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Month of Horror 2016: Genre Exploration – Art: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom

Editor’s Note: The links within all point back to the original sources.  Perhaps one day I will fix them but more than likely I will keep them as is to honor the past (and because it is so much easier).  Links to the AVC are likely off due to the Kinja switchover.

10/22/2016 – Art: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini

If “Supernatural” or “Sci-Fi” felt broad and unspecific, get a load of “Art”. Art horror films are joined less by a specific style, plot, themes, or creatures than by a general ethos. The genre is less “aaahh! (real) monsters” and more “aaahh, the human condition” as it uses the basic horror framework to tell a deeper story. I’ve been very pro horror as art and I’m of two minds with this. On the one hand, many of these films are great and I love that they are legitimizing the genre in the eyes of many critics, but on the other, it’s still born of that very same elitism that wants to do anything it can to distance itself from horror. To be fair, there are plenty of horror fans who use it as an insult to any film that seeks to separate itself from the typical fare.

While both groups are categorically wrong and are insufferable and idiots respectively, art horror does feel like more of a shrug when we aren’t sure how to describe a film beyond “horror” or to indicate that this is a slow, style infused, less concerned with scares. As someone who isn’t really scared by horror so much as made extremely uncomfortable at best (see Ichi the Killer) it’s a good approach even if many of these films also have a problem then with pacing. As a genre, it’s developed pretty much parallel to the art film as a whole with some early pre-code experimentation in the German Expressionism movement typified by films such as Nosferatu and Vampyr and early surrealist fare such as Un Chien Andalou.

It’s the latter that indicated the direction artistic horror films would go as foreign filmmakers, largely quiet in horror since the early sound era, came back to the genre in the 60’s. Films such as France’s Eyes Without a Face, Sweden’s Hour of the Wolf from Ingmar Bergman, Japan’s Kuroneko and Kwaidan, Italy’s giallo genre (such as the later Suspiria), and Spain’s The Spirit of the Beehive (which isn’t strictly horror but which drew such heavy influence from Frankenstein and is so wonderful it’s worth mentioning regardless) drew from this surrealist background and infused horror with unique style that had admittedly fallen into a pattern of aping Universal or just not even bothering by that point. Britain’s Hammer Studios, while very far from creating art films, did a similar thing with its prioritizing style and even the US produced the very European in feel Carnival of Souls.

The ‘70s saw a continuation of the giallo and today’s movie as well as Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (harkening back to the early days of the genre) and David Lynch who is practically the patron saint of the genre. Much of his work falls into, or at least dance around, the art film label with EraserheadTwin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and Lost Highway being the most horror of them all. That leads us to the modern age which is much harder to define as the indie horror boom has led to an increase in artistic considerations, but they tend to be far more conventional than much of the above, surrealist styled fair. There’s still people like Lars Von Trier (EpidemicAntichrist, Ti West ( House of the Devil), and Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin who make things easy to place there but the rest it’s easy to argue against (and some are arguably horror). Pre-boom we have Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Tarsem’s The Cell while post boom we have films such as Let the Right One InBlack SwanKill ListStokerEnemyThe BabadookOnly Lovers Left AliveA Girl Walks Home Alone at NightGoodnight MommyIt Follows, and The Witch which are mostly slow paced, all thick with style, with level of substance highly variable. Which brings me to my final point, I don’t just want any good looking, slow paced horror film to be considered an art film. This used to be the basic standard for horror, let’s not relegate them to the indie market.

This is the movie I’ve been dreading getting to and have felt compelled and yet extremely reluctant to see it for many years. It’s a very polarizing movie with a lot of people who hate it or at least find it to be an ambitious misfire, but the people who love it are frequently influential in film and they really love it. They managed to get it to #228 in the Sight and Sound critics’ poll #88 in the directors’ poll (which ensured I’d see it even if it wasn’t incredibly influential). I’ve made fun Ebert for being an ultra-conservative when it comes to horror a lot but I think it says a lot when someone who saw so many movies and heavily promoted classic film, was still unwilling to even watch the film based on reputation alone and not as a protest. This is the kind of film the expression “its reputation proceeds it” was meant for.

This last film from Pier Paolo Pasolini (The Gospel According to St. MatthewAccattone), released just after he was murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1975. It is also an adaptation of an equally controversial book Marquis de Sade, The 120 Days of Sodom, which has similarly been championed and questioned as to its worth. The film is set in the Republic of Salò (Mussolini’s fascist state after he was deposed from control of the whole country) during the last years of World War II. It tells of four powerful men who use that power to kidnap men and women and submit them to their whims for the titular 120 days. The victims who are given a strict set of rules to follow consist of the daughters of four powerful men who are each married off to one of the men (including one to her own uncle), nine men and nine women and are aided in their quest by four boys who act as guards and four soldiers chosen for the size of their members.

There is a considerable amount of nudity here including of people who don’t appear to be of age which is probably the thing that made me the most uncomfortable in the whole film. They are constantly referred to as children and are clearly meant to be portraying underage teenagers and it just made me feel dirty. The film consists of four parts (there’s a lot of fours here though only three of those parts are after they get to the house) with each one being more depraved and “shocking” than the last though I’m not sure I completely agree on that since the third section is more cheap shock tactics than anything else.

The first of these is the Circle of Obsession and establishes that the film will be based around an older prostitute reciting stories of her youth (each circle featuring stories by a different prostitute) and the four men using these stories to “inspire” them. Right off the bat we dive into tales of SPOILERS statutory rape and depictions of the same. Already I can sense that I will be using “rape” to a distressing degree here as I’m doubtful a scene goes by without a minimum of a sexual assault and to the point where it will probably numb someone reading it (more on that later). We get the daughters forced to serve food naked until one is raped, a forced marriage where both participants are raped, a scene where the victims all forced to act like dogs which leads to one of them consuming food filled with nails (is it wrong that I was almost relieved that this scene which I had heard about going in didn’t use human nails and actually hid the results for the most part?), and a brutal whipping.

Next up is the Circle of Shit where we are treated to tales of and depictions of coprophagia (in fact a whole meal of shit is served) and golden showers and my opinion during it can be summed up as “Well this movie isn’t so hard to watch but I just know it is going to get worse isn’t it? Yep there’s a guy taking a shit in the middle of the floor”. There’s more sexual assault, more rapes, another wedding (this time involving the four men in dresses), and a competition to see who has the best ass (which is not as charming as it sounds). Finally, we have the Circle of Blood which features the brutal torture and murder of most of the victims, depicting such sights as, a group of women tied up naked in a bucket of shit and torture techniques such as the application of fire, having the tongue cut off, having an eye cut out, being raped, being hung, being scalped all while the men watch almost dispassionately. END OF SPOILERS

I know so much of this was merely a recap but at times, the film just feels like a series of awful events. There is character development and even the victims are given personalities which only serves to make the experience tougher to watch. It seeks to humanize the victims as they are consistently dehumanized and even uncomfortably humanize the men in charge. They are unrepentantly terrible people and there’s not even a lame Freudian “excuse” given, but they aren’t merely faceless monsters, they feel real and unique. The one man has a permanent shit eating grin (never has that expression been more apt). The piano player is given a story which is told wordlessly almost entirely through facial expressions <spoilers>and ending with her suicide</spoilers>. She’s hardly blameless, but you can see her discomfort growing throughout until she loses it (even before the redacted bit). The victims are too numerous to get as much depth, but the film really does try to make them identifiable and unique that makes their suffering hit harder than when a poorly done slasher does so and we don’t care who lives and who dies.

The film also certainly has a lot to say about fascism and power and it’s far better handled than something like Frontier(s) or see Ichi the Killer in clearly indicating that there is a message behind the brutality and what that message is. The scene where victims caught breaking the rules only to give up other victims in turn <spoilers>until one finally breaks the cycle, stands his ground and dies holding his fist in the air in a socialist solute that keeps from exposing anyone else</spoilers> is especially wonderfully done where you are torn between rooting for the victims who have suffered through an unimaginable hell to just do anything to survive, but also wanting to get mad at them for selling out their fellow sufferers.

Even with all the horrors listed above (and more that I didn’t), I’ve seen films which are far harder to watch and I don’t know what it says about me. It certainly doesn’t measure up to Ichi the Killer in terms of visual horror but there’s something about this film that lingers in a way it doesn’t. The special effects may be able to show new and more gruesome things (not that Salò’s are bad, far from it), but the horror from this goes much deeper than that. So much is dispassionate (intentionally so) but the film is not afraid to get lost in moments of passion which is in keeping with the actual story where the men of power do the exact same thing. Which leads me to the point I hinted up above with the inuring yourself to the use of the word rape when it’s just repeated so much to lose all meaning. The film really has an insidious way of working its way inside you to the point where you are watching something that would be incredibly hard to watch in any other movie, but instead you are just completely dull and far from shocked at. At least in my case I found myself asking on multiple occasions “shouldn’t you be more disturbed by viewing [insert scene here]” but no, I just accepted it as “normal” and as the film ramped up, actions that previously would have had me shifting uncomfortably had me almost bored.

The content is obviously on display here and will make or break the film, but the rest of the film really is impeccably staged. Costumes, special effects, and the design of the house are all perfect and the wonderfully shot and directed film made me wish it was pointed at something that I could appreciate it further. Ennio Morricone did the score which is all I need to say about that and the acting, mainly by little known and amateurs, is surprisingly top notch. Salò is a film I really appreciate though it’s not something I’d say I enjoyed. It really is a great film and an effective one, I just can’t say whether I “liked” it and I sure as heck have no desire to see it again to find out. I’m not even sure recommend I’d recommend it to people who can handle the sights but like Ichi the Killer it’s a film I’m glad exists.

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