Even people who haven't read much Shakespeare (like myself) will know about the scene in The Merchant Of Venice (1596) where Shylock demands a pound of flesh in lieu of goods owed him by Antonio. Antonio turns the tables on Shylock by pointing out that Shylock can have his pound of flesh but only if he can procure it without spilling a drop of blood. With ruthlessness matching Shylock, Antonio reminds Shylock that "the words expressly are 'a pound of flesh'". Shylock is thus trapped by the expression of his own words.
Out of all Shakespeare's contributions to literature and theatre, that one scene from The Merchant Of Venice survives particularly well in cultural mythology as a fragment that snares the imagination through its literal suggestion of graphic violence. Shylock taunts Antonio with the prospect of physical violence just as the scene taunts us with the prospect of actually delivering the goods, trapping us in a loop of desire so typical in exploitative production. Our thirst for blood is triggered by its direct reference in a scene that does not call for it, positing Shylock as a character seme that stands in for what we have since tagged 'unmotivated violence'. Perversely, the text mobilizes a motivation within us rather than generating it within its structural or semantic domain. Hence 'motivation' is a dynamic mechanism more than a moral justification - another distinguishing feature in exploitation production.
Conjuring up the bizarre image of a pound of human flesh as an exchange commodity, that scene from The Merchant Of Venice begs the invention of cinema as a machine for actualizing that image. In other words, the mere mention or literary utterance of such a prospect sends our imaginative and rational cognitive mechanisms into a state of anxiety: will Antonio's flesh actually be cut into? Will the event take place? Will the play go that far? Cinema of course is totally eventful: in its realm things are always capable of taking place. Indeed, they must take place. Cinema is a machine of the spectacular. It replaces the presence of theatre - i.e. the realm of a sense of place, of a stage, of a space taking place directly in front of you - with this eventfulness of things taking place, of events actually happening before your eyes. This difference is the dynamic core of cinema: colliding the literal with the graphic at a point where the act of telling is confounded by the act of showing. In cinema, the literal is transposed into the graphic; the graphic is where and when things literally happen. While other Shakespeare tragedies and comedies had their share of graphic violence, that scene from The Merchant Of Venice plays with a sense of graphic language: a linguistic realm where the literal is deadly; where your own words can snare you; where you can be killed by language.
However, most films have generally skirted around cinema's dynamic core, hovering at its periphery, content with tracing the lines of difference between the literary and the graphic; between 'talky' chamber dramas where people are nothing more than flesh-lumps of compacted dialogue, and overtly visual exercises which borrow freely from the visual arts in a spectacle of arty dumbness. While these two dominant options in the word-versus-image conundrum can be viewed as two major types of bricks which have been used to lay the foundations of film language since the advent of sound cinema, a gritty mould has grown between those bricks over the years, forming a substance that lives trapped between the literary and the graphic, between the privileging of language and its suppression. It is a strain of cinema which literally pressures dialogue into actualization, effecting realization through verbalization. Textually, this is what sound cinema invented, what can be classified as sound machinations: not simply sound as material nor even the sound of the soundtrack, but the utterance of the sonic through the materialization of the spoken. In other words: dialogue; not just what is said, but how the spoken articulates textual machinations, cueing dramatic deployment and triggering the collapse of what is told into what is shown.
The decade between 1945 and 1955 saw the first controversial rise and fall of comics production in America. Many factors determined this rise and fall (postwar affluence, creation of youth markets, rise of juvenile delinquency and other aspects of modern urban concentration) but for the purpose of this article I would like to outline some of the cultural debates centred around the structure and form of comics during this period. Simply, comics were critically viewed as contributing to the spread of illiteracy in American youth, from which - as supposed in the mix of liberalism and Victorianism of such critiques - socio-cultural problems like amorality and hence delinquency would spring. The logic to be questioned here is that which subscribes to literature as a mainspring from which most other social discourses feed.
While some readers may be aware of this archaic and naive period of social theory I should point out that the producers and publishers of most of these comics (a) were very suspicious and critical of the cheap Readers Digest criminal/delinquent psychology directed toward them, and (b) consciously played against their critics by ironically embedding their comic narratives with mock-moralism and pseudo-educational doctrine. Out of the mass of independent publishers in the comics industry at this time, EC comics was the most controversial, influential and successful publisher. Under the editorial helm of William Gaines, EC went further with sex, drugs, violence, death and necrophilia than any of its contemporaries - plus it made the most acerbic jibes at the sensibilities of the moral majority which hounded the crime and horror comics industry.
The most notorious of the EC publications were the crime-related Shock Suspenstories and Crime Suspenstories, and the horror-related Tales From the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear. Their covers cannot be adequately described in words, most of them featuring graphic and lurid images of people being axed, dismembered, quartered, hung, shot, injected, drowned, burnt or eaten. Like the title splash pages to the stories inside, the sensationalist covers were important not simply for their graphic rendering of graphic violence, but also for the formal, visual language employed to stylize, heighten and freeze the point of impact of a violent act. The title page generally functions as a titillation for the violence depicted in the last page, so that one's reading of the comic is hurried in order to get to the end that one anxiously imagines whilst reading the text and images. The formula for their stories is fairly straight-forward: good person meets bad person meets hideous crime meets gory revenge - all in eight pages. The ending is blatantly cued by the beginning, which effectively gives away the ending by telegraphing the set-up for an act of revenge. The 'real' ending, though, is not the resolution of a skeletal plot but the delivery of a moist and meaty punchline in the form of the image promised by the title page and delivered in the final frame.
Clearly, here is an English Literature Professor's nightmare: no developmental plot structure, no character motivation, no sophisticated psychological involvement of the reader, no constructed themes, no embedded subtexts, no poetic symbolism, no dramatic rhythm. However, the anti-literature textuality of the EC comics is not solely generated by either a collapse of literary discourse (i.e. vulgar colloquialism) or a high degree of graphic violence (i.e. excessive pictorialism); it is mostly generated by a savage and acute balance between the code of a transgressive act and the mode of its depiction. In other words, the bluntness of the Biblical eye-for-an-eye revenge which ideologically frames these stories is reflected in the Jacobean structure and form of the stories' narratives, wherein the purpose of the telling is to show the spectacle of the final gory comic-frame. There, all is executed: character, justice and artwork. A similar balance is struck by looping the latent desire for the text of The Merchant of Venice to present the pound of flesh with our latent desire for the representation of that same pound of flesh. The Merchant of Venice, of course, titillates through the written word's capability to stand in for the image, to project a pound of flesh without giving it to us. In the EC comics, one is always given one's pound of flesh. The goods are always delivered; showing always confounds - then overrides - telling.
In a sense, the EC comics can be viewed as latent storyboards for a future 1960s cinema: a celluloid compaction of all the moist aspects of theatre, from Jacobean morality plays through to lowbrow Grand Guignol. The 1950s horror comic explosion is still sending graphic shards and visceral slivers into 1990s cinema (which we shall cover later) but the first clear transposition of the horror pulp anthology into the cinema is marked by two films produced by Milton Subotsky and directed by Freddie Francis: Dr Terror's House of Horrors (1965, scripted by Subotsky) and Torture Garden (1967, scripted by Robert Bloch). Subotsky referred to EC as an influence and Robert Bloch had many of his short stories of the macabre published in various pulp fiction magazines which serviced the same markets as the horror comics. Relatively successful (various copies were made, like Dr Terror's Gallery of Horrors, 1967 and Tales Of Mystery, 1968) these initial anthology films did not effectively generate the hysterically graphic resolution so typical of the EC comics.
Possibly due to a later increase in on-screen violence in the cinema, the best early example of an EC-style of film fiction is The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971, directed by Robert Fuest). Here is a film that functions like an anthology, each episod being the careful planning and execution of some hideous revenge, but most importantly, each act of revenge is a literal translation of the ten plagues visited upon the Pharaoh in the Old Testament. The plot involves Dr Phibes killing off one by one each person involved in the unsuccessful operation performed upon his fatally ill wife. For example, the plague of locusts is invoked by Phibes spending weeks mixing up a disgusting green syrup concentrated from a variety of green vegetables. He then rents a room above the apartment owned by the nurse from the operation. He draws up a scale outline of her body, places it above her bed, then drills a hole over her head. Through the hole he injects the room with knock-out gas, then pours the green vegetable concentrate through the hole so that it covers the head of the nurse sleeping in her bed below. Then he injects a thousand or so locusts into the room and they slowly eat away at the syrup-coated head of the nurse until all that is left is her skull. She dies according to the book; she is killed to the letter.
Perhaps the key to this film's approach to literal depictions of graphic violence is in having the character of Phibes mute: he can only speak through a neck-megaphone inserted through his neck into his vocal chords. The film is composed of large slabs of Phibes' dialogue which functions as a perverse form of 'voice-over oration' cueing and conducting the action as well as providing commentary on the gore similar to that provided by the infamous witches who often opened and closed the narration of the EC comics.
Due in part to its blatant absurdity and droll execution, The Abominable Dr Phibes was an exploitation hit and spawned the sequel Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972), and heavily influenced the first wave of American camp horror movies: Count Yorga Vampire (1970); The Return Of Count Yorga (1971); and Blacula (1972); Scream Blacula Scream (1973); Phantom of The Paradise (1974); Young Frankenstein (1974); and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). The EC veins in The Abominable Dr Phibes were apparent enough for Subotsky to return to horror anthologies, first with The House That Dripped Blood (1971, directed by Peter Duffell and scripted by Robert Bloch) and then with Tales From The Crypt (1972, directed by Freddie Francis and scripted by Subotsky). 1973 also saw Francis' Tales that Witness Madness and Subotsky/Roy Ward Baker's Vault Of Horror. Price re-interpreted his Phibes role in Theatre Of Blood (1973) (also released under the title Much Ado About Murder) in which he plays Shakespearian actor Edward Lionheart (!) who kills a circle of theatre critics (who canned his last performance) in the style of the most famous death scenes in Shakespeare's tragedies, including a particularly gory take on The Merchant of Venice. Once again, a pre-existing literary text - like the contract in The Merchant of Venice - is used as the architectural plan for executing a sequence of gory revenge murders. The word is once again made flesh.
Strangely enough, nearly all the films mentioned above are English productions. Though hard to quantify empirically - even harder to qualify critically - my view is that English cinema is generally more 'wordy' than American cinema. That is, English scriptwriting appears more often than not to privilege dialogue as the main level of operation in the narrative. Key plot changes and character interactions are more likely to be triggered by a line of dialogue in an English film as opposed to a sound, an image, a movement or some more cinematic than literary element in American cinema. This probably sounds like an absurd and near useless distinction between modes of moviemaking, yet there are some theoretical points here relevant to our discussion of a type of textuality which is engineered and maintained by the utterance and placement of dialogue.
English cinema does not simply use more dialogue, but rather its history of cinema culturally privileges literary practice and stage craft over mechanical processes and industrial factors which historically govern much of the invention of American cinema. Time and time again, English cinema has voiced its concern to be distinguishable from American cinema. This has lead the English often to culturally bathe in a rich history of English literature and its formal and thematic attributes in gestural opposition to the Americans who by comparison are seen to have been only capable of a brief suntan in Western mythology and its generic and iconic aspects.
Consider even the tonal presence of dialogue in each culture's films: the clipped, well-rounded articulation of the crisp British accent rabbiting on and on like a stage oration, and the slow, laconic drawl of the vowel-and-jowelling of the Yankee accent, chewing the fat in short, stunted sentences. This is structurally reinforced by the way that dialogue in English film scripts is perceived as an integral or primary part of the narrative construction, while American film scripts split their dialogue more into a separate level of production, one which requires a 'dialogue writer' versed and skilled in writing verbiage. Simply, English dialogue sounds written while American dialogue sounds spoken - each in accordance with a historical and cultural slant on movie-making. Centuries of this make it hard not to think of a duke or professor when hearing an English accent, and equally hard not to picture a cowboy or detective when hearing an American accent. Cultural difference is not only connoted by accents; structurally each culture has developed an approach to dialogue-writing in relation to the operation and performance of cinematic narrative.
I make these scattered points mainly to introduce the figure of James Bond as portrayed by Sean Connery in a condensed stream of movies between 1962 and 1967: Dr No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice. (Connery 'returned' to the series in 1971 with Diamonds Are Forever and then again in the aptly titled Never Say Never Again in 1983.) Connery's Bond is a modern take on particularly stuffy British figures represented by George Sanders' Saint (5 films between 1939 and 1941) and Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes (7 films between 1939 and 1946) - each of whom actively irritate with their smug, over-educated attitude toward the Philistines around them. Of course, this is in keeping with the characters of these know-it-all detectives; however, Sean Connery parodies his own character's capacity to know-it-all. In a strange mix of camp, satire and self-reflexivity, Connery - replete with a Welsh accent - defines the character of James Bond predominantly through accent and dialogue. Effectively, he sounds like his tongue is always caught in his cheek, as he delivers bawdy puns in a deadpan manner. In all the important scenes in a Bond movie, Connery throws a heavily-scripted line of dialogue that is either the dry coda or wet cadence to some absurd act of espionage violence. Timing is crucial not in the sense of dramatic rhythm but in the structural placement of narrative cues. Furthermore, Connery's glib quips are conscious of this placement and the perverse marriage between action and words. His character knows of the deadly relation between the two; in a Bond movie words speak louder than actions because words announce action.
A direct cinematic precedent of Bond's ironic figure would be Cary Grant's persona in the 1950s Hitchcock films, whose self-mocking vocal tone and delivery often functions as the aural equivalent of glance toward the camera and a wink to the audience. (One is also reminded of other famous detective/spy icons - most whose popular mythology originates in pre-WWII radio serials where the voice played an important sono-iconic role: Bogart's Sam Spade; Peter Lorre's Mr. Moto; Warner Oland's Charlie Chan; etc.) Working as a cultural template, Connery's Bond has been traced by many ensuing characters in British film and television: Roger Moore's The Saint and James Bond characterizations; Patrick Macnee's Steed in The Avengers; Tom Baker and Peter Davison's versions of Dr Who; etc. All these figures are not simply witty, articulate or verbose; they relish in their ability to deliver dialogue commentary, even when in mortal danger. It is as if their main purpose is to provide this commentary more than engage in the actions which precipitate their cliff-hanger dilemmas. As such their characters are primarily defined through a discourse on literature - through their desire to engage in the spoken as a means of demonstrating how they can displace themselves from action. In doing so, these characters surrender themselves to the power of the written by evaporating themselves on-stage and in place manifesting on-screen the presence of the script, of the structural organizer of the narrative, of the written word.
While cultural distinctions between these approaches to scripted dialogue and its on-screen delivery are problematic to define accurately, they become pronounced when we look at something like the spaghetti western phenomenon. Branching out from the 'epic theatres' of the late 1950s and peaking with a variety of Gothic and parodic developments by the early 1970s, the most well-known examples are those directed by Sergio Leone. The Leone westerns of the sixties are most influential because (a) they were the most conscious of what they were doing with a uniquely American form; (b) they were specifically involved in selling a particular Americaness to an Italian audience; and (c) they maximized their international profit margin by ensuring that they were able to sell back a pseudo-Americaness to an American audience.
Leone's first western A Fistful of Dollars (1964) defined this type of cultural exchange. The star is Clint Eastwood: an actor who would not have been able to get such a role in American film production because he had already been typed as a TV actor, being the young star of the series Rawhide. But in Italy, such a TV star could be as big as a movie star because (a) both are American, and (b) television is, if not bigger than, at least as big as the film industry in Italy in terms of star appeal. Eastwood was also economically viable because he would be cheaper than a name Hollywood star yet just as valuable and exploitable in the Italian context. The end effect is a scenario into which Eastwood is imported and displaced: culturally (often surrounded by Italian stereotypes pretending to be Irish); visually (left to wander across pseudo-Western landscapes composited by locations in Italy, Spain and Yugoslavia); and technically (mixing his own voice with a range of other American voices which do not belong to their Italian on-screen characters).
Indeed, it is the soundtrack that most instantly characterizes the spaghetti western, giving us a clear sign of the origins (Italian) and intended destinations (American) of its transcultural status. Everything might look right, but as soon as someone opens their mouth, the game is given up because the production mechanisms are voiced. However this 'voicing' is of little concern in Italy whose film and television industry employs post-dubbing for just about every foreign import. In a weird way, all their foreign material is sono-culturally filtered as a means of translation and digestion. Not surprisingly then, the spoken word is deemed more appropriate than the written word (in the form of the subtitle) - especially when one remembers that the Italian language is culturally controlled by the oral proliferation of regional dialects, effecting a form of spoken chaos which renders the written, authoritative text powerless. The power of the written word - always battling against the oral, the casual, the profane - in the Western sense has a peculiarly British flavour (something the Americans felt so much that they employed Webster to rewrite the dictionary with an American flavour). The preference for subtitles is in a way suspiciously English because of the logic behind such a preference. Much of the world's cinema elite regard subtitles as being more authorative often simply because they are written rather than spoken; literary rather than acoustic; an 'honest' perceptible visual-overlay rather than a 'devious' internal sonic-alteration. The implication often called up in these debates is that the written is right because it is silent: hidden, disguised, ominous.
But a different notion of authority and validity was at the heart of Leone's and others' spaghetti westerns. They were intended by their producers to be as good as the real thing - good enough even to be exported back to America. Leone's cunning approach to this was to not have much dialogue in his films. In A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good the Bad & the Ugly (1966) Clint Eastwood is literally a man of few words, whose absence of dialogue signifies that he is graphically a man of action. His 'voice' is actually his gun: an instrument of death, blasting us with the sound of uniquely Italian, thick, compressed gunshot sound effects. His name is as absent as his dialogue - he is called the man with no name. He is symbolically posited as the drifter who appears then disappears; the angel of death; the Western stranger in a strange Italian land. Silent, enigmatic, deadly: a savage return of language's power through silence.
Eastwood eventually sold himself back to America as a contemporary urban concoction flavoured with the Italian style of trans-continental moviemaking. His Callahan character in the Dirty Harry series of films (Dirty Harry 1971; Magnum Force 1973; The Enforcer 1976; Sudden Impact 1983; The Dead Pool 1989) is a new stranger in a new strange land: the tough honest cop in a decaying urban metropolis. Once again, action silences - figuratively, literally and acoustically. With cunning possibly learnt from Leone, Eastwood used his new star power to highlight his skill in not mincing words by ensuring that each Dirty Harry movie had at least one pivotal action scene where he says some dialogue that alone could sell the movie - the most famous being lines like "Do I feel lucky? Well, do you, punk?" and the one President Ronald Reagan quoted a few times "Go ahead - make my day". Compared to Sean Connery's ennui, Eastwood's lines anxiously solicit violence - as if he is daring the movie to go that far, just as Shakespeare invited his audience to wonder if his play would go as far as to exhibit a pound of flesh.
Charles Bronson followed closely in Eastwood's footsteps. Starring as the taciturn 'Harmonica' (because he only played his harmonica and rarely spoke) in Leone's Once Upon a Time In the West (1968) he then went on to make The Mechanic (1971) in which he defined the new era hitman - unnervingly silent and lethally clear-headed. Few words spoken because there is nothing to say; only a job to be done. While his successive roles were either hitmen, ex-cops or vigilantes, the Death Wish series of films centred on the figure of a first-generation postwar American immigrant who became fed up with the fading American Dream and fought back as a vigilante. Once again, a lethal mix of thick accents and thin dialogue, mincing people by not mincing words. This itself is a rebounded thematic tangent resultant from the transcultural connections uncovered and displayed by the spaghetti western phenomenon.
By the mid 1970s, thick accents became synonymous with thick heads and thick bodies. Sylvester Stallone's Rocky series of heroic-kitsch Little Italy boxing sagas (1976, 1979, 1982, 1985 & 1990) may be signs of this decay of the articulate, but the power of Stallone's acoustic voice cannot be underestimated. Despite how dumb the Rocky movies are (and I mean 'dumb' in that they appear to lack the irony which characterizes Eastwood's movies) they give us a potent distillation of the word-action dichotomy as we have built it thus far. Consider how Stallone's only substantial screen presence is the visuality of his throbbing, muscle-bound bulk and the sonority of his throaty, guttural phrases, punched out like a series of groggy spars. In fact, his voice sounds like it comes from his body rather than his 'being' or 'character'. This means that his vocal projection does not allow us to psycho-acoustically perceive narrative information or thematic meaning through the conventional psyche/brain/larynx link which is so important in sewing together the communicative lines between author/character/actor. Stallone is certainly not a classically-inspired vessel for that stream of dramatic discourse, which allows actors to 'breathe life' into their characters. Stallone is simply too thick to be such a vessel; too full of muscle, tissue and gristle to resonate the meaning of the text. Physically too present, he consequently finds it too difficult to absent himself from the scenario constructed by the written word (even words written by himself). He is - for good or for bad - a totally cinematic being.
Perhaps this is the effect Kurt Russell was trying to achieve in Escape From New York (1981). An Italian-inspired approach to generic mutation and cultural clashing, this futuristic prison movie by John Carpenter refers to a number of Eastwood's scenes in Leone's spaghetti westerns, particularly in the way that Russell's Snake character is continually linked to the symbol of the ghostly avenging angel. Throughout the film, however, Russell appears a bit self-conscious of his image-change from a beaming face and scrawny body for Disney to a beard and tattoos for Carpenter. His screen persona might connote some post-pubescent substance in his macho-hood, but his vocal growling gives away how desperate this image-change is. Projecting his dialogue more by inhaling than exhaling so as to 'seethe' with anger, he sounds like a caricatured mix of Peter Lorre, James Cagney and Clint Eastwood. While the text of Carpenter's film is intentionally disembodied (exposing its cinematic references, playful mechanisms, technical exercises and authorial flourishes), the dislocation between Kurt Russell and his own voice does not effectively tie his Snake character into the aforementioned men of action and accents.
A more interesting cultural connection was made in Escape From New York through the casting of Isaac Hayes as The Duke. As an exaggerated political pimp, controlling the decayed domain of New York City in a 1970s Cadillac customized with chandeliers on the bonnet, the reference was clearly directed toward the cycle of seventies' blaxploitation movies (initiated by the huge success of Hayes' own Shaft in 1971 and tapering out by 1976). While many liberal (predominantly white) American critics deplored the racial stereotyping in these movies (with titles like Black Bullet, Black Gunn, Black Eye, Black Mamma White Mamma, Coffy, Foxy Brown and many other coloured monikers) the films were very popular with urban black audiences throughout North America. The point is that the black stereotypes in many of these films were hilarious exaggerations of what whites presumed blacks were better at: rhythm, sex and slang. In fact the blaxploitation films increased the level of irony in urban action cinema greater and faster than the 'white' American movies were capable of, utilizing a subcultural dialect that privileged terse burlesque over dramatic naturalism. Many blaxploitation critics negatively focussed on the 'comic book' quality of these films' narratives - not realizing that was the basis of these films' formal construction. Here were black mega-studs, hyper-foxy chicks and the most sleazy honkys ever seen on a screen, all parading in a funky urban setting, spouting near-incomprehensible street-talk in heavy accents, peppering their dialogue exchanges with equally heavy scenes of violence. Predating the muscle-man boom of the 1980s, many blaxploitation stars were retired basketball players, grid-iron pros and karate champions. Their personae as 'action men' was based upon their physical past, allowing them to parody their power on film in the guise of 'supermen': fantastic visions of macho-hood beyond conventional human bounds.
The start of a more conscious 'overground' comics boom in movies comes with the success of Superman (1978), which trumpeted the peaking of 1970s pop camp. But even though this is yet another example of mainstream commercial cinema exploiting marginalized crevices of production like blaxploitation, Superman (complete with its own pseudo-nostalgic connotations of white supremacy) was important in delivering Christopher Reeve: an actor who looked like his flesh was literally molded from a 40's comic book illustration. The uncanny photographic effect of a comic icon was integral to the total functioning of the cornball morality of the superhero scenario - deliberately and ironically undercut by throwing Clark Kent into a decidedly contemporary and unflattering depiction of New York City as a metropolis in need of 'super' help. The transformation of the comic strip into the celluloid strip highlights issues of textuality and narrativity beyond the scope of this article, but what does concern us here is the way in which Reeve was able to play his dialogue straight mainly because he looked straight - that is, he looked graphic while speaking literally, as though you could almost see the speech balloons emanating from his mouth.
After the success of Superman II (1980) (not to mention Rocky II, 1979) it dawned on many producers that these kind of skeletal, stereotypical comic-book scenarios could have regenerative powers despite their supposed lack of depth and meaning. At the cult level, the horror anthology was rejuvenated with Creepshow (1982) - directed by George Romero and scripted by Stephen King as a homage to EC comics, and containing some very graphic translations of pictorial gore courtesy of Tom Savini. (The film was also 'released' in comic book form.) Less cultist in orientation and more overground in tone was the approach Dino DeLaurentis took with his productions of the two Conan movies - Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Conan the Destroyer (1984) - both of which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger, ex-Mr Universe. Playing on his physical past just like the blaxploitation stars, Schwarzenegger's portrayal of the mythical Conan stylized further the 'flesh-comic' effect initiated by Reeve in Superman. However, the Conan films played little in delivering us the Schwarzenegger of today, as they were more concerned with fantasy and mythology - realms quite removed from the heady pornography of his later films. The new Schwarzenegger enters with lightning bolts, naked and sweaty, and walks up to some punks and demands their clothes. They ridicule him; he picks one of them up in one hand and - possibly with Shakespeare in mind - rips the punk's heart out and holds it, still throbbing.
The film is The Terminator (1985): James Cameron's update of everything from Alain Delon in Le Samourai (1967) to Charles Bronson in The Stone Killer (1973) to 'the Shape' in Halloween (1978). In a stroke of casting genius, Schwarzenegger is exploited for everything he had been criticized for: stunted dialogue delivery, robotic performance and overbearing physical presence. Owning the thickest accent and the thickest body in the history of Hollywood, Schwarzenegger is quite likely the most transgressive star in American cinema. The antithesis of all that literature, theatre and cinema have tried hard to fuse, Schwarzenegger favours persona instead of character; body instead of actor; and photographic effect instead of screen presence. In a way he could be viewed as a transmogrified, pornographic update of Greta Garbo - keeping the thick accent but replacing her beautifully androgynous face with an androgynous body beautiful. Sign of a romantic era, Garbo refused to talk by saying "I want to be alone"; Schwarzenegger reflects his era succinctly with the blunt retort "Fuck you, arsehole".
That line of dialogue occurs in The Terminator when the terminator cyborg - scanning through a set of dialogue lines in his data memory bank displayed on-screen - selects the most appropriate line of dialogue in response to a nagging landlord. In a sublime piece of critical reflexivity, he instantly reverses a whole lineage of humanized robots in the cinema who mark their otherness by over-written verbal communication, from Hal in 2001 to C3P0 in Star Wars. The terminator cyborg shows he is human by selecting the verbal over the literal; by voicing slang rather than projecting a pre-programmed (i.e. written) articulate reply. However, that very reply is more monologue than dialogue because he is not conversing with the landlord but rather being triggered to deliver a pre-programmed response. Recalling the way in which the James Bond figure detaches himself from his actions by underlining his dialogue delivery, the terminator cyborg is distanced from whoever he is dealing with because his speech is purely for perfunctory and essential communication. He doesn't quote dialogue - he quotes the act of delivering dialogue; for in the end the terminator has nothing to say, only someone to kill.
Seven years later, Schwarzenegger is clearly the figure who popularized the marketability of the 'trailer-script' - the 'one-liner' approach to dialogue initiated by Clint Eastwood in the 1970s. Though an obvious enough point, it does lead us to evaluate a major shift in exploitation production: from the pictorial to the oral. This is apparent when one compares the established model of making up a great titillating title (I Was a Teenage Werewolf or I Married A Monster From Outer Space), doing some graphic poster art (i.e. non-photographic, so that brushwork can stylize an evocative scenario without proving its prior cinematic existence), and only then starting to get the money together to make the picture. The Eastwood/Stallone/Schwarzenegger model of exploitation production has consistently centred not only on the self-defined iconic status of their personae, but also on the trailer whose climactic point is the delivery of a one-liner. Classical mega-athletes in our cinematic temples, their booming voices sprout pre-fab quotes pumped with all the apocalyptic tension of the wrath of god. Exuding a baroque omnipotence, their 'one-line' is perfectly attuned to the totality of their muscular bodies - their being 'at one' with their bodies. They deliberately collide physio-pictorial and oral-acoustic metaphors: Eastwood's taciturn face; Stallone's deafening neck; Schwarzenegger's silent jaw. Flesh accents punching out quotes.Robocop (1987) mocks the Superman ideals and morals by mixing Reeve's Clark Kent, Schwarzenegger's terminator, Hayes' Shaft and Price's Dr Phibes. Here we have a once-human, now-metal-android robot designed and programmed to uphold the law. Just as the law is the word and the word is the law, Peter Weller's Robocop incongruously recites the law in a manner that proves a current social reality - that no-one listens to the law. Ironically, even though Robo speaks, he is by design rendered incapable of worrying about whether a suspect hears him; he simply acts with firepower if the suspect's illegal actions do not cease. As such, he is not a man of action at all, because his activity is triggered solely by the recitation of and reaction to the law, marking him a true lawman. It is then no coincidence that the only visible part of Robo's flesh anatomy is the square jaw, solid chin, terse lips and straight teeth: 'instruments' of the futurist lawman.
As one can see by now, the role of 'quoting' when voiced becomes more complex than the linear text-referencing invoked by literary discourse. When the written becomes spoken, a whole range of potential clashes arise between the act of enunciation, the role of recitation and the effect of utterance, in that, for example, one can vocally 'italicize' an earnest statement, just as one can compassionately 'underline' a self-deprecating quip. Script, character and performance become fused because there is a confounding lack of distinction between the possible orientation of the quote (i.e. not where it comes from, but where it must go). The most blatant example of this kind of dialogue quotation where ingestion and expression are merged occurs in Gremlins (1984).
Directed by Joe Dante, whose past record includes many anarchic satires, Gremlins is his indirect send-up of Spielberg's E.T., transforming cute little rascals into hideous monsters. Dante had been a keen satirist in the late 1970s (along with Alan Arkush, Paul Bartel, John Landis and Robert Zemeckis) and was particularly fond of referencing trash and pop culture in his films (Piranha, 1978; The Howling, 1981; and his episode of Twilight Zone: The Movie, 1983). Gremlins is a showcase for Dante's referencing, with nearly every character named after someone from a 1950s B-grade sci-fi movie, movie marquees making puns on other movie titles, plus lots of shots of television sets playing scenes from old movies and cartoons. Against this backdrop the gremlins act up a storm, voicing quotes from cinema and TV history. The absurdity of these creatures incongruously making very slick wise-cracks is also reflected in the subtexual operations of Dante's films, which on the surface replicate wacky but basic scenarios, but underneath are energized by an obsessive awareness of the various influences which determine the surface scenario. The gremlins' dialogue is the key factor in this playful 'voicing', as well as the key to the film's popular success, spawning as it did a host of 'dirty-talking-cute-creature' films, like Critters I & II, Ghoulies and Munchies. This lineage of influence can even be traced across other generic comedies centred on 'voice-over' variations, like Short Circuit, Child's Play I & II, Milo & Otis, Look Who's Talking - even Beetlejuice - all of which use voice-over dialogue as a means of distancing character from representation; of literally laying a voice over the on-screen activity.
As should be now apparent, the increase of graphic on-screen violence throughout the 1970s parallels three dominant factors: the hysterical rise of action-men as central figures; a hormonal increase in the size and consequent fetishization of male anatomy; and a decrease in dialogue as voiced by these physical freaks. The concurrence of these factors constitutes a dynamic framework of narration, modified by states of intensity, wherein degrees of violence are compensated by residuals of dialogue - the more action, the less talk, and so on. Accordingly, we have briefly surveyed a variety of violent figures or action-men, all of whom had voiced their power and presence through volume and firepower: softly yet sardonically saying a few words in measured tones, then 'blasting' the hell out of both on-screen victim and theatre patron. We have also made mention of the reversal of this figure in the hitman - a figure which in modern cinema has been continually linked with the 'silencer' gun attachment, giving us a killing man-machine which does not even voice its presence, location or perspective. Plus we have noted the physical encoding of these figures' bodies into the very delivery of their dialogue. But the cinematic networking of these figures is but the surface of a submerged zone, wherein even grosser figures have been developed.
Three films in 1972 laterally signpost this ensuing era of grossness. The first is Deliverance (1972) - an overground exploitation film which marketed itself largely on the resurgent 'novelty' of Kentucky bluegrass music (Duelling Banjos) and an act of sodomy performed by a couple of hillbilly inbreds on a group of Atlanta businessmen. As far as visual depiction goes the scene is fairly tame, yet it is interesting in how it conveys the 'horror' of the scene: by giving us a vocalization of horror as one of the businessmen is told by the hillbilly to 'squeal like a pig'. The sound of the human squealing matched with the near-impenetrable Southern scrub complexly connotes an unsettling mix of penetration and slaughter, sex and death. Echoing the abnormality of this act of terror, the human voice is silenced through the aberrant voice of the animal: a figure 'beyond' the literary and the written, rooted in the realm of that which is instinctively inscribed and ecologically encoded - a realm against which the literate being of man is continually contrasted.
The second film is The Godfather (1972) - not because of the graphic violence which the film certainly displays with spectacular effect, but because of the notion of the 'kiss of death'. Reversing the direction of importation in the spaghetti western, here is an Italian cultural symbol imported into American cinema. The Don gives the kiss of death to those who have spoken, those who have broken the code of silence, following the logic that if one speaks (informs, double-crosses, etc.) one must be silenced (executed). The kiss itself is a deathly erotic sign of silence, of not talking, of using the lips for a different form of communicative contact, pressing flesh upon flesh in order to short-circuit acoustic and vocal emission. Like the 'thumbs down' sign in ancient Roman gladiatorial combat, the kiss is a cue for violence; a non-verbal announcement of death. (One mustn't forget that the Don is perversely played by Marlon Brando - he of the great inarticulate mumbling; who dared to tackle the oratories of Julius Caesar; who used the Method device of stuffing his mouth full of cotton wool so his voice is acoustically and physically transformed.)
The third film is The Exorcist (1972). This is the penultimate film of vocal horror, mainly because it compacts two dominant flows of vocal transgression: (a) the voice of the possessed, and (b) the speech of the profane. In The Exorcist the innocent 12 year old Regan is impregnated with all manner of foul energy, most of which is expressed through her mouth, from the endless utterance of obscenities to the endless stream of vomit. Her body carries the physical scars of her psychological possession ('HELP ME' 'welted' across her abdomen, etc.), but her voice becomes the actual instrument of possession. Her alien speech (its content and delivery) is not only a sign of her possession but also the means of articulating the presence of that which possesses her. The difference between human and inhuman voice is central in The Exorcist, as the whole film literally and figuratively deals with 'speaking in tongues': from Regan's ability to speak foreign languages totally unknown to her to the backward playing of voice recordings; from the role of post-dubbed vocalization to the notion of the Devil's own malevolent tongue. The conventional dramatic technique of the actor speaking through a character and vice versa takes on different intonations in The Exorcist, especially when one considers that the main aim of the exorcism is to silence the voice of the devil speaking through the innocent; less a soul to save than a voice to silence.
A film made shortly after the above three movies heralds an excursion into the most extreme and graphic forms of violence and victimization. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is a spectacular clash between dumb terror and unspeakable horror; between the most manic wielding of power and the most physical application of force. The central killing machine is Leatherface, a new 'man with no name' who recalls Deliverance by squealing like a slaughtered pig as he literally butchers his victims. Truly a 'man with no face', his visage is that of stretched human skin through which his lips and eyes 'gape' in a morbid display of erotics, speechlessly witnessing his own acts of violence. Leatherface is the most grotesque of all our action-men, and it is not surprising that he started a trend in psychotic cinematic serial killers who remain inarticulate - less romantically possessed by evil than bluntly dispossessed of rational logic and human motivation, and thus requiring a radical approach to screen characterization. His only acoustic 'voicing' is done via the chainsaw's buzz - an instrument of death devoid of the cathartic sonic bursts and dramatic punctuations so typical of fist socks, gun blasts and knife stabs. His acoustic presence is an unending stream of noise, obliterating all conventional soundtrack dynamics and jettisoning us into a dimension of non-stop full-level terror; no climax and catharsis, just the electrical jolt of being switched into and out of this circuitry.
The first reverberation of the inarticulate Leatherface appears in the guise of 'the Shape' as featured in John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). True to his name, the Shape occupies screen-space while leaving no trace of his presence on the soundtrack. Covered in a child's cheap Halloween mask, he wanders and hovers within the pictorial frame, entering and exiting on the edit, appearing and disappearing with complementary rapidity and striking his victims in a like manner. Cutting on the cut, this is a figure operating beyond the dramatics of our action-men, in that his mechanisms are hidden and disclosed, as silent as his voice. He kills; he goes; his calling cards are silent body parts. Echoing the sonic density of the latter half of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the bulk of Halloween's soundtrack is comprised of silences, screams and synthesizers. Words are worlds away in this dimension of dumb-struck terror. The Shape is an extreme example of the psychopathic catatonia which functions as a softly humming dynamo at the centre of many 1980s psycho or 'slasher' movies. Relevant to our concerns here, the catatonia suffered by the stars of these films is textually deployed in the construction of the films' narratives - i.e., their soundtracks often deal with not only the decay of speech but also the absence of sound effects, the heightening of timbres and the subjectivization of acoustics. Quite the opposite of cultured-humanist-naturalist dramas, psycho movies position their stars so that their psychoses feed off our neuroses. Yet even within this approach to engaging an audience, there exists considerable scope and variety in how a psycho movie will fix itself in relation to our word-action dichotomy.
The Shining (1980) is an interesting film to contrast with the catatonic psycho of both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. While those latter psychos are 'de-possessed' of behavioural and textual traits which we usually expect in realist characterization, Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson) in The Shining is a classical possessed being. His true psychosis is thus reflected not through his mental instability or his violent actions, but in his transition between behavioral modes. What makes the film interesting is the way in which he 'voices' this phase of possession: from obsessively typing out the child psychology adage of "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" to his axe-wielding entrance into a scenario of domestic violence by quoting The Johnny Carson Show ("Heeeeeere's Johnny!") and Leave It To Beaver ("Honey! I'm home!"). Jack is literally possessed by literal quotations: not simply the 'voice' of another being, but a being who appears to delight in ironic quotation. In an unsettling mix of James Bond's cool verbiage and Leatherface's maniacal squealing, The Shining skillfully and deliberately mixes witty and well-crafted scripting with gross violence so as to textually contextualize the mixed-up dilemma Jack Torrance suffers - a malaise so bad (and so well performed by Nicholson) that the film finishes with him in an irretrievably possessed state, incapable of articulating any of his original character, left wandering in the snowy maze quoting the Wolf in The Three Little Pigs.
While schizophrenia textually functions in The Shining as a means of ravaging an audience's stability in character identification (i.e. the central character is dissolved and erased by a barrage of psychotic quotations), a similar technique was increasingly employed for a different purpose in the mid-1980s overground boom in gross-out horror movies. The purpose there was to almost distance the movie from itself - not simply to say 'it's only a movie so don't be scared' but more to say 'yes I will go that far but we know that I don't really mean to'. This tactic was (and still is) an intriguingly moral attempt to be amoral. Movies like Reanimator, From Beyond, Class of Nuke'Em High, The Toxic Avenger, House, Ghoulies and Return of The Living Dead (all between 1985 and 1986) certainly 'gross-out' but they do so in an absurdist or anarchist manner, depicting graphic violence with cartoon-like artifice. Also, many of these films rely on the dialogue track to give the on-screen action a comic accent, voicing the absurdism through gross stereotypes like mad doctors, crazed punks and rabid zombies. The resultant scenarios do to horror conventions what the James Bond movies do to the spy/espionage genres. Still, the bulk of these type of movies are not as acute or accurate with their sarcasm as many of the other films we have discussed thus far. In fact, while The Shining is a virtual landmark in the textual schizophrenia employed to house schizophrenic characterization, two other movies are more directly responsible for the mid-1980s deluge of horror-comedies.
The first is Gremlins, which we have already discussed in respect of its combination of genuine shock tactics with anarchic comedy. The second is a film released the same year as Gremlins, but which did the reverse and mixed comic snippets into full-on horror: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) directed by Wes Craven. The first of many sequels, this film introduced the first successfully mass-marketed screen psycho - Freddy Krueger, an incinerated child molester returned from the grave to terrorize the children of the parents who killed him. But Freddy is not just a 'normal' maniac; he is neither possessed, schizophrenic nor psychotically motivated in the sense of any of the psychos we have mentioned so far. Creating the most perverse version of the articulate psycho, Freddy is in love with life, seeming to get his kicks out of killing kids in their dreams. He neither displays nor harbours any remorse, regret, guilt or loathing. He is a blank - even blanker than Schwarzenegger's terminator who had 'purpose' programmed into him. More to the point, Freddy is a blank page: a cypher of scripted one-liners, almost to the extent that he is only killing innocent children so that he can crack a joke about their demise. All this is apparent through his dialogue delivery and performance, most of which deliberately ruptures the horror narrative in a part-burlesque/part-camp gesture that recalls Dr Phibes and his penchant for cueing vilifying violence with puns, poetry and parody.
The character of Freddy is thus more of a textual being than anything else. He inhabits a fictional world which pretends to make an issue out of the illusory difference between dreams and reality, for just as Freddy moves between these two zones in the fictional story, so too does he move between the realm of character dialogue and on-screen action, between the speech-track and the visual screen, giving us a similar dimensional habitation to that of the Shape in Halloween. Moreover, Freddy's character is actively engaged in distancing himself from the narrative, so much so that this activity then generates the narrative (as opposed to the self-distancing James Bond character who is injected into an espionage scenario).
The grossest aspects of Freddy lie in his sense of humour. He tells 'sick' (i.e. corny) jokes from a 'sick' (i.e. psychologically unbalanced) perspective: turning a phone into a tongue to physically lick Nancy who thought she was speaking to her boyfriend ("But I thought I was your boyfriend, Nancy"); transforming his knife-glove into a syringe-glove to inject a lethal dose of smack into an ex-junkie ("Here - have a hit"); ripping out the guts of a would-be model and stuffing her mouth full of them ("Don't speak with your mouth full"); and so on. Perhaps a peak scene of this occurs in the 4th Nightmare movie, where all the souls Freddy has destroyed appear as bits on a gooey pizza. Freddy scoops a shrunken, screaming head up with his blades, relishing the moment by declaring "Ah, meatballs!" The whole scene is totally unmotivated - but only because its graphic gore is there to motivate the absurdly literal dialogue, thereby reversing the means by which one supposedly has to morally 'qualify' the use of on-screen violence. The irony is that, as the ensuing sequels have unfolded, Freddy has got even 'sicker' whilst simultaneously becoming more stabilized with his psychosis. In other words, the one-liners have become even more corny, while it becomes clearer that there is no way of ever stopping either Freddy's unearthly powers or his material bankability. His terror, his jokes, his merchandising are equally unstoppable. Only such a textual phenomenon could generate the talking Freddy Krueger doll.
In closing, I'll describe a memorable moment from Dreamscape (1984) which arguably influenced the characterization of Freddy Krueger. David Patrick Kelly (a superb slime-ball character in many exploitation movies) plays a hired punk assassin who penetrates a dream that the president of the USA (Eddie Albert) is having. Not suprisingly, the president's dream is a post-nuclear nightmare, with him catching a subway train in New York peopled with radiation mutant punks. Suddenly Kelly jumps out to start terrorizing the president. A cop appears and tries to cool the situation. Kelly smiles at the officer and tells him to calm down. The officer insists he'll run Kelly in. Kelly reaches into the cop's chest, tears open his flesh and pulls out his heart, with perfectly timed delivery saying "Gee, officer. Don't pick on me. Have a heart." The cop graphically gags on a literal gag based on his own demise. A concise symbol for the articulated decay of dialogue we have traced throughout this essay, that scene from Dreamscape is a perfect loop of dialogue delivery and exacting execution. Sucking the perverse narrativity of The Merchant of Venice into the equally perverse narrativity of apocalyptic cinema, it creates a textual whirlpool where lips are read but words are lost.
New: 27 November, 1995 | Now: 21 March, 2015