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Screening Room

Blood and Guts

Violence is central to some of the year's best films

By Frank Pittman

While lions and sharks go into frenzy at the smell of blood, at the sight of blood, moviegoers seem to experience a heightening of all emotions, sometimes recoiling from the horror, but more often anticipating the danger to follow. Violence and blood on the screen, even more than naked people coupling, grabs our attention and makes us perk up our ears and feel our own vulnerability, like rabbits sensing danger.

Makers of schlock films for stoned adolescents have long known the power of blood and guts to arouse kids from their torpor. However, beginning in the 1960s, filmmakers began to discover that graphic violence on the screen can be used for more artistic purposes. One landmark in the expansion of the language of film came in 1967, when the machine-gun massacre in Bonnie and Clyde turned the film's finale into an unforgettably beautiful and devastating dance of death. Then in The Wild Bunch in 1969, the aging band of outlaws went to their deaths together in an orgy of violence, with each hyperrealistic bullet hitting in slow motion, making us viscerally experience their fate and indelibly reminding us that humanity is a blood brotherhood, bonded by that blood.

The most brilliant, most ambitious films of the past year—No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and Sweeney Todd—each revolved around a different way of using the power of violence to seize our attention and reveal both how vulnerable and how capable of evil we humans are.

Stephen Sondheim's Broadway opera Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is surely the most gruesome musical ever made. As a play, its ironic tale of mass murder and cannibalism was brought to life by stage magic and alternately playful and romantic music. It's now a movie, made by horrormeister Tim (Beetle Juice) Burton. Eternally weird Johnny Depp, who was directed by Burton in Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands, is Sweeney.

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