Be Afraid, be very afraid: Jarv looks at the Censorship of Horror
This week’s topic is The Censorship of Horror, as opposed to the horror of censorship. I looked at violence last time, and came to the conclusion that there was a clear distinction to be drawn between violence in non-Horror movies and horror as a genre. As such, Horror is probably the most heavily censored genre outside of porn, and there are a number of reasons for this. Now, I personally love horror movies from the great to the downright awful, and think that in many cases it is simply unjustifiable to take the knife to them. However, by the same score, I can quite often see the reason behind the Censor’s cuts or bans, as in several cases the makers of the film have intentionally set their stall out to be as inflammatory as possible. The only real problem that I can see is that the film usually thus receives a level of notoriety that it wouldn’t otherwise merit, and usually does not deserve.
Things that go bump in the night…
Horror has been around in art since the dawn of time. Think about the oral tradition of storytelling- we only really see it still going with the tendency for kids to tell campfire tales designed to scare the bejesus out of each other by recycling the same hoary old chestnuts about serial killers with a unique and relentless MO. The point of these tales is to provoke the emotional reaction of fear, they are to terrify and horrify the audience.
In cinema, Horror has a long and noble tradition, dating all the way back to Nosferatu in 1922 and who hasn’t seen the image of Dracula’s shadow climbing the staircase from that film, even if they haven’t seen the film itself? Universal made the big monster movies in the 1930’s with Karloff appearing as one of literature’s most famous opium-driven nightmares, and this is a genre that is unlikely to be going anywhere fast, no matter how moribund it may currently appear to be.
Cinema audiences love to be scared, and for the most part, Horror movies are cheap and incredibly profitable. Has anyone out there not experienced a time in front of a scary film with a girlfriend cuddled in to their side? I’m genuinely convinced that movies designed to scare the audience have managed to procure more action for horny teenagers than any other type.
Nevertheless, the Censor has often had more of a problem with horror movies than any other genre. The fictional depiction of the worst nightmares in man’s psyche almost always contains imagery, themes, and other material that is going to make the censor throw a hissy fit. In fact, the majority of films that still have difficulty with the censor are technically horror, although I’m trying to think of a new genre for the likes of Human Centipede 2, and I find it faintly strange that a genre designed to provoke fear, disgust and terror in an audience should be subject to so much cutting. If the point is to scare the audience, then how can the censor claim to be shocked when confronted with difficult to watch and unpleasant material?
Freaks of nature, normal for Norfolk…
One of the earliest films to fall foul of the British censor was Todd Browning’s Freaks. Inspired by his own circus experiences, the film is essentially a dark morality tale, and by today’s standards an incredibly tame one. The essential point of Freaks is that the true monsters are not the poor unfortunates of the film, rather it is the “normal” people in it that are essentially evil and repugnant.
While the kangaroo court of the freaks exists to dispense summary justice, the film itself has been up before plenty of kangaroo courts but received little justice, summary or otherwise. Freaks is available to see in the UK with a 12 certificate, yet it has been banned on and off for the better part of 70 years. The problem with Freaks is that at the time Browning was intentionally pushing the boundaries and in this instance he cast actual circus deformities in the film. Audiences reacted with fear and revulsion (the point of a horror movie, surely) with one woman in Kansas hilariously claiming that the film caused her to have a miscarriage.
The censor’s treatment of Freaks in the UK does, I believe highlight two of the serious problems with censorship of this genre. The first is that they initially found it overly exploitative with regard to the freaks themselves (completely missing the point) and thus refused it a certificate. How could they reach this conclusion? It’s entirely based on their own personal feelings of discomfort provoked by the image of a “real” bearded woman in a film, coupled with the genuinely unsettling climax with the freaks wreaking revenge on Cleopatra and Hercules the strongman.
So, the censor chose to take the moral high ground, and thus Freaks, despite the legitimate, and hugely eloquent, pleading of the distributor not to hide the film “behind a display of moral righteousness” it remained banned. Yet the film clearly isn’t exploitative, and even if it is, so what? Horror has been laced with exploitative elements not just confined to casual nudity forever. It’s very much about exploiting what makes us unsettled and unhappy; the films are trying to scare us for heaven’s sake! This is again personal taste and morality intruding where it frankly has no right being.
Secondly, Freaks illustrates the vagaries of the system. When it finally came up for classification again in the 1990’s, the censor couldn’t reach a consensus. By then the film was obviously tame by the standards of the day (let’s face it, aside from the casting of actual pinheads etc, there’s nothing to it) but they were still worried and attempting to pre-empt audience reaction to the film. Despicably playing the “won’t someone think of the kids” card, they rated it as 15 because they were worried that children would see it and think it acceptable to laugh at the unfortunates in the film. An absurd premise and a ludicrous reaction, that has thankfully been consigned to history.
Nevertheless, the somewhat questionable history of Freaks with the censor illustrates neatly the problems inherent when rating horror movies. As opinions change, and audiences mature, it becomes necessary to revisit films from the past. A finely turned ankle, for example, in the 19th century would have provoked the same reaction to a naked pair of tits in the Sun today, and the same applies to horror. There are hundreds of thousands of horror movies in existence, and plenty more released every year- so the never ending reclassification process (think painting the Forth Road Bridge) means that many films today carry inappropriate bans or ratings.
Desensitised or Unreconstructed?
Why is it necessary to revisit old horror movies? Terror is surely a primal reaction, something that comes from the very depths of our souls, and as such it should surely be relatively constant. Well, this isn’t the case. We have, as a society, grown accustomed to horror and other fear-based imagery. Films rely on a number of techniques to scare us, and as Aesop said, familiarity does eventually breed contempt.
The problem is that we all know the various tropes that the genre relies on. We all know who is likely to survive a slasher movie, for example (hint: it’s not the beer swilling cheerleader with an allergy to clothing), and as such we have become very desentised to material that even 1 generation ago would be deemed as shocking. Take Psycho, for example. Back when Hitchcock made it, this was deemed to be the last word in horror. Yet when Gus van Sant had the temerity to pull a shot-for-shot remake he had to include material such as Norman Bates masturbating. The power of the original had faded over time, we simply knew the score too well, and he had to push the envelope to attempt to capture Hitchcock’s magic. Nevertheless, that film was doomed as soon as he decided to cast Vince Vaughan in the role made famous by Anthony Perkins.
The Censor, therefore, is stuck between a rock and a hard place. They’re usually sensible enough to acknowledge that society has moved on, and thus films may often need to be reclassified, but by the same score everyone has a personal upper limit on what they’re able to take. Hell, even here, where we all have similar tastes, Koutch, for example, can sit through films at the more extreme end of torture porn that I wouldn’t touch in a thousand years, and Droid sees no reason to endure those at the milder end such as Audition.
Desensitisation is clearly an issue. I despair when I hear teenagers describe The Exorcist as “lame”, but there’s no denying that in our age it is somewhat less visceral than it was in the 1970’s. Nobody nowadays is going to throw up in a cinema aisle watching Regan masturbate with a crucifix. As a result of this, film-makers have to push the envelope; they have to find imagery that is more and more extreme in order to provoke the same primal emotions that Browning managed effortlessly in 1931. Given the reactive nature of censorship in general, this creates a serious problem for the likes of the BBFC.
Every action has a grossly disproportionate opposite reaction
The censor in the UK is a reflection of, apparently, the values and concerns of the great British public. Personally, I couldn’t care less about their opinions, but the BBFC runs focus groups etc to try to discern what they should be looking at in the way of classification. At the moment, for example, the big concerns are depictions of racism (social engineering! No thanks), and sexual violence.
Sadly, people are morons, and in this country are prone to bouts of moral panic. I’ve banged on about it a fair amount, but every time the right wing tabloid press get their claws into a film, it invariably leads to an insane overreaction from our craven vote chasing political class and the censor themselves. In the past this has led to measures such as the notorious Video Nasty Act, which tried to blame all the sins of society on horror films, and the upgrading of it in 1994.
The Video Recordings Act of 1984 had a number of side-effects. The first was the effective prohibition of a plethora of frankly terrible Italian Horror movies. The world, or the UK, was not saved by banning Cannibal Holocaust, but nobody lost a second of sleep over it. Incidentally, almost all of the list is now available, and society has inexplicably failed to collapse.
However, more importantly, the other side-effect was that previously classified films had to be resubmitted to the censor, and were not allowed on VHS before evaluation. This lead to not the banning of the extreme horror movies, but instead caught legitimately great films- notable “video nasties” include The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Evil Dead. None of these is remotely in the same class as Anthrophagus, but they all, particularly the Exorcist, carried terrible reputations. It’s indicative of the lack of subtlety in the system that there was no way to make a distinction between the films: they were Horror, horror is bad, let’s ban them. Done.
Why were these films banned? What was in The Evil Dead that really merited the ban hammer? The film was already rated as 18, which is specifically for adults only, so would an adult go actively insane and commit terrible acts of random tree rape? I doubt it. What I suspect actually happened, is that the censor lacked refinement and simply banned anything that could possibly offend someone. This is no way to run a society.
Nowadays, as noted, most of the video nasties are available with even the most notorious titles such as Cannibal Ferox being out there with only the animal cruelty cut. Quite why they felt a need to film actual sadism on defenseless animals is a mystery known only to them, but I feel no need to watch it. The problem is, though, that film-makers of a certain ilk like to shock the censor, and many films (I suspect Deodato’s efforts may be the equivalent) simply exist to gain notoriety by intentionally inflaming the censor until they can claim their freedom of speech is being infringed and their artistic integrity questioned.
Pushing boundaries and intentionally annoying the censor for fun and profit
So here we are in the second decade of the 21st Century and the censor has basically relaxed. It’s actually quite hard to get a film banned nowadays, and almost all the notorious titles are available to rent. So, given this, where does your average low rent exploitation director go to earn his notoriety? Particularly when you take into account how desensitised we are and I’d bet even money on a film with a nun fellating the corpse of Pope John Paul 2 getting a certificate.
Well, luckily for the headline-chasers, Torture Porn came along. There have been essentially 2 high-profile recent bans in the UK, the first of which is the notorious Human Centipede: Full Sequence. I remain convinced that the original only exists as some kind of bizarre internet meme come to life, but exist it does. However, as notorious as the first one was, it remained basically uncut. This prompted Dutch director, an arsehole called Tom Six, to make the “full sequence” and really kick the boat out.
So, this time round, he turned in a film that horrified the BBFC to the extent that they labelled it, not without some justification, “revolting”. Instead of the elaborate bad joke that the original seems to be, this time around he included scenes that only exist, in my opinion, to provoke outrage. Instead of being a bizarre experiment conducted by a mad scientist, this time the centipede’s constituent victims could not be seen “as anything other than objects to be brutalised, degraded and mutilated for the amusement and arousal of the central character, as well as for the pleasure of the audience”. There is, frankly, no justification for some of the actions of the central character here, and the whole film strikes me as being so intentionally obscene and stuffed with the very worst that he could dream up with no actual purpose other than to antagonise the censor and make the audience vomit.
Eventually, the BBFC did relent and allow it classification with a vast amount of cuts, but by then Six had made his point. This little, almost zero budget, horror film had annoyed the censor into a ban, and thereby provided him with the platform he needed to publicise it and wail on about freedom of speech. There is, incidentally, a legitimate point here- just because I don’t want to watch it, I can make that decision for myself, and it should probably have been passed uncut. By depriving the charlatan of the oxygen of publicity the Human Centipede would probably have gone the same way as Anthrophagus and basically vanished from public consciousness.
But this is the point, I’m an informed adult, and I know what I do and don’t want to watch. I’m able to effectively self censor and there’s absolutely no chance that I’ll be seeing the likes of A Serbian film any time in the near future (ever, actually). In most instances, to be honest, I won’t even know they exist. However, the likes of Six and his ilk are using the censor as some kind of vehicle to provide him with free publicity, for films that, as a rule, don’t deserve it.
These people aren’t champions for freedom of speech, and I do wonder if they even qualify as artists. What they actually represent is a media savvy generation who can utilise the fraudulent internet outrage generated by the censor trampling over freedom of speech to publicise their shoddy little efforts. There’s nothing to The Human Centipede 2 that warrants the attention that it received, and when I think of Six, what he’s actually doing is the equivalent of those performance artists who smear themselves in shit etc until people complain, as it’s the complaint that they’re really after.
The End of the Road?
To be honest, were it up to me, I would take a very laissez-faire attitude to the censorship of horror. The genre exists to upset and scare people, so given how desensitised we are, it strikes me as fundamentally absurd for the censor to, er, censor films that disgust, scare and otherwise upset them. Also, given the total lack of honesty from the likes of Roth, Six etc, then I would, frankly, not give them the soap box to stand on while they claim to be protecting fundamental human rights.
My stance with horror would be that I would give it the highest possible classification for films that merited it, but I would only wield the ban hammer on those films that recorded an actual criminal act. Not a simulated criminal act, such as the baby rape in A Serbian Film, but an actual one. By doing this, it would allow those that wish to see such films the ability to get them legally (and let’s face it, given the internet age, they can’t be stopped if they are determined enough), but it would, more importantly, prevent the directors from making the most of their free publicity.
In the case of Horror, I would suggest that the board serve as a classification service and not a censor, as there are always going to be artists acting as agent provocateurs, and there is always likely to be some charlatan claiming exploitation as art. Given the tendency of Horror films to pursue this line, I, personally, would not allow the satisfaction of them upsetting the moral majority.
At the end of the day, it ain’t big, it ain’t clever and it is of little more value than the actions of an autistic six year old pulling his pants down in class to provoke the teacher. That’s all it is: Cinematic autism.
Next review is one of the true titan’s of the Genre. I’m looking at The Exorcist, a film that scared me silly when I was younger.