Let me tell you a story. There is a film out there, available on DVD in Britain, now uncut, that is so terribly frightening that censors felt compelled to prevent this repugnant filth from being projected. It was deemed legally depraving and corrupting. One examiner tasked with rating the film said that he felt as if he had been assaulted. The violence was brutal and the film was outlawed.
That film was Sam Raimi’s the Evil Dead, the 1981 ‘spam in a cabin’ shocker, the legal sinking of which created the ‘video nasties’ whirlpool into which were sucked many great and worthy movies such as Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession, a fully fledged art movie and no doubt the Exorcist sequel that should have been; Cannibal Holocaust, a truly vile piece of exploitation filmmaking (containing among other things, extreme violence, the titular cannibalism and real animal cruelty) that more directly than any other film asks, can a film go too far? And the unbelievably important I Spit On Your Grave. We can argue however much we feel like doing on a particular day about the ‘worthiness’ of these films, and their trashier counterparts, whether these films are intelligent and well constructed works that explore the human condition, but the simple fact remains that as adults, people have the right to be able to view these films if they so wish. There is content advisory available from the BBFC which lists in great detail not just the acts committed by the characters (on screen or implied) but also the general mood of the work and an advised (but legally binding) age rating.
I once programmed a film evening for some friends of horror films, partially to watch two absolutely stunning works of cinematic art, and by their contrast, to make a point. The two films were Pascal Lougier’s Martyrs from 2008 and Raimi’s the Evil Dead. These were important, and let me explain to you why by first describing Martyrs as best I can. I went to see a screening of Martyrs in Edinburgh when it first came out. The film was so effective (or obscene, choose your adjective) that within the first two minutes, almost a quarter of the audience had left te cinema. By the time the film was over, only a quarter of the audience remained. During the film, two people had to be carried out after fainting. Not out of protest because the opening sequence, in which a visibly abused child escapes from a life of captivity in an abandoned warehouse, contains no violence, rather the walk-outs and the faintings were a reaction to and a vindication of the relentlessly nihilistic, grim and perfectly suspended atmosphere of the film. This is the experience of Martyrs, while fans of splatter will find plenty of blood to satisfy their thirst; the film, as the director put it, “is not about torture, it’s about pain” and that is the key difference. After watching the film, my sister explained something I had been struggling to put into words “the most horrible bits of the film are not the bloody bits”, thanks sis, proverbial nail on its proverbial head. People left my screening not out of protest at the films content but because it reached down, deep down into them and into all of the audience, and touches something that even horror movies don’t touch, a nerve of fear of other human beings so real and palpable that I had to consciously stay in my seat throughout the film; constantly thinking “I can’t take any more, I have to leave, I have to leave”. I don’t want to summarise the plot, because it is a film that relies on you not really knowing what it is about, but to spoil the first ten minutes (which are also explained in the DVD blurb). The film begins with a young girl, Lucie, escaping a life of inhuman abuse. We do not see any abuse other than the physical signs of same on her body. The film cuts into what looks like a documentary film being produced about her kidnapping and escape. A doctor leads us around the now-bare torture chamber, explains that Lucie was not raped and explains that the perpetrator(s) remain at large and their motives remain an enigma. The film shows Lucie’s external wounds healing and her inability to connect with the children at the orphanage where she is staying. She does however befriend one young girl, Anna. Anna discovers Lucie locked in the bathroom of the orphanage with still-bleeding cuts to her arms and Lucie explains “she came back again”. In the night Lucie is terrorised by a ghoulish and animalistic creature. The film cuts to a family having breakfast, the doorbell rings and the father opens the door to discover a young woman armed with a double-barrelled shotgun. She coldly butchers the family and it is then revealed it is Lucie, now grown up and executing vigilante revenge on the people responsible for her abuse. Or are they?
The film centres around this moral guilt. Does suffering give one the right to inflict suffering on others? It creates a house of horror through which the characters must survive. The film revolves around the character of Anna, who faces fear and incomprehension from everywhere. Her association with Lucie, who is revealed as a brutal and psychologically damaged individual, is put into question and she must understand the moral choices she is contended with. If Lucie has killed innocent people, should Anna betray her? If Lucie has killed the guilty party, does that make it right? Is Lucie’s psychosis a danger to herself. All the while being menaced by creatures that are not entirely human and not entirely of this world. The film is part of the French new wave of gore-movies, with stablemates Frontiers and Switchblade Romance. While both Frontiers and Switchblade Romance were straightforward splatter movies, quite well done and moderately scary; neither can compare to Martyrs. Martyrs is like Possession. An art film dressed up as a horror. I believe it has questions to ask about the human condition and pitches them well within a deeply involving storyline. As a film it is the single most unrelentingly unpleasant experience and really demonstrates how much a film can affect you, and stay with you long after the end credits. It is a very violent film, two people fainted in the cinema. Credit to the people at my film night, nobody walked out and nobody fainted but I’m not sure my friends have ever really forgiven me for it. Here is the connection. Martyrs has never been banned (there was a bit of a kerfuffle surrounding its 18 rating in France, to quickly and inadequately explain that, an 18 in France is still a legal release but due to specifics of that rating, it is a virtual death sentence for the film. After re-submission and a small media campaign, it was rebranded 16), in Britain the BBFC quite rightly gave it an 18 rating no cuts. The film is grim, violent and for the vast majority of audiences, it goes too far. I like it, a lot. One of my friends thought it went too far, and for her it clearly did. Everyone was more lukewarm on the film than I but we all were allowed to watch it because we were all over 18.
Now let me talk about the other half of our double bill that night. The Evil Dead. The Evil Dead too is a horror film. It concerns a group of teens who travel out to a cabin in the woods for a night of high-jinks and infidelities that go along with these kinds of things. Upon discovery of a book, and recitation of its contents, the forest and one of their number become possessed by demons. Notable gore sequences include a pencil being stabbed into a woman’s ankle, a body being chainsawed up, a body being axed to death and plenty of general good splatter. The Evil Dead, if you haven’t seen it, is a comedy. There are laughs abounds and proceedings are carried out with an almost slapstick knock-about air of jollity that takes weight away from the gore. It probably contains about as much blood per-minute as Martyrs, but the emphasis is completely different. We all enjoyed it, we laughed and we gasped at the right moments and all in all it is a great date-movie romp. Take someone you don’t know that well but would like to get closer to, and have a good time cuddling up together in the dark. Excellent. The Evil Dead, as I’ve already said, was banned; and only released uncut in 2001, almost twenty years after its release (naturally we had the uncut version, which is rated the same as Martyrs).
It was a fascinating night, to have a jolly knock-about horror romp on one hand that had been banned, labelled offensive, sick, poor taste, horrifying; and then to watch a film about which there had been no censorship and no call for any which you would definitely describe as far more horrible, gruesome, affecting and uncompromising than Raimi’s eighties comedy shocker. I enjoyed both films. I recommend that night to anyone, in the playing order Martyrs comes first, the Evil Dead kinda takes the edge off your trauma.
The Evil Dead and Martyrs, yet more evidence that the world has moved on from the backwards, tone-deaf wilfully ignorant world of censorship and onto the bright sunlit upland where adults are allowed to decide for themselves what they want to see. Martyrs, a film which more than anything else, demonstrates the power of the motion picture, and the Evil Dead, showing that the impulses that make us laugh are not always so far away from the impulses that make us gasp and look through our fingers.Written under duress by Steven