by Matthew Tilt
Extreme cinema has always been a part of film. Tod Browning shocked audiences in 1932 with Freaks; a mere seven years after audience members had fainted at the very sight of Lon Chaney Jr.’s face in The Phantom of the Opera. Already, in the early age of cinema, directors were pushing the boundaries of what an audience could withstand.
Fast forward 30 years and audiences sit in horror as Janet Leigh, one the big stars of the day, is brutally murdered in the shower and a young man films his victims last breaths in the fittingly titled Peeping Tom. The sixties saw gore take a step up over plot for the first time, Herschell Gordon Lewis was essential to this movement, directing films like The Wizard of Gore and Blood Feast. It’s hard to imagine plot thin “torture porn” features like Hostel without Lewis taking these first steps.
Lewis’ influence was also obvious throughout the video nasty era of the 80’s. Films such as Cannibal Holocaust focused on gore, although with a plot that has garnered attention and become an influence for documentary style film making; however the video nasty era also brought forward more disturbing and pornographic content. Exploitation such as Love Camp 7 focused more on rape and humiliation. In a way taking the link between sex and violence, first hinted at in films like Psycho and Peeping Tom, to its logical, if hard to watch, conclusion.
In recent years many of these video nasties have been re-released (39 uncut, 23 cut and 1 with additional footage), and a few have been remade. This shows a change in the public’s attitude toward violence, as the BBFC work to a “set of guidelines which are the result of public consultation”. Whereas 30 years ago the public and the media cried out for these films to be banned, times have changed and stricter video/DVD laws ensure that no children can, legally, obtain material they should not be watching.
It does seem ironic though that some of the video nasties have been remade in a slicker, more graphic style and been released uncut when the originals were banned. The remake of The Last House on the Left, despite missing out some of the more shocking moments of humiliation from Wes Craven’s original, still contained set pieces that could be seen as more graphic. With a recent remake of I Spit on Your Grave, which is said to be as, if not more horrific than its predecessor, due for home release and a remake of Straw Dogs due for release later this year it’s not hard to see that people want more disturbing and more graphic features then they did in the 70s and 80s.
It is this focus on the more disturbing aspects that has clearly played a part in more modern horror and underground cinema. Even the more mainstream films of the last decade have pushed various boundaries. Hostel glamorised extreme violence in graphic detail, and its sequel contained lesbian contexts underneath the violence, not to mention a misogynistic storyline based solely around the torture of women.
It seems unfair that films based solely around torture, but that have had tenuous storylines about secret organisations written around the graphic violence should be allowed into the mainstream ahead of films like Grotesque.
“Unlike other recent ‘torture’ themed horror works, such as the Saw and Hostel series, Grotesque features minimal narrative or character development and presents the audience with little more than an unrelenting and escalating scenario of humiliation, brutality and sadism. The chief pleasure on offer seems to be in the spectacle of sadism (including sexual sadism) for its own sake.”
David Cooke, BBFC director.
Looking at both films, it appears that Grotesque merely skips any pretenses that films like Hostel and The Human Centipede had and quickly moves onto to violent, almost pornographic, sadism. It seems contradictory for the BBFC to condemn a film that merely plays out on the same level, almost satirising audience’s bloodlust by exposing it.
The American trilogy August Underground also took audiences’ need for violence to extremes. Fred Vogel, who directed and starred, stated he wanted to make something that was truly realistic, so that when a girl is kidnapped she doesn’t have perfect make up, but instead cries and screams and has normal bodily functions.
The film has regularly topped sickest films list and is unavailable in the U.K. yet contains nothing that the recent A Serbian Film, which was passed, although admittedly with the heaviest cuts in a decade, does not. The directors of both films wanted to push boundaries and yet one was accepted and one was revoked. Srdjan Spasojevic, director of A Serbian Film, claims the film to be a political statement, a metaphor for the current climate in Serbia  and a way of “Catharthis through really subversive, really strong art”. 
In contrast Fred Vogel, director of August Underground, said he wanted to make something like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer but “five times more real”. Both are films that will be taken on face value by the majority of the audience due to the graphic content (necrophilia, rape, torture, and in A Serbian Film: incest and paedophilia) so it can be assumed that visually both are as harmful as each other which should cause the BBFC to intervene.
“If we feel that there is the potential for harm then we will intervene” 
Sue Clark, BBFC
The conclusion can be made that a film can be as violent and as taboo breaking as possible as long as it has a coherent message that can be explained by the director, metaphorical or not. Unfortunately, when you’re faced with a scene of a man anally raping his own son, the message fails to come across, hence, from a audience’s point of view it becomes no better or worse than August Underground.
So in light of the similarities between films released into the mainstream and films that remain banned or are kept to a limited audience, as well as looking at the release and remakes of various video nasties, should the BBFC change its policy on “harmful” material. Probably not. The system itself seems to work, and the point of these films been harmful, does ring true in some cases.
The biggest, apparent problem with the system would be the ease in which we can access these films regardless of censorship, due to the biggest, and impossible to police, network available: the internet. Sue Clark admits:
“Films which we may have intervened in have always been available through ‘other channels’ even if that meant going abroad and buying them, but the vast majority of people still obtain DVDs through UK outlets and distributors still submit works for classification so they expect to sell in the UK”
Of all the outlets the internet is the easiest to access, with various peer to peer applications available to obtain any film, let alone films that are made infamous by been banned. Surely it’s pointless rating films to protect children, as the BBFC claims, when these films are available to anyone who is computer literate. As the computer literacy age drops, more children will be able to find films that are unsuitable, leaving all choices in the hands of the parents. Not only this but the BBFC website itself claims:
“Although it is not a customs offence to import an unclassified video or DVD it must be for your personal use only and the content must not breach the UK law (e.g. Obscene Publications Acts 1959 and 1964, Protection of Children Act 1978).
You are therefore entitled to purchase unclassified videos or DVDs whilst abroad, provided they contain no illegal material and are solely for personal use.”
Meaning that even if you want a physical copy of the film it is quite simple to acquire whatever film you like from abroad or the internet, and with the increase in multi region DVD players, there isn’t even a question of being able to play the films.
If something like the BBFC was worldwide, where no countries differed on what was acceptable, then their value would be obvious and, regardless of internet, that it was a worthwhile scheme, as there would be no trouble with imports. Less access to the films that are banned, or cut. However, as there are clearly holes in the system, allowing imports to add to un-policed juggernaut that is the internet, and the various holes and contradictions that dictate whether a film is passed or not, it begs the question: is the BBFC really worthwhile?
 Interview with Sue Clark, BBFC
 Interview with Sue Clark
 http://www.pbbfc.co.uk/faqs.asp#How does the BBFC classify films and videos?