In the previous piece History of Extreme Cinema: the 60s we looked at some of the most disturbing films to be released during that era including Eyes Without a Face and Peeping Tom. Both of these films were regarded as controversial when they were released, however, they still hadn’t quite caused the audience to reel in disgust and feel a sense of pure abomination.
The 70s played on this factor and took a different approach to shocking the audience; rather than playing with subtle storylines which gradually increased in terror and disdain, filmmakers began to push the boundaries further than ever before. This was an era in which the horror genre was really beginning to pick up and come into its own, and therefore in order to make an everlasting impact, filmmakers had to be prepared to do something that was just as innovative as it was disturbing.
The Wizard of Gore
Herschel Gordon Lewis came back once more and delivered even more visceral to the screens of the audience with his 1970 movie The Wizard of Gore. A simple yet effective premise with a magician brutally butchering audience members one by one. The biggest element that sustains The Wizard of Gore is the special effects and it’s particular focus on the carnage and destruction of the human body. In order to really produce something that looked horrendously real on-screen, Lewis used real sheep carcasses which make those scenes of blood and guts even more difficult to sit through. Even though the film can be commended for its inventive use of real flesh, the storyline left a lot to be desired. Due to this oversight of a psychological element, this technically categorised The Wizard of Gore into the splatter sub-genre moreso than extreme.
The Devils 1971
In 1971 audiences were shocked by something that paired violence with an outrageous and damning storyline in The Devils from Ken Russell. The film is often described as a British historical drama, however, with one watch you’ll soon realise that it’s far from the truth. Set in 17th century France, a rebellious Priest called Father Grandier is chastised for his views on sexual liberation and religion, and through these views grows a following of exceptionally passionate nuns. One nun in particular, Sister Jeanne, is obsessed with everything sexual and feels she can indulge when under the reign of Grandier. The Cardinal wants to overthrow the Father and therefore goes on a demeaning rampage to portray him as a Satanist.
The BBFC struggled giving this film a classification due to the fact that The Devils shows religion paired with anal insertion, masturbation, sexual assault and more. This blaspheme portrayal was not welcomed by the BBFC, and showed that perhaps when it comes to nuns, they just shouldn’t be put anywhere near themes of a sexual nature. Due to this, Russell made heavy cuts in order for the film to pass certification. British film journalist Mark Kermode spent many years trying to get the full uncut version released into the world, but his efforts were stifled, and many of us still wonder if we will ever legally see the full uncut version. To hear more about The Devils and Mark Kermode’s efforts to get it into the world, listen to him on The Evolution of Horror!
Pink Flamingos 1972
Another film that seriously pushed the audiences boundaries was John Waters’ comedy drama film Pink Flamingos. This depraved little dropping of cinema caused problems with classification systems, audiences and critics alike. If you haven’t seen this film then you might be familiar or at least recognise main character, Babs Johnson, as drag queen Divine. She’s since become quite an icon for her portrayal in this controversial movie, and has even inspired an eyeshadow palette from Kat Von D’s make-up brand.
Babs and her family are known as the “filthiest people alive” which means that they have some choice tastes and are into some nasty shenanigans. Another couple wish to claim the title as they partake in kidnapping women, inseminating them and then selling the children. What ensues between the two families is a battle of the most disgusting. The BBFC suggested that cuts were to be made to this film in order to get it passed, some of which included the eating of real dog shit, a close-up shot of a flexing anus and Babs performing fellatio on her own son. Pink Flamingos was a film purposely made to shock and disgust the audience with its obscene acts, which caused this one to become an extreme classic. It was this type of filmmaking bravery which became part of the history of extreme cinema. During the 70s many directors knew their film would either be cut, censored or complete banned yet they still decided to produce something that would challenge the norm.
The Last House on The Left 1972
Most lovers of the horror franchise know Wes Craven for his 80s slasher franchise A Nightmare on Elm Street with one of the most iconic characters ever, Freddy Krueger. But before he rose to popularity, Craven gave the audience a slice of exploitation cinema with his film The Last House on the Left. Many people seem to skip past this film on Craven’s resume, but why? Perhaps the subject matter is too tough and the lighthearted slash and dash of Krueger is preferred. The Last House on the Left depicts the brutal gang rape, mutilation and murder of two young girls, which isn’t the easiest topic to confront from the confines of your sofa.
Even though the film does venture into revenge terrority in the second half, it’s more than difficult to sit through the rape scenes. We witness as the girls are humiliated and tortured in horrific ways, and left for dead in the woods. When the parents of one of the girls finds this out, they go on a violent spree of redemption for the girls. This wasn’t the last time that Craven ventured into the darker side of cinema, as we’d discover in a couple of years time.
Thriller: A Cruel Picture 1973
We head over to Sweden for another rape revenge film, which is Thriller: A Cruel Picture from director Bo Arne Vibenius. This is a film that has many other titles attached to it including Hooker’s Revenge, They Call Her One Eye and Thriller: En Grym Film. On most reviews sites this is a movie that holds a generally poor score, however, for those who understand exploitation and extreme, it is regarded as a movie that deserves far more praise than it receives. Madeline is raped as a child and left to fend for herself, which leads to her becoming a traumatised young woman. One day she is picked up by a man that forces her onto heroin and into prostitution, and through a very violent mean takes her eye… She spends years training in martial arts to become an assassin, ready to inflict revenge on those who wronged her.
It is not just the scenes of graphic violence that make this film so controversial, but also the rumours that an actual cadaver was used for the eye gouging scene. The film also features hardcore pornography, and therefore it makes the film sexually extreme, which can cause problems when it comes to censorship and distribution. It is easy to draw quick connections between Thriller and more recent pop culture films like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, which feature a central female character who is wronged and using violence to exact revenge. There’s also a heavy hint to Madeline’s character with the one-eyed character in Kill Bill played by Ellie Driver.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974
The debate stands as to whether or not this horror classic from Tobe Hooper is a piece of extreme cinema, but it has many of the right elements to make it one. When a group of friends encounter a strange hitchhiker on their drive, they soon realise that him and his family are far from normal. Protagonist Marilyn must survive against the deranged family, and escape the clutches of iconic character Leatherface. When The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was first released it shocked, disturbed and terrifying the audience like never before, and even to this day is still considered as one of the most controversial horror films ever made.
One of the most notable aspects of TCM is the lack of onscreen violence – something that seems obligatory for an extreme horror film. When discussing this film with anyone who has seen it a while ago, they will always exclaim that they feel like they saw more blood than what was actually shown. This confirms that extreme doesn’t need to show everything on screen; even without showing the blood and guts, the psychological elements of TCM are so strong that it causes us to believe we have seen more than we did. Even though quality wise the film hasn’t aged particularly well, it still holds an exceptionally special place in horror cinema.
This could perhaps be considered as one of the most extreme films to ever be created, and still to this day leaves audiences and critics with divided opinions. Salo by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini is an adaptation of one of the sickest books ever written; 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade. If you don’t know who this historical figure is, you have him to thank for the invention of sadism and masochism – his libertine views on particular sexual pleasure were, and still are, considered to be somewhat controversial. In Salo we follow four libertines who abduct their own four daughters, nine young girls, nine young boys and a group of soldiers. They take them to a mansion for 120 days of pure debauchery. Every evening one of the four housekeepers tells a take of sexual sodomy that gradually gets worse and worse in nature, with the libertines carrying out the acts on the young children afterwards.
Fortunately the film is fairly tame in comparison to the book, however, that doesn’t stop is from being one of the most disturbing pieces of film. One of the reasons it’s so controversial is because of the references to peadophilia – even though the film depicts the children as much older, in the book their ages are much, much younger. Everything included in this film is depraved; rape, torture, mutilation and extremely violent murder. Another aspect that really makes this film hard to watch is the focus on coprophilia aka the act of eating shit. Salo is a fim with a historical context and many messages to convey, even though some would argue that this film was just made for exploitation sake.
The Hills Have Eyes 1977
As previously mentioned, Wes Craven wasn’t stopping when he made The Last House on the Left and a few years later returned to the screens with The Hills Have Eyes. It seems that this one often gets overlooked within the extreme category because it perhaps is more exploitation or hicksploitation than anything else. However, it is a film that has unmistakable elements which give it a spot on this extreme cinema history list. A family are going on a trip and must drive through the barren landscapes of the desert to reach their destination. It is not long until they realise they are being watched, and those who hide amongst the mountains have a taste for human flesh.
When this film was released it was considered extremely violent and shocking, however, now looking back it seems tame in comparison to some other films. The subject matter of deformed humanoids that hunt for human flesh was and still is very disturbing, but with scenes of attempted rape and the kidnapping of a baby, it always felt even more horrific. In 2006 Alexandre Aja remade the film and built upon the original ideas to take them another step further and make this an even grittier and nastier film than the original. It’s easy to argue that the remake is a better made film, and more compelling than the first, but it would of course not exist without its predecessor. You’ll have to watch both films yourself and decide which you prefer!
I Spit On Your Grave 1978
Many films from the 70s and 80s are often criticised for the fact that the victims are always women, and they are portrayed as not particularly strong or determined. That’s why I Spit On Your Grave by Meir Zarchi is a personal favourite of mine, because it flips those stereotypes of its head and presents the audience with an exceptionally strong female character. This isn’t by any means an easy film to sit through, and anyone going into this should know that it will be a tough watch… Jennifer Hills is a writer who takes a break away to an isolated cabin in order to focus on penning her book. A group of deranged men from the town get wind of Jennifer, and break into her home where they horrifically gang rape her. After this horrific attack, Jennifer seeks revenge on all of the men involved and will not stop until the blood is drained from every one of them.
As mentioned, this is a very difficult watch with the first hour consisting of sexual abuse, rape and humiliation of the female form. When it was first released it was banned due to the general consensus that it glorified violence against women, with many critics claiming that is was demeaning and devoid of substance. Over the years perceptions have changed of I Spit On Your Grave and many believe it is more of a feminist film as the second half focuses on her brutal revenge which really doesn’t hold back. There is a lot of satisfaction to be found from seeing Jennifer cut the dicks off the men who raped her.
Faces of Death 1978
Many of the films in the 70s found themselves under persecution from censoring bodies, with their films either being completely banned or requiring heavy cuts to pass censorship. Director John Alan Schwartz thought he could outdo all of these controversial banned movies with his Faces of Death. He created a mondo horror film which shows the audience a mixture of real footage and reenacted footage, both of which depicted death and violent acts. By showing the audience something real, in this case, real scenes of death it seemed that this would become the most controversial films. However, most of what was actually featured in Faces of Death wasn’t real.
It’s at this point in extreme horror history we begin to see the lines blurred within the genre, and how it often becomes a competition to make the most disturbing or controversial, rather than make a good film. Extremity can be used as a symbol within film, as seen in Salo, however some filmmakers use the genre purely to disgust the audience. What films like Faces of Death fail to understand is that to truly disturb an audience, you need to do more than just throw horrible scenes at them – an intelligent audience need a psychological element to make them truly horrified. This is the downfall of Faces of Death, because many fans of extreme horror don’t want to see the real crimes, we prefer the false reality of film. Extreme films should be about more than just how many litres of blood and visceral can be shown on screen; they should aim to churn your stomach and ruin your mind in a way that lasts for days afterwards.
Our final film from the 70s aimed to give more to the audience than just pure extremity, and used a historical subplot to add more depth to this shocking story. In 1979 Tinto Brass gave the world Caligula, and although described as an erotic historical drama, this is a film that easily falls within the extreme category. The film focuses on the Roman Emperor Caligula, whose reign in 37-41AD was one soaked in sex, violence and debauchery of any kind. Although there was a lot of violence shown throughout the film, it was the pornographic components that caused this movie to be banned in many countries, including the UK.
Gratuitous real sex is littered throughout the theme, and much of that sex suggests taboo issues such as incest, something which immediately pushes boundaries and takes Caligula into the extreme sub-genre. You might be surprised to discover that this film featured some of the most well respected actors in today’s society including A Clockwork Orange’s Malcolm McDowell and well-loved Helen Mirren. This sordid little film is now available uncut in the UK, and around the world, so you can indulge in those toga clad fantasies. What is noticeable from films like Caligula is that when it comes to sex, even though not necessarily an extreme act, it still causes issues within cinema and will always receive a strong reaction from the audience.
The 70s was an era that really started to carve out the path of extreme cinema, and set in stone some of the fundamental rules, themes and tropes of what an extreme film looks like. In the next part of this series we’ll be diving into the 80s and looking at how those recurring themes became even more brutal.