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Movie History – Extreme Violence in Film, Part II: Taxi Driver, Tarantino and Torture Porn

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As noted in Part 1 last week, extreme violence on screen came of age in the late ’60s and early ’70s. But soon thereafter, filmmakers took on-screen depictions of graphic violence even further. Sometimes the results were profound; sometimes gratuitous. Read on.

Taxi Driver (1976)
Much of Martin Scorsese’s output — from Mean Streets (1973) on through Raging Bull (1980), GoodFellas (1990) and most recently, The Departed (2006) — has been awash in frightening scenes depicting excessive violence committed by unlikeable Italian-Americans and other unstable personalities. But with Taxi Driver, John Hinkley’s assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan gave the final explosion of anger an unexpected immediacy.

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
This incendiary cult classic is the uncredited inspiration for the faux-documentary The Blair Witch Project (1999). A disturbingly grisly sexploitation flick, Cannibal Holocaust is presented as the true story of a film crew in the Amazon who are gang-raped, impaled, beaten, castrated, dismembered, and even forced to have an abortion. The numerous real animal killings (which include a horrific turtle beheading) led Italian authorities to suspect that director Ruggero Deodato’s footage was real. He was arrested on suspicion of murder for making a snuff film, and faced the possibility of life in prison following the movie’s 1980 Milan premiere.

Scarface (1983)
Like its namesake predecessor, Howard Hawks’ Scarface: Shame of the Nation (1932), Brian De Palma’s modern gangster remake (starring Al Pacino as a depraved Cuban drug lord) was severely criticized for its over-the-top depictions of violence. Originally X-rated, the cautionary tale eventually was released with an R rating, despite having retained hundreds of F-words, glamorized drug use, a now-infamous chainsaw torture scene, and its outrageously bloody finale.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
John McNaughton’s low-budget “fictional dramatization” is a disturbingly realistic slasher flick based on the confessions of real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas (Michael Rooker), who ended up on death row in Texas. A ratings controversy led to a very limited and delayed release and an NC-17 rating. The film’s detached and amoral documentary style enhanced each gory cinema-verite killing (fifteen in the film), which are depicted as a series of grotesque tableaux.

Natural Born Killers (1994)
Oliver Stone’s visually-riveting film about media sensationalism was immediately lambasted as “evil” and “loathsome” for its violence-soaked satire on screen violence. Presidential contender Senator Dole singled out the film as a “nightmare of depravity.” Its provocative story of two serial killer-lovers and white-trash outlaws (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), along with two similar films ( Kalifornia (1993) and The Basketball Diaries (1995)), reportedly inspired copycat shooting sprees throughout the U.S. including the 1999 Columbine High School Massacre.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
Two years earlier, auteur Quentin Tarantino’s gangster flick Reservoir Dogs (1992) raised its own firestorm of protest. Notorious for messy screen violence and sadistic sense of humor, the brash director upped the ante with this seminal, non-linear film that made hyper-real violence its centerpiece. (There’s sadomasochistic behavior, random shootings, a homosexual rape and a drug overdose throughout.) Its two main talkative, anti-hero characters (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) are professional hit-men who joke and swear while carrying out ruthless executions.

Hostel (2005)
The new millennium brought with it the explicit horrors of 9/11, a lengthy war in Iraq, the shocking tortures of Abu Ghraib, and worldwide terrorist threats. Traditional horror remakes of ’70s and ’80s classics, such as Freddy vs. Jason (2003) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) were refashioned with an edge, while newer fare such as Saw (2004), Wolf Creek (2005) and Sin City (2005) initiated interest in a new sub-genre dubbed torture porn (or gorno). The disturbing trend was highlighted by Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005), soundly condemned for its visceral excesses, and the detailed torture, dismemberment and mutilation suffered by a group of hedonistic American backpackers in Eastern Europe. In the mainstream, too, a broader range of films appeared to be opting for more bloodletting and pain than ever before, such as in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) and the latest Bond film Casino Royale (2006).

Tim Dirks is Senior Editor and Film Historian at AMC, an educator
and film buff who originally created the landmark, award-winning Filmsite.org
(Greatest Films) in the mid-1990s and continues to write original
reviews and features spanning all the years of cinematic history.

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