Uk purveyors of Horror, Bloody Cuts, have certainly made a impression in recent months. With a gallery series of self-contained short horror films, the Bloody Cuts team have gathered a sizable online audience share and attracted the attention - and financial support - of such high profile talents as Stephen Fry.
Regular readers will know that I write a lot about the art of making horror movies and constructing horror narratives and, moreover, that I have a number of empassioned bones to pick with many horror filmmakers who threaten to diminish this genre I love.
Bloody Cuts have delivered some exceedingly good examples of horror - clever, sophisticated and deftly executed. But, not all Bloody Cuts bleed equally well and I want to take a brief moment of the internets’ time to explore why some of the Bloody Cuts films stand taller than others.
Now, before I begin, don’t get me wrong. I love what these guys are doing and have even featured their work in my lectures on horror cinema at the Australian national film school, the AFTRS. But there are some intrinsic conceptual differences between their earlier films and their more recent offerings. And the lessons that can be observed between them serve as good lessons for any filmmakers, particularly writers, who want to work in horror.
Certainly what all the Bloody Cuts films have in spades is superbly deft execution. Timing and rhythm, powerful use of light and dark, revelations and mind-boggling good vfx work on a shoestring budget. So on all levels of execution the Bloody Cuts films work very, very well. But some work better than others and it’s worth looking close to recognise why.
Two phrases separate the gap between the Great and truly effective horror movie, and the Mediocre one -
“there but for the grace of God go I”
“sucks to be you”
The term “there but for the grace if God go I” is an old adage muttered when one recognizes something dreadful happening to someone else but acknowledges that in the same circumstance, it might well have been themselves. This idea is arguably the most crucial in horror cinema if you want your audience to be refused emotional distance - to be trapped in the horror on a personal level.
It comes from the idea of Transgression which is the origin of all horror cinema and draws on the origins of horror in the form of fairy tales and medieval morality plays - both forms of storytelling designed to demonstrate the ramifications of ‘sin’ by depicting an Everyman character transgressing and suffering consequences for their transgression.
Good and effective horror stories exploit this by centering on a Transgression that is ‘understandable’ and plausible within the parameters of the storyworld. Something that we might all have as a dark secret but which is then amplified into supremely-high stakes.
It’s the notion that the character that suffers the ‘horror’ somehow deserves it, did something to cause or unleash it and that this might be something we, the audience, are also guilty of. So we suffer right along with the character - a deeply personal by-proxy suffering….
Its here that Horror films are at their best, at their most deeply effective and deeply, personally, scary….
If we use the Bloody Cuts films as examples we see this acutely in Prey, Suckablood and Mother Died.
In Prey, a handsome young man is clearly a ‘sinner’. His transgression is not so much one of abusive and predatory behavior towards a woman (and presumably others before her) as it is his Arrogance after the fact. And this will be his undoing. He certainly deserves his fate. Yet Prey is a horror story that simply turns the volume way up on a much more everyday transgression - arrogance itself and the idea that all men, deep down, might be capable of horrible things should they ever let their arrogance get in the way of their empathy. And just like the medieval morality play that is its ancestor, Prey has just issued a cautionary tale to all men…
And there but for he grace of God go I.
It’s dark but very effective stuff.
Suckablood, probably Bloody Cuts most celebrated short, also embodies this idea in a wonderfully layered way. Clearly the Step Mother is bitch and has to go. But she is just an extreme exaggeration of any hard task-master mother figure. Someone who takes something petty and makes it into an overblown sin - in the case of Suckablood , a Curse….!
We, the audience, align with the child and her sin is minor, thumb-sucking - a small addiction she struggled to overcome (and don’t we all have those). We watch hoping she won’t suck her thumb and fearing she will. The wonderful reversal comes with the idea that the girl has found a way to out-smart the curse and Suckablood takes his revenge instead on the Step Mother. And in this moment we too are aligned with Step Mother; her sin is pettiness and a desire to control. And she is justly punished….
What begins as a cautionary tale about small vices and habits, becomes a larger cautionary tale about pettiness and control.
And there but for the Grace of God go I….
Mother Died continues this wonderfully effective model of conceptual horror and gives it extra layers of complexity. We spend 98% of the film believing the girl to be guilty of some fucked up shit. She is the embodiment of the horror, her sins apparent to us. But the final reveal which explains the horror and inverts our perception of what the girl has done, is none less an acute personification of the audience - could I do what she did in those circumstances? Could I kill myself to eliminate some of the horror? The thought itself is terrifying…
And there but for the grace of God go I….
A great many horror movies exist that lack this “there but for the grace of God go I” element. And if the execution is good they may still be effective. But they’ll ultimately be hallow. Rather than “there but for the grace if God go I” such transgression-less films are better understood with the term “sucks to be you”.
If a character is not responsible in some way for causing the monster or unleashing the horror, if they have committed no sin and are just ‘unlucky’ then you have invariably let your audience off the emotional hook, you have given them and out-clause and emotional distance from the horror rather than force them to be immersed in it and personified by it.
If I, as the audience, look at a character who is haunted and horrified for no reason, and no wrong-doing on their own part, then I do so saying “sucks to be you”. And by this, the emotional focus is shifted off the viewer and on to an abstract. The best you can hope for on such films is shock value.
The Bloody Cuts film Lock Up is unfortunately in this category. There is no denying the superb execution. Those long deep-focus shots down the hallway as the lights cut in an out are dead set scary! But they are scary only in the abstract and only visually, rather than conceptually. The security guard character did nothing wrong and doest deserve his fate. His suffering is entirely random. Certainly this has an element of fear to it but it is not nearly as compelling or emotionally complex as a situation where the audience are forced to embody the character with their own sins - making the horror very personal.
And so I say to the poor security guard, “Sucks to be you.”
Stitches too has this same problem. Clowns are scary all on their own and the idea that a murderous one is already in the house is a classic horror scenario that almost never fails. But in the end the horror of Stitches is empty and we simply mutter to the babysitter, “sucks to be you”.
Stephen King is the master of the transgression. Take Pet Cemetery; the father’s transgression is to bring his son back to life by burying him in the tainted cemetery. He knows it’s wrong, we know it’s wrong, he’s been warned it’s wrong, and he does it anyway… And as we, the audience, watch the father do this, we do so knowing full well what horror will be unleashed… And we mutter into our hands covering our face…
“there but for the grace of God go I….”
Nothing about this is easy. Horror is a very much more delicate, complex and cinematically challenging genre than many (sadly) give it credit for. Recognizing that complexity only serves to elevate what the Bloody Cuts team have achieved. I actually don’t think it’s any accident that the first 2 bloody cuts films are the weakest and the later 3 are the strongest - I think the team are (like any and all filmmakers) learning more and more with every film as they go. Their craft is being honed by every frame they shoot. And this should stand as a lesson to all filmmakers, make every project count by letting it stand on the shoulders of what has gone before.
So as I eagerly look forward to future Bloody Cuts films over the coming year I trust I’ll find myself muttering under my breath “there but for the grace of God go I” rather than “sucks to be you…”