Imagining the Worst
I was technically not old enough to see Outland when it was released in the UK in 1981. The film was rated AA, a now defunct certificate, which required the viewer to be 14 years or older and I was 13. I have strong memories of feeling quite tense going into the cinema. My expectations were based purely on what I had read in the press and from seeing the trailer just once, a few weeks prior. That is how it was before the internet age. You had less advance knowledge of a movie. Furthermore, at this point in time I had not become so inured to cinematic violence, as my viewing habits at the time were very much dictated by my parents and the fact that there were only two televisions in our home. Although we had a VCR, we hadn’t yet got bitten by the renting bug. So, I went into the movie theatre expecting to be shocked by Outland based on the movies marketing which promised a head explosion. However, it turned out not to be a thoroughly entertaining film. Yet I vividly remember my sense of relief that its hadn’t been as shocking as I had imagined it would.
Over the years I’ve had similar such experiences with many other classic titles from the horror and other genres. Films such as Zombi 2, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Soldier Blue and Cannibal Holocaust, all have strong and controversial reputations. Often this is due to unpleasant acts or levels of violence. Yet after watching all of these films, I have always felt a sense of relief and possibly even disappointment, because of the gulf between what my expectations were and what was actually depicted. The New York Ripper for example does include acts of violence that in principle are totally abhorrent, yet the reality is that the film makeup effects are generally poor. I guess my fear has always been that I will see something so heinous that I’ll be traumatised, physically sick or worse. The latter is the biggest concern and the most nebulous. Somehow, exposure to such material will leave me altered on some level and not for the better.
To a degree this factor still effects a great deal of my viewing to this very day. However, I am now quite sceptical when I read a review which claims that the film in question has shocking scenes or breaks some terrible taboo. Mainstream Hollywood seldom does any of these things at present. The horrific imagery that I can conjure up in my mind’s eye, more often than not is never equalled by what the film-maker chooses to show. It is a perennial debate among film fans that less is more and what the viewer thinks they see is far more disturbing than anything that can be shown. I do agree with this to a degree, although I do feel that violence and graphic imagery can play a part if used appropriately and within context. Yet outside of the mainstream there are still film-makers prepared to the push boundaries that the big studios are not.
There have been several films recently that have courted a great deal of controversy with regard to their content. I have always held the opinion that you cannot effectively comment on films unless you’ve seen it. Therefore, for me to credibly write on such material, I would have to watch it. The problem is I really don’t wish to (more on that later). Two relatively recent examples which spring to mind are A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence. If you follow the links for both titles you can read the plot synopsis for each on Wikipedia. The descriptions of both films instantly sets my mind racing with regard to how graphic they can be? Again, it could be the case that my expectations are far worse, fuelled by my mind working overtime. However, it would appear that both these films are quite explicit or so I am told by trusted peers. Potentially, these films could challenge my theory and overturn it, by actually showing the unshowable.
I won’t get into an argument about the artistic merits of both these titles, as that is a separate debate for another time. Ultimately, I believe that my rule of thumb broadly holds true but because we now live in far more liberal times, there is scope for film makers to prove otherwise and depict acts that are worse than I imagine. However, that has not yet become the norm. In the case of the two films I’ve mentioned, I do not think I will benefit in any way from seeing either of them. To do so would be pure voyeurism and pandering to the conceits of the film makers. If horrific imagery is devoid of any context, meaning or the wider purpose, then I may as well just sit and watch the emergency services cut the corpses from car accidents. What sort of normal person does that for pleasure? As a teenager, I can remember the bragging rights associated with watching the grisliest horror movie one could find. Such puerile rites of passage are common place. However, adulthood comes with a sense of perspective and an ability to curb one’s excesses. It is a habit that I still like to maintain.
As a libertarian, I do not feel it is my place to draw lines in the sand with regard to what film-makers can or cannot depict. However, I can and do draw such lines for myself, with respect to what I choose to watch. I therefore think that the feeling of expectation and trepidation I had as a 13-year-old, is a quality I wish to keep. If there comes a time when such a notion fails to enter my head, then I really will have become totally desensitised to cinematic violence. I think maintaining such an emotional safety valve is a healthy attribute to have. So, I've decided to skip A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence. They may well live up to the reputation they've gained or simply be an exercise in hype but I don't really want to taint myself or waste my precious time by finding out. I will never dismiss a film out of hand for having the gall to exist but I do feel that having the capacity to say "thanks but no thanks" is important and liberating.