Horror movies have long been a defining staple in Hollywood, spiking audiences’ adrenaline and fueling the nightmares of the masses for generations. Once filmmakers realized that they could attract audiences through the promise of a good scare, the horror genre has constantly been innovating and attempting to reinvent itself to maintain its cultural and psychological relevance.
Filmmakers have customarily relied on gore to frighten and disturb audiences. However, in recent years, increasingly gory movies seem more and more prevalent.
The first movies made truly in an attempt to unnerve their audiences date back to the silent films of the 1920s. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” in 1920 and “Nosferatu” in 1922 are two examples of these early horror films. Even after over a century, both these films remain in Rotten Tomatoes’ top 50 best horror movies of all time and as iconic examples of the genre. Both of these movies rely on atmosphere, performance and story in order to chill their audiences of past and present. Notably, the action that is graphic or gory is often implied rather than shown directly in these films. For example, a murder may have been portrayed by a splatter of blood. However, today, the murder would most likely be shown from start to finish.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the horror genre underwent a period of experimentation. According to the New York Film Academy, gimmicks — including the use of 3D glasses, electric buzzers installed into theater seats and paid stooges in the audience screaming and pretending to faint — were used in an attempt to provide scares to the masses. These interactive efforts ultimately proved too expensive to maintain, and filmmakers pivoted to other innovations: gore, for one. 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” was explosively gory by standards of its generation, featuring zombies that had to be shot through the head or burned in order to be killed. Despite its intense gore, the movie has a strong plot that incites fear with both its story and violence.
The 1970s and 1980s laid the foundations for one of the goriest subgenres of horror, that continues to persist today: the iconic slasher film. Beginning with 1974’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” these two decades came to define the genre with classics such as “Friday the 13th,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and the still-active franchise that spawned out of “Halloween” (1978). The New York Film Academy states, “If there’s one trope that typifies the 80s, it’s the slasher format — a relentless antagonist hunting down and killing a bunch of kids in ever-increasing inventive ways, one by one.” It is the fear of being stalked by some foreboding ominous force; the lingering unease, coupled with the violence of the slasher, that creates these films’ success.
Due to its longevity as a franchise, the “Halloween” films provide an ideal vehicle through which gore in horror can be examined. The original “Halloween” movie is regarded as one of the best horror films of all time. Within it, there is gore, but it is often more mild than what we witness on screen in the current films in the franchise. For example, 1978’s “Halloween” contained five deaths, each of which, while gruesome for the time, do not compare to the creative killing scenes bolstered by the CGI capabilities of the current films. In the continuation of the series, “Halloween” (2018), Michael Myers kills a whopping 18 people. The deaths are far more graphic than those in its 1978 predecessor, and they include skulls turned into human pumpkins, contorted necks and victims visibly crushed by Myers’ heel. Yet, in spite or because of this increase in gore, both films met positive reviews; “Halloween” (1978) has a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes and the 2018 version scored a 79%.
Comparison between “Halloween” (2018) and “Halloween Kills” (2021), demonstrates that when gore is done well, it can benefit the scariness of a film, and when done poorly, it can have major drawbacks. There is a fairly large decrease in quality between the two films — the 2021 version earned a meager 39% on Rotten Tomatoes, which may in part be attributed to the way in which gore was used. The 2021 “Halloween Kills” contained even more graphic murder: Michael Myers kills 34 people, almost double that of 2018.
While both films contain gore, intention and plot separates their quality. According to ScreenRant writer Jack Wilhelmi, “the 2018 Myers acted purposefully on and off screen, and the violence wasn’t wholly for shock value.” Conversely, the 2021 film uses excessive gore “to mask the fact that the story and character development … is actually quite weak in comparison to its 2018 predecessor.” Gore without plot or purpose often feels like a cheap grab at a shock factor, rather than a visceral image that serves to accentuate the horror of the story and provide fuel for the audience’s imagination.
In fact, arguably the best horror movies of recent years have featured scenes of intense gore that is used more sparingly. For example, “Hereditary,” which scored a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, contained a horrifyingly gruesome death scene, wherein one of the characters leans out of the car window to get some air and ends up decapitated by a telephone pole. This scene is vastly different from more stereotypical gorey murders used in slasher films or demonic possessions used in occult films because it is completely surprising, making it jarring and visceral for the audience. The gore is vital to the plot and appears tactical, going beyond the often needless violence that characterizes some horror of today. As staff writer for Medium Publication Karim Noorani states, “Anyone who watched the movie in theaters could tell you the pure shock and terror experienced from that scene is inimitable. It was horror. Maybe not the kind we had come to expect from film, but it scared people, something that is becoming increasingly difficult to pull off as the genre nears 125 years of existence in cinema.”
Avenues like these is where gore should be going within the genre. Looking at films such as “Halloween” (2018) and its successor films, it seems that filmmakers are using more intense gore than ever. Yet, it is key to use gore well and in ways previously unexplored in order to unnerve audiences properly. In the horror genre, it seems that the only reliable way to keep audiences on the edge of their seats is constant innovation and reinvention.