Extreme cinema event: Film and Broadcasting in the 21st Century

Eye For Film reports on the fraught issues of censorship.

by Keith Hennessey Brown

This poorly publicised and attended event, co-organised by Film Four and The Institute for Contemporary Arts, was a launching pad for their joint attempt to alter the UK's outdated and inconsistent laws on film and broadcasting censorship.

Because of the muddle, the rules governing what can be shown in the cinema, on video, on satellite and on terrestrial TV differ Nick Jones, head of film programming at Film Four/Channel 4, explained. For instance, how the two channels screened different versions of The Idiots, while the censored footage from the film was made available on the unregulated internet.

Clearly something has to be done. But the tone of the event - and the organisers' choice of Last House on the Left as the accompanying film - lead me to suspect that Film Four and the ICA are not going to go as far as many in the "extreme cinema" community would like.

Of all the films that could have been chosen for a debate on film censorship, Last House on the Left and Salo - the latter to form the centrepiece of the ICA's event screenings later in the year - are perhaps the easiest to make a case for. Mark Kermode aptly introduced Last House as an "arthouse/exploitation" film. It's one of the few banned horrors that can make claims to art, and has long had its vocal supporters. Though certainly glad of the chance to see the film, my own feeling is that a screening of a film more genuinely beyond the pale would have been more useful in stimulating debate.

Clearly, given Kermode's mention of "animal cruelty" as one of the two unacceptables - along with child abuse - neither Cannibal Holocaust nor Cannibal Ferox was ever going to get a look in. Films notorious for their alleged misogyny, such as I Spit On Your Grave and The New York Ripper, could however have been screened within such strictures. These are the titles which even Kermode and fellow mainstream horror critics like Kim Newman draw the line at. Surely showing the most extreme examples on can is what opening discussion about "Extreme Cinema: film and broadcasting censorship in the 21st century" ought to be about?

This leads me to fear that this campaign for a change in the UK's unacceptable censorship laws will sadly not go far enough. One detects an attitude that wants the freeing up of titles with some claim to art - the Last Houses and Salos - but which may draw a middle class line at those which exist purely as exploitation - the House on the Edge of the Parks and the SS Experiment Camps.

Last House on the Left itself is a Vietnam-era update of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring. Two teenage girls on their way to a concert run into Krug Stilo's gang, who brutalise, torture, rape and eventually murder them. Krug and company then unwittingly hide out at the house of one of the girls. Her parents discover what has happened and extract their revenge on Krug and his gang.

The film is exceedingly rough, veering between crude comedy - particularly the two incompetent policemen - and still shocking violence. Its masterstroke or downfall, depending on how you respond, is the score by David Hess, the actor who plays Krug.

Deeply ironic or just plain inappropriate jolly shitkicker music accompanies the violence. Prior to the film, Kermode asked us to think about whether adults ought to be prevented from seeing Last House on the Left. My answer would be no. But then you knew that anyway.

So, my question for the Film Four and ICA organisers would be "ought adults to be prevented from seeing anything that does not directly contravene the law?" My hunch is that they might not be so sure.

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