by Michael Brueggeman
Hello, horror fans. I want to play a game. It’s called semantics.
More specifically, categorization.
I’m sure most of you would rather sever your own foot with a hacksaw than play this game, but labels can be tools to help people find what they’re looking for rather than being used to pigeonhole creativity and media.
It goes by many names: shock, extreme, torture porn. Let’s use the term “shock” for the purposes of this article, as it doesn’t seem as derisive or aggrandizing as some other terms are. We won’t discuss whether shock cinema is a valid art form, only whether it is—or isn’t—horror. Dictionary Dot Com defines horror as, “an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust.” However, since our goal is to delineate the difference between horror and shock, for our purposes we’ll define horror as a thing that inspires fear.
In preparing for this article, I watched A Serbian Film, which—to put it mildly—had caused a lot of controversy and garnered mixed opinions and reviews. There’s a lot that can be said about this movie but ultimately my take on it is that it’s intended as a satire of the shock subgenre. It would be an entirely different article to discuss how I came to this conclusion but suffice it to say I decided not to use it. Instead I figured we could cover the entire spectrum of shock cinema with three films from my favourite director, Takashi Miike. The films, Visitor Q, Ichi The Killer, and Audition run the gamut of styles for shock cinema, and comparing and contrasting three films from the same director offers a level of symmetry that’s appealing.
Visitor Q hits all the points. Incest? Check. Domestic violence? Check. Erotic lactation? Check. Necrophilia? Check. Nihilistic, unemotional attitude towards all four? Check. While it’s often described as a black comedy, I think it still qualifies as shock cinema. One of the earlier films to use handycam, the technique adds an air of realism and authenticity that makes the unsettling events even more uncomfortable to watch. Miike has a tendency to use the actual bodily fluids of his actors on screen, and all the lactation scenes are real. This film takes family dynamics to the extreme. To describe it as fear-inducing is a bit of a stretch, meaning it’s not horror by our narrow definition.
Ichi The Killer is an adaptation of a manga by the same name. The violence is unapologetic and extreme. It’s stylistically similar to anime films in accordance with its manga roots. The title of the movie in the uncut version arises from a puddle of the actual semen of Nao Omori, who plays Ichi. Ichi is manipulated into participating in a yakuza battle by Jijii, who convinces him that he was a victim of bullying and a witness to a gang rape he was shamed for not participating in. He cries when he commits a series of atrocities that a cleanup crew has to mop up after. The film’s antagonist, Kakihara, is an extreme sadomasochist who gleefully tortures various people to try to get information about Boss Anjo, his missing yakuza boss. Kakihara laments the loss of the pain Anjo used to inflict on him and becomes dissatisfied with the abuse of a dominatrix. Overall, the entire film is beautifully shot and visually interesting. But the film is by no means scary and it’s tone is more that of an action film with the overall intention to “look cool.” It’s not really horror by our definition.
Audition is perhaps the best known Miike film and what I believe is the most well done. This adaptation of the Ryu Murakami novel follows the relationship of Shigeharu Aoyama and Asami Yamazaki. Aoyama is convinced by his son to start dating again years after becoming widowed. He stages a series of fake auditions with his producer friend, Yasuhisa Yoshikawa instantly falling for Asami. The innocence and naïveté of the young ballerina become suspect as the strange circumstances of her past and present are revealed. Asami’s list of references she submitted for the audition is a missing persons list. Eventually, we see a severely mutilated man crawl from a burlap sack in Asami’s apartment, naked and filthy, to lap up a bowl full of Eihi Shiina’s—the actress who plays Asami— actual vomit. The film concludes with a long, drawn-out torture scene involving acupuncture needles and amputation followed by several transitions that leave the audience questioning what’s real.
The film is beautiful and well acted. It’s creepy and unsettling. The final scene is brutal. The buildup to it is slow and leaves the audience with a feeling of unease. The entire time we know something is not quite right with Asami and what exactly that is is revealed in a slow peeling of layers. Audition is horror. Audition is shock.
Fear gets a bad wrap. It’s an emotion intended to protect us from danger. However, in our modern world where survival is virtually guaranteed, it’s often transposed onto various anxieties. Whether we fear financial loss or social embarrassment, the reaction is hyperbolic. Personally, I’m desensitized. I’m not scared or disgusted by things that happen on screen. Nothing could ever be as horrific or nauseating as what I might see on the nightly news, or hear from people retelling personal accounts of what they’ve suffered. Most people I know have suffered things every bit as horrid as the things depicted in so-called “extreme” cinema.
While researching for this article I found that shock and disgust are categorized as part of horror, and that the definitions of horrific, horrible, and horrid are nearly synonymous. The idea of revulsion is fear turned towards the small, I believe. Disease and spiders are things we respond to with disgust. Things that might make us sick, we find gross, and the response is nausea because vomiting can protect us from poisoning. And what of rape? The response to it is more toward shock, disgust, and outrage than simply fear. Combining elements of violation and violence with the possibility of transmitting disease and causing unwanted pregnancy, while also perverting something that’s consensually pleasurable into something vile.
Shock cinema is technically a subgenre of horror, but there is a wealth of it that doesn’t fit comfortably under the larger umbrella of proper horror, and you’ll find such films categorized as “thriller” or “crime.” I can’t state definitively that these outlier films are not horror. But one thing that’s for sure is that the general public thinks they are, and that these unusual, untamed, and unconventionally shocking films are all there is to horror. And that I can’t stand.
The genre itself is difficult to define because audience response is how we categorize films. While fantasy and science fiction are defined largely by content itself, horror is defined by whether something scares you, or makes you sick. The upside is that it’s open to a wide variety of approaches.
From the grotesque and disturbing, to the subdued and unsettling, a lot of things fit under the horror umbrella, and hopefully audiences can see past the blood rain that drips from its edges to the dark, barely-perceptible, figure that grips its handle.