Growing up in 1980’s Britain with the video nasties scare, I implicitly absorbed movie violence was bad and if I watched enough I’d eventually take an axe to random passersby. Now while this proved unfortunately true in my case, most people remain unaffected. In fact, someone like you has probably already forgotten hundreds, if not thousands of murders and maimings. Perhaps that’s because for onscreen violence to really hit home it has to be part of a well-constructed illusion.
You have to be engaged. And let’s face it, an awful lot of movies (especially slashers and torture porn) are nothing more than a ropey load of old bollocks. But sometimes, just sometimes, an act of violence in a well-staged film sneaks through and lodges itself in your head. It might be Leatherface hoisting a screaming victim onto a meat hook, a pinioned Rick Deckard having a couple of fingers snapped by a none-too-happy replicant, or the unbelievably gruesome, scissors-based demise of the Castle Rock killer. Hell, we’ve all seen stuff we just can’t let go. Here are ten brutal snippets of celluloid carnage I’ll take to my no doubt lonely grave:
Comic Violence: Fargo
Now we all know in these PC times you have to say there’s nothing funny about violence but, well, an awful lot of Fargo’s fucked-up shit is funny. Frances McDormand may have nabbed an Oscar for her role as the pregnant cop, but for me this movie is ruled by Peter Stormare’s otherworldly portrayal of the worst partner-in-crime of all time. From the moment we meet him, it’s clear there’s something ‘off’ but just like Steve Buscemi we nervously hope he’ll stay within professional and reasonable limits.
And before long there are dead bodies everywhere and nothing left of that ‘kinda funny-looking’ fella except his severed, upended leg sticking out of a wood chipper. Just glorious.
Sporting Violence: The Fly
Although tempted by Slap Shot’s bespectacled Hanson brothers gleefully roughhousing their opponents on the ice hockey rink, I’ve gone for Cronenberg’s successful updating of the 1958 original. Coming at the end of a purple patch for sci-fi/horror that included Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien and The Thing, this 1986 effort isn’t quite in the same league, mainly because the tension drains away in the last part as Jeff Goldblum runs around in a rubber suit trying to generate pathos. However, the opening hour is superbly taut with the highlight being an arm-wrestling match that’s so over the top it’s beyond even the wildest fantasy of Lincoln Hawk. Of course it makes no sense that the metamorphosing Goldblum is super-strong (flies aren’t known for their strength) but who cares when you have a wrist-snapping scene that cool?
Wince-inducing Violence: Cape Fear
Scorcese’s remake of Cape Fear is nasty, overblown and wildly implausible. It’s also the last movie by him that I really dug with its full-blooded performances and horror-fused, relentless pace. It’s not as classy as Taxi Driver or Goodfellas, but it’s sure as hell never dull. Its goriest moment arrives when shrinking violet Max Cady ‘woos’ courthouse clerk Lori Davis, a seduction that involves not only biting a chunk out of her face but spitting it across the room. I caught Cape Fear in the cinema and can still recall the collective gasp. Pass the floss, please.
Alien Violence: The Thing
John Carpenter’s remake might be cinema’s greatest horror flick, partly because it’s built on those key genre staples of isolation and being relentlessly pursued by something murderous. Oh yeah, there are also Rob Bottin’s unrivaled creature effects. I mean, who can forget that upside-down spider head scuttling across the floor? However, it’s the defibrillator scene which gets my vote as the most inspired. To have the doctor’s hands plunge through the chest is brilliantly unexpected, but to then have them bitten off by concealed teeth places the film firmly in the realm of genius. Alien’s chest-buster is my runner up.
Racist Violence: American History X
With its awful structure and unconvincing stab at portraying an intellectual thug’s redemption, I have to say X is my least favorite movie here. When it comes to neo-Nazi aggro, I much prefer the Australian forerunner Romper Stomper with its economical storytelling and lack of pretentiousness. Saying that, X trumps Stomper in the violence department and I’m sure you know which bit I’m talking about. I have no idea if it’s possible to kill a curb-biting man by stomping on the back of his head, but that jaw-dropping (!) moment sure is hard to forget.
Animal Violence: The Revenant
Some movies are endlessly re-watchable triumphs imbued with magic. Others have Ben Affleck in them. However, for as long as I live, I’ll never tire of watching Jason take on a bunch of sword-wielding skeletons or the AT-ATs attacking the rebel base on the ice planet Hoth. Of course, most movies are nowhere near as thrilling, but there are plenty that should be sought out by virtue of containing a solitary humdinger of a scene. American History X is one such example and The Revenant another. Its tiny, predictable story of revenge might get lost amid the epic landscape but hey, it still has that extraordinary attack by a thousand-pound carnivore. It’s a compelling piece of computerized brilliance that presents a grizzly bear as if it were an alien invader, a genuinely terrifying beast whose behavior cannot be understood on any level, let alone predicted. Eat your heart out, Mr Harryhausen.
Urban Violence: Trainspotting
A snarling, lager-swilling nightmare.
Like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, Robert Carlyle’s portrayal illustrates an essential truth about violent men: it’s not their size that matters but their transparent willingness to cross the line. They don’t need muscles when head butts and gun play come as naturally as a sarcastic smile. Perhaps Begbie’s choice moment in a movie full of choice moments is when he casually tosses a pint glass off a pub balcony into an oblivious crowd, not even bothering to check out who he has damaged when the resultant scream is thrill enough. Begbie is an all too real threat, partly because we all know it’s perfectly possible to bump into such an unrepentant nutter on our next night out.
Sexual Violence: Scum
It’s often difficult for an actor to truly convince as a hard man, but Ray Winstone’s real-life teenage stint as an amateur boxer surely fuels his breakout role in this controversial depiction of life in a young offenders’ institution. It’s just bloody obvious he’s banged a head or two in his time. And while he contributes a number of standout acts of brutality, such as the migraine-inducing whack with a snooker ball-filled sock, I’ve actually gone for a scene he’s not involved in. The homosexual rape in the greenhouse entirely lacks the blackly comic elements of Ned Beatty’s famous violation in Deliverance but probably comes much closer to capturing the true nature of such an assault. It’s simply a spontaneous act of dominance carried out by bored bigger boys, the sexual equivalent of pulling the wings off a fly.
War Violence: Come and See
Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy…
To call Come and See, a Soviet-made depiction of the twenty million lives lost during Operation Barbarossa, grueling is almost a comical understatement. Its haunting, brilliantly directed central sequence, running a good half-hour, sees the previously barely glimpsed Nazi invaders slink out of the mist to surround an unsuspecting village. Hundreds of hapless innocents are then herded into a soon-to-be torched church by their drunken, looting ‘masters’. Not even the ghetto-clearing sequence in Schindler’s List can match this tour de force in capturing genocidal madness.
Self-Inflicted Violence: The Omen
Some TV stuff you (secretly) see as a kid really stays with you, such as a blood-drenched children’s birthday party in Hammer House of Horror or a floating, window-tapping vampire in Salem’s Lot. Dwarfing both in terms of inappropriately viewed content was the time my ten-year-old self defied the oldsters by catching a post-watershed Omen in my brother’s bedroom. In a movie stuffed full of spectacular death scenes, any one of which could have made this list, there remains something supremely disturbing about a wholesome young nanny perched on a window ledge dreamily declaring her love for Damian before jumping to her doom with a rope around her neck in front of horrified onlookers. I humbly declare it to be the most unnerving act of violence in the history of cinematic horror.
Dave Franklin has also written some bloody violent novels, no doubt the result of watching The New York Ripper and I Spit on Your Grave when he should’ve been helping mummy with the washing-up. Check them out on Amazon, Google Play and Apple.