Cinema Pericoloso: It’s Only a Movie…Isn’t It?

By Michael Crosby

We’ll be looking at films that truly pushed the boundaries of “acceptable” entertainment, particularly for their time. These are the films that took no prisoners, knew no limits, and shook up mainstream society, usually transcending their low-budget roots and exploitation ad campaigns. This is dangerous cinema. This is Cinema Pericoloso.

We’ll take a brief look at three examples of dangerous cinema, commonly linked by their status atop the United Kingdom’s infamous “video nasty” list of the early 1980s. At a time when home video was truly beginning to take off, conservative movements in Britain, trying to combat the availability of sexual and/or violent material to younger patrons, created a list of over 70 titles that became illegal to rent or sell, under penalty of confiscation and even imprisonment. It seems almost quaint now, in today’s Internet Age, but the hysteria drummed up over these titles sent shock waves throughout the horror film making community. In many cases, the titles are forgettable or exhibit no real artistic merit, but there are some which were championed by filmmakers and fans growing increasingly disturbed over what was seen as flat-out censorship. These three tellingly share certain characteristics. They are painfully low-budget, independently made affairs; they all focus on disturbing and realistic subject matter, particularly rape and murder; they all featured lurid ad campaigns either implying or heavily suggesting that the events unfolding were “real;” all three of them ultimately benefited from all of that free negative publicity.

THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972)

Directed by Wes Craven

By 1972, the peace-and-love movement of the 1960s had fizzled out. The horrors of the war in Vietnam were a staple on nightly news programs, the Manson family murders had shocked America, and bands like Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper had begun selling out arenas and going platinum.

Wes Craven, a soft-spoken, gentle humanities professor, was determined to break into film making. Partnered with Sean Cunningham, an independent producer based in New York, Craven cut his teeth editing documentaries and the occasional soft-core porno until Cunningham was offered the opportunity to produce a horror film for fledgling distributors Hallmark Productions. He offered Craven the writer-director’s gig and the rest is horror history. Determined to make a truly scary, disturbing film and equally determined to eschew sanitized Hollywood violence, The Last House on the Left was a case of right place, right time for everyone involved. The sensational ad campaign (infamous at the time), and the lurid subject matter, combined to make the film a minor hit in 1972…and its reputation only grew with time.

Released regionally, the film was cut several times by independent theater owners, and all those trims were almost lost forever. Several versions of an “uncut” Last House have seen release on DVD and BluRay over the years, and the film is probably as complete as it ever will be. The uncompromising, unflinching violence in Last House still has the power to disturb almost 50 years later, and for that reason alone it was almost universally panned by critics of the era (the occasional positive review by Roger Ebert notwithstanding). Like the other two films here, there’s much more going on here than in the typical grindhouse effort, and it fits in thematically with much of Craven’s work throughout his career, particularly his obsession with the nuclear family. Much like his follow up, The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the lines become blurred between the “good” family represented by the Collingwoods and the “bad” family of Krug and his fellow reprobates.

I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978)

Directed by Meir Zarchi

If you thought the rape scene in Last House was disturbing, wait until you get a load of this flick. A prolonged, thirty-minute sequence featuring gang rape, anal rape, forced fellatio and violation with a wine bottle are followed by sequences featuring revenge, castration and murder. It’s a tough 100 minutes or so, and like Last House, has really lost none of its impact.

Director Zarchi was “inspired” (I use the term loosely) by an incident he experienced years before in New York City, when he and a friend were confronted with a bleeding, naked woman crawling out of the bushes towards them in Central Park. Two men had raped her, beaten her and broken her jaw. Mistakenly believing it would be best to take her to the police, Zarchi was horrified at the callous treatment provided by officers and insisted she be taken to a hospital. Zarchi never forgot the image or the power of the experience and aimed to rub audiences noses in it with his film.

Released by Zarchi himself, Day of the Woman (the original title) performed underwhelmingly until it was picked up in 1980 by The Jerry Gross Organization, an independent distributor. Featuring a lurid new title and a spiffy new poster and ad campaign (that’s a very young Demi Moore on the poster, by the way), I Spit on Your Grave started making money, despite being released unrated. And that’s when the problems started. Universally panned by critics (no positive review from Roger Ebert this time; he called it “pure garbage”) and instantly labelled as exploitative and misogynistic, Spit was banned outright in several countries and heavily edited in many others. Time has been kinder, with more modern critics even applauding it as feminist, a theory proposed by author Carol Clover in her excellent book Men, Women, and Chainsaws (1992) in which she makes a case that the film, with its grimy, low-budget documentary feel and unflinching camera (the scenes are played out largely in wide, master shots due to the budget) put the audience firmly on Jennifer Hill’s (Camille Keaton) side and, far from glorifying the violence, shows rape for what it truly is: horrifying, dehumanizing and about a complete loss of self and power. Jennifer Hill spends the final third of the film regaining herself and her power; it’s a grim, harrowing journey, but not an unnecessary or exploitative one.

CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980)

Directed by Ruggero Deodato

While Cannibal Holocaust is generally remembered best for its on-screen violence and its sensational release (one could argue the controversy after its release is a more entertaining story than the one told in the film), it also deserves recognition for being a trailblazer in the “found-footage” genre later popularized by The Blair Witch Project (1999). Documentary filmmakers enter the Amazon, encounter primitive indigenous tribes, and fuck with them. Horror ensues. Their footage is found by a television broadcast company that want to air it. Simple plot and concept, and there are plenty of critics today who see a value in the film’s subtext about media manipulation and exploitation, but let’s be honest: Cannibal Holocaust is a carny freak show. Production was reportedly a nightmare, with actors continually harassed and browbeaten, indigenous extras being unpaid and abused, and most infamously, the real killing of animals.

The actors weren’t happy. Critics weren’t happy. Film classification boards all over the world weren’t happy. The only person happy was Deodato and the distributors because Holocaust raked in $2 million bucks (on a $100,000 budget) in his native Italy alone. The fun stopped, however, when Italy pulled the film from theaters and slapped Deodato with obscenity charges. Again, like Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, Cannibal Holocaust derives much of its power from its documentary feel, a feel that is a byproduct in the previous two films but intentionally aimed for in Holocaust.

The ad campaign was predicated on the notion that these were “true” events, and in that respect, Deodato was too successful for his own good. In a move alternately brilliant and in retrospect stunningly idiotic, Deodato had it written into the actors’ contracts that they couldn’t do any publicity or appear in the press for a year after the film’s release, further purporting the fiction that the footage was real and the actors were killed. Oops. Italian authorities believed it, and Deodato soon had more to worry about than obscenity charges: he was arrested and tried for murder. The charges were dropped when the very-much-still-alive cast was produced in court.

Because of the real animal killings and disturbing treatment on-set, it’s a difficult watch and a problematic one, and not far removed from films like Faces of Death (1978). Its value as a precursor to Blair Witch-style filmmaking and promotion at the apex of the cannibal genre warrant a viewing from horror fans and film historians, but everyone else will probably want to stay away.

About

Michael Crosby was a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. He passed away on December 5, 2020, and we miss him dearly. His articles remain on this site in his honor.

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