Horror films by their very nature often contain scenes of explicit gore, and being a fan of them means that I've witnessed more than my share of gruesome images in the theater and at home. Some people may argue that gore in horror films is unnecessary and gratuitous, and sometimes that's true, but that's an argument for another time. Probably my first vivid memory of cinematic gore is Christopher Lee's impalement on the giant crucifix at the climax of Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, viewed on late-night television when I was perhaps 9. (Watching the film again years later, it turned out that my youthful memory of the scene was far bloodier than it really was.) A year or so later, at the tender age of 10, I saw George Romero's Night Of The Living Dead for the first time, also on late-night TV. Even though it was in black and white, the starkly violent imagery presented in the film knocked me for a loop. My mom watched the film with me; I don't think she had any idea what to expect, and she made me avert my gaze several times. I saw plenty, though, and by the time the film's grim finale rolled around, I'd had enough. In retrospect, I wish I hadn't seen the film at such a young age; it was quite a traumatic experience for me, and I didn't sleep well for at least a month. I also suspect that it essentially purged me of my capability to be scared by a movie, as nothing has ever affected me in quite the same way since. But I digress. I always digress.
Romero's milestone in explcit bloodshed was my first tentative paddle along what would ultimately become a river of cinematic gore. As I progressed through my teens and early twenties, a sort of morbid fascination took hold, and I began to compulsively seek out films that were increasingly more graphic, not just in the horror genre, but dramas like Taxi Driver and westerns like The Wild Bunch as well. In the ensuing thirty or so years since I was first shocked by Romero's masterpiece, I've seen more hideously gruesome films than I can possibly count, but almost nothing I've witnessed in a film has caused my any sort of physiologically palpable distress. I'm not saying that violence in films has never upset me - there have been plenty of times when the graphically violent injury or death of a character I was invested in has affected me deeply - but I've never actually gotten physically ill. You might jump to the conclusion that I've been desensitized to screen violence, but I've never really bought into that theory. Rather, I think I've always been aware in the back of my mind that whatever gory effect I was seeing was created, effectively or not, with foam latex and colored Karo syrup (or more recently, and almost never effectively, with CGI). The bottom line is that I knew it wasn't real, so there was no point getting upset about it. There have been a few instances where my stomach did a little flip or two - the amputation of a man's leg in Antonio Margheriti's Cannibal Apocalypse and an unfortunate woman's breast being sliced off and eaten in Umberto Lenzi's Eaten Alive (leave it to the Italians) are two examples that come to mind - but it's always been more of an "Eeeww, gross" moment than anything. I thought I was long past the point where a movie could make me feel like I actually might want to throw up. I was wrong.
Last night, my wife and I (and our daughter - don't worry, we made her look away just like my mom did) watched 127 Hours, director Danny Boyle's dramatization of the true story of Aron Ralston, a lone hiker whose arm became trapped by a huge rock in a remote area of Utah. (MILD SPOILER ALERT) After several days without rescue, Ralston (masterfully portrayed in the film by James Franco) resorted to amputating his own arm in order to free himself and survive. The film documents this astounding act of self-preservation in unflinching detail, beginning with Ralston snapping his radius and ulna one at a time and culminating in the severing of the surrounding tissue with a dull utility tool. Despite this scene, which really only lasts a few minutes, it's a beautiful and inspiring film that demonstrates how the will to survive can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, and I highly recommend it.
Let's talk some more about that arm scene, though. I have to admit that this harrowing sequence pushed me closer than I have ever come before to tossing my cookies during a film. Yes, this hardened veteran of slasher movies and Italian zombie and cannibal films, this cinephile who has witnessed countless on-screen dismemberments, decapitations, disembowelments, exploding heads, exsanguinations, shootings, throat slittings, chainsaw massacres and any other type of bodily mayhem you can imagine, finally met his match in an Oscar-nominated docudrama. It was a delayed reaction, too; it wasn't until after he finished the amputation, bound up his stump and made it out of the crevasse he'd been stuck in that I finally had to stop and take a few deep breaths. The funny thing is, you don't necessarily see all that much at any given time due to the fluid camerawork and rapid editing.
The prosthetic effects that are visible are top notch (and watching the film in the Blu-ray format meant that every vein and strand of muscle could be seen with crystal clarity), but we've already determined that gore effects alone don't usually have much of an effect on me, regardless of how well they're executed. In this case, it was the whole package: Franco's performance, Boyle's direction, the editing, the cinematography and the music (whenever the character cuts into a nerve, there's a horrible, jarring noise) all combined with the effects to make a truly horrific scene. The tipping point for me was probably envisioning myself in Ralston's place, having to make the same decision he did and ultimately going through with it. I imagine all filmmakers would like you to have some sort of empathy with the characters in their films; this one certainly succeeded in that regard. (The only empathy that was lacking was from my wife, who called me a wimp when I confessed afterward that I'd felt a little queasy.)
I did a little research after watching the film, and I found out that it had an equally strong effect on a number of viewers worldwide, including several who had seizures after blacking out; I didn't feel quite so silly after having found that out. Indeed, I'm kind of thrilled to be reminded of the intensely visceral effect that a well-made film can have, even if it didn't feel so good at the time. Most films I see these days are forgotten almost immediately, but I'm still thinking about this one, and I expect I will be for quite some time. Especially if I find myself hiking alone in Utah.