Dissecting the Macabre: The Splatter Film
The Internet definition of a splatter film is a subgenre of horror that deliberately focuses on graphic portrayals of gore and violence. More recently, these types of films are often labeled as torture porn or gorno (gore and porno). The idea of the splatter film, torture porn, however you want to describe it, is rooted in the “Théâtre du Grand Guignol, which flourished in France in the late 1890s to the 1950s, and set new limits on what could be shown in terms of the mutilation and destruction of the human body” (Kendrick 313). The goal of the Grand Guignol theatre was to stag realistic scenes of blood and carnage, much like the splatter films we are used to today.
The characteristics of a splatter film include plating on the fear of the destruction of the human body, where other horror films play on the idea of the fear of the unknown. Splatter films also emphasize visuals, style, and technique over narrative structure. Story and character development are secondary to the splatter film’s “breathtakingly gross effects of bodily destruction, decomposition, or mutilation” (Worland 107).
The term “splatter film,” however, wasn’t coined until 1984. John McCarty borrowed the term (from George A. Romero who used the term to describe his zombie pictures) to describe movies that “aim not to scare their audiences, necessarily, nor drive them to the edges of their seats in suspense, bit to mortify them with scenes of explicit gore” (Kendrick 313).
Films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) helped to introduce the public to splatter film themes before Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963) solidified theses themes are carved out the subgenre for future splatter films. Blood Feast is an exploitation film in a different sense “that developed from the 1950s, when the term exploitation loosened to mean simply inexpensive sensational films, notably science fiction and horror aimed at teenagers” (Hunter 494). Setting the standard for future splatter films, Blood Feast is “constructed around a handful of gory set pieces” (494) and the narrative structure matters very little.
Naturally, the popularity of the splatter subgenre was met with heavy censorship and criticism, particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom. On some occasions, splatter films were banned outright, often making it on to the UK’s “video nasties” list. Some splatter films, such as Peter Jackson’s Braindead (1992), were mainstream hits and dubbed as “splatstick” after their use of over-the-top gore as a comedic device.
The early 2000s saw a resurgence of the splatter film, redubbed as torture porn, which combined elements of the slasher and splatter genres. Much like splatter films, torture porn films are known for their graphic depictions of violence, gore, and mutilation. Some of the most popular films within this subgenre are Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005); The Devil’s Rejects (Rob Zombie, 2005) and; Wolf Creek (Greg McLean, 2005). The popularity of these films gave a major boost to a wave of French films known as the New French Extremity which, as you can imagine, are known for their extremely brutal nature. Some of the most modern examples of torture porn films to date include the Human Centipede films which first premiered in 2009 (directed by Tom Six), A Serbian Film (Srđan Spasojević, 2010), and The Collection (Marcus Dunstan, 2012).
Overall, the splatter film has influenced the horror genre in a major way, and it’s even still influencing the genre today. Who would have thought Herschell Gordon Lewis’ badly (and cheaply) made film, Blood Feast, would have had such an influence? With such violent and graphic predecessors, there’s no telling what the next wave of violent cinema will entail.
Hunter, I. Q. “Trash Horror and the Cult of the Bad Film.” A Companion to the Horror Film, edited by Harry M Benshoff, John Wiley & Sons, 2017, pp. 483–500.
Kendrick, James. “Slasher Films and Gore in the 1980s.” A Companion to the Horror Film, edited by Harry M Benshoff, John Wiley & Sons, 2017, pp. 310–328.
Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Blackwell, 2007.