Posted by Richard Harland Smith on May 10, 2013
We all know the drill: a mad killer, a disparate collection of potential victims, the first murder, then the second, a third follows, usually a fourth… and before you can say Jack Robinson the Ripper you’ve got yourself a good old fashioned stiff stack, a cadaver crop. A body count. We tend to think of the body count as an invention of the horror film, specifically the so-called slasher cycle of the late 1970s and early to mid 1980s — HALLOWEEN (1978), FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981), HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981), and so on — in which the whole point was to watch ‘em die, one little two little three. Though horror flicks are, for all intents and purposes, the final resting place of the cinematic body count, they were actually late to the game, with the trope crossing more genres to end there than you’d likely imagine.
Perhaps we should pause here to define our terms. What we talk about when we talk about a body count is not not strictly numbers. Long before the advent of cinema, there were lots of violent deaths in plays, and at times the dead really stacked up. Shakespeare alone: Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, Titus Andronicus — bloodbaths all. And yet none of these works could be considered body count narratives, because the authorial focus is never quite fully on the deaths (which often occurred offstage). And yet even when death — savage, brutal death — was the only item on the menu, as in the plays staged at the Théâtre du Grand Guignol in Paris at the turn of the 19th Century, it wasn’t a body count situation either. Nor can we refer to, say, Michael Curtiz’ NOAH’S ARK (1928) as a body count movie just because 99 44/100% of mankind perishes in the deluge. (Among the extras in the flood scene were, as I understand it, John Wayne and Andy Devine.) We just might have Agatha Christie to thank for the birth of the body count narrative as we know it today. The publication of the British mystery writer’s 1939 whodunnit Ten Little Indians (it had another, original title — Google it) was a game changer. The classic mystery or detective story customarily centered on a single murder and perhaps a couple of follow-up killings as the guilty party attempted to cover his or her tracks but they were by and large conservative, pin-neat affairs. [There's no avoiding the massive spoiler for Ten Little Indians, aka And Then There Were None, so if you don't want the plot spoiled for you, drop out here.] Christie smashed all that with her unexpectedly brutal tale of ten strangers invited to a remote island to be whacked one by one until… well, the American title should fill in that blank. Stage and film versions of the Christie book would soften the blow by allowing a couple of the would-be victims to live but the paradigm was set nonetheless. The point of the tale, on the page or the stage or the screen, was to attend the sequential deaths of ten characters, each disposed of in a fiendishly unexpected way: by poison, by noose, by blunt trauma, by very sharp trauma. The bloodline to the slashers seems pretty direct from this perspective — what is BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) but a punk TEN LITTLE INDIANS with fewer victims? — and yet it’s not quite that simple.
Five years before Ten Little Indians was published, John Ford’s THE LOST PATROL (1934) told the tale (based on a novel by Philip MacDonald) of a British unit on patrol in Mesopotamia during World War I. When their captain is gunned down by an Arab sniper, the unit’s sergeant orders his men to dig in at an oasis while the enemy encircles them. One by one the soldiers are picked off and even a would-be rescuer is felled, leaving only the sergeant. (Victor McLaglen – the first Final Girl?) The film’s parting shot is of the graves of the dead soldiers. Though the deaths of the enlisted men throughout THE LOST PATROL are similar, with each man being taken down by gunshot, it is to my mind the first Hollywood movie to embrace the body count as raison d’etre. With the characters stranded and unable to move more than a few feet in either direction, the film’s only forward momentum is the death of its principals. A big success for RKO Radio Pictures, THE LOST PATROL established a pattern for combat pictures, with war films being the first genre to fully take advantage of the character tick list, the spectacle of sequential death. During World War II, films such as BATAAN (1943) with Robert Taylor and SAHARA (1943) with Humphrey Bogart introduced us to fighting units of swell guys, each a distinctive type, and all pretty much doomed to fall in Jerry’s crosshairs. Watching these films, it’s hard not to pick favorites (Lloyd Nolan! Desi Arnaz! Dan Duryea! Lloyd Bridges!), ones you hope make it to the final fade out and when they do not you are devastated. As it should be. One of the final shots of SAHARA quotes that of THE LOST PATROL, framing the graves of the fallen, and asking us “Was it worth it?”
For some occult reason, these types of films appealed to moviegoers. Sure, everybody liked to see the good guys win. During World War II, it was important to depict our servicemen as brave and victorious… but sometimes it seemed instructive and true to admit, even if just to ourselves, that sometimes the reward for altruism and heroism was the mud, was oblivion, was a horrible death in a far off place. Westerns picked up on the model of the body count movie, too. Lew Landers’ BAD LANDS (1939) was a remake of THE LOST PATROL, with a British squadron swapped out for a western posse. LAST OF THE COMANCHES (1953) was a western remake of SAHARA, with Broderick Crawford as a cavalry officer digging in against attacks by angry aboriginals and dealing with a diminishing water supply and diminishing manpower. Gordon Douglas’ ONLY THE VALIANT (1951) put army captain Gregory Peck in charge of an outfit of misfits and miscreants nearly twenty years ahead of Robert Aldrich’s THE DIRTY DOZEN (1968) and three years before Akira Kurosawa paid homage to western films with THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), the tale of a clutch of roaming warriors who give up their lives to help poor farmers against predatory bandits. APACHE TERRITORY (1958) with Rory Calhoun seemed like a remake of a remake while THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) rebooted Kurosawa’s western homage in western dress, killing off a passel of future major stars. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN was following a tradition and yet it could not have had, on first release, the same effect it has on us now, fifty years later. In 1960, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn were not yet big stars; when I caught up with the film a decade later, their onscreen deaths traumatized me. The film spawned a number of sequels — THE RETURN OF THE SEVEN (1966), GUNS OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1969), and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN RIDE (1972) — in which the majority of the gang fell in battle. And here we see the real roots of the body count film.
Of course, there were sizable body counts in other films, too: John Wayne’s THE ALAMO (1960) had a death toll (everybody) higher than that of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, as did Gordon Douglas’ CHUKA (1967) with Rod Taylor and Andrew V. MacLaglen’s BANDOLERO! (1968), which killed off both Dean Martin and Jimmy Stewart before its end credit crawl while Don Siegel’s HELL IS FOR HEROES (1962) with Steve McQueen and James Coburn wiped out pretty much its entire dramatis personae in the World War II tale of a squadron charged with taking out an enemy pillbox. But these were one-offs, self-contained. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and its sequels created a demand for a particular product, a specific type of movie in which the audience knew walking in that its heroes were going to die onscreen, each in a relatively colorful and memorable way. The deaths of the protagonists (well, most of them) was the point. In the James Bond films, 007 would prevail over super-villainy. In the Pink Panther films, Inspector Clouseau would bungle his way towards solving his case. And in the Magnificent Seven movies, the good guys would die. With honor, of course. Bravely, to be sure. But die they would. That was the attraction.
In the dozen years between THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN RIDE, horror films took advantage of the increased permissiveness in cinema to ramp up the brutality. Titles such as Mario Bava’s FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON (1970) and BAY OF BLOOD (1972), Robert Fuest’s THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971) and its sequel DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972), Edward Dmytryk’s BLUEBEARD (1972), Douglas Hicox’s THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973), S. F. Brownrigg’s DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT (1973), George Fenady’s ARNOLD (1973), Paul Harrison’s THE HOUSE OF SEVEN CORPSES (1974) and BLACK CHRISTMAS all spun spectacle out of characters going toes up. DON’T GO INTO THE BASEMENT went the extra mile of giving each of its actors a postmortem end title card while BLUEBEARD staged a necrophiliac tableau that would resurface, after a fashion, in HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME – the dead as the perfect party guests.
While Hollywood wasn’t quite ready go go that route, the disaster films of the same time period — THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972), THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974), EARTHQUAKE (1974), WHEN TIME RAN OUR (1980) — were no less merciless, offing a selection of aging studio stars in various and sundry styles that again was integral to the spectacle. By turns awesome and silly, disaster flicks encouraged you to forget about character and focus on the performer, particularly at the moment of his or her fictive death. “Oh, they got Robert Wagner!” you might find yourself thinking. Or “There goes Shelley Winters!” Or “Exit Jennifer Jones!” in the way you would have said, thirty years earlier, “Those lousy Krauts got Jimmy and Tambul!” The See How They Die dynamic filtered into other film genres.
What is Mel Stuart’s WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971) but a thinly disguised body count movie? Sure, none of the horrible children invited into Gene Wilder’s sweets mill actually dies but we do get to experience the simulation of their deaths: Augustus Gloop by drowning, Violet Beauregard by poison, Veruca Salt by falling, and so on. Willy Wonka even keeps a running count: “Well, well, well. Two naughty, nasty little children gone. Three good, sweet little children left.” This vice-based children’s classic (remade by horror bricolagist Tim Burton in 2005) is like the elementary school version of THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, whose victims fall to deathtraps patterned after the Plagues of Egypt, or Jean Brismée’s Euro-sleaze classic THE DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE (1971), in which seven tourists decamp at a mysterious castle and meet demises keyed to the Seven Deadly Sins.
Cut to the slasher films, where all decorum went out the window, along with all pretense that the deaths of principal players was meant to be anything but exploitative. Whether the kills were in the single or double digits, these movies distinguished themselves by turning wrongful death into a spectator sport. Sure, the films had other virtues as well and could be enjoyed on other levels but the copycatting that went on, cinematically, between 1978 and the subgenre’s effective demise by 1995 (by which point the HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13TH and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREETS franchises had all guttered in their candelabras) wasn’t because of a genre-wide appreciation of moody lighting and prowling Steadicam. In 1996, Wes Craven’s SCREAM parodied the slasher cycle to great acclaim but really couldn’t do anything more with the medium than to simply say things about it while proceeding as body count films had done for decades by that point. Drunk on its own perceived intelligence, SCREAM tried to float by on attitude but came off like one of those obnoxious people you run into on at a singles bar who denounces “the whole dating scene” with vehemence but who turns up week after desperate to get laid.
In 2011, on the occasion of the release of SCREAM 4, Slant Magazine attempted to work out “The Rules of Slasher Movie Body Counts” and derive a mathematical formula to determine the expected number of bodies falling based on that film’s place within its particular franchise. Funny stuff but by then the zeitgeist had lockstepped to another point of the cultural compass. Though James Wan’s SAW (2004) and Eli Roth’s HOSTEL (2005) and their respective sequels attempted to take the body count movie in a new direction and remakes of FRIDAY THE 13TH and MY BLOODY VALENTINE hoped to revive the old formula, Hollywood was calculating the new math. How could a handful of victims in a house or a coal mine or a summer camp compare to the triple digit necrology of the Wachowski Brothers’ THE MATRIX (1999) and its sequels, of Kurt Wimmer’s gun-fu copycat EQUILIBRIUM (2002), of Zach Snyder’s 300 (2006), or the veritable genocide of such disaster epics as ARMAGEDDON (1998), DEEP IMPACT (1999), KNOWING (2009) and 2012 (2012), in which whole chunks of the world — and in some cases the whole enchilada — was laid waste before our very eyes? It seems a silly thing to feel there’s been a loss of innocence here and yet I can’t help but feel the dehumanization as a death scene is supersized to a setpiece, an event. If they had nothing else going for them, body count movies isolated the moment of death as, no matter how savage or ironic, significant. I’d like to think when it’s my time to go the moment will be a scene and not a CGI bleph. I’d like to be able to count on that.
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