As long as pictures are made by people, and very often about people in one-way or another, violent content is inevitable. Long has it been stereotyped, with despair, our species’ inherent love affair with violent activity, and the cinema is absolutely representative of that.
Whether it be an entire several decade-enduring genre of American film devoted to a (mostly) inaccurate bloody portrayal of the 19th century, an auteurs’ artistic dedication to realism perhaps calling for some teeth-gritting rampant sadism, the desire to employ cheap shock schlock to mortify simple audiences, or whatever it is Cronenberg feels justifies his products’ content: complaining about violence at the movies feels sillier and sillier the more one immerses themselves into the medium.
Below are 20 films as examples regarding films that have reached greatness in some form whilst employing levels of upfront and graphic depictions of violence the likes of which one might expect of exploitation maestros or the frightening fantasies of troubled youth (possibly caused by these very films, and others, according to the, typically more narrow-minded, of society’s heroes). Please note that these are chronological.
1. El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970)
“I like violence. I love violence. I hear the weak person who go to art and say ‘Oh, that hurt me’…why do you make picture for that person? They’re blind. Poetry is violent. Reality: there is so much in a violent world, so much…they don’t want to see that…I am in the middle of a television screen now…which is showing every day the violence of the world”.
-Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1990.
Well, at least there’s an explanation for at least one of the many unconventional artistic decisions within El Topo, and Alejandro’s career in general. The reason El Topo is targeted in particular for this listing is its evidence resemblance to a film bracket already widely known (and often celebrated) for its violence: the western.
On paper, the murders carried out by our film’s titular protagonist ought be little different in relation to the number of individuals stolen of life through lead by the likes of Wayne or Eastwood, although Alejandro, clearly holding a finer appreciation of simulated murder than his Hollywood inspirations, decides that a celebratory excess of disgust, mutilation and unabashed suffering denote a film with little rules toward how its cast might be treated.
But stray from the illusion that all of El Topo’s victims are the products of a desire to commit justice: the atrocities of the men which duly account for El Topo’s massacre of them is also shown, in thorough detail.
And as a result, sickened though we might be, we receive the finest desire to unravel an individual’s morality to the extent wherein they might candidly rid others of life this side of the original I Spit on Your Grave.
Now, yes, El Topo as a film is about far more than rampant murder, employing heavy thematic substance (if you choose to believe, that is) and a unique breed of fervent, and unique, artistic presentation, although it is notable how a film over forty years of age can still shock, inspire writhe and sheer disgust at its abundance of severe bodily harm, whilst still being wildly memorable for a number of other qualities.
Far more coherent than The Holy Mountain, a film wherein the constant dabbling in violence is ultimately washed within an ocean of unconventional, unruly, uncomfortable content, thereby not quite as effective nor artistically identifiable than what is seen in El Topo.
2. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
With a title that offers no explanation as to the content within (and a meaning that is only explained in its Burgess’ source novel), A Clockwork Orange serves both esteem and notoriety upon its mention in conversation, arguably the oldest cinematic title to still boast such a public claim.
Kubrick deduced the most appropriate content for a film wholly dedicated to a study of violence, and the methods and means with which authorities attempt control of violence, was to showcase a protagonist whom derived intense passion and recreation from acts of the old ultra violence.
Better yet, an unapologetic, unfiltered portrayal of Alex’s actions, from battery, to reckless driving to home invasion and rape; and all within this film’s opening segments, he deemed important in solidifying his audience’s understanding of what a true, objective, view and mediation on violent actions ought entail.
In this case, as he often was, Kubrick was wholly correct. It was indeed an entirely and effective means in ensuring his film’s success on an artistic platform.
Unfortunately, he also ensured an absolute firestorm of controversy, particularly in the UK, where the film’s narrative was set, resulting in Kubrick’s own ultimate decision to have it pulled from its cinemas. This was the catalyst to what would be one of the most legendary, notorious, banned titles in that nation’s history (and there were plenty to choose from).
Today seen as the precursor to mature and upfront meditations of human violence, the likes of Fight Club and American Psycho for instance, A Clockwork Orange must inarguably be considered a product ahead of its time, if any film were to be gifted with that oft-dropped phrase (frequently employed particularly in regard to Stanley) it might be this one.
3. Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971)
Now we turn to a title with plenty of significant contextual and reputational similarities with Kubrick’s dystopian mediation, that being Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, released the same year.
Like A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs contains material worthy to be labelled highly confrontational, aggressive and disturbing even in the 21st century, perhaps the most exemplary entry of legendary Bloody Sam’s filmography to do so.
Sure, The Wild Bunch achieved iconic status for its unapologetically rampant violence also, and was beset with waves of controversy at that; its depiction of violence primarily serves to, ultimately, extend the rough grasp of revisionist realism upon the western gunfight, a trope that, even in Peckinpah’s gritty re-interpretation, remains a means of celebrating action, style and primal bridges to thorough audience entertainment.
What occurs in Straw Dogs is Sam Peckinpah challenging his peers to permit a protagonist to endure more (realistic) psychological distress than Dustin Hoffman’s David Sumner. Do not take this statement for granted.
A shocking, highly uncomfortable, rape scene is made all the more, not only disgusting, but also confusing, due to the ambiguity surrounding the feelings of the act’s victim. One shouldn’t be expected to walk out of Straw Dogs completely secure and stable, at least for the few following minutes.
Straw Dogs, along with A Clockwork Orange, belong amongst a wave of mainstream English-speaking titles of the early 1970s that were beset with ensuing debates regarding the nature of violent content in the cinema.
But unlike most, if not all, of its contemporaries, including The French Connection, Dirty Harry and even Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the aforementioned two films remain wholly remarkable, for better or for worse, depictions of gratuitous activities that remain shocking and effective presentations of unfriendly material, not whitewashed and rendered standard by the masses of violent films this specific wave opened the floodgates for.
4. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
One urban legend, frankly more resembling a tidy trickle of dark Hollywood gossip, goes Martin Scorsese himself was almost driven to Bickle-esque madness upon the film censors’ insistence that Taxi Driver, a film he at that point likely (appropriately) considered his finest hour, would have to be slapped an ‘X’ rating, a strong factor that could easily render it a financial failure.
Contemplating a confrontation with his superiors frighteningly resembling that which entails his own film’s climatic sequence of carnage, Scorsese’s decision to imbue said sequence with a strong tint of red not only appeased the censors’ toward Marty’s ‘R’ plea, but served to enforce the already-intense memorability and thorough effectiveness of the critical events in question.
Some American filmmakers had been, as of years recent to Taxi Driver’s release, exploring a true visage of New York City, one more dedicated to seediness, confrontation and an exploration of its contemporary underbelly.
Scorsese, as he is often known to, turned these titles over in exchange for one that would not only go down as, quite arguably, the quintessential defining ‘darker’ New York motion picture, but one of the cinema’s most beloved, iconic, and influential releases both in 1976 and enforced through thorough 21st century hindsight acclaim.
Not alike A Clockwork Orange, and also an element of commonality it shares with other iconic 1970s American and British classics, including The Godfather companions and countless vigilante titles (Death Wish, Get Carter, etc.), Taxi Driver refuses a strict adhered perspective toward the ultimate morality of its protagonists’ actions, and is often highly ambiguous as to his feelings and motives, boosting its already-frightening submission to savage storytelling.
5. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
In the 1980s, through an zeitgeist influence of either vainglorious excess or AIDS, an explosion of highly gory, though usually unrealistic, humorously grotesque and frequently comical, titles emerged, adhering to a bracket as belonging to the beloved niche that is body horror.
Indeed, our focus was initially believed to stray away from the horror genre, due to its tendencies to commit to sickening activities allowing violence to inherently flourish, and thus adhere an seasoned viewer with mild de-sensitivity when penning a listing of ‘notably’, and/or ‘uniquely’ violent films.
However, the creative wonder employed by this subgenre, and other films involving sequences resembling its traits, have allowed for successes and experience ultimately impossible to ignore for this summation. Every 1980s feature within this list shall relate, and explained in such relation to, body horror.
A film that one might deem the most creatively and imaginatively gory to possibly exist, and thereby one of the most likable horror films ever crafted, Carpenter’s superior rendition of a Antarctic-set short story has endured as an acclaimed horror masterpiece, and not just for reasoning related to excess goriness.
When the film’s special effects artist Rob Bottin inquired of Mr. Carpenter what he could and couldn’t do within his concept art, Carpenter merely permitted, “Go nuts”. Viewing the film, clearly Bottin wound up delivering the most appropriate responsive ideas imaginable.
In regard to body horror, one might be hard-pressed finding more beloved an entry of its bracket than The Thing, certainly within the ‘80s (Ridley Scott’s Alien indeed exists, and exists under the body horror trope also, among many other notable categories).
6. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)
The Canadian creep Cronenberg himself is the sole individual who has made himself an immediate name-drop following the genre of body horror’s mentioning. Within Videodrome, at least no one can claim it of existing as exploitative trash, or as a 1980s equivalent to 2000s torture porn, for it has something they don’t have: it has a philosophy.
Cronenberg has always deduced the external, obtuse contortions of the physical human self to be his stylistically preferred method so with which the internal anguish ought be materialized. In regard to his time and place, David deduced the rampant absorption of television and media within the collective human identity to be a catalyst for manipulation, control, and the possibility of dehumanisation.
“Why would anyone want to watch a scum show like Videodrome?” questions Barry Convex, responsible for protagonist Max Renn’s exposure to a tumour, and hallucination, inducing signal. More meta than one would expect from Cronenberg, perhaps, as he observes the changing role of broadcast content and what it means for the western world: what does it say about the state of our society when we allow content like Videodrome to grace our screens?
These questions and more see response imbued through a narrative revolving around Max Renn’s gradual descent into mind-control madness and obscene murder: the content of the film’s eponymous program.
But we can spend all day collectively warming our meats in an attempt to find out who has the most impressive perspective on the film’s unclear motivations. What matters more importantly to us is how it finds artistic and thematic justification for its extreme, excessive, gore scenes.
Pivotal scenes include formation of a grotesque physical slit that emerges in Max’s chest, a pistol being forcibly drilled into his hand so as to solidify his newly devised murderous mindset, and a series of cancer-bullets fired into an individual causing them to morbidly and explosively disintegrate in a series of sickly, fleshy bursting swellings of skin.
All of these serve to enrich the notions within Videodrome, one of Cronenberg’s ultimate works, that the closer we allow modern media to fill a hole in our lives, the sooner that we, our physical selves, will become indiscernible from technology, the products of its labour, and can thereby be manipulated improved, controlled, and enforced for ulterior motives, not at all dissimilar from what advanced technology’s existence has inspired.