The Evolution of Murder in Cinema Part 2: The ‘60s through the ‘80s

Lee continues his epic excursion into the bowels of murder in cinema. 

Exploitation Film - An exploitation film is any film which tries to succeed financially by exploiting a current trend, a niche genre, or a lurid subject matter. Subjects which these films exploit include, but are not limited to, sex, violence, and romance - Wikipedia

Exploitation films have a history of shocking their audiences with their raw display of the taboo and perverse. They were produced outside of Hollywood and didn't have the big budgets and lavish sets that major studios could provide. But what they lacked financially, they made up for in subject matter, especially considering they weren’t held to the strict standards of their big screen rivals. Exploitation films gained popularity in the '60s. They were shown as double features in drive-in's and old forgotten burlesque theaters on the seedy side of town. Graphic displays of explicit sex, drugs, and violence introduced audiences to things they previously had to imagine. It was here that audiences were first introduced to the horror sub genre called splatter films.

The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis - The Godfather of Gore

In 1963, nudie cutie film director Herschell Gordon Lewis wanted to bring a new level of excitement to his films. The result was Blood Feast. Instead of focusing on scantily clad women showing off their goods, he had them hacked to pieces instead. Incidentally he created an all new genre of film called splatter. The film opens with a then risky scene of a woman stripping down for a bubble bath. As soon as she settles in a wild eyed Egyptian man appears with a knife and stabs the horrified woman. He then proceeds to hack off her leg. This was gore! In the flesh (pun intended)! As more girls are discovered, the baffled police department discovers an unsettling pattern. The killer is harvesting organs, but for what? While the film doesn't do much in its realistic portrayal of a killer, it was groundbreaking in its graphic displays of murder and gore. With each new splatter film Lewis made, he tried to out gore his previous attempt. Wizard of Gore (1970) is no exception. Using the power of hypnosis, magician Montag the Magnificent is able to make his audience see terrible and gruesome things. 

As is customary, he calls for a female assistance from the audience. He then uses a chainsaw to cut the woman in half. Using two actresses for the scene, a fake midsection was made, and for realistic measures, was filled with real sheep intestines and organs (purchased at a slaughter house). In addition, condoms filled with fake blood were also used for added effect. The result reinforced the term "splatter”. What was to be Lewis's swan song film (he would eventually return in 2006 with the release of Blood Feast 2: All You Can Eat). Gore Gore Girls (1972) features a serial killer obsessed with murdering and mutilating strip club dancers. Not wanting to go out in taste, the film is the most gory of Lewis's career, and brings to cinematic light the mutilated lacerations a meat cleaver can produce on a woman's buttocks. These films were meant to shock and disgust. Oddly enough, splatter films quickly gained a cult following. In a bizarre twist of fate, the massive over the top deaths were able to  provoke disgusted laughs from the horrified audience. Despite the visual spectacle of violence, there is a detachment of reality viewers develop when watching these films. While some movie goers lambasted these films for their poor taste, Hershall Gordon Lewis is credited for helping create the visual realism of murder, and set the foundation for the graphic displays of death in cinema. 

Murder as Art - Peeping Tom (1960)

Notoriously known as the film that ruined director Michael Powell's career,  Peeping Tom is a perverse look at murder as performance art. The film stars Carl Boehmn as amateur director and photographer Mark Lewis. Due to excessive exposure to fear as a child, Mark suffers from a bizarre voyeurism disorder. His mental illness manifests a psychotic obsession to film people during their most intimate moment, the final seconds before their own death. His obsession provokes a series of murders that he films and adds to his masterworks. To heighten his subject’s horror, Mark customizes his camera with an object he calls the most fearful thing a person can see before they die. Peeping Tom spends a good amount of time focusing on the nervous compulsions Mark experiences to carry out his unsettling desires. There is no inner conflict of what is right or wrong, only an inner craving he feels compelled to act upon out of self necessity. While some films focus on a killer's urge to take a life for the feelings of empowerment or sexual desire, Mark acts with a determined nervousness to see his art complete. While not a highly researched area of psychosis at the time, Peeping Tom was one of the first films to reflect the traits of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This approach echoes a realism, mirroring many heinous criminals. While not forgiving the act, or giving it an excuse, it gives a potential understanding to the question "how could a person do such a thing?" The film was destroyed by critics and banned in Finland until 1981. The ugly backlash promptly ruined Powell’s directing career in the UK. Over the years the film has gained a cult following, and today’s critics now boast appreciation for Powell’s film. Redemption came in the form of a Criterion Collection release in 1999.

Badlands (1973)

Loosely based on the murder spree committed by Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in 1958, Badlands unique narrative by 15 year old Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) creates an adolescent perspective of violence and murder. The film often becomes surreal as composer Carl Orff’s composition Gassenhauer becomes the soundtrack for images of chaos and beauty. The upbeat music further enforces the film’s paradox as Kit’s (Martin Sheen) murder spree is accompanied with flashing images of nature. While Sargis’ voice is poetic, it also reflects a naive point of view. Terrence Malick’s film is a bizarre play on the senses. There never is a definitive motive for Kit’s crimes. His actions have a detachment, yet not the cold isolated separation that defines most on screen killers. His nonchalant attitude is more representative to a careless teenager. It’s a bizarre presentation, murder presented with intimate images of thriving life. Each element plays off the other, thus giving more meaning to one-another. The entirety of the story seems to unfold as if a dream, with the film’s constant focus on Kit and Holly. It isn't until we see a helicopter flying across the desert that we even know the couple is being pursued. Sheen's character comes to life after his apprehension. He becomes charismatic, casually laughing with law enforcement. "I always wanted to be a criminal”, he says. “Just not this big a one.” The line was an actual quote made by Starkweather after he was captured.

The Godfather (1972)

When Paramount Pictures announced they were making a film based on Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather in 1969, many wondered if the violence conveyed in the book could be adapted for the screen. The graphic portrayal of sex and murder was still a relatively new liberty for major studios since the recent abolishment of the Motion Picture Code. It forced many directors to think differently, and reimagine film. There was also the unspoken rule of taste, but to do Puzo’s novel justice, the film would have to present the subject matter in a realistic manner. While exploitation films had recently made advancements in the portrayal of murder on screen, they were becoming unbelievably exaggerated as each film tried to out gore the other. Francis Ford Coppola did not disappoint. Like the novel, the film is a classic, providing the bloody imagery that unfolds between rival mafia families. What makes The Godfather unique is it lets the audiences know, or hints at, when the majority of the murders are about to happen, creating an edge of your seat tension. The diner scene is easily one of the most famous  scenes in cinematic history. Viewers know it's going to happen, and Coppola dragged the scene out to enhances the suspense. When Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) finally pulls the trigger, it's still brutally shocking. The gun violence is especially advanced for the time, coming a long ways from the days when a gunshot sound effect prompted an actor to grasp an imagery wound on his chest and fall over like a board. In The Godfather there is blood, lots of it. The most memorable in the film is the tollbooth scene. Viewers knew the rival families were planning to whack Sonny (James Cann), but what they witnessed was terrifying. Sonny is turned into a human colander with unbelievable and gruesome realism. Bullet holes erupt across his suit as his body thrashes about. When he finally collapses more shots are pumped into his lifeless body. As a closing statement, one of his executioners kicks his head. The grotesque post death violence is one of the first depicted in film. It is still shocking years later.

Halloween (1978)

The opening of John Carpenter’s Halloween did something very different. It put the audience behind the eyes of a killer. When young Michael Myers puts on a mask, viewers share his first person perspective as the camera peeks through the mask’s eye holes. It's a disturbing opening that forced audiences to identify with a killer. It gave them the visual point of view of actually carrying out a murder as Myers’s knife appears and disappears through the eye holes with each thrust. It was a new unsettling territory for viewers. The audience doesn't learn the identity of the killer until the mask is removed, shockingly revealing a 6 year old boy. While murder committed by a child wasn’t a new concept, it was almost always implied in film. Carpenter gave the crime a name and face, and made the audience an accomplice by putting the knife in their hands. Halloween’s success owes much to its realism. For a horror film, it doesn’t go overboard with gore, and the deaths are raw, and intimately committed. Paired with Carpenter’s now classic hair raising soundtrack, Halloween scared audiences. Much of that fear was a direct result of the point of view opening. It forced viewers to abandon their morals and to experience the crime as if they were committing the act themselves. Halloween would inspire countless slasher films full of sadistic masked killers, but very few we able to recreate the core fear that Carpenter so skillfully exposed to his audience.   

I Spit on your Grave (1978) 

I Spit on your Grave was groundbreaking for its graphic depiction of rape and murder. It’s a classic revenge tale written from a women’s perspective, and it doesn’t hold back the brutal details that go with the territory of such crimes. The film was banned in several countries for its violent content and still remains banned in some countries to this day. The notorious rape scene takes up a half hour of screen time, and sets the platform for the violence that follows. For Jennifer (Camille Keaton) to achieve proper vengeance for the hell she was forced to endure, her retaliation had to be equally gruesome. There is a balance, even when considering such disturbing subjects, that must be achieved for viewers to experience a sense of justification. As an exploitation film, the blood isn't over the top, and reflects a more realistic interpretation. What makes the film memorable is the motive. Revenge has been the subject of many films, but the sickening intimacy of rape fuels a deeper fire in I Spit On Your Grave. Jennifer isn't a serial killer fueled by perverse sexual desires or disorders. Her actions are driven by cold calculated rage. It isn’t flash and true revenge never is. The bath tub scene remains one of the most shocking in film. It’s an impressive scene that doesn’t go into overly gory details to be effective. Given the nudity of Jennifer’s attacker, it sets a relaxed mood of vulnerability. Viewers are given just enough to understand Jennifer’s actions as a knife disappears beneath the water, followed by a cloud of blood that expands across the bathtub. Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film zero stars for its unapologetic vulgarities, while feminists, equally disturbed by the graphic imagery, praised the film. Having a woman commit serial murders with such graphic detail was a new horizon in film. It introduced audiences to a frightening new perspective of revenge. Rooted in the classic eye for an eye redemption, I Spit On Your Grave brought to visual life the dark fantasies of many women who were forced endured the violations of rape.  

Cannibal Holocaust  (1980)

Among one of the most controversial films ever made, Cannibal Holocaust is notoriously known for its actual animal cruelty. Several animals were deliberately killed while the cameras were rolling, churning even the most strongest of stomachs. Despite the realism directors strive for when making a film, audiences have developed a detachment from reality when enjoying a movie. Their brain puts them in the film to enjoy the conveyed emotions, but ultimately they know what they are watching is not real, no matter how strong the emotional experience. With Cannibal Holocaust, when a scout catches and kills a Coati (an animal similar to a muskrat), there is no doubt the scene is real as the animal twitches and screams for its life. This brutal scene shatters the audiences detachment. There is no longer a separation of fiction and reality, and the violent story that unfolds is a horrifying play of the senses. The lingering effects manipulate the viewer's perspective, tricking the brain into seeing every acted murder as an actual reality committed for this found footage film. As a result, the portrayed murders on screen seemed so real that director Ruggero Deodato was arrested after the premier and charged with making a snuff film. Deodato had to have the actors in the film make an appearance in his defense to prove they were not killed on set. In addition, each death scene had to be explained in detail how the effect was achieved and that the actors were not harmed. Despite all the explicitness, the film owes much to its moral story of civilized vs uncivilized, and at its core, who really are the savages. It remains banned in several countries today. It's an important film in cinematic history, and several measures have been taken to prevent the cruelty of animals for the sake of entertainment since. In short, this film is the reason you see "No animals were harmed in the making of this film" in the today’s end credits.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer  (1986)

Years before playing Daryl's brother Merle on The Walking Dead, Michael Rooker starred as the title character in the film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Based on the real life crimes of Henry Lee Lucas, Henry is a grizzly film. There is nothing feel good about the movie, and perhaps that is the point. Following the spree of two ex cons, the film takes an interesting twist when Henry and his roommate Otis beginning killing together just to feed the urge to do so. There is a heartless detachment as Otis experiences a rush of joy while taking a life, and claiming to feel better afterwards. Director John McNaughton brings to light the compulsion to kill as a dominating uncontrollable sickness. The act of committing murder is a euphoric experience for Henry and Otis, like a drug addiction that can only be satisfied with a fix. The film had trouble finding distribution after receiving an X rating due to its violent content. The murders depicted echo a brutal realism, at times displaying the long physical struggles Henry endures to overtake his victims. Yet it’s not Henry’s struggle in these scenes that make this film so disturbing, it’s the helpless struggle of those who fight for their lives. It's a tough watch as each victim gives every ounce of their existence, resisting to give up until death takes them. It is heartbreaking, and almost too real. The open ended finish brings no resolution or justice for Henry's heinous deeds. The lack of closure leaves viewers unsatisfied, and with a lingering unpleasant feeling. Roger Ebert said it best in his review of the film, citing it as the first film to seriously attempt to accurately portray murder "honestly with its subject matter, instead of trying to sugar-coat violence as most 'slasher' films do".

Horror/ Exploitation in the ‘80s
Related Article:The Evolution of Murder in Cinema Part 1. 

Exploitation films continued more aggressively in the ‘80s as horror films entered the new slasher era. While films like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street thrived at the box office and transformed the genre, a plethora of similar themed low budget copy cat films were quick to follow. These films dominated the new at home video market, with many films skipping theatrical releases altogether. Each film tried to best the last with more blood and wildly creative deaths. As absurd as some of these films were, the makeup and visual effects teams were continuing to make advancements in their display of gruesome imagery. Films such as Pieces and Maniac took dismemberment and scalping to realistic new levels. Even more exaggerated films, such as Return of the Living Dead, thrilled and disgusted audiences with slimy skinned zombies with half deteriorated bodies.

In 1987, Robocop broke the mold. When a ED-209 enforcement droid mistakes an engineer for an enemy target, it nearly cuts the man in half with a hail of relentless machine gun fire. The aftermath is a pile of torn flesh in the shape of what was once a human body. Film had entered a violent new era, where the photographic images of war were being duplicated on screen with frightful authenticity. With each death, movies were losing their innocence as they continued to narrow the gap between what was real and fabricated for the screen. Thanks largely to the introduction of cable and video, films full of death and murder were fast becoming a daily viewing experience. Video also gave lesser known studios, such as Troma and Cannon, the opportunity to thrive in a market that wasn’t entirely dominated by big money. With a straight to video release, small budget pictures no longer had to compete with major studios for screening opportunities, especially in rural areas with limited theaters and screens. The visual advancements of the ‘80s set a new standard for the industry, and gave viewers an up close and personal look into the eyes of death. 

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-Lee L. Lind