster again afterwards.
Now, what makes these two scenes way more powerful than any of Hostel’s violent scenes combined is, once more, suggestion. We only see the graphic violent for a second each, no more. The shock of seeing a snippet of something brutal is way more powerful than giving that brutal scene for more than five seconds. The impact is stronger the shorter you see it. It will replay more often in your mind than a full five seconds of it.
The Power of Suggestion
Gore is way more powerful if it is shown in snippets. Show too much gore and you may end up with something too exploitative, and also risk making it look funny instead of repulsive. Also, it pays to not be too direct in blood effects and to respect the audience’s intelligence and imagination as those two things will do more.
Well, technically it’s still tomorrow, as my very first blog entry on this site was October 27, 2010.
My my, it’s been a year already? Just a year ago I was still struggling to finish my thesis on time, depended on money from my folks, and was practically a bum. *sigh*, I wish the faux Bohemian lifestyle. Sadly, I need to shed that off as one needs to earn in order for me to continue watching movies.
For all my loyal followers (I know there are. Though I just wish that you guys would comment more often), thanks for following me for the past year. Here’s to another year before I destroy the world in 2012.
P.S.- Oh yeah, you can expect a couple of new articles in the coming days. In lieu with the Halloween spirit, you can expect two articles concerning horror films. One would be a discussion on effective uses of gore in films, and the other would be a comparison between three “found footage” films, namely The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and Rec.
Oh, and don’t mind the picture. It’s the cutest one I could find.
See you soon!
*A little aside before I continue to my short review. It’s good to be back after a month long disappearance here. A lot of things have happened since my last update, among them being me finally getting a teaching job at my old highschool. Unfortunately, that means that I won’t be able to update this blog frequently again (not like I constantly update this little space in the Interwebs). That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m shutting this blog down. As long as there are people who follow this little blog of mine, Dr. Bok will continue to conquer the world, one film review at a time.
** Another aside before I move on to my short review, this entry is the first of a possible “Cannes Film Festival ” marathon. So far, I’ve seen Melancholia and The Tree of Life. I have yet to watch Drive. So, expect the next entries to be on Terrence Malick‘s personal magnum opus, and that thriller film starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan. Now off to my review. And as early as now, I’d like to issue a SPOILER ALERT throughout this entry.
First of all, Lars Von Trier‘s Melancholia is described as an apocalyptic/psychological film about a depressed lady played by Kirsten Dunst, and a huge planet called Melancholia heading towards Earth. That’s all there is to know about the film. We are introduced to a surreal prologue involving the film’s main characters, ending with the gigantic planet Melancholia colliding with Earth. Then we move on to the film’s first hour. We are shown Justine’s wedding celebration, though to call it a celebration would be likening an embalming process to a trip to the hair salon. Justine is clearly not in her right mind. Her family is in shambles. And her boss is a self-centered prick.
The second half of the film deals more with Justine’s sister, Claire, and her attempts to take care of a Justine whose depression renders her incapable of doing the most basic things such as bathing, eating, and opening the door to a cab. Oh, and the planet Melancholia collides with Earth and destroys life as we know it.
Yeah. I just told you the entire film. We’re done here.
Oh fine! Here are the good and the bad just so you guys don’t accuse me of being unprofessional.
The strongest element of the film is the acting. Kirsten Dunst possibly gives the performance of her career as the depressed Justine. Her portrayal of the character, though more arguably a stereotype rather than a character, gives life to the otherwise flat character. Charlotte Gainsbourg, playing Claire, gives a more rounded performance than Dunst. We clearly see how her character changes from the person whom Justine depends on in the first half, to the character who must depend on Justine by the time the world comes to an end.
Lars Von Trier’s direction of the prologue and the finale are commendable. The opening prologue (set to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde) is a visually impressive set-piece, while the finale is a touching, yet bleak moment in the lives of Justine and Claire.
As for the visual effects, they do not overwhelm the film’s human story (or lack thereof). They work well for the film.
The premise, in the hands of a more talented filmmaker, is a goldmine. It’s about people struggling or coming to terms with the end of the world. The human element is present there. And I agree with Von Trier’s decision to not fully explain the science behind the giant planet. What I do not agree with is his take on the human story. In his interviews, he claims that his film is about the psyche of people during an impending apocalypse. But what the film showed was a disjointed two-act film about a depressed woman, the reversal of her sister, and a giant planet colliding with Earth.
The characters were not fully optimized. Claire broke down in the end, while Justine, trying her darndest to be profound, simply says something in the line of “life on this Earth is cruel, and that it deserves to be destroyed.” Do we really need to sit through two hours just to hear that?
On the nit-picking side, who in their right mind would name a newly discovered planet, “Melancholia”?
I understand that the film’s story is quite autobiographical, in the sense that director Lars Von Trier is recovering from clinical depression. This, unfortunately, is the film’s downfall. The universal themes associated with the apocalypse is replaced by a crazy auteur’s heavy-handed musings about the bleakness of human existence.
2 Stars out of 5.