Blood on the Streets

5 minute read
Richard Corliss

Kids can get violent images from movies, TV, DVDs, the Internet. Yet the latest outrage over the feeding of gore to the very young came from one of the oldest forms of commercial communication: the billboard. Ads with grisly graphics from such fright films as Captivity and Dead Silence loomed over children as they went to their Los Angeles–area schools. And if the images didn’t scare the young, they upset many parents–and detonated the latest installment in an old debate: Are scary things bad for kids?

Used to be, the young had to go to a horror film to get that sickly-sweet thrill of knife on neck, chain saw into cranium. Now the violence comes to you, child, in advertising on your TV, computer or bus shelter.

For once, the industry establishment has joined in the condemnation, in part because the Captivity studio is not a member of the Motion Picture Association of America, which is in charge of movie ratings and advertising. “I was very troubled that this was out there,” says MPAA boss Dan Glickman of the Captivity campaign. “This was not advertising that was approved by us. Our bottom line is to do what we can to protect children.”

Protecting the children. That ritual has been played for ages across the generations. Parents fret about what their children see/hear/read, and the youngsters shrug it off until they have kids of their own and renew the worrying cycle. Parents hate violent movies, so kids just have to love them.

That’s why horror films don’t need stars. One letter sells the movie: R (meaning kids are restricted from seeing it unless accompanied by an adult). Another lure is the MPAA description of offensive elements, like this one for Saw III: “strong grisly violence and gore, sequences of terror and torture, nudity and language.” Parents read this as a warning, kids as a come-on. “‘Terror and torture’? I’m there!” Can’t see it? Must see it.

Just as natural are the rules of capitalism. Rule No. 1: Make a profit on your product. Saw, the 2004 thriller that triggered the latest barrage of ultragore, cost $1.2 million and earned more than $100 million at the worldwide box office. The Hills Have Eyes and Silent Hill grossed more than $150 million between them. Then all the films went to DVD, where the real money is. Cheap movies that make a bundle–that’s just good business.

Rule No. 2: Expand your consumer base. Do movie companies try to lure 11-, 13-, 15-year-olds to their violent movies? Of course: that age group is their prime market. And with the Internet, it’s easy and cheap to do. If the Saws and Hostels were never seen by young teens, they’d lose a big slice of their audience.

The MPAA needs the teen market. Tougher than most other national ratings boards on sexual images in movies, it’s far more lenient when it comes to violence. In many countries, Saw was forbidden to those under 18. In the U.S., your 17-year-old could go and chaperone his younger siblings. The argument may be that sexuality is real and disturbs kids more than pretend maiming. But these ratings teach that sex is forbidden and killing is cool. They also tell the world that America is a place where violence rules.

Of course, horror films aren’t the only place kids can go to for their violence fix. Eli Roth, director of Hostel, an R-rated film about a European backpacking trip gone horribly wrong, knows that kids under 18 are seeing his films. He thinks they should be 15 or 16 to see the Hostel sequel, due out in June. “Kids that age have seen enough TV and real-life violence by then that they understand the difference,” he says. “You can turn on Fox at 9 p.m. and see someone drilling into someone’s head [on the series 24]. You can turn on CNN and see soldiers who have been tortured. As the violence on TV gets more extreme, the violence in movies has to top that to keep getting people into theaters.”

Times change, violence gets more explicit, yet the MPAA ratings system still operates under an anachronistic assumption: that modern parents can control what their children see. Junior can buy a ticket for a PG-13 film and stroll into an auditorium showing an R. Or a few months later, he and his friends can rent it from a video store, where kids are rarely carded. Or they go to Wal-Mart and buy the even grottier “unrated” version. (Wal-Mart won’t sell R-rated movies to kids under 17, but it will sell unrated ones. Hostel was a No. 1 seller there.) Or they watch lurid clips on YouTube. You can whitewash the billboards, but you can’t delete all the sources of input to a child’s curious mind.

One of the worrying things about the new movies is that they have moved beyond the manufacture of fright (which can be therapeutic for kids) to the lovingly detailed depiction of sadism. The other is that kids might not be traumatized by the genre. Are they so jaded that they instantly ironize every movie gross-out moment and become little connoisseurs of repellent special effects?

Are we scared that horror movies will ruin innocent children or that today’s kids are too sophisticated to be hurt, frightened or moved by movies? Is it that the MPAA is not doing enough–or that there are no children left to protect?

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