A Look Back at the Lionsgate Slasher Porn Era

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In the early 2000’s, the genre of horror fiction in cinema had reached a down point. The films of the time, what few there were, lacked for any real scares and even worse any real quality. Coming out of the “smart horror” era of films like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, the entire genre had fallen into a myriad of poorly made copy-cat films. Anything really edgy or horrifying was left for the b-movie shelf of video stores.

Briefly, The Blair Witch Project had brought scares back into the theaters, but with half the public denouncing it as a gimmick, that style of horror film was quickly shunted off to the side as being a one trick pony.

Enter Lionsgate Films.

Capt Spaulding

The studio that was famous early on for such hits like American Psycho, Fahrenheit 9/11, and a myriad of Tyler Perry movies, also brought back to the cinema extreme horror. Lionsgate was known for releasing independent films and movies that were controversial that other studios wouldn’t release. One of the first of these films was House of 1000 Corpses, a small horror movie created by rocker Rob Zombie as his first feature film.

Corpses had been shot over a year before it’s release and most studios wouldn’t put it out because it was deemed “too extreme” or “too gory”. The internet helped fuel the myth of Corpses until it’s promotion was entirely hinged on it being the most extreme horror movie ever. While it wasn’t anywhere near the most extreme horror film ever, for it’s time, it was certainly different. It was a return to the Last House on the Left/Texas Chainsaw Massacre kind of 70s splatter horror where the young people in the film weren’t smarter than the villains as was all the rage in the 90s. Corpses let you know in a tongue-in-cheek way that you’re entering the world of the bad guys, and they are the center of the story. With memorable characters like Capt. Spaulding, Baby and Otis – the dark carnival way in which the film was shot and the set pieces – and the freak show of situations and characters that populated the screen, Zombie’s film did as much to entertain as it did disturb.

I remember leaving the theater thinking that I had not seen the greatest horror film of all time, but I had seen something decidedly different than the very by-numbers “supernatural thrillers” or “smart-ass horror” films I had been subjected to for the prior ten years.

A trailer that appeared before the film was for another early Lionsgate release called Cabin Fever. It was Eli Roth’s first splash into mainstream cinema and the movie was also delayed in its release. This was a film full of young people, full of gross set pieces, and filled to the brim with more tongue-in-cheek comedy, even right down the last part of the film which at first seemed unsettling but turned into one of the better set up jokes of the decade.

Saw Movie Poster

Then we hit 2004 and the genre really starts to take off. The film that really made the mark for the era was released that November, a small picture known as Saw, which again at the time was nothing of great fan fare. However, after viewing it the first time, I thought the film was an engaging “who dunnit” story with some really sick scenes that made me cringe, but also had me guessing why this was all going on. The ending surprised me (as it did most people, even though some claim to have saw it coming, I have no idea how anyone could), and solidified in my mind that we were in fact in a new era of horror cinema.

What Saw managed to do was merge the slick style of the 90s smart-ass horror genre, mix it with the mystery of a film like Seven, tack on some disturbingly inventive gore and make an experience that was both gross and engrossing at the same time. It did it so well that the series went on to have seven films in total.

The sequels were hit or miss as a whole. Although, the series did do a good job of letting you think there was always much more to the story. Each film kept upping the ante and increasing the questions. Who is she? What does that mean? What happened to Dr. Gordon? Who’s working with Jigsaw?

In fact, the puzzles around Saw became just as much a part of the experience as the traps in the films. Unfortunately, the resolution to these films was less satisfying than we would have hoped. The threads ultimately didn’t tie all together, and there were many questions left unanswered. This is mainly because of the changing crew behind the camera. James Wan and Leigh Whannell made the original Saw, while Saw 2 through 4 were the work of Darren Lynn Bousman who did (in my opinion) a great job of not simply repeating the same formula but changing it up. The fact that in the second film Jigsaw is captured, yet the traps still go on … and in the third he dies at the end, yet that’s still not the end of the story, made you keep wondering “where are they going with this?”.

During this same time, Zombie returned with The Devil’s Rejects, a much improved follow up to House of 1000 Corpses. Rejects brought back the same characters (although not all the same actors) and abandoned the dark carnival feel of the first film and went for a more gritty, true 70s dirty road horror film feel. Everything in this film seems filthy, and more realistic. You can almost imagine that Corpses was through the view of a bunch of kids who were drugged up while Rejects was the sober, grimy reality of the next day.

Hostel dvd image

Eli Roth also came back with probably the gross-out high point of this era. Hostel truly disturbed me. It worked on xenophobia and a bit of stereotyping towards Eastern Europe – the old country that was known for dark castles and torture devices. There are so many great things about the original Hostel that not only work visually but also work as subtext. The kid who would be the hero in any other horror film is killed halfway through the film which made you immediately feel that anything can happen. Some truly twisted scenarios happen in the last half of this film, along with Roth’s usual demented humor (the street gang of ten-year-olds who want bubble gum is particularly funny). At one point, I actually remember saying “I can’t believe it, there’s a movie that’s made me go ‘enough’!”. The film plays on a weird mix of torture and sex and submission rolled into something that was unique and lasting. The sequel didn’t quite live up to the original but it certainly made it’s mark.

Many other films came out during this time, including The Descent and Turistas. The slasher porn style even found its way into other cinema from action films like Crank to the Tarantino/Rodriguez projects including Grindhouse, Kill Bill and Inglorious Bastards.

The genre did also manage to find its way into the remake craze as well. A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and about two dozen other older horror franchises were rebooted in the “slasher porn” image. Most didn’t work (except for maybe the Chainsaw remake and Dawn of the Dead) for one fundamental reason – these films just thought that filling the screen with gore was what made Saw, Rejects, Hostel etc. successful. The characters in Zombie’s films, the dark humor of Roth’s and the intrigue of the Saw films are what added to the gore and made them stand out.

As the 2000’s ended, and we entered the 2010’s, Lionsgate Films underwent some management changes and we have seen less of the edgy horror come out of the studio. Although we did get The Midnight Meat Train, the film was scuttled almost into a DVD release by the new management. A few unique pictures have popped up here and there like The Collector, Eli Roth’s The Last Exorcism, and of course The Human Centipede films – but you can certainly feel the drop off in ideas and production.

In fact, The Human Centipede 2 was one of few horror films to come out in 2011 (the only other notable one was the continuing Paranormal Activity franchise which is not part of this genre).

Even though it appears the genre has passed its high water mark, it still shows up here and there. While some may say the films were trash, even ardent horror writers and producers take issue with some of the films of the era, there is no doubt that the Lionsgate/slasher porn era of horror pumped some much needed blood (pun intended) into a form of film that had been entirely too watered down in the 1990’s


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