Globe and Mail
October 31, 2020
By Johanna Schneller

Hungry for blood? Gore porn's for you

  When the heads are lopped off in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (and I do mean heads, plural), geysers of blood shoot straight up out of the victims' neck stumps like Old Faithful. Gouts of it spatter the faces of onlookers with such force, the sound engineers must have thrown handfuls of pebbles against canvas to create the effect. Kill Bill made $22-million (U.S.) in its first weekend, Tarantino's best opening to date.

After a young woman sitting in the back seat of a van sticks a gun in her mouth and shoots off the back of her head at the beginning of the current remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the camera travels into her mouth, out the gaping wound in her skull, and through the bullet hole in the blood-streaked, brain-and bone-clotted rear window. This gore-blasted window is shown again and again and again, in between shots of the five live teens in the van picking brain matter off the seats, and the dead girl's head bobbing on her shoulders next to a bobble-head doll on the dashboard (this movie's idea of cool-o irony). It earned $24-million in its opening weekend.

In Underworld, a love story set against a centuries-long battle between vampires and werewolves (which grossed more than $50-million its first month), the combatants are melted, shot, exploded to smithereens, shrivelled with poison, and sliced into sections with swords, all in realistic extreme close-up, while they howl with agony and rage. In Once Upon a Time in Mexico (more than $60-million earned so far), the writhing bodies of soldiers ripped apart by bullets fill a public square; the eyes of a CIA agent (Johnny Depp) are gouged out, and we spend the rest of the movie watching the blood stains on his cheeks spread into ever larger and groovier star-like shapes. .

Of course, late September to Halloween is traditionally the grossest time of the year, prime season for yucky fare. But these current releases come hard on the heels of a summer in which corpses were propelled from moving vans and run over time and again by passing cars, or sliced into by grimacing characters groping for clues in their body cavities -- as comedy -- in both Bad Boys II and Gigli; and Freddy vs. Jason found uncountable new ways to flay and hack the human body. All but Gigli were huge at the box office.

Clearly, plain old horror and suspense are no longer enough to satisfy the stimulation junkies that we've become. No, in order for us to have a good time at the movies, we need bottles full of eyeballs, lingering close-ups of the jagged tear between the shoulder blades -- complete with deafening ripping sounds -- of a young man hung on a hook, and a long, slow look at Lucy Liu uttering her last few sentences with the top of her head sliced off. We need gore porn.

To qualify as gore porn, a scene must take something that's already disgusting -- let's say, Leatherface, the villain in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, slicing layers of flesh out of a young man's back -- and then amp it up for maximum nausea-inducement. The young man must be naked, and sitting in four inches of filthy water in a grime-streaked bathtub in a vermin-infested basement, while the genetically deficient relatives of the villain stroll happily around the floor above; he must be surrounded by buzzing flies and the severed parts of other corpses in varying stages of decay; he must be shivering and moaning, but quietly, and blank-eyed, to suggest that this torture has been going on for quite a long time; and the whole thing must be accompanied by repetitive thrash music.

In the much-discussed anime sequence of Kill Bill, a young girl must lie wide-eyed and silent under a bed where she witnesses first her father's torture and death, then her mother's rape and death, as well as the deaths of a few anonymous henchmen; she must watch her mother's blood quickly stain, then saturate the mattress above her, until the blood is raining down over her; and then, oh so poignantly, the blood must mingle with her tears.

Some of the proliferation of gore porn has to be credited to the increasing skill of the people who make it. Special-effects wizards, makeup artists and sound engineers have perfected their crafts to the point where it's a shame not to show them off, slowly, in extreme close-up. Hey, take a good, long look at all the different colours of the meat inside a human neck! This gallon of sticky, red-black blood is great; let's get 10 more, and fling it around like tinsel! And if you can make one woman with her arms cut off talk and wriggle realistically, why not make 20 or 30 of them!

If Tarantino can think up 50 different ways to kill people with a samurai sword, and all of them appear real, well, you can see where he'd get a kick out of that. In Kill Bill, the candy-coloured balls of cereal fly around the kitchen so spectacularly when the assassin-mommy is knifed in the heart while preparing her daughter's afternoon snack, that you almost have to understand why Tarantino lingers on its aftermath for long seconds -- the fish-eyed corpse, the knife still quivering in the breastbone, the cereal scattered like confetti on the kitchen floor.

For me, traditional pornographic films are fine for about 10 minutes, until the deadening effects of the repetition set in. By minute 11, I'm so bored and depressed by the banality of the whole thing that I just want to go home and clean my bathtub.

Gore-porn films are the same. The harder they try to gross me out, the more diminishing the returns. They remind me of a science experiment my class did in grade six, where we held pepper under our noses. At first we sneezed and our eyes watered, but after a few moments we stopped smelling it; the brain set up a line of defence to the pepper-pain, and our noses switched completely off. During Kill Bill, after it became clear that there was going to be no story whatsoever, that we were just there to watch heroine Uma Thurman cuisinart her former co-assassins, my concern centre switched off, and I started day-dreaming about what I'd have for dinner. For me, that was far more emotionally involving.

I realize that Tarantino and his smarty-pants ilk don't care what I think. I'm not the key demo for gore-porn films, and box-office figures bear this out (females are not going to Kill Bill in droves). And certainly the mostly young male audience I saw the film with, at the first matinee of opening day in downtown Vancouver, seemed to get a kick out of it. But just as sex films have to keep adding new tricks (conjoined-twin surfers in bikinis!), so will gore-porn films have to add more corpses, more maggots, and more rotting flesh, all to make us feel less and less.