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Rita Kempley

Fellowship Title:

Murdering Women For Entertainment

Rita Kempley
June 9, 2003

Fellowship Year

In the last decade alone, movie-makers have raped, murdered and mutilated more women than all the serial killers combined. Worse yet, they went about it and continue to do so with the same sadistic enthusiasm as the monsters they pretend to revile.

Directors and writers have skinned “The Silence of the Lambs,” gang-raped “The General’s Daughter,” dissected “From Hell,” disemboweled “Quills” and snuffed women out “8 Millimeter.”

Actor Anthony Hopkins is shown after attending a lunch at the Executive Mansion in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, July 19, 2000. Hopkins reprises the role of psychiatrist-turned-psychopath Hannibal ``The Cannibal'' Lecter in the film ``Hannibal,'' the sequel to ``The Silence of the Lambs,'' much of which is being shot in the Richmond Area. (AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, Bob Brown)

But to hear them tell it, their movies aren’t really bloodthirsty fantasies. They’re statements on censorship, materialism or the media. Truth be told, many are merely tarted-up slasher movies that have oozed into the mainstream.

Pictures that would once have played at drive-ins now play in neighborhood theaters, rate multi-million dollar budgets and attract not only big stars, but peers of the realm. Violence, particularly against women, is not only more common, but more explicit than ever before.

Ax-rated fare has come a long way since “Psycho” premiered in 1960. For Hitchcock, Janet Leigh’s screams, the knife and finally the Hershey’s syrup sluicing down the drain said it all. The master of suspense knew that what you don’t see is much scarier than anything he could create. So he let his audience’s imagination do the work for him.

Today anything goes on Elm Street. Thanks to dubious strides in special effects technology, the spurting stumps, pulpy eyeballs and severed heads are as convincing as a “Jurassic Park” T-Rex. And cameramen linger over the carnage like vultures.

But savagery has never been portrayed so sickly glamorous as in “The Cell,” an erotic thriller-slash-fashion spread. Its corpses look like sleeping super models and its murder scenes decorated as if for some grisly photo shoot.

Jennifer Lopez plays a gorgeous therapist who enters and becomes trapped in the mind of a comatose serial killer (never mind how). This requires many wardrobe changes (never mind why). While wrestling with his id, she discovers that he was an abused child. Poor dear.

Tarsem Singh, who previously directed Pepsi commercials and rock videos, doesn’t really want to scare anybody, just make them puke. And he just about does in the opening scene: A young woman, beautiful, but quite dead, floats in a bathtub filled with bleach. Her killer, seated along side, reaches into the tub and begins to pull out her organs. First, the kidney, then the heart….

Chains hang from the ceiling of the madman’s reeking lair, just above the pale, eviscerated body. He attaches these to the hooks that are permanently embedded in his back and gradually lowers himself onto the deceased. After gratifying himself, he dresses the body in doll’s clothes and adds her to his collection.

Singh described the movie as an exploration of a sick mind. But whose?

Why aren’t more men sawed in half?

Edgar Allen Poe, no stranger either to loss or madness, solved that riddle back in the 19th century. “The most poetical topic in the world,” he said, “is the death of a beautiful woman.” But that was before the invention of the power drill.

Although it’s no reason for applause, more men are falling under the ax these days as well. But as Carol J. Clover, author of “Men, Women and Chain Saws,” writes: “Even when men and women are killed in equal numbers, the lingering images are of the latter.”

That, too, is taken to the extreme: bodies have become part of the scenery. In “Black Rain,” a pretty corpse lies with her privates exposed as Michael Douglas and another cop squabble in the foreground. Similarly in “Eyes Wide Shut,” a buxom youngster, dead of an overdose, provides the backdrop for a frantic téte-á-téte between a society doctor (Tom Cruise) and his philandering patient (Sidney Pollack).

“The General’s Daughter,” a misogynist whodunit featuring John Travolta, is even more offensive. Travolta may be the star, but the nude body of the title character is the movie’s focus. Although she is found raped and murdered on a busy army base, nobody, not even the coroner, thinks to cover her nakedness.

The victim is an accomplished young captain, strong-willed, tough-minded and above all else, threatening to men under her power.

“One of the hallmarks of this century is the improvement in the status of women,” says Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History. “They have more income, they are demanding more sex. They feel they have the right to walk out of bad marriages or not to marry at all. Maybe the lid is off the pot. Maybe artists feel at liberty to express more primitive drives because the world is less attached to traditional values.”

On the other hand, physiology plays a major role in what Hollywood shovels our way. “Men dominate the movie business and the vast majority of men not only enjoy playing violent games, but watching violence,” says Fisher. “Levels of testosterone rise when men watch soccer or football — even hard-fought chess championships. And when testosterone levels increase, so does the sex drive.” Dopamine, a powerful brain chemical that provides a sense of well-being, also plays a role in escalating violence. “Studies have shown that novelty raises the levels of the neurotransmitter.”

Unfortunately, there are only so many ways to spook Little Red Riding Hood and God knows most of them have been done to death. So if you can’t create more novelty, you up the ante: Get a pack of wolves.

Howard Suber, a professor of UCLA’s School of Film and Television, believes that increases in profanity, sex and violence are symptomatic of “the principal of habituation.” “As with drugs and alcohol — we need more of the same stimulus to produce the same high.”

When it premiered in 1969, “The Wild Bunch” revolutionized the depiction of violence. “The squibs of blood, smashing glass and slo-mo violence are now clichés,” says Suber. “Today, blood splatters have to be bigger, the viscera portrayed more graphically, the deaths more dramatic.”

And of course, you need a badder bad guy. Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a droll and debonair gourmet more than met the criteria ten years ago in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Yes, he was a cannibal who would eat your face, but he preferred to devour petty bureaucrats and know-it-all cops — folks most of us already find hard to digest. And he also fell hopelessly in love with fledgling G-woman Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster).

Sir Anthony Hopkins brought the cunning doctor to life and the film won Oscars for best picture, director and both stars. Coupled with its financial success, the movie inspired the current craze of serial killer kitsch, including its own raw and tasteless sequel “Hannibal,” a simplistic gore fest that betrayed everything the stalwart protagonist once stood for.

Here, Lecter wrecks vengeance on Clarice’s enemy, a smug, chauvinistic superior (Ray Liotta) who becomes the plat du jour in the movie’s ghastly finale. While the drugged, immobile Clarice looks on, Lecter opens the character’s skull, removes, sautés and feeds the man bits of his own brain.

Unlike the original’s director, Jonathan Demme, who kept the on-screen violence to a minimum, “Hannibal’s” helmer, Ridley Scott, wallows in the viscera. And when the intestines spill from one of Lecter’s victims, Scott catches them while they are still steaming.

Further, as Scott also illustrated in his Oscar-winning “Gladiator,” blood and guts have been entertaining audiences long before Bread and Circus became a gourmet grocery chain.

According to mythologist Jack Zipes, “Movies are no more brutal or violent than fairy tales.” Giants eat babies, wolves devour grandmothers, children are left to starve in the woods and thumbs are loped along with ears and feet.

“What’s new is the horrific sadism. When you look at Faust or even Frankenstein’s monster, they are harmless compared to today’s sinister hero who is just being mean for the sake of it,” says Zipes, director of the Center for German and European Studies at the University of Minnesota and the author of “Happily Ever After.”

Zipes, a child of the Eisenhower era, thinks we are going to hell in a handcart. “Back then people believed that their leaders were moral. Nobody believes that anymore. That’s why movies about horror and ruthlessness, geeks and monsters have such appeal. That’s how kids see the world,” Zipes says. “There are no more values. Everything is relative.”

Well, everything but the Benjamins.

In the end, it all comes down to dollars and nonsense. Film is a commercial art, a corporate enterprise. And it’s studio executives — mostly men — who decide which movies are likely to boost that bottom line.

Max Alvarez, film historian of the National Museum of Women traces the surge in screen violence to the mid 1980s and the increasing influence of foreign buyers. “Ever since the world market opened up to Hollywood product, movies have become less verbal and more physical.”

Suber points out that the international market has since become the primary target for the typical film, even more so in the case of action films.

“You’ve got a young male trying to decide what movie to see. He doesn’t know English, or much of his own language either, but he sees a poster of Schwarzenegger with some fantastic gun in his hand. Who cares what the story says?”

In that, he’s like his home-grown peers.

As Ted Koppel recently discovered, the Pepsi Generation rules. If you are over 49, nobody cares what you watch except the marketers of adult diapers. Movies court an even narrower audience of 12 to 24-year-old males and the girls who sometimes tag along.

Nobody goes to the movies more often than this demographic, according to the Motion Picture Association, so it makes sense to cater to young guys. On the other hand, if studios aimed more product at broader audiences, wouldn’t the rest of us show up more often?

Not likely, says UCLA’s Suber. “While the theater was still the only place to see a movie, demographics were more varied.” However, 12 to 24-year-olds have always been the primary audience. “Who else has the time to go to movie theaters? Who has the freedom? Who wants to get away from their parents?”

Teens and pre-teens in the throes of puberty have always been drawn to horror movies, he says. “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” says it all. Growing up can be hairy and we’ve all got to learn to shave either our faces or our legs. Razor to flesh. There it is again, the link between violence and sex.

Susan Bordo, author of “Twilight Zones: The Hidden Life of Cultural Images from Plato to O.J.,” seconds the notion, but warns, “Young people’s tolerance for violence is dangerously high. They are so numbed by the onslaught of images on TV, magazine covers and video games.

“It doesn’t surprise me that they pierce, tattoo and cut themselves to break through the threshold. This is where it gets scary. Just how far are people willing to go to get their attention?”

Susheela Varky, a lawyer who specializes in domestic abuse, believes she has the answer: a misogynistic, M-rated video game called Grand Theft Auto 3. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman described the game as “troubling,” an understatement to say the least. Even one of the critics who gave GTA3 a rave review, warned that “the level of brutality is disgusting at best.”

Although GTA3 is designed for 20 to 30-year-old males, youngsters are sure to be playing the game because it’s cool. Tragically, violence has a much more profound effect on young minds, says Laura Stepp, author of “Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children Through Early Adolescence.”

“Research shows that the brain grows rapidly between the ages of 10 to 15,” Stepp explains. “It’s the best time to teach kids because they are at their most impressionable. They have some experience, but not enough to judge what they see.”

So what will our children make of GTA3?

Varky supplies the gorey details: “It has this anti-hero — a car-jacking guy who gets points for every car he steals and every policemen he kills. When he needs to refuel, he picks up a prostitute. After they have sex…the car rocks back and forth…he follows her, beats her to death with a baseball bat and steals her money.”

Hollywood has already adapted several popular video games, including “Resident Evil” and “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” Will “Grand Theft Auto 3: The Movie” be next? Tarsem Singh is probably already attached. And sadly, another generation of filmmakers will have to up the ante to give audiences the same rush.

©2002 Rita Kempley

Rita Kempley is a film critic for The Washington Post. During her Alicia Patterson year, she is examining sexual myths in American cinema.

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Rita Kempley