Now that The Boys’ third season has been released to the public, I can finally talk about that scene in the show’s first episode since 2020. For those of you who watch the show, you already know which scene I’m talking about. For those of you who don’t, it’s a tragic tale as old as time: Man falls in love with man, man would do anything for man, man gets high on cocaine at a party and shrinks down to the size of a pin and jumps into man’s penis hole and starts stroking man from the inside and then man has to sneeze which results in him instantly returning to his normal size and exploding man into a fountain of viscera. Having worked on this season of The Boys in the casting department, I had access to the script about a year ago. My jaw dropped as I read this scene; I couldn’t believe Amazon would allow such a scene to grace its surprisingly impressive oeuvre of original programming. For over a year this scene lived solely in my head; I had to use my imagination like one would with the rare book that doesn’t have a movie adaptation. But now that the words on the page have gained an accompanying visual, I appreciate the scene in a wholly different way, a way that’s gotten me thinking about the different ways we can become desensitized to the vile extremes of gore – and how it can become beautiful.
Obviously, The Boys isn’t the best way to prove my thesis, but I think it’s a timely way to contextualize the traditional depiction of gore. The show’s take on gore is purposely gratuitous, over the top, and particularly…slimy. When people die, they don’t just die: They often explode, melt, implode, or crumble into a puddle of unintelligible organs. On the one hand, this is trying to satirize the current landscape of superhero cinema by not pulling any punches when it comes to superpowers and how brutal they can truly be. Shouldn’t we have seen Superman spill some guts by lasering someone in half by now? Shouldn’t Loki’s head have popped off like a Pez dispenser when Thanos strangled him? The Boys wants you to see that a world with superheroes would be a brutal, unforgiving one where those with all the power are those with the ability to murder and maim at will; a world built on fear of the gods walking among us. As with most horror and horror-adjacent shows and movies, the gore isn’t meant to be pretty. The clear intended reaction is “ew!”, or “I can’t believe they’d actually show that!”, both of which fit the themes of the show effectively. Within the context of the show, the gore is just as brutal as it would be in real life, and horrified screams can be heard from passersby whenever it occurs in public. With a painstaking mix of CGI and prosthetics, The Boys terrifies, grosses out, and sends parents out of the room all to drive home its message and entertain the sickos who love that stuff (myself included, of course). It’s…decidedly not beautiful, both within the context of the show and to the viewers at home. It’s art, of course it’s art and should be appreciated as such (shoutout to the prosthetics and CGI teams)! But it does not treat gore in a way that suggests that one should find the blood, guts, and viscera endearing.
So let’s look at a movie that does. Crimes of the Future, David Cronenberg’s newest film, shows the viewer graphic scenes of surgery, cutting, ear-and-mouth-sewing, and organ extracting – and Cronenberg wants you to find it beautiful. You’ll notice something surprising while watching CotF: There’s shockingly little murder. Considering the opening scene depicts a woman smothering her own young child with a pillow, the movie holds off on any more killing for at least another hour, and then there’s only two more. One involves a man’s chair being reprogrammed to kill him (it makes sense in the movie, I swear), and the other involves two drills being inserted into the back of a man’s head. As gory as those deaths sound, they’re actually anything but: The man in the chair is simply seen seizing before we cut away, and the drills are inserted into the man’s head from an angle in which we don’t actually see anything that would even require prosthetics. It’s no coincidence that in a movie teeming with constant gore, death is the one thing that avoids it. Cronenberg is trying to remove the alienation that comes with gore by placing it in a world where blood and guts are not something to be disgusted by but something to be admired, revered, and fascinated with. The film takes place in the future (obviously), an unknown amount of years from now when humans have evolved so that they no longer feel pain. The plot zeroes in on two performance artists who put on shows that involve Léa Seydoux ceremoniously removing strange, ever-growing vestigial organs from Viggo Mortensen. There are multiple scenes in which we get to see these performances, and the performances of other surgical artists, and each scene is treated as if a sculptor is carving their newest masterpiece before an audience. In the real world this would be gratuitously revolting and only the most twisted of souls would dare even glance at the performance, but in this future, gore is an art form just like a painting or a play. The stage is grimy and gross, the tools are fleshy and uncanny, and yet there’s an unmistakable beauty to it all. Since the characters in the film treat the carnage with such calming non-chalance, I couldn’t help but feel the same. The pace of CotF is laid back and the story is relatively low-stakes, both of which help to maintain this bizarre sense of peace as we witness human beings get willingly mutilated. Though many audiences surely felt extremely uncomfortable throughout the film’s entirety (seeing as there were walkouts during its Cannes screening), my personal and likely far from unique experience was that I became quickly accustomed to the seemingly twisted but ultimately comforting world Cronenberg created.
It’s far easier to assuage audiences when the film takes place in a far-off future since the gore isn’t taking place in a world we’re familiar with and can readily relate to. Ari Aster takes on the challenge of realism in Midsommar, a film that takes place in the modern day with terrifyingly relatable characters. Much like CotF, Midsommar begins with death. As I detail in a long-ago post, Midsommar is a reverse horror movie that frontloads the terror and ends with a deeply satisfying, if unsettling, smile. The opening sequence, in which our protagonist Dani’s entire family is suffocated by her mentally ill sister, serves to alienate the world we know; Dani’s world is no longer her own, no longer the one she felt she was a part of. Halsingland, then, is much easier to stomach for Dani and therefore the audience: Its gorgeous landscape, its near-perpetual sunshine, its odd but kind and inviting people – all of it presents a comforting reset for Dani. when “home” is so inextricably associated with death and despair, a little strangeness becomes less isolating and more consoling. That’s why, when the suicide ritual occurs, Dani is horrified, disgusted, and deeply disturbed – but doesn’t want to leave. Connie’s terror and immediate pleas to leave make sense since her London home is still home, while Dani has nowhere safe to return to should she decide Halsingland is too brutal for her. “Does he feel like home to you?” Pelle asks Dani. He’s manipulating her, of course, but he’s not wrong. Christian isn’t her home, her family isn’t her home anymore, and here she is, being welcomed by what appears to be a curiously welcoming cult. And the suicide ritual that involves a man and woman jumping off a fatal cliff directly in front of Dani is just a part of their culture, who is she to judge? They’re here so Christian and Josh can study them without judgment anyway. As Dani is manipulated, so is the audience in the exact same way. Christian’s death is the ultimate manipulation by Aster: A character we’ve gotten to know over the course of nearly 3 hours is being burned alive and I find myself smiling along with Dani every time I see that final shot. Christiam’s a manipulator, he’s a bad boyfriend, he’s infuriatingly toxic – none of that makes him deserve death. Josh’s nosiness is undeserving of death. Mark’s vulgarity and disrespect is undeserving of death. And yet each of their spectacularly gory deaths present themselves more as beautiful than they present as horrifying. The audience is meant to sympathize most with Dani since she’s our protagonist and the character who’s experienced an intense tragedy, one that we have to experience alongside her. We feel her sorrow, we feel her loneliness, we feel her betrayal – and so, at the end, we feel her connection with Halsingland and its people and we experience her freedom despite watching innocent men burn and scream. It’s the culmination of every tactic the cult has used over the course of the film, and I fall for it every time. Judging by discussion surrounding Midsommar even to this day, I’m far from alone in my sentiment. I find myself making excuses for the cult: Christian, Josh, and Mark all disobeyed their rules and it was their choice to come, they should face the consequences, right? It’s tougher to justify Connie and Simon’s deaths, and yet I can still rationalize it by thinking, well, Midsommar only comes around once every 90 years, what’s a few murders every century or so? They’re so kind otherwise! Obviously the fact that the movie is fictional makes it far easier to condone, but that should go without saying. Aster created a grounded, modern story filled with caved in faces and artfully dissected bodies and convinces you that you’re witnessing not murder but tradition, not brutality but order among chaos, not carnage but artistry.
As much as I love a nice gross, gory horror movie like Saw (yes, every single one of them even though I acknowledge their awfulness), I find it fascinating when I see a filmmaker turn something so inherently vile and repulsive into something attractive and captivating. Few filmmakers even attempt such a difficult feat (I can only think of Suspiria (2018) and perhaps Titane from what I’ve seen, send me some recommendations!), and I’d love to see it more often. Nothing is intrinsically ugly to Cronenberg and Aster, it’s how you exhibit something that gives it meaning and feeling. Everything is beautiful when you frame it the right way.