Every year a dozen or more new horror movies are made. When they complete their theatrical runs, they go into the stockpile -- home video, cable, and syndication to local stations. Thus the number of available horror titles keeps expanding, and the TV screen overflows with blood.
There's blood money to be made too. Some parents, understandably, are upset to find the airwaves clogged with stabbings, shootings, decapitations, and stranglings -- and those are just in the CSI and Law & Order shows that air year-round. In October, TV's regular weekly killings are supplemented by "festivals" of theatrical horror films choked with spectacularly grisly goop.
Starz, a pay-cable network, has come up with a handy-dandy way to see a couple dozen horror movies in one sitting -- and has thoughtfully reduced each of them to just the gory parts, so you don't even have to sit through their pale excuses for plots. Going to Pieces, which premiered on Starz on Friday the 13th (naturally), is a look at what it calls "The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film," though basically every fall is followed by yet another rise.
In other words, now that Hollywood makeup and special-effects artists have the technology to slice and dice people on-screen, slasher films will be around for the foreseeable future. Just when you think they've gone away, a new one will be a huge smash, the way Scream was in 1996. When that happens, two things are inevitable: Producers of the original movie will do as many sequels as possible, and imitators will crank out copycat versions as quickly and cheaply as they can.
Going to Pieces begins and ends with montages that show in the usual graphic detail the slashing of throats, the lopping off of heads, a girl hung on a meathook (or two), and the old reliable hatchet-in-the-face trick, among many other murders and maimings. There's also a clip of the late Gene Siskel, summarizing the slasher trend in one word: "disgusting."
But most of the "experts" assembled for the documentary work in the horror business and find that work to be artful and even pro-social. "There's a bloodlust in all of us," says director John Carpenter, whose movies have included Halloween, one of the landmarks of the genre. Cheaply produced -- Carpenter says they could only afford to pay big-time actor Donald Pleasence for three days' work -- the 1978 film was relatively low on explicit gore, but it had a point of reference with which the audience could identify: the imperiled babysitter threatened by an unseen menace and unable to leave the house. It was a gigantic hit, and the sequels dribbled on for years.
More influential, really, was the next big movie in the horror mode, Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th in 1980. Cunningham had seen George Romero's tremendously gory epic Dawn of the Dead (part of a trilogy that began with the now-classic Night of the Living Dead) and admired the hideous makeup effects engineered for the film by Tom Savini. So he hired Savini to create very believable ghastly illusions for his film.
Going to Pieces is filled to the brim -- in fact, over the brim -- with hideous examples. It is, as the saying goes, not for the squeamish and certainly not for children, though if you've seen any of these films with teenage audiences, you know that they tend to laugh at the gore effects as often as they scream in terror. Incredibly, the documentary tries to blame the horror-film boom of the 1980s on the Reagan administration, which is absurd to the point of idiocy, while failing to examine the negative effects such films have on those who see them and on society in general.
Perhaps the horror in horror movies is so grotesque that it still serves as escapism from the real horrors in the news -- murder and torture by terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere, for example, or the unspeakable horror of innocent children killed at school by maniacs. No matter how horrifying horror films get, it seems, the real world will always come up with the stuff that the ghastliest nightmares are made of.