(17/11/08) – Cinema has courted controversy since the silver screen’s inception. Breaking screen taboos – particularly when it comes to smaller budget or independent films – can really make a product stand out in a crowded marketplace. But it’s a fine line – overstep the mark and the publicity gained from a film’s notoriety can result in backlashes, censorship or outright banning. Of course not all taboo breakers are produced for the purpose of gaining a voice in the marketplace, many do so for entirely different reasons – whether they are raising specific issues or political points of view that may have been denied in more mainstream cinema.
In Taboo Breakers Calum Waddell looks at eighteen examples of films that have, to a greater or lesser extent, broken taboos. The choice of eighteen reflects the age of ‘film consent’ for more extreme films, although not all of the films discussed are 18 rated. Indeed the title is a touch misleading as it is not just about breaking taboos (although they are in many of the films discussed) but also about movies that raise an issue, a voice or an idea that had hitherto been either unaired or unheard. Naturally limiting the scope to just 18 films means that there are omissions but this is balanced by an in-depth look at each movie, its background and the people involved with its development. Indeed it is through interviews with key players that Waddell finds the genesis of these projects and it also explains some of the exclusions. For example he was unable to include some classic films by John Woo because of difficulties obtaining interviews. Most of the films discussed skew towards the horrific or violent although they are not exclusively of this type. The most notable omission is John Waters’ groundbreaking trash classic Pink Flamingos – the perfect antidote to Hollywood manufactured product and one of the most politically nihilistic yet astutely observed cult films of all time. But this is a minor quibble.
It is clear from the enthusiasm of the writing that Taboo Breakers is very much a labour of love but, interestingly, Waddell discusses a number of the films with an openly critical attitude towards them – they are not necessarily good films. Blood Feast, the father of all gore movies, is rightly castigated for being, well, a very dull, amateur experience enlivened only by graphic scenes of protracted bloodshed. Waddell makes no attempt to disguise his disgust at the notorious Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS but still goes through the rigorous process of exploring the film’s background as well as interviewing key people involved, including Ilsa herself, Dyanne Thorne. Similarly, Cannibal Holocaust is taken to task (as with other films in the cannibal cycle) for its use of deliberately set up, un-faked scenes of animal mutilation and torture – something many of those involved with the productions were understandably uncomfortable with.
Many of the films covered in Taboo Breakers have been discussed in mainstream books and articles but Waddell’s research does shine additional light on such classic/notorious films as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, Halloween and The Evil Dead. Although the likes of Nightmares in a Damaged Brainand Maniac feature regularly in writing specifically connected with the horror genre it is good to see them getting a wider airing. Of particular interest is the long look at the classic Tenderness of Wolves, one of the most compelling and fascinating of art house horror films.
The only porn film to make the list is Behind the Green Door, an excellent choice given the (if you will) over exposure of Deep Throat in commentaries about the early 1970s porno-chic phenomenon. Two ‘blaxploitation’ films make the list – Jack Hill’s incredible Coffy and the little seen Candy Tangerine Man. Although a few recent films make the list (Oldboy, Hostel and House of 1000 Corpses) there is a general acceptance that the 1970s and years bookending them were a time when cinema was pretty much free to do what it wanted – unshackled by multi-national, corporate film companies and a muddle over censorship legislation (at least in the U.S.).
Perhaps the highlight of Taboo Breakers is the inclusion of two animated films – Fritz the Cat and The Plague Dogs. Waddell gets to the bottom of the counter-counter-culture nihilism in Fritz the Cat, particularly through an extended and, at times, quite crazy interview with Ralph Bakshi. It’s also good to see the under-rated and politically motivated 100% downer of a film The Plague Dogs getting some of the recognition it so richly deserves – one of the handful of British animated features that tackle social issues in such a striking way.
Taboo Breakers provides a fascinating insight into 18 films that caused, in their own ways, storms in the teacup of cinema. It’s a solid read that tells the story behind these films and the people who made them.
Taboo Breakers is out now. Please follow links on the left to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.