There are dark corners of the cinematic landscape populated by films that people would never want to watch or films that they wish that they could un-see, kohl black slices of fiction that remain to some unfathomable why anyone would even want to view them at all. What is the draw of extreme cinema? Is it purely existent to offend? To challenge our sensibilities? or are there messages to be take away once viewed?
There is a rich history in pushing the envelope of what is acceptable to put onto film, going back to the early 60’s and the exploitation films of “The Godfather Of Gore” Herschell Gordon Lewis and the output of George Romero & Dario Argento, artfully conveying unspeakable violence to celluloid and certainly could be viewed as progenitors of the extreme cinema movement. We have the Italian output of the 70’s and 80’s with the likes of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò and the gory works of Lucio Fulci & Ruggero Deodato causing controversy over whether acts seen in their films may have been real or not, a laughable concern now but back in their day, understandably, people had not seen brutality of this level on film before, Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust being a prime exponent of this, with accusations of genuine animal cruelty levelled at it. These directors and their films indelibly left their mark in cinema, an influence that is still certainly felt today.
When we hit the early to mid-80’s, the UK was embroiled in the frankly ridiculous ‘Video Nasty’ witch hunt, the banning of films that pushed the envelope of taste and decency. Films the like of The Driller Killer, The Burning and Zombie Flesh Eaters, they all faced prosecution under the archaic censorship rulings of the time brought into action by no small influence of self-imposed saviour of moral decency Mary Whitehouse. Thankfully many of these films are available to view today in their intended uncut form allowing the choice to watch them to lie with the viewer as should be the case.
The dawning of the 21st century also saw a resurgence in extreme cinema, we had the likes of the increasingly provocative Takashi Miike bringing us Visitor Q, Audition and Itchi The Killer, Tom Six’s Human Centipede films also caused minor stir with their try too hard, no substance shock tactics. The New French Extremity movement courted violence with a more thoughtful art house mentality with the likes of the more contemporary slasher fare of Switchblade Romance and the very difficult to watch Basé Moi and Martyrs. The early 21st century has certainly seen the envelope pushed in respects as to what is acceptable to commit to celluloid. Films that have no other purpose than to disgust and offend and with questionable merit such as A Serbian Film and August Underground’s Mordum do raise the question, Is there a line? Those particular films I refuse to watch, I have heard of their content and poor critical response and decided I definitely have a threshold for what I personally believe is acceptable.
So what is it that draws us to these films? Is it that morbid sense of curiosity? The fact that a few actually succeed in being something more than just grotesque shock pieces and stand on their own artistic merit? I think there isn’t one encompassing answer to that question. As lovers of film people want to be challenged by what they watch and some films carry a message through the extreme imagery, Martyrs is a great example of this with its horror movie sensibility to that age old question of what comes after death. It’s certainly a divisive and wide ranging category of film that isn’t for everyone and will continue to enrage, disgust, prompt discussion and court controversy for years to come.