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Summer's ultraviolent films

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After a recent preview screening of Alan J. Pakula’s new murder mystery, Presumed Innocent, an irate moviegoer decided to give the director a piece of his mind. Recalls Pakula, ”He came up to me and said, ‘When you finally reveal who the murderer is, the camera just hangs on the killer’s face — why didn’t you show the murder happening?”’

No wonder the guy felt cheated — all the other big summer flicks feature gore galore. In recent months, it seems that no trip to the multiplex is complete without exploding planes, imploding skulls, chain-saw surgery, shootings, knifings, beatings, and foulmouthed 12-year-old mass murderers. Extras crash through plate-glass windows as routinely as bathing beauties used to splash into pools in Busby Berkeley movies.

In Another 48 HRS., Nick Nolte accidentally immolates someone at a gas pump; Nolte plays a good guy, so he feels bad about it. In Total Recall, Arnold Schwarze-negger uses an innocent bystander as a bulletproof vest, then dumps the shot-up corpse on the floor, where it is used by his assailants as a doormat. In Die Hard 2, Bruce Willis spikes one bad guy in the eye with an icicle and turns another into V-8 juice by knocking him into the turbine of a 747. The bad robot in RoboCop 2 neatly breaks a woman’s neck; the good robot yanks out the human brain inside the bad robot and smashes it messily against the pavement.

”Movie violence is like eating salt,” says director Pakula. ”The more you eat, the more you need to eat to taste it at all. People are becoming immune to effects: The death counts have quadrupled, the blast power is increasing by the megaton, and they’re becoming deaf to it. They’ve developed an insatiability for raw sensation.”

Film violence has escalated dramatically since Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which stunned audiences in 1960 even though it barely showed the killer’s knife touching victim Janet Leigh’s skin in the notorious shower scene. By 1969, director Sam Peckinpah was splashing blood all over the screen with the innovative slo-mo bullet ballets of The Wild Bunch. In 1971 Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange featured a brutal rape and assault and popularized the term ”ultraviolence.” Then came The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), which spawned countless splattery offspring, resulting in that distinctive ’80s phenomenon — the emergence of bad guys like Nightmare on Elm Street dreamstalker Freddy Krueger as pop-culture heroes. At least back in the early ’60s kids didn’t buy Norman Bates dolls after seeing Psycho.

But what’s really evident this summer is that movie violence isn’t confined to dramatic, isolated episodes. Instead it has become the main event in mainstream entertainment. Big-budget pictures now feature the kind of nonstop gore that used to play only at the midnight show. What’s most shocking about this season’s burgeoning body count is that it’s not shocking. The ultraviolence is mind-bendingly numbing.

Where did this unprecedented tsunami of movie blood come from? Well, there’s no doubt that rising homicide and violent crime statistics indicate that we are living in decidedly unkinder, ungentler times. But fantasy film violence seems more a direct result of harsh realities in the movie business than a mirror of modern society’s soul, or soullessness.

Today, for the first time, a movie can easily earn as much abroad as it does domestically. And the universal language is not love or laughter, it’s violence. Action he-men like Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Mel Gibson almost always translate well overseas, while dialogue-driven comedies and romances are a riskier business for producers. As a result, bang-bang is better than kiss-kiss in the global film marketplace. And as budgets for these action orgies grow, more and more money is spent on effects, stunts, and firepower. New standards of violence are continually set that each succeeding action film tries to top. Special-effects and makeup technology have developed to the point that almost anything can be put on film. All it takes to get it up on the screen is big bucks.

Rob Bottin, the 31-year-old wizard whose makeup and other special effects scared audiences witless in The Thing, Total Recall, and both RoboCop films, remembers one of his early encounters with movie violence. ”I snuck into a theater to see A Clockwork Orange when it came out, because I was too young to see it. I was shocked-it was the most violent thing I’d ever seen. I saw it again this year, and it was no longer shocking. I’m a bit desensitized. Anything I make has to be something (moviegoers) haven’t seen before. That means new tricks, which means more money, which means the audience is getting their — what is it now? — seven dollars’ worth. That’s the thinking behind bigger and bigger and bigger.” Action inflation has caught up with us all.

The proliferation of sequels has also played a part in turning moviehouses into boom-boom rooms. ”The question we always ask,” says Bottin, ”is, How do we top ourselves?” RoboCop focused on the fascinating character of the hero, a man who finds himself becoming a machine. Asked to recall his human family, he poignantly says, ”I can feel them, but I can’t remember them.” In RoboCop 2, he’s all machine — can’t feel a thing. So, the only thing that’s left is for him to lay waste to more of the planet.

With action crowding out character and plot, movies have turned viewers — particularly youngsters — into connoisseurs of carnage. Recent excursions to New York City and nearby suburban theaters reveal some surprisingly callous reactions to the summer’s bloodiest films. ”I can’t say that it’s violent, really,” said Betsy, a 12-year-old who emerged from a recent matinee of Total Recall. ”It’s pretty funny to see people getting shot in the head.” But it’s pretty repetitive, too, and a macabre new twist is deeply appreciated: ”Arnold using that guy as a shield was really great,” she added. ”I’ve never seen that before.”

Robert, with the wisdom of age (17), had achieved a certain perspective on the phenomenon: ”I don’t notice the shooting and the violence anymore,” he said. ”Ever since I was little everyone’s been shooting each other on TV and now it doesn’t affect me.” And nine-year-old Benison and his 6-year-old brother, Barry, weren’t disturbed much by RoboCop 2. Benison singled out the scene featuring the removal of a brain for special praise. ”I thought that was very exciting,” he said. Although these films are rated R, kids under 17 routinely see restricted movies at theaters and on video. Often their parents share their blasé attitude toward violence. As one mother coming out of Die Hard 2 with her little ones in tow commented, ”It was so violent it was ridiculous. Everyone in the theater was clapping and laughing. It’s not scary to see someone’s head blow off when you know you will never really see anyone’s head blow off. It was almost like a Disney cartoon in that way.” (By the way, that sound you hear is Walt spinning in his grave.)

It is unsettling when kids sound as jaded as adults, but is there any real harm in wading through this summer’s gorefest? ”Look,” says Bottin, ”on The Three Stooges you’ve got men pounding on each other’s heads with hammers. People know that in real life, when you hit somebody’s head, you don’t hear a coconut noise. The tone of a movie has a lot to do with how the violence is viewed.”

Renny Harlin, the director of Die Hard 2, agrees that his movie’s violence is about as dangerous as that of Larry, Moe, and Curly. ”The guy getting sucked through the engine is a good payoff scene in a morally structured story,” says Harlin. ”Really, it has nothing to do with affecting kids and turning them into serial killers. There are movies that may be harmless in terms of violence but teach dangerous ideas. Without mentioning any names, some current movies teach that it’s great to be a prostitute — you make a lot of money and find true love. But I don’t think anybody’s going to stuff anyone into a jet (engine) after seeing Die Hard 2.” Adds Bottin, ”If people think we’ve gone too far, they should let the studios know. Movies are made for the audience — let them decide.” He may be right. After all the reports issued by sociologists, psychologists, and institutes, no one has ever been able to explain definitively the effect movie and TV violence has on individuals or our culture.

In the end, the audience does decide. Harlin’s Die Hard 2 isn’t exactly a paragon of movie drama. Still, it does feature an appealing, positive hero involved in a life-and-death struggle, and audiences have responded. ”In many cases action movies rely on loud bangs,” complains Harlin. ”It really gets very tiring very soon, just a technical exercise. You have to put the story in first place.” And that’s what has happened this summer. The two thinnest big- budget action films — Another 48 HRS. and RoboCop 2 — were box-office disappointments, while the films with compelling stories — Die Hard 2 and Total Recall — will probably gross more than $125 million each. Everyone wants to see them, even Alan Pakula.

Despite the fact that Pakula refused to go along with the bloody flow of modern moviemaking and graphically depict the lurid murder in Presumed Innocent, he’s interested in what’s out there. ”I admire the skill that goes into action pictures,” says Pakula. ”In fact, I’m looking forward to seeing Die Hard 2.”

Summer, Bloody Summer

Another 48 HRS.

Total Body Count
16 (includes 2 good cops, 2 crooked cops, a bartender, a bus driver, an innocent bystanding brothelgoer, and 9 assorted nasty guys)

First Victim
(Within 5 minutes) 2 cops and a bartender are shot by motorcycle psycho-killers at a remote desert cafe.

Various Means of Dispatch
Automatic-weapons fire. Immolation. Fall from three-story building into truck full of water-cooler refill bottles.

Ultimate Ultraviolent Moment
Nolte shoots at a drug dealer and a gas pump explodes, setting a man aflame. The charred corpse is hosed down with a fire extinguisher.

Grossest Gag
Eddie Murphy shoots an ornery bar patron in the leg and smiles sweetly, ”Sorry about the kneecap. I got a little excited.”

Total Recall

Total Body Count
83 (includes 60 bad guys, 1 bad gal, 17 good-guy rebels, 3 mutant prostitutes, and 2 innocent bystanders; not included: 10 goldfish and a rat)

First Victim
(Within 20 minutes) Arnold Schwarzenegger is ambushed. What a mistake. He shoots 2 men and snaps a pair of necks.

Various Means of Dispatch
Double amputation by elevator shaft. Bullets to the brain. Bomb blasts. Impalement by power drill.

Ultimate Ultraviolent Moment
Schwarzenegger uses an innocent bystander as a bullet shield, then discards him. His pursuing assailants trample the corpse.

Grossest Gag
Schwarzenegger plugs his imposter wife in the head with a bullet and quips, ”Consider that a divorce.”

Die Hard 2

Total Body Count
264 (includes 230 plane passengers who crash and burn, 2 pilots, 6 SWAT team members, 24 bad guys, 1 guard, 1 church caretaker)

First Victim
(Within 7 minutes) A church caretaker is brutally shot by two villains posing as power company workers.

Various Means of Dispatch
Crushing in airport luggage conveyor belt. Fiery plane crashes. Slit throat. Icicle jammed through eye into brain. Strangulation by chain.

Ultimate Ultraviolent Moment
After jamming an icicle into a bad guy’s eye, even Bruce Willis winces. He rolls off the body and groans ”Aaugh!”

Grossest Gag
Willis lights a trail of fuel that blows up the baddies’ plane while shouting, ”Yippee-eye-eh, motherf———!

Robocop 2

Total Body Count
79 (includes 31 bad guys, 1 corrupt cop, 44 good guys and innocent bystanders, 3 cyborgs)

First Victim
(Within 15 seconds) A commercial for ”Magna-Volt” — a futuristic anti-car theft device-shows a would-be thief’s electrocution.

Various Means of Dispatch
Snapped necks. Bullets to foreheads. Bomb blasts. Electrocution. Disembowelment by scalpel.

Ultimate Ultraviolent Moment
While operating on a wounded drug kingpin, doctors drill noisily into his head, pull off the top of his skull, and yank out his brain.

Grossest Gag
As the villain slices up a cop, his girl recoils: ”You said you were just going to scare him.” Blood spurts and he says: ”Doesn’t he look scared?”

A brief history of big screen violence

1928
Un Chien Andalou

The silent-film collaboration between two fathers of surrealism, Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí, produced a notoriously shocking scene of a razor slitting a woman’s eyeball.

1960
Psycho

Hitchcock’s shower scene spawned the slasher movie genre, blazing the trail for such gorefests as the Halloween and Friday the 13th series.

1967
Bonnie and Clyde

In the bloody climax to the quirky, brutal ’30s ganster saga, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway bit the bullets in a graphic ambush.

1969
The Wild Bunch

Sam Peckinpah’s lyrical orgy of bloddletting, particularly the slow-motion, shoot-’em-up finale, both celebrated and questioned the Western film genre’s glorification of violence.

1971
A Clockwork Orange

A brutal future featuring random rape, assault, and gang mayhem — ”a bit of the old ultraviolence” — was coolly depicted by Stanley Kubrick.

1971
Dirty Harry

Audiences cheered as Clint Eastwood’s .44-Magnum-toting Harry Callahan dealt out his modern brand of frontier justice.

1971
Straw Dogs

Dustin Hoffman laid claim to his masculinity by blowing away a band of thugs who invade his house in Peckinpah’s disturbing tale.

1972
The Godfather

Director Francis Ford Coppola offered up a gallery of garrotings, horse mutilation, rubouts, and in-your-face shootings that audiences could not refuse.

1976
Taxi Driver

Martin Scorsese’s story of a psychopathic New York cabbie climaxed in a shootout that earned the movie and X rating before the color of its spurting blood was toned down.

1983
Scarface

Vicious rival drug dealers carved up blood-spattered Al Pacino’s partner in Brian De Palma’s infamous Miami Chainsaw Massacre scene.

1984 Indiana Jones

Squirm-inducing special effects, including the tearing of a heart from a live man’s chest, let to a new movie rating category: PG-13.

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