Art, Censorship, and the Modern Horror Movie

By Dan Sampson @dan_sampson

The debate over what constitutes ‘art’ is as old as art itself. Quite why there is such a divergence of opinion is difficult to tell but personal taste, whether admitted or not, is probably the most significant factor in the discussion and is also why it continues: people have different standards, dispositions, and preferences, and these drive their reaction to (and judgment of) works of art.

A better question than what art is could be what art is supposed to do. Different works are variously intended to relax, excite, anger, elate, confuse, and inspire, but more than anything they are intended to encourage thought. Why does a piece evoke a given reaction? What is it about the content, format, and context that bring out these emotions? These are questions that one hopes the viewer considers but, if purpose is the ultimate arbiter of merit, one could conclude that a controversial piece has qualified as art simply by prompting debate in the first place.

This proposition leads us into broad territory and may not convince those who hold art to a higher standard than it merely existing as a medium for provoking thought, but it is a point from which the discussion can proceed. The argument from relativism adds little and usually forces a circular discussion that goes no further than declaring that different people have different opinions and that, as people often say, is that. Quickly we are back to square one.

One of the most contentious examples of art provoking intense discussion is the horror movie. Critics dismiss the films as lurid, crass and often exploitative, while fans of the genre encourage deeper analysis and point to the films’ often sophisticated subtexts, commentary on social and political issues, and lamentably ignored cerebral content (except that which ends up on walls, of course.)

George A. Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead is rife with commentary on modern culture. As the world descends into chaos with the flesh-eating undead roaming the land, our protagonists seek refuge in a suburban mall. This is an obvious slight against the trend of analgesic consumerism, and is further pressed by the sight of hordes of dead-eyed zombies shuffling aimlessly past the mall’s stores and restaurants, uncaring of their purpose or destination, and of the heroes indulging their selfish material desires as the rest of society is being massacred outside. Romero, just like any other artist, sought to get his audience to think about themselves, their fellow man, and the world in which both lived. This point was lost on some observers including, notably, the New York Times.

The film was extremely controversial due to its violent content and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) wanted to assign it an X-rating, the now defunct equivalent of today’s commercial success-killing NC-17. Romero campaigned against the rating and managed to convince the distributors to release the film without one, but with a warning about its content. Viewers have since been able to watch the film and make their own judgments and, indeed, see past the on-screen violence to pick up on Romero’s commentary about our over-reliance on what is now jokingly referred to as ‘retail therapy.’

Social critique of this kind is a tradition in the horror genre, but one wonders at times if the filmmakers are doing themselves a disservice as the message they intend to convey can get lost amongst the on-screen blood and gore. 2009’s The Human Centipede, from Dutch director Tom Six, was widely criticized for its content – specifically the sewing together of three humans, anus-to-mouth, to form the eponymous creature – and on the surface it’s easy to see why. However, the search for deeper meaning in the film is worthwhile; one could interpret it as an attack on our image-obsessed culture that prizes physical beauty over all others and in which people enthusiastically turn to cosmetic surgery to achieve the look they want (in point of fact, the villain of Centipede, Josef Heiter, is a deranged plastic surgeon.) Obviously the creation of the centipede is grotesque and extreme but the underlying point, if indeed it was the filmmaker’s intent to make it, warrants consideration.

However, Six risked delegitimizing the first movie with the release of its sequel. He upped the shock-and-gore by employing the film-within-a-film format, with the antagonist this time being Martin, a loner obsessed with Heiter’s work and determined to create his own. Martin decides to take it a few steps (or should that be ‘legs’?) further by sewing twelve unfortunate souls together. Add in particularly vicious masturbation and rape scenes and you have a movie that perhaps even the staunchest devotee of the genre would struggle to defend. Quite obviously – since it is a sequel – what transpires on screen is nothing we haven’t seen before, but it is hard to watch it and not feel that all Six did was capitalize on the first film’s notoriety and ride the hype for all it was worth. Centipede II doesn’t feel like a further exploration of the depths of our moral abyss as much as it does a cynical attempt to generate controversy by increasing the shock value.

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) originally declined to certify the film due to its extreme nature – which in practice approximates a ban in the UK – but later passed the film with an 18 certificate after more than 30 cuts were made. As reported by the Guardian, Six and defenders of the genre (and of the freedom of artistic expression) were outraged at the BBFC’s original decision to not issue a rating. Their point being that surely the viewing public, as responsible individuals, should be able to make their own judgments about what to watch and, in the case of parents, to what their children should be exposed. In today’s world it is a compelling argument and perhaps, as the Daily Telegraph’s Mark Mason suggested, the BBFC should be more in the business of making recommendations, as opposed to implementing what amounts to a ban.

This forces us to ask what the point of a ratings board would be if were not to issue ratings, and brings us back to the original question of how one determines the merit of a piece of artistic work. Should filmmakers compromise their art to ensure their message is clearly received or should the onus be on the viewer to search the piece for allegory? Further, should the BBFC, as it detailed in its press release, be making judgments not only on the content but the intended spirit of the films it rates?

These are extremely difficult questions to answer, particularly because the internet makes the creating and sharing of art of all kinds easy. Perhaps the future is one where the ratings boards are circumvented completely and works of art are published unregulated via the web. This would be a fertile ground for creativity and one that is exceptionally exciting, but perhaps a little worrying at the same time.

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