On Friday morning, I found myself—of all places—at a 12:01 a.m. screening of Texas Chainsaw 3D. The new horror film wasn’t screened for critics, so this was the only way I could see it early. I wish I hadn’t. The story picks up where the 1974 classic left off, but with a lot more gore. As Leatherface chops up his victims’ hands and feet, globs of blood started to squirt at my 3-D glasses. The audience inside the theater shrieked and sometimes clapped. I felt sick.
There’s something else different about this Texas Chainsaw, which led the box office with an estimated $23 million this weekend. Unlike the original, it doesn’t intend just to frighten. It goes further—it celebrates murder, like the torture porn of the Saw horror franchise. By the end of the new Texas Chainsaw, you’re supposed to root for the psychotic killer. The movie paints him as a misunderstood Boo Radley; even though he’s a demented monster, he’s still a reluctant hero.
Maybe my disgust for Texas Chainsaw 3D is so strong because of what’s been happening. When a madman emptied enough bullets in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school to kill 20 children last month, a parade of celebrities got together to release a public-service announcement about gun control. And yet, as forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner argued on The View recently, one of the reasons that America has so many mass shootings is because of an entertainment industry that glorifies violence. In 1999, Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris plotted against their classmates, and they imagined the day that Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg would make a movie about them.
It’s only getting worse. Fifteen years ago a film as violent as Texas Chainsaw 3D would be considered shocking. It wouldn’t be rated R, it would be rated NC-17. Now it’s just tucked into all the other holiday films that revolve around guns and violence. Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist slavery tale, ends with one of the goriest shootings I’ve seen in a movie. Jack Reacher opens with a sniper shooting along a river. “I had wondered how Peter Jackson was going to spread the book over three movies,” wrote The Atlantic’s Noah Berlatsky of The Hobbit. “Now I know: he simply added extra bonus carnage at every opportunity.” Even a comedy like This Is 40 can’t get away from guns. There’s a stupid joke with Albert Brooks acting like he’s firing bullets at kids with a garden hose.
The Hollywood Reporter’s Pamela McClintock notes that half the movies released this January will feature assault rifles. Arnold Schwarzenegger is pointing a giant bazooka-like gun in the ad for his new film, The Last Stand. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters manages to change the fairy tale so that its protagonists are armed like GI Joe. One of the posters for the upcoming Mafia action movie Gangster Squad has Josh Brolin aiming a handgun while Sean Penn cocks his machine gun.
That film was scheduled for release last fall, but Warner Bros. pushed back the date after the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting in July that left 12 people dead. The studio cut the scene with a fictional theater shooting. Still, the finished product is “a very, very violent film,” says a writer who saw Gangster Squad early. “It opens with a man being chained to two cars and having his body split in two. A man’s hand is chopped off by an incoming elevator. There are several bloody shootouts. Thousands of bullets are fired, and dozens of people are killed.”
Aris Christofides, editor of the parental review website Kids in Mind, says violence in movies has become a nuclear arms race in Hollywood. Teenage boys, the coveted audience, want to see action on the big screen that’s more explicit than that on cable TV. In recent years the Motion Picture Association of America, which rates movies, has gotten softer, as studios lobby for more PG-13 ratings to allow high-school kids to buy tickets.
“What I can tell you, we’ve been doing it for 20 years now, and movies are definitely getting more violent,” Christofides says. “There’s definitely more gore. In a PG-13 movie 10 years ago, you expected violence, but not gore. We tend to think of the MPAA as being an independent organization. It’s not. It’s the lobbying arm of the movie industry. What they are trying to do is accommodate marketing decisions.”
“The ratings system is dynamic; it evolves and changes with our culture," the MPAA responded in a written statement. "Built into the rating system’s core is an ongoing reevaluation of the guidelines for each rating. It is reflective of American parents’ concerns.”
Hollywood can pretend that it doesn’t have a responsibility. But most of us know better.
Even before Sandy Hook, the Mortal Kombat level of violence in movies was starting to feel unbearable. In Looper, Bruce Willis assassinates little kids. The Watch flopped, after the trailer had echoes of the Trayvon Martin shooting. I remember going to the movies in 1992 and seeing Batman Returns, where a villain fired a gun at Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. The 2012 version has Bane in the streets of Gotham City, mutilating crowds of women and children with his machine guns.
When NPR’s Terry Gross asked Tarantino about the connection between real violence and violence in the movies, the director deflected: “I think it's disrespectful to their memory actually, to talk about movies. It's totally disrespectful to their memory ... Obviously, the issue is gun control and mental health.”
Schwarzenegger offered a similar defense: “I think one must always keep it separate,” he told reporters Saturday. “This is entertainment, and the other is a tragedy beyond belief and serious and the real deal.”
Hollywood can pretend that it doesn’t have a responsibility. But most of us know better. After Sandy Hook, all that gore at the movies just doesn’t feel entertaining.