British Cultural Moments of Taste for Extreme On-Screen Violence

Johnny Walker

Johnny Walker

French filmmaker Jacques Rivette claimed in 1957 that “British cinema is a genre cinema, but one where the genres have no genuine roots”. There are, he said, no “self-validating genres as there are in American cinema”, only “false, in the sense of imitative, genres” (quoted in Ryall 1998: 20). Critic David Pirie (2008) disagrees with this idea, claiming that the horror genre lends itself a British sensibility, due to its roots in “English” Gothic fiction. However, British horror cinema since 2000 has largely veered from the Romantic Gothic horrors upon which David Pirie bases his doctrine.

Today, writers have been more inclined to pastiche the modern American and European horror film that began to flourish when British horror’s popularity was dwindling (along with the rest of British cinema) in the early 1970s. Steven Sheil’s recent ‘Mum & Dad’ (2008), for example, adopts the “family of cannibals” theme that was popular in 1970s American horror and was also initially pitched to its potential funders as ‘The Heathrow Chainsaw Massacre’.

Commentators have also been quick to identify the likenesses between new British horror and the “modern” American/European genre films of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Even the filmmakers themselves have been enthusiastically open about their fan allegiances to this era of horror production and the impact that it had on them as youths. For example, Neil Marshall, the acclaimed director of ‘The Descent’ (2005) and the recent war epic ‘Centurion’ (2010), claims that the cult comedy-horror ‘The Evil Dead’ (Sam Raimi 1981) was a major influence on his 2002 werewolf movie ‘Dog Soldiers’ (Carolyn 2009: 53), whilst film critics James Dennis (2008) and Chris Tilly (2008) have observed traces of the “backwoods horror” tradition — pioneered by films such as ‘Deliverance’ (John Boorman 1972), ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ (Tobe Hooper 1974) and ‘The Last House on the Left’ (Wes Craven 1972) — in James Thomas Watkins’ ‘Eden Lake’ (2008). One could also suggest that the slick aesthetic of Christopher Smith’s ‘Creep’ (2004) and Philip Ridley’s ‘Heartless’ (2009), as well as the musical score of Johannes Roberts’ ‘F’ (2010), owe more than a little to the “skilful utilisation of colour, jagged cross-cutting and subliminally unsettling, unearthly décor” (Anon, cited in Hutchings 2003: 134) of Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’ (1977), ‘Inferno’ (1980) and ‘Tenebre’ (1982).

Although some have responded avidly to this pastiche, others have been inclined to dismiss many of the films as evidence of the British merely pandering to recent trends in contemporary exploitation cinema, marked by American films such as ‘Saw’ (James Wan 2004), ‘Hostel’ (Eli Roth 2005) and ‘The Devil’s Rejects’ (Rob Zombie 2005). These films, which have been facetiously classified under the umbrella terms “gornography” and “torture porn” (due to their prolonged sequences of gore and physical torture), have led critic Kaleem Aftab (2008) to deduce that they supplement “arguably the worst movement in cinema history”. “The greatest shame”, he continues, “is that modern British [horror] films such as ‘Eden Lake’ [and others] […] [have taken] their leads from torture porn rather than British classics such as Michael Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’” (Aftab: 2008).

I would suggest that two significant things are implied here, both of which problematize our understanding of the cultural makeup of contemporary British horror cinema. First, Kaleem Aftab suggests that new British horror films are lacking cultural specificity, at least on a textual (as opposed to thematic) level, due to them having less in common with classic British horror and more in common with recent developments in the extreme cinema of the United States of America. For a film to pay homage is fine, it seems, but for British films to reference dumb American product — that allegedly places “body before mind” rather than vice versa (Aftab: 2008) — is to be considered detrimental to the films’ overall quality, their originality and their preservation of genetic heritage. As such, contemporary British horror is characterized here as a kind of “nanny genre” to the tasteless, though dominating, United States of America, as if the violence of torture porn, and the negative responses it has provoked, is resultant of a specifically American-born aesthetic.

Second, Kaleem Aftab argues that the key traits of torture porn consist of the “placed emphasis on visuals” and the subgenres thriving on “lack of plot” (2008). However, I would argue that what Kaleem Aftab overlooks here is that visuals — that is, in this context, the depiction of graphic/prolonged violence on-screen — can be utilized in such a way that, even if plot is lacking (or is so contrived as though to defy scrutiny), the violent spectacle itself can take on a significance all of its own. This is particularly true in a British context, where the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) and the news media have had a notoriously tenuous relationship with the horror genre and its gory spectacle. To quote James Kendrick, “England is no stranger to social panics in the modern age of mass-mediated entertainments […] [and] such panics have characterized the introduction of virtually every new form of entertainment” (2004: 155).

The significance of British horror’s contemporary taste for violence thus rests upon a cultural legacy of censorship, social speculation and moralizing, an allegation given credence in a review of the aforementioned ‘Mum & Dad’ by British journalist Chris Tookey: “Inexperienced writer-director Steven Sheil attempts to play for black comedy as well as thrills, but ends up celebrating sleaze, gloating in gore, and reveling in the repulsive. As if that was not bad enough, you helped pay for this pointlessly unpleasant torture porn through the UK Film Council, the European Regional Development Fund and your BBC licence fee. I make no further comment.” (2008)

“It is now taken for granted that such obtuse social reactions against horror films emerge most often from those older critics/audiences who do not form the contemporary horror film’s teenage-aimed demographic” (Sconce 1993: 106). (At the time of this writing, Tookey is in his sixties.) Although these reactions are, as James Kendrick earlier suggested, synonymous with British critics, they hold a specific significance to the 1980s, the increasing popularity of the VHS medium and the subsequent video nasties panic that resulted.

The legal loophole that allowed films on video to circulate without having to pass a censorship body (unlike films for cinema exhibition) led to the wide availability of numerous violent films in Britain that shocked and offended many. Following campaigns led by tendentious religious groups, the British media and Conservative MPs, thirty-nine titles were officially banned as being potentially harmful to children, although police officials seized a great deal more than this during spontaneous raids on legitimate collectors, dealers and households across the country (Kerekes and Slater 2000: 287–313). This era has become so well woven into the cultural tapestry of Britain, to the extent that some have argued, despite the BBFC’s current — and more liberal — approach to film certification, that the spectre of the video nasties still haunts the United Kingdom today (Kendrick 2004). To this end, I am inclined to consider a selection of recent British horror films as not merely imitative of international product in their violent spectacle, but, rather, as decidedly “British” in their self-reflexive approach to this material.

Recently, Brigid Cherry reiterated the academic consensus that horror films are socially reflective and “tap into very specific elements of the zeitgeist or cultural moment” (2010: 169). A “cultural moment”, Brigid Cherry argues, is defined against how “the horror film reflects and addresses the anxieties of the age” (2010: 167). However, in light of British horror’s “contemporary taste for extreme violence” (Wood 2007: 96), and the distinctive legacy of critical opinion that precedes it, the cultural moment of these films is less easily specified, precisely because of their censorious cultural and historical underpinnings.

To add validation to my hypothesis, the films that were cited earlier (‘Mum & Dad’, ‘Eden Lake’, ‘Dog Soldiers’, ‘Creep’, ‘Heartless’, and ‘F’) were all inspired by, or can be stylistically/thematically likened to, certain horror texts that were all, in some form or another, victims of the video nasties panic in the 1980s (‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’, ‘The Last House on the Left’, ‘The Evil Dead’, ‘Suspiria’, ‘Inferno’, ‘Tenebre’). In light of this, one could suggest that those especially violent contemporary British horror films are not simply referents of particular texts or filmic trends, but are also of a stigmatic era that is specifically bound to British cultural memory. As such, the significance of these films’ influences is not just hermetically intertextual, but culturally and historically resonant as well, as they refer not just to a set of texts, but an era of specifically “British” reception that defined those texts, and how they were — and continue to be — perceived by an assumedly collective, national psyche. As Kate Egan states, “Not only has the video nasties term been used to refer, over time and in different contexts, to a set of film titles, a specific set of video versions, a set of historical events and a personal consumption experience, but clearly, and in line with [Robert] Altman’s arguments, the way in which the term and category has been defined and approached has depended ‘heavily on the identity and purpose of those [British critics] using and evaluating’ it.” (2007: 5)

For the remainder of this article, then, I will continue to build on the assumption that a selection of British horror films of the last decade seeking to stylistically and thematically recall the video nasties moral panic. However, it must be said that what follows does not claim to set out a definitive model of what violence indisputably “means” to contemporary British horror cinema. Rather, I offer one articulation of the potential significance such violence could hold for a handful of recent films and their creators. To this end, in the films that I have chosen to single out — ‘Creep’, ‘The Devil’s Chair’ (Adam Mason 2007) and ‘The Last Horror Movie’ (Julian Richards 2003) – there is a binding thread predicated on a series of dichotomies, between good taste/bad taste, acceptability/unacceptability, reality/fantasy and text/spectator, all of which characterized many arguments during the infancy of video consumption in Britain. So, to begin, and an echo of the cultural weight cinematic violence carries in British culture (and the collective notion of popular taste), the violence of the first two case studies often appears to splinter projections of normalcy and class.

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