Killing Pigs for Art? On Animal Cruelty
by Alex Kies in Filmmakingon Aug 8, 2023
animal cruelty, Cannibal Holocaust, Centipede Horror, David Bordwell, Error 4444, Grindhouse Releasing, Red Spell Spells Red, Ruggero Deodato, Titus Ho
A Hong Kong documentary crew travels to Borneo to dig up the grave of an ancient “evil dwarf sorcerer” for a mondo film on black magic; as you might imagine, protracted supernatural revenge is exacted for the next 70 minutes. This is the gist of Red Spell Spells Red (1983, d. Titus Ho), the second of two Hong Kong exploitation films written by Amy Chan Suet-Ming (the first being the previous year’s Centipede Horror, directed by Keith Li), of whom little is known beyond her proclivity for bug-based horror. Neither film is a major studio production, perhaps because Hong Kong’s vertically integrated and patriarchal studio system offered few opportunities to women.
One could be forgiven for noticing similarities between Red Spell Spells Red and Cannibal Holocaust (1980, d. Ruggero Deodato). Both feature documentary crews traveling from decadent urban centers to remote locations where bizarre tribesmen commit unspeakable atrocities for—and then upon—them with horrifying nonchalance. (Keep an eye out for Stanley Tong, director of Police Story 3: Supercop and Rumble in the Bronx, as an ill-fated crew member.) Ho and Deodato both pose questions about who the real monsters are (the savages? the filmmakers within the film? you and I?) without distracting from the visceral thrills and incongruously groovy soundtracks. Also, they both feature unsimulated onscreen animal death.
Upstart distributor Error 4444 has valiantly restored both Chan Suet-Ming films to their goopy glory and made them available to American audiences looking as good as they ever have or will. The Blu-rays feature two cuts of each film—the original and the “Animal Cruelty-Free Cut”—and both are available for theatrical distribution. Alamo Drafthouse screenings of Red Spell Spells Red opted for the animal cruelty-free version.
If nothing else, animal cruelty is an effective cinematic device. When the documentary crew in Red Spell Spells Red arrives at their resort after opening the dwarf sorcerer’s tomb, their hosts insist they slit a pig’s throat for good luck, and it certainly feels as an audience member like we’re in uncharted waters. I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from watching these movies, but nor do I relish the thought of being the guy posting on a label’s Facebook page demanding to know where the hell all the pig-killing went.
In 1903, not long after the motion picture camera’s invention, Thomas Edison sent cameramen to Coney Island to capture the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant after he’d killed his third handler. Electrocution of an Elephant is the first known filmed animal death, and certainly not the last. Errol Flynn brought the issue of animal dignity onset to the press after starring in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936, d. Michael Curtiz). Filming the final calvary charge involved 125 horses driven full speed over a tripwire, resulting in the death of 25. Outrage coincided with the early years of Hollywood’s self-imposition of the Hays Code, which made nominal provisions against the mistreatment of animals in film. The American Humane Society has made quite a bit of hay out of monitoring sets for instances of animal cruelty—although The Hollywood Reporter’s seminal expose, “Animals Were Harmed,” indicates that the AHA can be bought and hasn’t meaningfully prevented on-set animal cruelty.
Despite what experts called “the strictest set of measures they’d ever seen,” David Milch’s HBO series Luck was shut down in its first season after three horses died on set. The recently unearthed cult classic Roar (1981, d. Noel Marshall), where humans cohabitated with real lions and plenty of interspecies violence ensued, was produced with a love of lions in mind. Various filmmakers have memorably exploited that love of animals for effect. The ever-controversial kangaroo hunt scene in 1971’s Wake in Fright (d. Ted Kotcheff) indelibly depicts the brutality of outback Australian life. Making effective use of an already scheduled local kangaroo hunt, Kotcheff draws a disturbing visual parallel between kangaroo and human torsos. Starting with his first feature, 1987’s The Element of Crime, all the way to 2017’s The House that Jack Built, Lars Von Trier has trafficked in animal cruelty, allegedly not always simulated. Several of Werner Herzog’s films, both narrative and documentary, feature scenes of animal endangerment.
There does seem to be a way forward. Recent Bollywood crossover smash RRR (2022, d. S.S. Rajamouli) doesn’t pass the verisimilitude smell test, provides an opening title card explaining the producers used CGI animals because stunts (especially the tiger hunt) could not be safely completed with live animals. Yet the industrialization of filmmaking on any scale often results in the short-cutting of safety regulations. Chad Stahelski, director of the John Wick films, witnessed Brandon Lee’s death on The Crow as a stuntman, and uses rubber guns on the sets of his movies now. But on Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2015), shot in South Africa where security standards aren’t as stringent, stunt woman Olivia Jackson’s arm was torn off and face degloved.
It’s tempting to compare the animal-cruelty-free edits to Puffin Books’ recent excision of certain words from Roald Dahl’s books. But this isn’t mentioning Ms. Twit’s double chin—this is two-and-a-half minutes of chicken, pig and scorpion slaughter. In this respect, Red Spell Spells Red is relatively typical of Hong Kong exploitation films from the late 1970s onward.
Run Run Shaw, the godfather of Hong Kong film and head of the long-monopole Shaw Brothers Studios, enjoyed a collegial relationship with both British and Hong Kong government censors, whose priorities were—given Hong Kong’s geopolitical import—overtly political. Almost everything else was in bounds. By the 1970s, as the Cultural Revolution raged on the mainland, censorship of nonpolitical Hong Kong films was lax, especially because the studios were making movies in a few weeks that then played about as long in theaters, with no conception of home media or second run releases. The biggest censorship provision prior to the 1980s was a ruling from the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority that stipulated that no film which could damage “good relations with other territories” could be shown in Hong Kong theaters.
In an assembly-line environment, it behooved studios to push boundaries. Sexual content, violence—a significant amount of it sexual—and scatological, non-PC humor was de rigueur. Along with it, there was plenty of animal cruelty. Chih-Hung Kuei’s The Killer Snakes (Willard:rats :: The Killer Snakes:snakes), which launched a gross-out horror trend in 1974, features a denouement where star Kwok-Leung Kam falls into a tank full of live snakes. He claimed the stunt killed 99 of them.
This trend accelerated until 1988, when mainland propaganda film Men Behind the Sun (d. Mou Tun-fei) caused an international incident. Men Behind the Sun is a docudrama about atrocities Japanese forces committed upon mainland civilians during World War II, which the Japanese government denied until recently. Men Behind the Sun is no Life is Beautiful, however. It’s not even The Day the Clown Cried. It’s a numbing series of tortures and humiliations Pasolini would’ve found excessive—a pack of rats eats a cat alive, horrible experiments are conducted on actual corpses of all ages. There’s not much plot, nor what Judge Woolsey would call artistic merit.
It was a box office success, but the show of sympathy for the mainland caused a diplomatic stir and the Hong Kong censors cracked down. They created Category III (CAT III for short), films to which only viewers 18 and older would be admitted. In the nine years between the imposition of the new ratings and the Handover, CAT III became a genre unto itself, so much so that many earlier exploitation films have retroactively become perceived in the West as CAT III films, Red Spell Spells Red chief among them.
The gonzo sex and/or violence kept people coming back. Within the adults-only purview, you could find everything from grim gross-outs like Men Behind the Sun (and its three sequels) to sex comedies like Erotic Ghost Story (1990, d. Lam Ngai Kai). As Andy Willis writes, “Category III films were also quickly made and released to create an immediate impact and attract audiences looking for something illicit, possibly dangerous and most of all offering perspectives that were different from those found in the mainstream.”
Although CAT III films carried a certain stigma, they were extremely popular. David Bordwell reported that half the studio films released in 1992 bore a CAT III rating. The CAT III star system also yielded crossover success stories. Anthony Wong, best known to Western audiences for Infernal Affairs (2002, d. Andrew Lau & Alan Mak), won a Hong Kong Academy Award for his lead performance as a cannibalistic child killer in The Untold Story (1993, d. Herman Yau). Shu Qi went from frothy sex comedies like Sex and Zen II (1996, d. Mang-Kai Chin) to starring opposite Jason Statham in The Transporter (2002, d. Corey Yuen). Simon Lam, the star of Johnnie To’s cerebral action films Election (2005) and PTU (2003), cut his teeth in CAT III fare like Raped by an Angel (1993, d. Andrew Lau) and Naked Killer (1992, d. Clarence Fok Yiu-leung).
More lenient content restrictions allowed for incisive cultural commentary, art house-style, as well. Viva Erotica (1996, d. Tung-Shing Yee)—also starring Qi—skewered the CAT III sex film industry itself. In Happy Together (1996), Wong Kar-Wai movingly explored the uncertainty of gay relationships, legal in Hong Kong since 1991, going into the Handover (China legalized homosexuality a year later). But after the Handover, mainland corporations bought up the production and distribution and the film industry in Hong Kong was never the same. Through its near monopoly, China could impose its content restrictions on the films playing in Hong Kong, and while CAT III films still exist (Herman Yau and Anthony Wong re-teamed for CAT III horror The Sleep Curse in 2017), they are illegal to produce and show in China itself. In Planet Hong Kong, David Bordwell quantifies this trend: “The surge in Hong Kong production of the early 1990s is largely attributable to the Category III boom, which fell off rapidly after 1993. Thus, of the total number of films released in 1992 (215), 1993 (242), 1994 (181), 1995 (150), and 1996 (104), the number of Category III films accounted for 109, 123, 59, 36, and 12, respectively” (p. 277).
The Chinese Communist Party hasn’t been the only powerful force influencing the content of Hong Kong films over the years. When Jackie Chan came to America in the late ’90s, the Weinsteins released some of his late Hong Kong hits in America in theaters and home media. Chan’s films are natural choices—they’re pure entertainment—but Harvey Weinstein felt American audiences would reject certain elements. For instance, by the final shot of Drunken Master 2 (1996, d. Lau Kar-Leung) Chan’s Wong Fei-Hung has drunk so much in the final fight that he becomes a caricature of mental disability. The Weinsteins also removed a scene from Supercop (AKA Police Story 3: Supercop, directed by the aforementioned Tong) where Chan takes Michelle Yeoh’s character to a dog restaurant where their dinner conversation is underlaid by frightened yelps.
The PRC has been pursuing a series of reforms aimed at eliminating certain aspects of its traditional culture they felt contributed to orientalism. In 2020, they placed a ban on eating cats and dogs, and you better believe if it isn’t permitted in real life, you won’t be seeing it in their film product, either, especially as Netflix pushes Chinese blockbusters like The Wandering Earth (and its sequels).
The Hollywood press makes quite a bit of hay out of American film companies editing their own product for export to Chinese audiences. Lightyear (2022, d. Angus MacLane) featured a blink-and-you-miss-it same-sex kiss which led to a much ballyhooed game of chicken between Disney and the Chinese Ministry of Propaganda. Film isn’t the most fraught industry in the coming (or ongoing, or fictitious, depending on who you ask) cold war with China, but it’s one of the most visible to average online Americans.
While I understand and to a degree sympathize with the sentiments that led to animal cruelty-free cuts of foreign films, I find myself concerned about what precedent they might set. Granted, in providing alternate versions, Grindhouse Releasing and Error 4444 avoided the trap George Lucas set for himself barring the original cuts of the original Star Wars trilogy from public availability. And lots of notable directors have altered their work ex post facto: Francis Ford Coppola and Ridley Scott love releasing new edits and remasters of their work. Hideaki Anno went as far as to remake Neon Genesis Evangelion as a series of four movies. I don’t begrudge any of them that. It’s their work.
I spoke with Sam Antezana, one of two of Error 4444’s founders and employees, about the decision to create this cut, which was inspired by Grindhouse Releasing’s animal cruelty-free cut of Cannibal Holocaust. “We wanted to limit the number of people who, just because of hearing certain infamous things about the movie, immediately reject it,” he said. “We also wanted as many people to watch it as possible, so we thought we would give people that option. We were happy because there were several people initially, when we announced we were doing an animal cruelty-free cut, messaging us and commenting on a lot of our social media posts: ‘Oh, that’s so awesome. I’m actually gonna consider buying it, or buy it because I wasn’t gonna buy it.’” Ironically, when fighting the Italian ban on Cannibal Holocaust in court, Deodato produced an actress who had allegedly been murdered onscreen to clear his name, but the judge upheld the ban on the grounds the animal deaths were real. Deodato completed the animal cruelty-free cut himself in 2011. In an interview filmed for the Grindhouse Blu-ray, Deodato explains every animal killed on film was going to be food for the cast and crew anyway. In a further irony, he added, “Knowing that the film would be sold in Asian countries, I thought [the animal killing] scenes would be cut for the Western market, but in fact that did not happen everywhere. What a big problem! If I could go back, it would never happen now.” Put that way, given this is very much an exploitation film and therefore made to sell tickets (and now Blu-rays), the idea of removing some content that doesn’t have the same cultural meaning, and that might discourage a new audience, makes sense.
Killing pigs for art (broadly defined) is abhorrent to most, but it happened. I’d like to imagine an alternate reality where every living thing that showed up to the set of Red Spell Spells Red left alive too. These animals weren’t endangered for an epic set piece; their deaths were used intentionally as special effects, to heighten the immediacy of the simulated violence to follow, in a movie that was designed as disposable entertainment before everything started a second, eternal life on the internet.
Antezana told me about his communication with Red Spell Spells Red director Titus Ho: “He knew we were in the US, and the way they made it sound was like ‘Who wants to watch this?’ And I think a lot of that has to do with the climate we live in. Movies like that can never, ever be made anymore, and for good reason. It’s good a lot of those things can’t be done anymore. But at the same time, it’s history, and for people like us who enjoy those sorts of movies, we can see how far we’ve come. These were things that audiences went to consume, you know?”
I asked Hong Kong cinema scholar Dylan Cheung why he thought audiences came to see those things. “There’s very delineated lines between human beings and animals, with animals being less important so to speak, in traditional Chinese culture,” he replied. “It’s very different nowadays, since things like ‘western’ ideas of pet ownership are now the norm. You have to remember that for very poor or working class places, concern for animal cruelty is a kind of privilege people just don’t have the time for. Slaughtering animals used to be commonplace and buying live produce at the market is still a thing, especially fish. Buying live chickens at the market to slaughter at home was a normal thing too until the bird flu epidemics.”
Antezana told me neither Ho nor Suet consented to video interviews for their new Blu Ray release—Suet declined any contact at all, although she spoke with Ho about the release. Both were extremely shocked Red Spell Spells Red and Centipede Horror were being released in America. Both received Blu-rays of both films, and Ho at least loved them. Although they were not consulted regarding the animal cruelty-free cuts, both are aware and neither objected to their inclusion.
It’s important to stress the highly professionalized and disposable culture of the Hong Kong filmmaking industry. “I’m exaggerating a bit, but considering the extreme commercial nature of the industry and that many were just workmen rather than auteurs, even if you asked them for input, they probably don’t have that much,” Cheung reminded me. “The relationship with the work is different unless you’re like Wong Kar-Wai or someone like that. You very rarely get directors going back to tinker with their films, in part because they don’t own them.”
For half a century, Hong Kong has thrived as an outpost of Western influence in China’s backyard, and its film industry (and the exploitation films within that system) existed in defiance of the People’s Republic. It’s not hard to read sublimation of precarious politics and censorship displaced as violence and horror in the extremity of those films. As Hong Kong and its cultural institutions are subsumed into China’s orbit and the American film industry becomes increasingly beholden to massive Chinese market forces, it’s vital to preserve these films, and see them as they were made by informed audiences, because it doesn’t look likely anything like them ever will be made again—even if it does mean seeing some pigs get slaughtered.