Stephen King may have given us the image of hordes of cockroaches creeping out of a man's mouth and of an obsessed fan sledge-hammering her favorite novelist's leg, but he can still sound a little uneasy about gross-outs. He writes in his 1981 book, Dance Macabre, "I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud."
It's a reminder that while few artists have done more to bring gruesome horror into the mainstream, King belongs to a generation of artists that viewed gore as something to be a little ashamed about. Times have changed. What began in the 1960s with the first splatter films directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis has evolved into a gross-out industry that invents new and more explicit ways to destroy the human body every year. Online reviews lovingly chronicle every decapitation. Horror artists today talk about beheadings, severed penises, and slit throats without an ounce of shame.
At the same time, snobbery about gore remains, and not just among the delicate souls who cringe at the vulgarity of on-screen violence. You can detect the prejudice against gore in the praise lavished on Paranormal Activity for managing to entertain teenagers without gore. "Less is usually more when it comes to horror movies," writes the New York Post's Lou Lemenick before celebrating the movie for having almost no blood or on-screen violence. This attitude is more pronounced in the periodic screeds against "torture porn," a term used by many critics as an unthinking catch-all insult. In Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum says she doesn't care about the quality or wit of gore. She simply refuses to see the "vile crap."
The pro- and anti-gore camps have polarized horror and it's time to call a truce. There are real moral and artistic questions raised by turning gouged-out eyes into a fetish, but the way gore operates in horror movies has become far too creative, complex, and artistically ambitious to dismiss out of hand.
Roughly speaking, there are two major gore traditions in horror, and they are often in tension: the ferociously realistic style and the over-the-top Grand Guignol. But a full taxonomy of gore would be far more varied. The realist tradition, for instance, contains one willfully perverse strain that adopts an almost pornographic attitude towards scars and wounds and another deeply moral one rooted in the idea that the physicality and ugliness of brutality takes away from its excitement. You see this anti-violence message in the work of David Cronenberg, who stages his grueling kills as a rejoinder to the "bang, bang—you're dead" violence of much of the horror and action genres.
The Grand Guignol style is even more diverse. There is comedic gore, which at its best (Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series, Peter Jackson's Dead Alive) has a surreal, even operatic quality. (At its more mundane, it is merely for adolescent kicks.) "What I want in gore is the sense of ridiculous," says Herschell Gordon Lewis, whose Blood Feast pioneered the form in 1963. "That's the Kingdom of Heaven." These live-action cartoons contrast sharply with the aesthetic elegance of more artful Guignol, such as the lush beauty of the movies of Italian auteurs Dario Argento or Mario Bava. Such sublime splatter brings to mind Jean Luc-Godard's response to an interviewer asking why he uses so much blood. "It's not blood," he said. "It's red."
The director who is probably the most gifted gore artist working today has shown he can work in both traditions. French filmmaker Alexandre Aja had a stunning breakthrough in 2003 with the terrifying rural nightmare Haute Tension. The crafty and suspenseful kills in this movie display an obvious affection for 1970s American horror, but his staging of chainsaw murders and girls trembling in closets is even more fiercely direct than his predecessors'. No musical hook or swooping camera takes you out of the scene. And while Aja doesn't cut away from the violence, the focus is as much on the screaming, desperate women observing it as on those being victimized. In this movie and his follow-up, the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, Aja steps firmly into the realistic tradition, but there are suggestions of a playful comic style dying to get out. Which it did, last year, in Piranha 3D.
Right from the start, this spring break exploitation blockbuster is telling you not to take it too seriously. The first scene, featuring Richard Dreyfus getting devoured in a broad Jaws reference, turns a quiet lake into a whirlpool of blood. The rest of the movie is a juvenile riot of bouncing boobs and bubbling blood. But in between underwater make-out sessions between skinny-dipping bombshells and Christopher Lloyd chewing scenery as furiously as a killer fish eating human flesh, one epic scene jarringly stands out, ushering the realistic tradition into this Grand Guignol lark.
Imagine if Stephen Spielberg got cold feet right before shooting the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan and decided to replace the soldiers on the beaches in Normandy with co-eds in Lake Victoria, Ariz., and you have a sense of this beach-party massacre. It starts as a ghoulish joke. The piranhas split bodies in two and pick apart eyeballs. As the scene (which goes on for more than 20 minutes) unfolds, Aja starts showing the fallout: the anguished faces, the panic, the realization that limbs are gone. The violence also begins to look more real. In the middle of this cartoonish bloodbath, Aja can't resist making us feel the pain.
It's the most virtuosic and problematic part of the movie, because in mixing these two traditions, Aja ruins some of the fun of the B-movie exploitation and undercuts any potential seriousness by marrying it to a silly fish attack. The gore here is disturbing, and the scene transforms Piranha 3D into one of those movies that is incredibly fun until you feel disgusting for finding it so. The effect is a horror movie that mixes high and lowbrow, real and the ridiculous. It's gore to feel proud of and ashamed about at the same time.
But doesn't explicit violence corrupt young minds and desensitize audiences to grave tragedies?
Intense, brutal violence has been around for a long time (as Justice Scalia noted last week, Grimm's fairy tales "are grim indeed"), and sensationalistic cable news might inure us to the horrors of the world as much as violent movies or video games. Then again, if the beauty and delightful dread of scary movies can have an intense impact on fans, then the physical and moral ugliness can, too. Some gore is merely revolting. But in the end, the morality of gory movies has less to do with the quantity of blood on-screen than in the way that blood is spilled. You can denounce Reservoir Dogs for making a psychopath look cool as he gleefully cuts off a policeman's ear without concluding that all ear-severing scenes are contemptible. (As I report in Shock Value, Wes Craven walked out of Reservoir Dogs during this scene.) Gore can deliver cheap, pandering shocks. But it can also make us aware of the meaning and danger of violence in a way that few other cinematic images can. Sometimes, it does a little bit of both.