For the longest time people have asked me “But what exactly is extreme horror?” and it’s an exceptionally valid question to ask. It’s easy to determine what constitutes as something within the horror genre, especially when it comes to film, but extreme cinema is a little more complicated because it doesn’t always necessarily rely on tropes and specific aspects to indicate if it’s seen as extreme. So, how did this sub-genre come to exist and what does it take for a film to be categorised as such?
Most believe that extreme horror is purely in your face gore, fucking corpses, eating cadavers, torture, incest and the most depraved things you can think of. Which in many senses, it completely is and that’s exactly why a small population of us seek out and enjoy films of this manner. However, extreme can have more depth and meaning that just that, which is why it’s such a versatile and often fascinating genre; both for those who want to watch and those who don’t. Extreme is based on causing shock towards the audience, and that doesn’t always have to come through blood and guts being spilled on the screen.
The extreme sub-genre focuses on taboo issues, the ones that we often shy away from and try to pretend don’t exist. You won’t find the same frights as you do in films like Poltergeist or It Follows, because their purpose is to frighten you through more traditional means, whereas extreme horror films are designed to disgust you, and make you feel horrible. The term extreme cinema was first defined when certain Asian films focused very heavily on extreme violence, torture and exploitative sex. It was due to this that the term was coined and this sub-genre of cinema came to exist within the realms of horror, and it has since become something that is often criticised by lovers of cinema for it’s provocative and controversial nature. Even though there is a well defined audience that find comfort in the extreme genre, there are many who seem perplexed as to why anyone would happily sit through Cannibal Holocaust.
Extreme films aim to outrage the audience with the atrocious scenes they depict on screen, however, they also easily open up a debate on why we as an audience should or should not be able to easily watch such horrific and inhumane acts. Due to their extreme nature and the subject matter of these films, many of them were banned in multiple countries and censored to hinder audiences being able to view them. Even though times are changing and some countries are being more lenient when it comes to censorship of film, there are certain extreme horror movies that are still banned to this day, and some recent films have even struggled to gain any kind of release because selected parts are deemed illegal in some places.
Most extreme films are considered underground because they aren’t as easily accessible as others, and they aren’t openly spoken about. If you’re a fan of extreme horror then you’ll know the reactions you receive when trying to explain to someone that you have a penchant for these kinds of films – they quickly come to presumptions about your character! Extreme isn’t purely about wanting to watch a large quantity of people be decapitated and head fucked, because the true nature of extreme is far more than just that. A movie such as A Serbian Film certainly has elements of gore, but it’s the subject matter that really fucks with our minds and causes such controversy. In the Italian book ‘Sex and Violence: percosi nel cinema estremo’ aka ‘Sex and Violence: Journey into the cinema of the extreme’ by Roberto Cutri and Tommaso La Selva, they mention how the genre should truly be defined:
“Setting the record for most blood used on the set…is not enough to earn your stripes as an outsider. Extreme is not a question of quantity; in fact, the discomfort factor seems to diminish in inverse proportion to the increase of the primary material, especially when the latter is offered with an indifferent lavishness” (p. 413)
Slathering a film in blood does begin to push it towards the extreme category, but this genre is far more complex than just that. Extreme plays on the psychology, the morals and the subconscious of humans in a way that many other horror films simply cannot do. It makes us question humanity and everything that resides within it. Extreme cinema would need a well-versed psychologist to truly analyse why it even has an audience in the first place, but we can begin to dissect the topic a little further.
Once upon a time, films of such a nature didn’t exist because all of those atrocities seen within, were ready available in the public square. It was genuinely possible to witness people being hung, drawn and quartered in the local square without having to pay a ticket price and possibly be deemed a messed-up character forever. Public lynchings and far, far worse were part of everyday life for most people and therefore there wasn’t the same need to witness these horrific acts in the form of film, as we all know the real thing is always better than the fantasy.
But what happened once these weren’t as easily available to watch anymore? This is where we head into the first instance of extreme cinema and how this was presented to the audience. We still needed something to satisfy our sickening needs and that’s when a little theatre in a grey and rowdy back alley of Pigalle opened, and was known as the Grand Guignol…
The next part in this series will be released soon and will delve deeper into the workings of the theatre and how it could be considered as the very first instance of extreme cinema.
I just posted an almost exact question in one of our extreme horror FB groups. Some EC authors focus on the gross out factor to make their work ‘extrene’, but a lot of us disagree. What’s your take on puss, and poo, and various other leaky bodily things?
If I’m gagging and barfing, I Can’t Read. Oh, and on that note – what about those puke movies? The Vomit Dolls? OhdearlordNO! 🤢
Good question! I think true extreme horror comes from having a psychological element. For instance, many films can be shocking and disturbing without having to show too much on-screen gore or grossness, a good example is Funny Games. I will watch films with bodily fluids and they make me feel unwell, but it’s an easy way to shock people. The Vomit Gore films are to shock through repulsion, which they do well. However, they’re not as extreme as other movies because there’s nothing psychological about them.