Unwatchable terror started in my Roman Catholic school. Horror films of incredible brutality or porn of whispered disgusting degradation. Films so extreme they couldn’t be imagined, only described. They were forbidden and filthy. Sometimes, it would just be a scene without context. A relatively tame example would be The Omen 2 where a man is chopped in half by a cable in an elevator. For some reason – my imagination still informed more by Tom and Jerry than George Romero – I thought ‘chopped in half’ meant bisected cranium to crotch, but such misunderstandings make up a wonderful miasma surrounding the actual mundane irreality of the films themselves.
During the first summer holiday of video recorders, a friend and I would rent out from the nonchalantly permissive petrol station a whole swathe of what would come to be lumped together as ‘video nasties’. We saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Exterminator, Evil Dead, Driller Killer, Dawn of the Dead and several films I can’t remember the titles of, but where people died in horrific ways, one involving a helicopter blade and a door.
Watch the trailer to Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part Two:
I say I saw these films, but I actually only saw them partway through, three quarters I’d say. The thing was, by the time we’d walked down to the station, made our choice and walked back, we’d start the film and after an hour I’d have to go home for my lunch. Then my friend’s mother would be in from her cleaning job in the afternoon and we’d have to take the videos back to the garage.
Consequently, I grew up dénouement-less. Teenagers got sliced and tortured, innocents despatched, the evil unleashed, then I went for banana sandwiches and crisps. The films swelled in my imagination, and only two things were sure: the killer was still on the loose and no one was safe.
These were sinful films. Films I could not believe people would appear in, or be responsible for. It occurred to me that the people who made these films had to be not merely disreputable but actively evil. There was no other excuse for what they wanted us to watch, for what they thought up. And my watching the films was shameful and sinful too.
But as bad as all these films were, the instant you watched them they obviously ceased to be unwatchable and other films, films I only heard of and hadn’t seen, took their place: Zombie Apocalypse, Cannibal Holocaust and Necromancer. All these movies held the fusty lure of the snuff movie, the hint that what you were watching was somehow actually happening.
Urban legend soon became part of the marketing campaign. The adverse reactions of audience members were written up as good copy, heightening expectation and creating hysteria from Psycho to The Exorcist to The Blair Witch Project, with theatre owners complaining of ruined upholstery and vomit-stained aisles. ‘This Film Could Only Be Made in South America …Where Life Is Cheap’ screams the tagline to the 1976 grindhouse film Snuff. Though Snuff was actually a re-edited, re-titled 1971 film called Slaughter, with an extra murder thrown in to capitalise on a recent media scare about snuff films. The publicity earned the film more money in its opening week than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but also managed to cement the idea of real snuff movies firmly in the public subconscious. Sometimes the publicity backfired on the filmmakers. Most famously when Ruggero Deodato ended up in a Milanese courtroom having to prove he could replicate the gory impalements of Cannibal Holocaust without having to off a dollar-a-day native.
What it came down to essentially was wet death, the gory revelation of our physical moistness summed up by that wonderful onomatopoeia-become genre: splatter. The messiness of it always made it seem more authentic to me. It was like that juvenile cousin to horror and porn (another article to follow on this subject) the custard pie fight. You can’t act being hit in the face by a custard pie. You just get hit in the face with a custard pie. And so it seemed with gore. Even if the limbs were fake, you still got covered in all that gunk. This, by the way, is why CGI blood and guts ruin horror. The tactile reality of dampness is gone and unwatchable films become – as the video nasty generation hits adulthood – merely ‘unrated’. From the queasy extremes of Audition to the adolescent relish of Hostel, ‘torture porn’ reveals the dry-wet calculus all too obviously.
Of course being brought up a Catholic brings with it a complicated relationship to sin. I was a devout Catholic, went to Catholic schools, attended mass three times a week as an altar boy and even thought I had a vocation to be a priest at one point. The Catholic Church’s participation in The Exorcist makes perfect sense to me. The film very effectively portrays a world view in which the only salvation is to trust priests to do whatever they like with your little girls. It is a truly terrifying film in that respect. Even with our watching habits.
Watch the trailer to The Exorcist:
Though the headmaster might rail against these films and boys with dirty, grubby minds, the school also invited anti-abortionist group SPUC to come and show us videos of real-life abortions taking place, the gory reality of it. The mortifying of the flesh has a long tradition and gruesome martyrdoms are all part and parcel of the Catholic love-hate, hate, hate relationship with the body. Mel Gibson’s dripping The Passion of the Christ is its cinematic apotheosis, the ultimate wet death. It is the gaping at the unwatchable. I would have happily watched it one summer’s morning, although I would have missed the end and Christ would be chained to the pillar still.