According to Mikita Brottman, a horror movie scholar (educated at Oxford no less), the current splatter fests are no different from the ones from yesteryear except they aren't played campy anymore.
Brottman cites a notorious 1980 exploitation flick called Cannibal Holocaust, along with Sola, by the art-house director Pier Paolo Pasolini. And starting back in the 1960s, Brottman says, Herschell Gordon Lewis was cranking out makeshift B pictures like Blood Feast.
"Exactly the same things happen," Brottman says. "People have their legs cut off and tongues pulled out and eyeballs exploding -- but they seem really ridiculous and laughable, whereas the movies now seem really visceral and shocking. But the same things are being done to the body."
I have to agree. In general, movies today have plot elements that are similar to cutting edge horror movies from decades past, but today's movies have become so serious and their depictions so heartless, the fun has been replaced with what seems like nothing more than an implied warning -- 'We live in a world where this could happen to you'...
I'm a big fan of the 'Abominable Dr. Phibes' series which starred a brilliantly wicked Vincent Price as a man seeking revenge for the death of his wife. The Phibes movies featured some of the goriest possible killings but they were carried out with a wink and a nod by a passionate organ-playing Dr. Phibes who wore thick make-up and a flowing cape -- not the kind of movie character you could take too seriously. Price's portrayal was intelligent, hammed-up and a lot of fun for the kids -- it was always clear he was 'play acting'. Phibes may have been abominable, but his movies were not an abomination.
In the sequence from 'Hostel II' (clip available on the same page as the NPR story) a girl (played by Heather Matarazzo) is suspended upside down and naked, with her hands bound behind her back. She has been prepped for torture by two attendants who, after making sure all is just so, leave her to await the arrival of the torturer (a person who has paid a lot of money for the privilege). Before they leave they turn the lights off, which induces screams of terror from the victim. The sequence does not have a dramatic presentation, plays real, is typical for this kind of movie, and makes me wonder what the future holds for the genre.
It's easy to trash the directors who craft such scenes (and a lot bloggers are enthusiastically voicing their disgust with the Splat Pack), but the fact is these movies make huge profits and producers can't be blamed for meeting the demands of the market. It's probably better to question the psychology of the audiences which make these movies so popular. Whatever the societal cause may be, the effect seems clear -- we need increasingly violent and gory movies to immunize ourselves from the very real threats we see in the daily news. These movies mitigate the audience's dread of the real world.
Will anything stop the escalation? Of course, we all know, nothing will. It doesn't seem like entertainment anymore, and there's a good reason for that.