During the European Film Market event in Berlin where Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me was being screened at the Berlinale, the US/UK co-production was apparently so violent that dozens of people walked out of the press screening in disgust. The film is based on Jim Thompson's noir tale of the same name and is told from the point of view of a sociopathic, small-town sheriff, played by Casey Affleck. When the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival it also caused a huge stir regarding its depiction of graphic violence against women, particularly a scene where Lou Ford (Affleck) brutally beats Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) repeatedly in the head until she falls into a coma. Reports stated that Alba herself walked out during the screening at Sundance and one woman during an audience Q&A gave Winterbottom the business about the explicit scenes.
Winterbottom spoke out on the matter during the Berlin press conference, defending his use of shocking violence as a way to be true to the original source material, among other things. "For me that was the point of the violence in the film in a way -- it is something very repulsive. In terms of how we depicted it, we were just trying to make it as close to the book as possible. The book is very shocking," the director told reporters.
My questions are the same ones that have been asked before dozens of times, but still warrant discussion given such a dramatic outburst over this film and after seeing several mainstream genre bending titles pop up lately, including Scorsese's Shutter Island. These films, whether horror or featuring horrific subject matter, are pairing bigger budget names with intense subject matter and mainstream audiences are reacting as though they are completely unprepared for the blow these movies deliver. But why? A film like Winterbottom's doesn't disguise itself as anything other than what it is. Anyone who reads about the The Killer Inside Me before they see it will undoubtedly learn about the movie's source material and most writers worth their salt will mention the violent and disturbing subject matter. There is nothing gratuitous about Winterbottom's reimagining of Thompson's story -- these scenes should be brutal and unforgiving because that's the point.
For decades, horror cinema has endured the same criticisms, facing claims of violence and misogyny -- designated as simply appealing to the lowest common denominator, and exploitative. Horror cinema should be horrific. That many of the greatest horror films of the modern era are independent and (at least by Hollywood standards) low budget begs the question, why can't Hollywood make mainstream horror films that are equally dark and compelling, and filled with A-list talent? The reasons against it are a well-worn litany of excuses.
Horror fans, however, tend to be very suspicious of studio-backed fright films because they're invariably watered down. You won't find an actor with an image to uphold like Brad Pitt à la Anthony Wong in The Untold Story ramming chopsticks into his supporting cast member's girl parts. Wong did win the Hong Kong equivalent of an Oscar for that role though, so maybe there's something to be said for playing the psychopath more often. Mention Hollywood horror and fans immediately think big budget flicks (especially remakes) with no gore, no scares, and no soul.
And yet a film like Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, although not a Hollywood film, could serve as the perfect blueprint to get Hollywood horror back on track. It's beautifully filmed, has big name credibility and it's completely disturbing. Winterbottom has a friend; Antichrist also inspired walkouts and unpleasant reactions from its audience. Silence of the Lambs was the first film since probably The Exorcist to receive the praise and attention it did. Demme's film was also the third film in history to win the Top 5 Oscar Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress) and you can bet your sweet ass the other two weren't horror films. Even when something does come along like Shutter Island (which like Silence of the Lambs people will argue may or may not be a horror film at all. pshaw!) that has all the elements, horror fans are reluctant to embrace it because they've been burned so often in the past.
Hollywood never helps its cause, because it regularly refuses to classify horror films as horror -- opting instead to call them thrillers to avoid the negative connotation of the horror title. Thus, it's a vicious circle -- fans don't embrace Hollywood horror films, and Hollywood doesn't embrace horror because the fans rarely turn out to support it. Why does legitimate horror have to scrape the bottom of the barrel? Are fans too complacent? Where is the motivation to make something grander? I don't think a horror film's success should be measured by a big budget or blockbuster names. I'd simply like to see horror get more backing from the studio system to support the unconventional (and sometimes controversial) themes it should be exploring to the fullest.
Since its inception, the Saw series has dominated the box office (with the exception of 2009 and Paranormal Activity) during opening weekend, but let's be honest -- those numbers drop dramatically the second weekend after the mad rush to see people getting their faces torn off all in the spirit of Halloween festivities. For every Saw movie that makes 50 million bucks, solid horror films like Michael Dougherty's Trick 'r Treat can't even get a studio release. Big budget remakes and sequels have built in audiences and new intellectual properties are more risky, but where there is no risk there is no potential reward. Most importantly, audiences need to start taking more risks too.