5 Old Movies that are Still Shocking
The atmospheric but tame content of Universal Horror films from the early 1930s is still many people’s most prominent impression of what early horror was like. One of the more prominent trivia points from that era is that Dracula(1931) and The Phantom of the Opera(1925) both caused audiences to faint with almost nothing more than the fairly normal faces of their stars. Surely it must have taken until recent years for delicate film audiences to cope with anything like the intensity commercial horror film provide today. Even if audiences could endure it, surely the censors wouldn’t give them a chance to try.
Or not. In fact even in the old days the silver screens would include footage that could elicit a gasp from today’s audiences. For the purposes of this article, “old” means “pre-1972.” After all, in a year where Pink Flamingos was a commercial success, clearly the power of censors had relaxed enough that it’s not surprising how far filmmakers were allowed to go. Just to clarify, we’re talking in terms of grimness and graphicness, not how politically incorrect any of the movies are.
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5. Blood of the Beasts(1949)
Le Sang des Bêtes is the first film by Georges Franju. It’s a twenty-two minute documentary that in terms of horrific imagery easily dwarfs his much more famous Eyes Without a Face(1959). The beginning of the film includes images that might look like a parody of a high brow art film from the period: Depressed people standing in bleak landscapes or walking through ruins. A shot of a man in a field sitting at a relatively ornate table looks particularly expected. The tone shifts, and the movie follows a picturesque couple walking on cobblestone streets. Then the scene shifts to the slaughterhouse, obviously dramatizing the ugliness hidden behind the façade of civilization.
There are shots included in this portion of the film that one not need be a member of PETA to find disquieting. Ardent meat lovers may well dislike the images of calves getting their throats cut. In its own way, a close up of a trussed up calf’s head, its eyes wide in well-justified terror as its face is a couple inches above the blood coating the floor is almost worse. Most unnerving of all is a shot of a carcass with its lower legs and head removed that still twitches and convulses. It’s completely natural and yet unforgettably macabre. Even the less graphic scene where a horse is dispatched with an air gun and the falling corpse folds its legs before even hitting the ground has a surreal quality. Is it any wonder that David Lynch wrote fondly of this film in his autobiography?
Blood of the Beasts did not by any means outrage or even establishment backlash in its day. Georges Franju was subsequently hired to make several short documentaries for the government such as While Passing Through Lorraine(1950) about industrial progress and Hotel for Invalids(1951) about France’s premier military hospital. Both functioned more as indictments of their subjects than as the celebrations he’d been hired to make. Franju was seemingly as inclined to bite the hand that fed him as any beast.
4. Fiend without a Face(1958)
Not to be mistaken for the Eyes Without a Face film by the director in the previous entry, this British movie is the first instance of this list not dealing exclusively with highbrow art films. This Arthur Crabtree B movie follows the story of an American airbase situated in Canada with a nuclear reactor. One day people around the base start being killed by invisible monsters that suck the cerebrospinal fluid from their victims. When the monsters are made visible for the climax, they turn out to be creatures that uncannily resemble human cerebrums with antennae sticking from them and spinal cords, said spinal cords being used for them to leap about.
While that’s a very odd premise by the movie standards of any era, it’s the movie’s bizarre level of gore that might leave the strongest impression. Brain monsters aren’t just cleanly shot in this movie, they leave splatters of blood. This happens quite a lot. One of them even gets chopped with an axe, which is shown about as graphically as it possibly could. A wounded brain even gets a protracted death scene where the audience can see the life drained out of it. When the brains are defeated, they melt graphically too. It’s still pretty jarring to anyone used to movies from the era where humans usually weren’t shown bleeding at all from gunshots, let alone this much. It feels oddly appropriate to toss blood and ooze around on a movie with a premise that sounds like a preteen child came up with it, but at the time it was so extreme that the movie’s X certificate was supposedly reviewed by the UK Parliament for being too mild. Of course that only added to its considerable box office success. It’s also the most surprising movie to be released by the boutique home video publishing company Criterion Collection since Armageddon(1998).
3. The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes(1971) (NSFW)
Stan Brakhage is one of the most significant avant garde filmmakers of his generation even though many of his films were handheld, audio-free projects he shot by himself with only slightly more resources than a home movie. One of his most celebrated and widely distributed movies is Window Water Baby Moving(1959), a film which Kodak threatened to destroy or turn over to the police during the development process even though it was only footage of Brakhage’s wife giving birth. It set the tone for Brakhage sometimes being willing to unflinchingly but somewhat innocently push the envelope over the course of his over 380 films. In 1971, he was in Pittsburgh when he made a trilogy of institution-themed short films. The first two, Eyes and Deus Ex, were both about law enforcement and a hospital, respectively. For this movie, he went to a morgue to film some autopsies. He was granted permission on the condition that he not show any identifiable faces of the cadavers, though the morticians seemingly were fine letting their own faces be filmed.
What separates this experimental movie from any of the many autopsy videos available online is Brakhage’s unpolished style. Most footage of autopsies is locked down, coldly but well-lit and it creates a clinical, distancing effect. Brakhage is handheld, dark, gritty, and often zoomed in to an uncomfortable degree. The constantly moving camera gives the images a jittery energy. It feels as if Brakhage somehow snuck in and is filming for his own sick pleasure, his camera replicating a curious child’s POV as it gets up close and personal on a hollowed out chest cavity. Brakhage maintained that making the film was an ordeal he could barely get through, which of course helps explain the trembling camera.
Scenes such as the somewhat difficult removal of a sternum emphasize the tactile nature of what the audience is seeing: These are not props designed to have parts easily removed, this is tough bone and muscle tissue. Of course, few props could be as disquieting as the sight of a face with the skin peeled back.
Stan Brakhage’s avant-garde output ensured he’d stay forever on the margins of popular culture, but his influence has popped up in curious places. For example, he was on sufficiently friendly terms with Trey Parker of South Park and The Book of Mormon fame cast him in a bit part for his debut film Cannibal the Musical! Acclaimed comic book author Alan Moore made mention of this very film in the author’s note for From Hell(1998), which is about the Jack the Ripper murders and contains a prolonged scene seemingly heavily inspired by this film.
2. Blood Feast(1963)(NSFW)
Let’s take another break from highfalutin films and return to shameless trash.
Widely credited with being the first “gore” movie, this Herschel Gordon Lewis movie was filmed in six days and it definitely shows from the awkward acting to the often clumsy camera work. About the only thing that took significant cash was hiring Playboy playmates to play a few of the victims.
That’s not to say it’s a completely unengaging movie. The premise that Fu’ad Ramses is collecting organs from various women in an offering to an Egyptian goddess is at least a unique spin on the formula, and Mal Arnould’s makeup as Ramses leaves him looking memorably bizarre. It’s also quite disorienting when the police pursuing Ramses that accidentally compel him to crush himself in a trash compactor arrive. They look from their clothing and demeanor like they belong in an episode of Dragnet or Alfred Hitchcock Presents and yet they’re sharing screen time with graphic disembowelment. Not to mention that however disgusting the images are, the colors absolutely pop.
The cleverest aspect of this movie is also the explanation for how censors allowed a film with such graphic and intense violence to get commercial distribution a scant three years after Psycho was considered shocking. As Roger Ebert explained, Lewis knew he couldn’t show the moment of penetration for any of the stabbings or other assaults, but everything after that moment was fair game, from practically simulated autopsies to strips of skin hanging from blades. It was a winning formula that turned a $24,500 movie into a hit that grossed at least $7 million.
1. Wake in Fright(1971)
For much of its runtime, Wake in Fright seems more like a forgotten John Steinbeck story that happens to be set in the Australian Outback than a movie that would disturb anyone decades later. John Grant is a classist city teacher who just finished a seasonal gig teaching at a rural school, and is spending the night at a small town while waiting for his ride. He looks down his nose at the locals until he loses all of his money gambling, then sinks into a lowkey bender and embraces his relatively wild side, said wildside being the corrupting influence of a local drunk doctor played by Donald Pleasance. For awhile it’s satisfying to see John Grant taken down a peg and get confronted with the fact he’s no better than the small town folk he despises. Then John Grant is taken on kangaroo hunts with the hospitable locals. Seeing the animals gunned down during the nighttime hunt very much for real makes it much more understandable why Wake in Fright was so loathed in its country of origin that it sank into obscurity for decades.
The footage of the kangaroos being gunned down is even more unpleasant than in Blood of the Beasts. In Franju’s film the animals are at least butchered with professional detachment and in as humane of a way as would have been practical. Here the kangaroo hunt is presented as a rollicking good time, and some of the shots are inflicted in ways that massively increase the suffering before their deaths.
Director Ted Kotcheff claimed that his movie was not cruel to animals because he merely accompanied hunters that would have shot the kangaroo anyway. The Australian Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals encouraged Kotcheff to film what he did in the belief that it would bring the ugliness of kangaroo hunts home so that the government would ban them. This went extremely badly as the hunters began drinking whiskey to deal with the dropping temperatures. The same marksmen that had asked Kotcheff where he wanted them to shoot the kangaroos became were so incapacitated that they began accidentally mutilating and disemboweling kangaroos instead of cleanly killing them. As harrowing as the footage Kotcheff included was, the footage he didn’t use where the hunters had to chase down limping, staggering wounded kangaroos was so much worse.
Dustin Koski wrote the supernatural comedy Six Dances to End the World. Don’t worry: It’s much more like Fiends Without a Face than any of the other movies featured here.