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Something really strange happened during SXSW’s Directing the Dead panel this weekend, and I’m not talking about the fact that Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth bailed on it at the last minute. Horror directors are generally assumed to be of the wild-ass, anything goes variety. They’re supposed to be out there pushing the boundaries of good taste and testing the patience of the MPAA. But while that may once have been true of the genre... now it seems as though they have one, big, blind spot.
For Directing The Dead the fantastic planners at Austin’s SXSW Film Festival dedicated their biggest ballroom and a full hour to getting fans together with leading genre directors to talk horror. During the panel a fan stood up and asked the group, comprised of Robert Rodriguez (Planet Terror), Ti West (House of the Devil), Neil Marshall (The Descent), Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), a question which should have been right up their alley. The question: What happened to nudity in horror films? A few decades ago gratuitous nudity used to go hand-in-hand with R-rated fright movies, but now it seems almost entirely absent. The audience seemed primed for some sort of rant against the MPAA and studio censorship of artists, but what we got instead was a bunch of uptight, middle-aged men.
The reaction on the panel was one of instant discomfort. The group seemed vaguely offended, as if the question of nudity was somehow beneath them. Instead of answering the question, most involved talked about how they saw no need for nudity in their films and seemed to indicate they’d never stoop to something so gratuitous. While the others balked and tried to change the subject, Ti West had the most to say, and the others nodded along. He explained what seemed to be the entire group’s viewpoint this way: “I feel like if you’re gonna do like, sex in movies, you should have something to really add to it. It should be a really interesting and important sex scene for the movie. I’ve never had a need to do that, which is why I don’t have the gratuitous nudity. But in the case that I’ve done the gratuitous nudity, I felt like an asshole when directing it. You can see the person doesn’t really want to do it, and you feel really shitty. It bummed me out. To do it again I’d have to really believe in it being in the movie, otherwise it is like you’re just telling some girl we need to see your boobs. It sounds great in theory and then it’s just like… ewwww.”
Consider the source here. These are horror directors. Gratuity is their stock and trade. Do their movies really need to spray the audience with buckets and buckets of blood? Did Robert Rodriguez really need so many gross, bloody effects shots in Planet Terror? Was it important to the movie? Did it add to the story? Nope. They did it because it’s fun. Their movies are, by definition, composed almost entirely of gratuitous gore and violence. They churn it out, fans eat it up, and that they have no problem with it. Meanwhile the beauty of the naked human body… that’s a problem? That’s offensive? I don’t get it.
There’s no better example of this particular panel’s mindset than Sin City. Jessica Alba played a stripper who didn’t take her clothes off in the film (even though in the comics the character definitely does) and most fans were quick to blame the MPAA or the studio for it. Nudity is generally integral to playing a stripper, it’s not gratuitous, it’s part of the job and part of the character. But not according to Rodriguez. Instead he revealed that the missing nipples in Sin City were intentional. As Rodriguez explains it, he wasn’t comfortable with putting nudity in Sin City but felt he had to be as faithful as possible to the comic which contains a lot of it. So to get around it he says, “I thought, well, I can at least put a few booby shots up front and then they’ll get the sense that everyone from that point on was naked… you see two breasts at the beginning of the movie and the rest of the movie no.” I guess pulling out the boobs left more room for all those completely non-gratuitous beheadings.
Movie fans talk a lot about how America’s priorities are out of whack. We piss and moan about the way the MPAA censors something which should be positive, like sex, while allowing filmmakers to desensitize us with extreme, vicious violence. But maybe it’s not the MPAA’s fault. Maybe it’s a conscious choice on the part of our filmmakers. For these five at least, the decision seems to be violence, gore, torture, and misery good… human body and pleasure bad.