Previously on this Introduction to Extreme Cinema series we looked at how a theatre in Pigalle, Paris, was home to a theatre called The Grand Guignol which could be classified as the first instance of extreme horror. We also looked a little at how one short film, Un Chien Andalou, was influenced by the theatre but also became a source of inspiration for other extreme horror films for decades to come. This time we’re going to look at how the cinema picked up the pieces after the Grand Guignol closed its doors and how that really pushed filmmakers to become more daring. 

Once the Grand Guignol stopped supplying the French audience with delectable horror, it meant that this need for extreme had to be picked up elsewhere, and there was only one logical place for it to fall; film. The 1960s began to see an influx of violence within films and became exceptionally gory and over the top in many of them too. Many of the movies that were made during this era would now technically be classed as splatter films, however, that’s another sub-genre that is always very closely linked to extreme purely because of the amount of gore that’s shown on screen.

If you search for splatter films online you’ll immediately begin to see that a lot of extreme films also appear, therefore showing just how relevant the topic is within the extreme sub-genre. It classifies itself as focusing on graphic depictions of gore and intense violence. With a heavy focus on using special effects, the genre aims to show how the human body can be manipulated and mutilated in the most theatrical of ways. Thus, the films that became known as extreme in the 60s were more of these splatter types.

One of the most famous films from 1963, just a year after the closing of the Grand Guignol, was Herschell Gordon Lewis’ film Blood Feast. With a poster that reads “Nothing so appalling in the annals of horror!” the splatter horror film really delivers in terms of gore and the shock factor for audiences in the 60s. The film follows a man who goes on a murderous spree, hacking women into pieces so that he can devour their flesh and use their dismembered body parts as sacrificial offerings to the ancient Goddess Ishtar, whom he is trying to revive. 

Blood Feast often receives criticism for it’s low budget elements and not looking clean, something which to this day extreme horror films are always demonised for. Unfortunately when it comes to making a lot of these nasty, gory films, it’s much harder to secure big budgets because it’s a more niche area of horror and has a smaller market. As we continue to explore the genre in depth, we see the trend that extreme horror films and splatter films, are ones that often have exceptionally low budgets, awful acting and gore so over the top even those with a weak stomach can see past the sausages covered in ketchup. But that doesn’t neccessarily make these films not worthy of note. 

The Wizard of Gore - Gordon Herschell Lewis

Even though Blood Feast was a visual nightmare and unleashed upon the audience scenes that make your stomach churn, it still wasn’t the shock that the audience were after. That didn’t stop Herschell Gordon Lewis continuing to make his gore infested films, and he even became known as ‘The Godfather of Gore’, which might just be one of the greatest titles ever placed upon a man. A year later in 1964 Lewis released another titled called Two Thousand Maniacs! which is both a splatter and a hixploitation film, another theme that we’ll see recurring as the years go by. This film had a very similar theme to the previous one and focuses heavily on gore elements, as did all of Lewis’ films going forward with some other titles including The Wizard of Gore, The Gore Gore Girls, The Taste of Blood and The Gruesome Twosome. 

The 60s weren’t solely dominated by Lewis alone, there were some other incredible titles delivered to the audience, even though they weren’t all extreme or splatter films. These included:

  • Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock
  • Rosemary’s Baby by Roman Polanski
  • Night of the Living Dead by George A. Romero
  • Peeping Tom by Michael Powell
  • The Devil Rides Out by Terence Fisher
    (plus many others as well)
Eyes Without A Face 1960 - extreme horror cinema

Another film from the 60s which was considered as one of the first films to really shock audiences and battle against the censors was Eyes Without A Face from 1960. This French film is from Georges Franju, and certainly aroused something in the air that left everyone speaking about it. In order to make the film, Franju had to really play his cards right when it came to executing it in a way that wouldn’t be solely hated by censors, and even though he tried to please French, English and German censors, he still came under some scrutiny. Eyes Without A Face needed to be sensitive with it’s amount of bloodshed, not showing animal cruelty and play on mad scientists, all of which were taken into consideration whilst being produced. Even though Franju did as he was advised, the film was still received poorly by many critics who described it as one of the sickest films ever, purely because of the subject matter. Eyes Without A Face is about a plastic surgeon that wants to perform a face transplant on his daughter after she is disfigured in a car accident that was caused by him. He goes to extreme lengths to kidnap young women in order to obtain their face to fix his daughter. The morals throughout this film and the focus on disfigurement being a cause of embarrassment and shame caused this film to have a controversial tone and receive backlash from a lot of critics. However, it has since become regarded as one of the earliest extreme pieces of cinema.

Peeping Tom 1960 - extreme psychological horror film

Peeping Tom is yet another example from 1960 which truly disturbed the audience and left them feeling very uncomfortable. From director Michael Powell, this film depicts a man whom is an amateur filmmaker and pornographer and uses his passions to murder women and film their final dying moments. When Peeping Tom was first released it was seen as highly controversial due to the subject matter around stalking, but also because there were themes of child abuse, sadomasochism and perverted voyeurism. Even though critics slammed the film when it was released, it is know regarded as one of the most influential and important pieces of British film due to it’s meta-level components. Even though this film is extremely psychological in many aspects, it has more of a slasher vibe to it and therefore isn’t always deemed as part of the extreme cinema sub-genre.

What this decade didn’t quite give was an extreme film that completely infuriated critics and the mainstream audience, so much so that outrage and uproar were caused. That was what the 70s were designed for and exactly what they planned to do… In the next part of the series we’ll be looking at an era of filmmaking where every director wanted to shock the audience beyond belief and create something that would cement it’s place in history for being one of the nastiest films ever made. It was a time when cinema was really beginning to explode and horror was taking off in more ways than one, so in order to get your name in history you had to do something really extreme and controversial.

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