Cinema, it can be argued, is getting darker. Since the 1960s filmmakers have emerged who are inclined to shock, disgust and scare their audiences. Put it down to post-war, post-modern, post-feminism shenanigans if you like, but it all adds up to people today enjoying looking at representations of violence, torture and cannibalism.
One key element of the modern Horror genre (I use the term loosely as the genre itself is becoming broader) is that the theme of violence is used in conjunction with black humour. From the early “cult” films of directors like Romero, Raimi and Hooper, to modern, popular films like Seven and Reservoir Dogs, themes of violence and comedy have become almost symbiotic.
It seems that as post-millennial, media-saturated cyber-cynics, we just can’t be fazed by anything we look at any more. Instead, we laugh at death in its many forms and cheer when the stupid people on the screen finally get their just desserts.
I’m sure that most people who watch films have their own secret list of all-time wince-inducing (but entertaining and satisfying) scenes, whether they’re from splatter films, sci-fi ghost stories, hardcore pornography or just any film featuring De Niro stomping on someone’s face.
The truth of the matter is, when it comes to modern cinema, we like to finger the entrails and sniff the curdled brains… so in honour of the rubber-necking tradition, here is (in no particular order) my own (appended) compendium of cinema’s most darkly/comically memorable scenes:
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper 1974)
Of course this is an obvious choice and the new remake is probably better than the original—I’ll never know—but this scene is still very enduring, and it is hard not to be moved by the situation the film’s protagonist finds herself in.
Tied up, tortured and teased by the imbecilic hillbilly family, Sally Withers (Marilyn Burns) becomes the focus of a cinematic set-piece straight out of Dante’s Inferno.
I know that sounds pretentious, but I’m trying to write a high-brow bit of film journalism here - it’s not just some two-bit net-bound article on horror films that make me laugh, you know.
As the family howls and cackles around poor Sally, Grandpa is brought down from the attic to showcase his prowess with a sledgehammer.
Unfortunately, rheumatism and overall decay of the former abattoir worker mean that he has trouble getting the job done quickly; even with the assistance of his more nimble cannibalistic offspring, he only succeeds in dropping the sledge on Sally’s head repeatedly. Almost as gruelling an experience as watching a Hugh Grant film.
“You like headcheese… my brother makes it real good!”
Bad Lieutenant (Abel Ferrara 1992)
The kind of cop we all want to be (followed closely by Reg Hollings off The Bill), the Bad Lieutenant stumbles on two girls from uptown smoking pot in their dad’s car.
Rather than “book ’em”, he kindly offers to let them go if they show him, respectively a) “your ass”, and b) “how you suck a cock”.
With a little coaxing the naïve pair are bending over and tonguing the air, while said Lieutenant beats off furiously and leaves a mess on the driver’s side door.
Incredibly realistic monkey spanking from Keitel leaves you with one question on your mind: “Was it method acting?”
Although this scene is in no way violent, the coercion used by the Bad Lieutenant and the simple fact that he cracks one off on the side of the car all adds up to one very sinister little scene.
Is it funny? Keep your eyes on Keitel throughout this scene and learn the true meaning of “slapstick”
“You suck it the fuck up… you little fuck”, etc.
Angel Heart (Alan Parker 1987)
A film in which De Niro plays the devil was always going to get a mention.
Sadly he’s not in this scene due to there being no requirement for any face-stomping† - instead Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet (of Cosby Show fame) get it on in a cheap hotel room.
It all ends in tears when Rourke’s character gets up to his old tricks of mutilation and satanic sacrifice during one of his blackouts.
This scene isn’t really very funny - for humour see the scene where Rourke’s character drowns a fat guy in a huge vat of gumbo - but it is dark, and raises lots of sex-death relationship issues with the film analysis spods. Never before has so much blood been used to such erotic effect.
“That’s a crock o’ shit! It’s a crock o’ shit! That’s a
crock o’ shit!”
Evil Dead 2 (Sam Raimi 1987)
Evil Dead 2 could be seen as an “ampu-com”‡, or a love story with chainsaws - for me it has some of the funniest death and gore ever seen in a film.
The film is packed with gruesome and comic scenes, but the one that gets my award for darkest use of comedy during a violent act is the (classic) removal of Ash’s (Bruce Campbell) hand.
As if you didn’t know, Ash’s hand becomes possessed and starts smashing plates over his head… Ash gets pissed off and nails the freakish abasement. Spiking it into the floorboards, he cranks up the chainsaw and nods gleefully.
Raimi’s Three Stooges influence is most apparent in this sequence, and Bruce Campbell puts in a very capable performance in the traditional and very physical slapstick style.
Who’d have thought a nutcase alone in a cabin “within the woods” cutting off his hand with a chainsaw could be this funny? All together now…
“Uh-huh… that’s right… who’s laughing now? WHO’S LAUGHING NOW?!”
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton 1986)
A lesson in haggling for us all as Henry and his good buddy, Otis, visit a dodgy television salesman who may or may not be related to Jabba the Hutt.
After inquiring about every set in the store, Henry politely remarks that he would like a TV, video camera and recorder for the measly price of fifty bucks.
Fat boy really should have accepted the offer - instead he gets pissed off with the multiple murderer and winds up receiving a generous piercing with a soldering iron.
Good old Henry tops it off by smashing a black and white portable over his head… and trying to pick up “Wheel of Fortune” on it. Possibly.
“Otis - plug it in.”
Odishon aka Audition (Takashi Miike 2000)
Coming from director Takashi Miike, this film was always going to be about the shock factor, and the film’s climactic torture scene delivers the goods tenfold.
A post-feminist analysis of this film would be apt but pointless, as the film is self-explanatory: feminist psycho-killer locates chauvinist pig and teases him a bit before hacking his foot off at the ankle, etc.
It’s hard to say whether this scene uses any comedy, but the depth of the horror (i.e. that a small, demure woman is really a violent psychopath who practices extreme torture in the name of women’s rights) is unlike anything found in more conventional Horror films.
Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa 1957)
A retelling of Macbeth set in feudal Japan, with Toshiro Mifune as the doomed General with his Daimyo’s blood on his hands.
As his betrayal is revealed at the end of the film, the General’s men turn on him, filling him full of arrows in a lengthy death scene the likes of which no actor has achieved since. Mifune’s physical and facial expression is well-suited to this sort of set-piece, and he staggers around the castle battlements trying to brush away the arrows which fill the air.
Eventually he dies, but the insane determination of the character is conveyed brilliantly by Mifune: he shakes his head and hisses in denial as a hundred more arrows rain down upon him. This scene is obviously dark, but the humour is slightly harder to find.
Even so, this is probably the most extravagant and memorable death scene of any character in the history of cinema.
So what does it all mean?
So what does it all mean? Have we learnt anything from this small selection of vividly violent comedy moments?
Well not really, but just perhaps we’ve learnt this: if cinema is fantasy and escapism then are these fantastical and extreme cinematic portrayals of violence in some way linked to our own perceptions of death? I argue that yes they undeniably are - modern death has become mundane, bland and not as scary as it used to be.
In the olden days when everyone ate mud and wore sacks, death could come in many forms: beheading, torture and mutilation, death on the battlefield, eaten by wolves, etc. In our modern, sanitised, civilised society death comes in but one form: on a hospital bed and full of cancer.
We have drugs to take away the pain, and television to make you forget you’re dying. We no longer have the option of dying a warrior’s death like our ancestors, and we live much longer - perhaps films like those mentioned above help us to make sense of our own tedious deaths, or maybe they just help us to realise how easy we have it.
† Apologies to Mr De Niro, who has only stomped one face in all of his extensive screen appearances.
‡ “amputation-comedy”, a sub-genre within the horror genre, where comedy is as much a part of a film’s action as the extreme violence. In fact, I made the term up just to throw you, but I bet the film geeks (people who use words like “juxtaposition”) will latch on to it. I also came up with the notion of a sub-genre called “tumour-humour”, which deals with mutations and growths - this would include films like Brain Damage, Basket Case, and How to Get Ahead in Advertising. I’m just trying to sow some seeds for my own entertainment, which I’m entitled to do, having just spent hours writing this drivel.