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A splatter film or gore film is a subgenre of horror film that deliberately focuses on graphic portrayals of gore and graphic violence. These films, through the use of special effects and excessive blood and guts, tend to display an overt interest in the vulnerability of the human body and the theatricality of its mutilation. The term "splatter cinema" was coined by George A. Romero to describe his film Dawn of the Dead, though Dawn of the Dead is generally considered by critics to have higher aspirations, such as social commentary, than to be simply exploitative for its own sake.
The combination of graphic violence and sexually suggestive imagery in some films has been labeled "torture porn" or "gorno" (a portmanteau of "gore" and "porno"). By contrast, in films such as Braindead, the over-the-top gore is intentionally exploited to create a more comedic tone.
Splatter films, according to film critic Michael Arnzen, "self-consciously revel in the special effects of gore as an artform." Where typical horror films deal with such fears as that of the unknown, the supernatural and the dark, the impetus for fear in a splatter film comes from physical destruction of the body. There is also an emphasis on visuals, style and technique, including hyperactive camerawork. Where most horror films have a tendency to re-establish the social and moral order with good triumphing over evil, splatter films thrive on a lack of plot and order. Arnzen argues that "the spectacle of violence replaces any pretentions to narrative structure, because gore is the only part of the film that is reliably consistent." These films also feature fragmented narratives and direction, including "manic montages full of subject camera movement...cross-cuttings from hunted to hunter, and ominous juxtapositions and contrasts."
The splatter film has its aesthetic roots in French Grand Guignol theatre, which endeavored to stage realistic scenes of blood and carnage for its patrons. In 1908, Grand Guignol made its first appearance in England, although the gore was downplayed in favor of a more Gothic tone, owing to the greater censorship of the arts in Great Britain.
The first appearance of gore—the realistic mutilation of the human body—in cinema can be traced to D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), which features numerous Guignol-esque touches, including two onscreen decapitations, and a scene in which a spear is slowly driven through a soldier's naked abdomen as blood wells from the wound. Several of Griffith's subsequent films, and those of his contemporary Cecil B. DeMille, featured similarly realistic carnage.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the public was reintroduced to splatter themes and motifs by groundbreaking films such as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and the output of Hammer Film Productions (an artistic outgrowth of the English Grand Guignol style) such as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Horror of Dracula (1958). Perhaps the most explicitly violent film of this era was Nobuo Nakagawa's Jigoku (1960), which included numerous scenes of flaying and dismemberment in its depiction of the Buddhist underworld. Other noticeable and influential films from the period includes the French Eyes Without a Face (1959) and the Italian Black Sunday (1960).
Splatter came into its own as a distinct subgenre of horror in the early 1960s with the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis in the United States. Lewis had been producing low-budget nudie films for several years but the market for such fare was losing ground to Hollywood, which was beginning to occasionally show nudity in its films. Eager to maintain a profitable niche, Lewis turned to something that mainstream cinema still rarely featured: scenes of visceral, explicit gore. In 1963, he directed Blood Feast, widely considered the first splatter film. In the 15 years following its release, Blood Feast took in an estimated $7 million. It was made for an estimated $24,500. The film has since become a cult favorite and was followed by the exploitation-style film, Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat (2002). Lewis' next film, Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), was remade as 2001 Maniacs in 2005 (with a follow up 2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams in 2010). Both updated versions stuck true to their predecessors in terms of theme and content.
As influential and profitable as it was, for many years Blood Feast remained little seen outside drive-in theaters in the Southern United States. Graphically violent imagery was starting to experience some mainstream acceptance in films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), and Soldier Blue (1970), but largely remained taboo in Hollywood.
The first splatter film to popularize the subgenre was George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), the director's attempt to replicate the atmosphere and gore of EC's horror comics on film. Initially derided by the American press as "appalling", it quickly became a national sensation, playing not just in drive-ins but at midnight showings in indoor theaters across the country. Foreign critics were more kind to the film; venerable British film magazine Sight & Sound put it on its list of "Ten Best Films of 1968."
Its sequel, Dawn of the Dead, became one of the most successful splatter films, both critically and commercially. It was released in United States theaters unrated rather than with the X-rating it would have received for its explicit carnage. Critic Roger Ebert called it "one of the best horror films ever made." Romero's film was also important in that it upped the ante in terms of technique, special effects and the quality of writing, characterization, and so on.
Roger Ebert in America and Member of Parliament Graham Bright in the U.K. led the charge to censor splatter films on home video with the film critic going after I Spit on Your Grave while the politician sponsored the Video Recordings Act which is a system of censorship and certification for home video. This resulted in the outright banning of many splatter films in the U.K.
Some splatter directors have gone on to produce mainstream hits. Peter Jackson started his career in New Zealand by directing the splatter movies Bad Taste (1987) and Braindead (1992). These films featured so much gore that it became a comedic device. These comedic gore films have been dubbed "splatstick", defined as physical comedy that involves evisceration.
Splatter films have influenced cinema in certain ways. For example, the popular 1999 film The Blair Witch Project is similar to the 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust. The story in Cannibal Holocaust is told through footage from a group of people making a documentary about a portion of the Amazon which is said to be populated by cannibals. This "mockumentary" format was later used in Blair Witch.
In the 2000s, there had been a resurgence of films influenced by the splatter genre that contained graphic depictions of extreme violence, nudity, torture, mutilation and sadism, labeled "torture porn" by critics and detractors. The year 2000 brought Scream 3, and most notably Final Destination, a splatter film consisting of survivors dying in Rube Goldberg machine-like ways. The film was a hit, spawning four sequels after its release, and also became a trademark franchise in the splatter film genre.
Filmmaker Eli Roth's Hostel (2005), released in January 2006, was the first to be called "torture porn" by critic David Edelstein, but the classification has since been applied to Saw (2004) and its sequels (though its creators disagree with the classification), The Devil's Rejects (2005), Wolf Creek (2005), and the earlier films Baise-moi (2000) and Ichi the Killer (2001). A difference between this group of films and earlier splatter films is that they are often mainstream Hollywood films that receive a wide release and have comparatively high production values.
The torture porn subgenre has proven to be very profitable: Saw, made for $1.2 million, grossed over $100 million worldwide, while Hostel, which cost less than $5 million to produce, grossed over $80 million. Lionsgate, the studio behind the films, made considerable gains in its stock price from the box office showing. The financial success led the way for the release of similar films: Turistas in 2006, Hostel: Part II, Borderland, and Captivity, starring Elisha Cuthbert and Pruitt Taylor Vince, in 2007.
Some films in the genre received criticism. Billboards and posters used in the marketing of Hostel: Part II and Captivity drew criticism for their graphic imagery, causing them to be taken down in many locations. Director Eli Roth claimed that the use of the term torture porn by critics, "genuinely says more about the critic's limited understanding of what horror movies can do than about the film itself", and that "they're out of touch." Horror author Stephen King defended Hostel: Part II and torture porn stating, "sure it makes you uncomfortable, but good art should make you uncomfortable." Influential director George A. Romero stated, "I don't get the torture porn films [...] they're lacking metaphor."
The success of torture porn, and its boom during the mid to late 2000s, led to a cross over into genres other than horror. This became evident with the release of many crime thrillers, particularly the 2007 film I Know Who Killed Me starring Lindsay Lohan, and the 2008 film Untraceable, starring Diane Lane and Billy Burke. The British film WΔZ, starring Stellan Skarsgård and Selma Blair, and its US counterpart Scar, starring Angela Bettis and Ben Cotton continued to facilitate this hybrid form of torture porn, which was also to a lesser degree, evident in films such as Rendition (2007) starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and Unthinkable (2010) starring Samuel L. Jackson.
In the mid 2000's, torture porn was given a major boost within the horror industry by a new wave of French films--commonly referred to as the New French Extremity--which became internationally known for their extremely brutal nature: Martyrs (2008), directed by Pascal Laugier, Frontier(s) (2007), directed by Xavier Gens, and Inside (2007), directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury. Rapper Eminem explored the genre in his music video for the single "3 a.m." that year. Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier's Antichrist, starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, was labeled torture porn by critics when it premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival due to scenes of extreme violence, graphic sex, and genital self-mutilation.
By 2009, the box office draw of torture porn films had mostly been replaced in the U.S. by the profitable trend of remaking or rebooting earlier horror films from decades past with the modernization of such notable titles as: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Dawn of the Dead (2004), The Amityville Horror (2005), House of Wax (2005), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Black Christmas (2006), Halloween (2007), Funny Games (2008), My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009), Friday the 13th (2009), The Wolfman (2010), The Crazies (2010) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). In some instances, however, remakes did flirt with the torture porn threshold, particularly Rob Zombie's remake of Halloween. The 2009 remake of Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left, and the 2010 remake of the controversial horror film I Spit on Your Grave contained levels of violence that were so brutal in nature, they made the convergence of torture porn with the remake trend very apparent.
Despite this era of remakes and reboots, the torture porn genre also sustained life on its own front with the 2009 film The Collector, directed by Marcus Dunstan and co-written with Patrick Melton (both writers from the Saw series), as well as with the sequels of the Saw series (the final film, Saw 3D, having been released during the Fall of 2010), which as of 2009 became the most profitable horror film franchise of all-time. The genre continued into the next decade with the Dutch film, The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2010), about a German surgeon who assembles the gastrointestinal tract of three kidnapped tourists. A sequel titled The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) was released in late 2011, continuing the genre, and introducing more explicit violence and gore (with the element of forced fecal consumption), sparking controversy and bannings (overturned after cuts) in both the United Kingdom and Australia.
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