Criterion Files #368: Corridors of Blood

By  · Published on October 13th, 2010

A few weeks back a handful of the Film School Rejects team, along with a few other close friends, decided to take a brief departure from the always incredible, though occasionally exhaustive, experience that is Fantastic Fest and have dinner at a nearby local Austin eatery. It was pleasant, conversational, and a welcome break in temporary relaxation ‐ but, come to find out that even when you move the geeks away from the festival, the relevant topics go with them.

For almost the better part of an hour we sat, ate good food, drank happy liquids, and discussed and debated the subjectivity of classifying a particular film as horror, which led to further debates on trying to nail down a definition which would be appropriately inclusive of the titles that one would think unquestionably classified as horror while excluding those that only sport minor elements of the genre.

What was the conclusion? The same as every other attempt that every other group of film geeks has reached over plates of cheese and glasses of beer ‐ that it simply can’t be done. It’s fun to argue about though.

Even though we couldn’t turn the corner and make a significant breakthrough it’s the discussion itself, or the endless existence of it, that contributes culturally to our fascination with these kinds of stories. We don’t really ‘know’ what horror is, but we think we know it when we see it. However, if you ask us why something is horror when we think it is then we end up talking in circles, which eventually leads to large quantities of blood being spilled via the swinging of blunt objects.

This outcome, though admittedly exaggerated, includes a particular element of the genre that has further broadened the discussion, especially in its excessive usage within the past ten years. It’s the presence of pain ‐ explicit, gruesome and often gratuitous pain. It’s used so often, and is the basis and backbone of a number of popular horror films over the last decade that it’s been given its own sub-genre; the one we derogatorily refer to as torture porn.

So, of course, the question now is “is it still torture porn, and in effect horror, if you’re watching for educational purposes?”

Are We Watching Horror, or Just Watching Others Watch Horror?

The 1958 film Corridors of Blood is a loose depiction and dramatically heightened story about the discovery/invention of anesthesia in 1840’s London. Dr. Thomas Bolton (played by Boris Karloff, the godfather of horror actors) is the surgeon destined to find the cure for patient suffering in medically necessary amputations and other major surgical procedures after seeing the traumatic aftereffects on one of his former patients. His desire evolves into obsession, and his obsession leads him into unintentional addiction to the drugs he’d been testing primarily on himself. His reliance on the chemicals to both feed his compulsions and further his research causes others with less noble intentions to blackmail the doctor into fraudulently signing death certificates so that money can be claimed for the cadavers of murder victims.

None of this sounds particularly horrific, does it? Well, it’s about as horrific as it sounds. It truly is an emphatic representation of a horror gray area. The only components in the film that are found commonly in the horror genre are murders (though not gruesome) and a few actors who appeared frequently in many of the Hammer horror productions (Christopher Lee and Francis Matthews) of the 1950s through the 1970s. However, contained within the content of the film is an unintentionally representative depiction of human attraction to withstand watching others in serious pain. Dr. Bolton is not only a surgeon, but a professor and all of his surgeries in the film are done in the presence of spectators who are either wanting to learn, or want to see how quick the doctor can be in order to minimize the extent of excruciation.

Regardless of their intentions for being there it can be drawn that up until the invention of anesthesia all surgeries were torture. Medically necessary torture, but torture nonetheless ‐ which serves as an interesting case in favor for the subject matter of the series of Saw films having circumstantial similarities to pre-19th century surgery. When it comes down to it you either cut it off, or die and your decision is dependent on your willingness to endure unfathomable pain if you want to continue living.

Whichever you decide we choose to just be there and watch. Some of us to learn, others to be entertained, and each of us ready to justify our reasons. One side watches real torture for the sake of education, while the other watches fake torture for the sake of entertainment because it simply is not real.

Wait, Nevermind, They Say We Can’t Watch

An amusing irony to Corridors of Blood depicting our torture porn ancestors (though in no way the primary focus of the picture) is that the ratings committee of the 1950s considered three scenes too graphic to release to the public. These scenes are included on the Criterion disc to view in their entirety and I’m sure if you choose to watch them you’ll find them incredibly tame by today’s standards. However, it’s well worth the five minutes to take a look and compare how far we’ve come in fifty years time in regards to what we’re actually permitted to see in movies. By today’s standards Corridors of Blood, even with those scenes included, would probably receive a PG-13 rating and would fall categorically into more of a drama/thriller group instead of the originally advertised labeling of it being a horror film.

That modification to the [arbitrary] delineation of what this film is suggests another interesting conundrum. Is horror an evolutionary genre that changes as we get exposed to more graphic material as it becomes available? Or, maybe more to the point, has the more frequent inclusion of explicitly graphic material changed our perceptions of what we view as horrific?

No matter what we choose to consider Corridors of Blood to be it won’t, or shouldn’t, affect any viewer’s enjoyment of it or not. It’s a solid production with an excellent cast that, in some ways, works almost as a handoff from Karloff ‐ who was nearing the end of his big screen career ‐ to Christopher Lee as the face of horror villainy; and the storyline is certainly more sophisticated than the typical creature-feature or alien invasion picture popular at the time. However, it’s the unintentional commentary that arises when viewing it contextually against modern horror films and the (again unintentional) depiction of horror film spectators of pre-19th century civilization.

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