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.