This is edited extract from Splatter Capital, a new book by Mark Steven on the political economies of gore, and a guide to surviving the horror movie we collectively inhabit – out now.
A confession: no matter what justifications I try to give it, the decision to write a book about splatter is, perhaps more than anything else, the result of my own puerile taste in movies. That taste seems to have been shaped by prolonged exposure to the genre during a potentially misspent adolescence in peri-urban nowhere on the east coast of Australia. To have started watching movies there in the mid-1990s, years before access to the internet, meant my first encounters with horror were all mediated by video rental stores – and, specifically, by floor-to-ceiling shelves of heroically sensationalist box art. This is how I first gained access to all sorts of visual atrocity, provided it could find commercial distribution in the wake of restrictions brought on by the so-called “video nasties” spat in England and against Australia’s lastingly draconian system of film classification.
As a valiant surveyor of the aisles I was drawn to the very worst of whatever was on offer: namely, splatter, which was part of a horror section that always seemed to occupy the same space as porn. The marketing for these films, many of which barely made it through the censors unscathed, mined a similar affect to the trailer with which this book began, throwing down a challenge for the dumb and daring. With a truly demented cover image, a catchy tagline, a triptych of screenshots, and some snappy copywriting, the box art alone would fuel the imagination of movies infinitely more horrendous than anything that was available at the time. The films themselves consistently turned out to be the ugly assemblage of these representative part-objects, awkward in the intercalation of their own marketing materials, which we can only presume came after and not before the realized film.
Of all the videos I encountered during this time, the one that really sticks is Blood Sucking Freaks. This minor classic was released cinematically in 1976, right at the zenith of splatter’s commercial popularity, but under an alternate title, The Incredible Torture Show, which replaced the even more colourful shooting title, Sardu: Master of the Screaming Virgins. Blood Sucking Freaks was retitled as such and reissued for video in 1980, and that is how I first encountered it, years later in 1998, and for better or for worse as an eleven year-old. The cover design was especially effective in establishing an aura of perversity that only found material buttress in the griminess of the box itself, an object I could only assume had been witness to all manner of local horror. I found myself haunted by that kind of thinking. “Just what kind of person would have rented this thing before me?” There was something inexplicably talismanic about it. A sacred artefact.
In an arch window coloured deep red against a black border and beneath the distributor logo was a composite image, little of which is taken from the film it promotes. A man in a suit, with his skull split down the middle, embraces a bikini-clad woman. The two are posed beside a silver calash being lifted to reveal a severed, bespectacled head. The word “FREAKS” in the film’s title appears to be oozing blood. At the image’s upper left corner was an official-looking and promissory warning: “This film contains scenes of a gross, disgusting nature and will offend.” On the reverse side is the blurb text, which appears to misquote its own title: “They kill people for fun, they kill them slowly. They torture them, gouge their eyes out, suck their brains out… for fun. They are the BLOODSUCKING FREAKS.” Beneath this are four screenshots: a dwarf grinning at an eviscerated eyeball; a man dressed in a white lab-coat drinking from an open skull through a long straw; another man’s frenzied snarl; and another’s face as he spits blood sideways across hanging chains. Before seeing the film, its artwork made perfectly clear that this would be an awesomely sordid experience. Game on, I thought.
Set in pre-gentrified Soho, Manhattan, Blood Sucking Freaks is about a Grand Guignol theatre run by master of ceremonies, Sardu, his dwarf assistant, Ralphus, and an unnamed dominatrix, who together torture and dismember women in front of paying audiences, as well as offstage for their own amusement. While the audience enjoys the carnage as little more than theatrical wizardry, the gore is indeed real, and the uniformly female victims have all been kidnapped, confined to cages, forced into cannibalism, and are either sold into slavery or murdered onstage. The plot focuses on the production of Sardu’s theatrical opus, an avant-garde performance in which the abducted prima ballerina, Natasha Di Natalie, is brainwashed into kicking the teeth out of a theatre critic, Creasy Silo, who publically dismissed an earlier routine at the theatre as a “third-rate magic show.” When I first sat through this film it was easily the nastiest thing I had ever seen, with its overwhelming variety of violent acts, or what Sardu’s namesake the Marquis de Sade would have called the criminal and the murderous passions: eyes are gouged, teeth pulled, limbs hacked; scenes of electrocution, medieval torture, and a guillotine beheading; loads of flesh- eating; necrophilia, which is played mostly for laughs; and, finally, a culminating scene that features the affectionate close-up on Sardu’s severed penis, which has somehow found its way onto a hotdog bun with lettuce and which is being passed around between liberated slave-women. All of this was made even more memorable by what then seemed to me a unique aesthetic: the scenes are poorly lit, the soundtrack is functionally mono-instrumental, the acting worse than deplorable, the special effects thoroughly unbelievable, and the plot rudimentary at best. These apparent deficiencies only helped the film sear itself deep into memory by allowing a low-rent sleaziness to infect every aspect of the production, to shape its visual style no less than its explicit content. In the words of one particularly vivid though typically hostile review, which without a hint of irony recreates Silo’s dismissal of Sardu’s theatre: “When people use the term ‘bottom of the barrel,’ they often forget about the UNDERSIDE of the barrel, which is where poorly-made dreck like this belongs.”
Unforgettable though Blood Sucking Freaks might have been as my superlatively revolting introduction to splatter, what escaped me on that first encounter and until recently is the film’s almost profound awareness of its historical moment and of that moment’s economic structuration. In those rare episodes not preoccupied with sex and death or a heady combination of the two, dialogue refers us back to events particular to the United States, and especially to New York during the mid-1970s. This was a time when, faced with a national if not global crisis in capitalist accumulation, the city administration sought to avoid bankruptcy by butchering municipal and public services. The corrupt NYPD officer hired to investigate Sardu reflects openly on his willingness to accept bribes, claiming that his father, another public servant, was recently made destitute after the state revoked his pension. Sardu, by contrast, is portrayed as the entrepreneur, whose crimes are as motivated by class aspiration as they are by psychosexual sadism: his investment in the theatre is precisely that, a financial investment, which derives from a belief that just one successful production will enable his advancement from Soho to Broadway and then from Broadway to Hollywood. And while the nationwide economic crisis affecting New York was worsened by an oil embargo from the Middle East, Sardu opportunistically profits from precisely that oil shock, selling American women back to a Middle Eastern tycoon. “At last I’m glad to see some of the petrol dollars flowing back in this direction,” Sardu opens their exchange. “I can’t say I’m not doing my bit for the economy.”
It is here that personal experience merges with film theory to produce a lesson about ideological criticism more generally. Recall Fredric Jameson’s stipulation for the interpretation of popular film, his insistence that “genuine social and historical content must be first tapped and given some initial expression if it is subsequently to be the object of successful manipulation and containment.” That is precisely what we are hearing in this unmistakably referential dialogue – the tapping into and the initial expression of social and historical content, which the film then submits to ideological manipulation via narrative. This content is what I missed as an eleven year- old, but which now registers in such a way as to thoroughly transform the film’s significance.
Honing in on those circumstantial details, we can confirm that Sardu’s theatre is a fully-fledged business. Ralphus and the dominatrix are floor managers and the enslaved women serve as unpaid labour, advertised to the public as voluntary actors, or interns, for whom Sardu takes up a charity collection after each performance. “I smell money,” announces the police officer on first entering the theatre, speculating on the necessity of further investigation not from the homicide department but from the IRS. “I always thought these off-off-Broadway gimmicks were a front for something else.” While murder is the theatre’s open secret, the film’s barely less concealed truth is that its murders are all part of the sordid life of a capitalist during an economic crisis. But this isn’t the real ideological payoff.
If it is true that popular cinema manifests an implicit criticism of the social order from which it emerges, and that as a marginal genre splatter might redouble such a criticism, the resultantly affirmative and anti-capitalist bent is exactly what we encounter at the conclusion of Blood Sucking Freaks. The tightly framed dick-in-a-bun is not just served up as one final gross-out, to elicit one last scream from the audience, but to concretize the film’s utopian fantasy and to simultaneously ground that fantasy in the film’s most primal horror. The slave’s revolt with which this film ends and that culminating image together form a kind of insurgent barbarism: at long last, the capitalist has been murdered, beheaded, castrated, and eaten by his exploited workers. My introduction to splatter meant cheering along with morbid enthusiasm as the expropriator is well and truly expropriated.
Mark Steven is a research fellow at the Centre for Modernism Studies in Australia, based at the University of New South Wales, where he also teaches Film Studies. Splatter Capital is out now.