Last Friday evening, Andrew and I were invited to participate in a Halloween Festitval at the seaside town of Ballycastle. The first evening consisted of a large-screen showing of our 2002 film, Saul’s Pupils, followed by a Q&A session. About 1000 leaflets had been distributed, promoting the event. We discovered that the printing company had made a serious blunder on the leaflet. Instead of writing “18+”, they wrote “12+”. Now, anyone who has seen Saul’s Pupils will know that it’s not exactly what you’d call family friendly; it contains a lots of unnecessary cussing and lots of gore.
We had about twenty-five bums on seats, and several of them didn’t look a day over thirteen. Oh dear. Anyway, what could we do but get on with showing the film? Everything went well until about halfway through, when a woman in her forties suddenly got up and left. Ten minutes after that, a row of three girls in their late teens got up (right after the scene where Trent disposes of a body by cutting it up into smaller pieces). I was standing around at the back of the hall at the time, and one of the girls approached me on her way to the exit, saying, “This is definitely not for 12-year-olds.” I shrugged and said, “It wasn’t my decision.” Thankfully, the rest of the audience stayed put (including the youngsters, who appeared unfazed by the violence), and we received a hearty round of applause, and a few cheers, as the credits rolled.
I don’t feel particularly bad about the walk-out. Part of me is amazed, because it’s the sort of thing you expect from a big-budget movie like The Exorcist, not a shoe-string outfit like Midnight Pictures. The funny thing is, during the original premiere of Saul’s Pupils, there were about one hundred and fifty persons present, and nobody walked out. I guess Friday’s experience illustrates how important is it to tell your audience what to expect. “Contains graphic violence and bad language” is a pretty important piece of information to include on any advertising.
This has got me thinking about the issue of good and bad taste. As a Christian, you would expect me to take a fairly conservate view, but the truth is I struggle to make my mind up. Usually, I want to avoid anything gratuitous, because it’s hard for me to defend it, and these days I don’t think I’d want to make a film quite like Saul’s Pupils. However, I also think it’s important to show death as death (if it’s part of the story). Watering it down minimises how devastating it is. The violence of the likes of The A-Team – where bullets fly and nobody ever gets killed – is more questionable than the back of somebody’s head being blown off by a shotgun blast. Showing the latter to under 18s is regarded as questionable (even though it’s the truth), but nobody ever questions the dangerous subtext of The A-Team, which is aimed at children: “Shooting real guns never kills anybody.” The truth is, western civilisation has certain hang-ups. I find it interesting to watch films from other countries (especially Japan), because different cultures have different hang-ups … and different permissions. We’re sitting here in the west thinking that we have to be oh-so careful about this and that, when all we’re really sitting in is a culture trap. The most offensive scene in Saul’s Pupils, where a body gets dismembered, is pretty hard on the senses. And sure, it could have been cut, and maybe it should have been cut. But it actually has something to say: “Look, everybody. If you murder someone, this is what you have to go through to get rid of the evidence. It ain’t nice to watch, and it ain’t nice for the murderer, either.” Another point of possible offense in our film is that it’s women who get targeted for murder, not men. We could be accused of being mysogynistic, but Andy and I actually had an important discussion about this: if you were a man and you were planning to kill somebody – it doesn’t matter who – would you target a man or a woman? You’d choose a woman, because the kill would be easier (statistically, at least). And that’s the truth.
Then there’s that part of me that sometimes does want to include graphic violence, in special cases where the gag is just too good to pass up. In a (possibly) forthcoming film, Shadow of the Dead, we’ve got a scene where a zombie gets its head blown off with a shotgun in a totally original and shocking and hilarious context. Is this explosion of brain matter really necessary for the story? Nope. But it is a hoot? You betcha. I have to ask myself, is it right to turn grisly death into a source of humour? Is it a reflection of how messed up we are, that we laugh at it? Should I be trying to rise above this instinct? But then, in the interests of consistency, consider the school movie, Cat Trap (which you can download on the sidebar), a film that would never offend anyone. It finishes with a schoolboy being dragged off-camera by a panther and eaten. It might be non-gratuitous, but the event is the same kind. And clearly, it’s designed to make the viewer laugh. Why should the same idea – laughing at a grisly death – be offensive in one context and not another. When you break it right down, it’s simply a matter of western civilization having a hang-up about gore.
You know, when all’s said and done, I think the best advice to myself is “Lighten up, Sloan.” There’s nothing morally upright about been squeamish to gore. In fact, if surgeons had that trait, a lot of people in their care would die. With Don’t Look in the Attic, Midnight Pictures has moved away from gory material for the time being. But if we ever make Shadow of the Dead, it’ll be impossible to stay away from it. Can you imagine a zombie film without gore? Flesh-eaters without the flesh-eating – that would be very odd.
Of course, I’ve seen movies that are simply about gore and nothing else. Good story-telling is sacrificed, and a collection of brutal set-pieces are strung together and called a movie. I have no respect for this kind of film. I guess my take on the whole thing is that I want to tell entertaining stories that surprise the viewer/reader. And if those stories happen to have brutal elements, so be it. The only way to please everybody would be to rip the heart and soul out of everything you come up with.
I should say that I am not guilty of the honour of writing Saul’s Pupils. That was one sick and twisted individual called Glenn Poole. 😉