Trends: Excessive use of gore can weaken the horror genre

Depending on how it’s used, gore can either enhance the audience experience or take away from the eerie unease that horror often relies on.

by Emma Coulter | 10/30/23 2:05 am

Horror films have long been a staple of Hollywood, pumping up audiences’ adrenaline and fueling the nightmares of the masses for generations. Once filmmakers realized they could attract audiences through the promise of a good scare, the horror genre constantly reinvented itself and tried to reinvent itself to maintain its cultural and psychological relevance.

Filmmakers usually rely on gore to scare and unsettle the audience. In recent years, however, increasingly gory films seem to be more and more common.

The first films made to really try to unnerve audiences date back to the silent films of the 1920s. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1920 and Nosferatu in 1922 are two examples of these early horror films. Even after more than a century, both films remain in Rotten Tomatoes’ top 50 horror films of all time and as iconic examples of the genre. Both films rely on atmosphere, performance and story to chill their past and present audiences. In particular, action that is graphic or gory is often implied rather than directly shown in these films. For example, a murder may have been depicted by splattering blood. Today, however, the murder will most likely be shown from start to finish.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the horror genre underwent a period of experimentation. According to the New York Film Academy, gimmicks – including the use of 3D glasses, electric buzzers installed in theater seats and paid puppets in the audience screaming and pretending to pass out – were used in an attempt to scare the masses. These interactive efforts eventually proved too expensive to sustain, and filmmakers turned to other innovations: blood, for example. 1968’s Night of the Living Dead was explosively gory by the standards of its generation, featuring zombies that had to be shot through the head or burned to death. Despite the intense gore, the film has a strong plot that incites fear with both the story and the violence.

The 1970s and 1980s laid the groundwork for one of the most sinister subgenres of horror that continues to exist today: the iconic slasher film. Beginning with 1974’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, those two decades came to define the genre with such classics as Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and the still-active franchise that spawned Halloween (1978 ). The New York Film Academy states, “If there’s one trope that epitomizes the ’80s, it’s the slasher format—a ruthless antagonist stalking and killing a bunch of kids in increasingly inventive ways, one by one.” It’s the fear of being stalked. by some foreboding sinister force; it’s the lingering angst combined with the slasher violence that creates the success of these films.

Thanks to their longevity as a franchise, the Halloween movies provide an ideal vehicle through which to explore gore in horror. The original Halloween movie is considered one of the best horror movies of all time. It does have gore, but it’s often milder than what we’ve seen on screen in the franchise’s current films. For example, 1978’s Halloween featured five deaths, each of which, while horrifying for the time, couldn’t compare to the creative kill scenes aided by the CGI capabilities of current films. In the sequel to the series, Halloween (2018), Michael Myers kills as many as 18 people. The deaths are far more graphic than those in its 1978 predecessor, and include skulls turned into human pumpkins, necks snapped, and victims visibly crushed by Meyers’ heel. Yet, despite or because of this increase in gore, both films met with positive reviews; Halloween (1978) has a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, and the 2018 version scores 79%.

A comparison between Halloween (2018) and Halloween Kills (2021) shows that when gore is done well, it can add to a film’s scares, and when it’s done poorly, it can have major drawbacks. There’s quite a drop in quality between the two films — the 2021 version earned a mere 39% on Rotten Tomatoes, which may be partly due to the way blood was used. 2021’s “Halloween Kills” featured even more graphic murders: Michael Myers killed 34 people, nearly double 2018’s total.

While both films contain gore, intent and plot separate their quality. According to ScreenRant writer Jack Wilhelmi, “2018’s Myers acted purposefully on and off screen, and the violence wasn’t just for shock value.” Conversely, the 2021 film used excessive gore “to mask the fact that the story and character development … are actually quite weak compared to its 2018 predecessor.” Gore without plot or purpose often feels like a cheap grab for shock factor rather than a visceral image that serves to emphasize the horror of the story and provide fuel for the audience’s imagination.

In fact, perhaps the best horror films of recent years feature scenes of intense gore that are used more sparingly. For example, “Hereditary,” which scored 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, contained a terrifyingly grisly death scene in which one of the characters leans out of a car window for air and ends up decapitated by a telephone pole. This scene is very different from the more stereotypical forest murders used in slasher films or demonic possessions used in occult films because it is completely surprising, making it shocking and visceral for the audience. The blood is vital to the plot and seems tactical, going beyond the often gratuitous violence that characterizes some horrors today. As Medium Publication staff writer Karim Noorani states, “Anyone who has seen the film in theaters can tell you that the sheer shock and horror experienced by this scene is inimitable. It was a horror. Maybe not what we’ve come to expect from the film, but it scared the crap out of people, something that’s becoming increasingly difficult to achieve as the genre approaches 125 years of cinematic existence.”

Avenues like these are where the blood should go within the genre. Looking at films like Halloween (2018) and the films that followed it, it seems that filmmakers are using more intense gore than ever before. Still, it’s key to use gore well and in previously unexplored ways to unnerve the audience properly. In the horror genre, it seems the only reliable way to keep audiences on the edge of their seats is constant innovation and reinvention.

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