By Jard Craig
Going to Pieces, a new made-for-cable documentary (which airs this Halloween on Starz at 11 p.m.), charts the history of slasher films. The film starts off strong, but falls apart once the initial shock value of cinematic cut-and-slash overkill wears off. The film strings together the best scenes from new and classic examples of the genre, but all the gore turns to bore.
This documentary explains our yen for seeing this kind of violence by going high brow and historical, at least for awhile, with looks at hieroglyphics, Homer’s “Odyssey,” and finally the Roman masses gathering to watch violence. The latter are seen as ancestors to moviegoers who go to watch slasher films.
Moving to modern times, the documentary even brings up Jim Jones and his group who drank poisoned Kool-Aid. According to the “experts” provided by the film that horrible event proved that there was a need for this kind of movie in America. From this skewed perspective, mass death triggers a Hollywood trend.
As you can judge by the above reasoning, the documentary tries to justify slasher movies, but quickly becomes a rant about how the movie industry has changed to the point that the slasher movie franchise is a permanent fixture.
Is there a need for this subgenre? Box office sales would say yes, some critics say no. The documentary tries to explore how slasher films have become a part of society and pop culture. Yet it bursts its own self-important bubble when it notes that “Halloween” – one of the scariest movies of all time” – did not even get noticed until the Village Voice published a good review. Boffo box office followed. Is this a feather in the cap of the slasher movie or the critic?
An old clip featuring Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert has the pair explaining how misogynistic, degrading and morally oppressive slash movies are to women. Siskel talks about how these flicks hurt the Woman’s Movement because so many of the movies portray women as cowering sex objects who are raped, murdered, and cast away. He adds that the movie panders to an audience who wants women told to stay in their place.
According to the documentary, Siskel’s critique made a difference. The genre actually changed for the better, in the sense that the films began featuring stronger heroines. Also, it has always been true that more men die on screen than women in slasher films. According to experts, audiences don’t want to see the woman die, they just want to see her in jeopardy.
Once the strong heroine trend ran its course, the killer became the focus. The audience began to root for the killers because they were zipped up by special effects and were responsible for the blood, guts, and gore. When that thrill was gone, slasher films began to explore the idea of making the victim murder themselves — victims torture and kill themselves in such movies as “Saw.”
Where will the slasher film go next? The documentary’s experts had no idea — but they could all agree that “as long as there are teenagers, there will be slashers.”
Nobody in Going to Pieces asks if the genre provides any of the satisfactions of art. Is blood-splattering via a camera deserve to be called art? Entertainment yes, but art, no. Still, they meet a primal need — people love to be shocked, though not about reality.
Audiences in these movies are rarely asked to think. And that could happen, if slasher films dared to explore the psychological and moral ambiguities of violence. Blood and special effects are not enough to sustain the genre forever. A more thoughtful trend has started with the release of such movies as Saw, in which the protagonists are forced to make a choice between life and death.