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What is movie gore made from? The answer, as one might expect, boils down to “it depends on the movie, and it depends on the kind of gore”.
Thanks to pioneers such as Rick Baker, Tom Savini and the late Dick Smith – aka the makeup artist who made Linda Blair’s head spin all the way round in The Exorcist – the world of horror special-effects is a wonderfully rich and splattery one, and a detailed exploration of the topic would take a long, long time.
In honour of Hallowe’en, here’s a quick run-through of some of the most inventive techniques used by horror filmmakers past and present to tear into flesh, open up arteries – and show their captive audiences the blood inside.
We begin in 1963, when Herschell Gordon Lewis decided that what the American public really wanted to see was a woman getting her tongue ripped out by a homicidal maniac intent on resurrecting an ancient Egyptian goddess, he decided to use a sheep’s tongue, taken from an already-slaughtered animal, to replicate the human body part.
The grisly prop, used in Lewis’s groundbreakingly graphic Blood Feast, was shipped in from an abattoir and kept on ice until needed. Unfortunately, by the time it was due to be used, a refrigerator breakdown meant that it had begun to rot, and had to be sprayed with scented disinfectant to prevent actress Astrid Olson from gagging.
More than a decade later, art director Bob Burns would use the remains of “eight cows, three goats, one chicken, two deer and an armadillo” and a real human skeleton, purchased from Japan, to help create the cannibal home decor in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (as documented in actor Gunnar Hansen’s Chain Saw Confidential). Of course, these bone props were a bit too bloodless to really qualify as gore – but they nonetheless helped give the low-budget film a chillingly authentic feel.
Likewise, Julia Ducournau’s disconcertingly sensual cannibal drama Raw, one of the goriest films of recent years, benefited from the fact that it was filmed in a real veterinary college: the gore itself is fake, naturally, but the jars of organs that we see on screen are all real.
When making Blood Feast, finding his tongue wasn’t Lewis’s only problem: the director also had to produce realistic fake blood. Later on, in fact, he would claim that it was his hunt for the perfect movie gore that inspired the film in the first place.
In the early days of cinema, sourcing a blood substitute was a relatively simple affair: filmmakers found that, in black and white, chocolate syrup had exactly the right effect – or at least a good enough effect. Famously, Alfred Hitchcock used the Bosco brand in Psycho.
But the advance of colour meant that sticky brown goop simply wasn’t a plausible stand-in anymore, and filmmakers turned to other means.
In Britain, the most famous blood substitute was Kensington Gore, affectionately named after the London street and invented by a retired Dorset pharmacist named John Tynegate.
The mixture, which relied on corn flour and food colouring, was sold as a stage prop, but soon became synonymous with Britain’s Hammer Studios, who used it in their famous gothic horror titles.
Lewis, however, was unimpressed with the exact colour of the blood used in films such as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), believing it to be a tad too bright and cheery, and decided to manufacture his own version.
“We fell into the gore aspect completely by accident,” he later told the Pink Flamingos director John Waters, in an interview cited in Waters’s Shock Value: A Tasteful Book about Bad Taste.
“I had made a black-and-white picture called Living Venus, and we had a terrible time getting a respectable type of stage blood. We went to a cosmetics lab in Florida – I still remember the name, Barcroft Laboratories – to make some stage blood. We wound up with two gallons of the stuff and we only used two eye-droppers of it in the film we were shooting. And the conversation of what we were going to do with the stuff led to Blood Feast, the first great gore film.”
The unlikely basis for Lewis’s chosen recipe? A liquid diarrhoea medicine named Kaopectate, mixed with a spot of food colouring. The only downside of his formula, the director later admitted, was that it would stain almost everything it touched.
As cinema developed, and make-up artists began to become an important creative force in their own right, many of them would develop their own special recipes and techniques – and Dick Smith, the aforementioned makeup mastermind behind The Exorcist, The Godfather and David Cronenberg’s Scanners, would perfect his own preferred formula for fake blood.
The recipe, replicated in full here, consisted of corn syrup, methyl paraben, red and yellow food colouring, water – and Kodak Photo-Flo, a wetting agent used in photography, that also happened to be poisonous.
Smith’s rationale for including the toxic ingredient, according to this exploration of the history of movie blood, was that it made the fake product behave in the same way as real blood: staining and soaking into clothing, and convincingly trickling over skin.
But if you’re going to ask your obliging actors to actually tuck into the fake flesh and blood in your film, then a poisonous concoction, no matter how convincing, definitely isn’t your best bet (unless you want to end up with an accidental snuff movie).
This, alongside the fact that blood is often placed inside the mouths of actors, ready to dramatically spurt out in the event of their on-screen deaths, means that the majority of recipes for movie blood across the years, including of course the Kensington Gore and Lewis’s Kaopectate recipe, have been edible.
During the production of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, for example, non-dairy creamer was added to a traditional food colouring and corn syrup recipe, reportedly to help add opacity.
The film ended up using 300 gallons of the stuff. Still, this was nothing compared to Fede Alvarez’s 2013 remake, which allegedly managed to get through 70,000 gallons of fake blood.
Likewise, while many impressive prosthetics have been made from foam latex, manufacturing human parts that need to be munched on requires filmmakers to get creative.
In Ducournau’s Raw, the director opted for a sugary solution: the fake blood and body parts created for her movie might turn stomachs when seen on screen, but in the flesh (so to speak) they were apparently rather appetising.
The scene in which young student Justine (Garance Marillier) tucks into the hacked off finger of her sister, after a foray into waxing goes very wrong, has been blamed for making audiences faint at early screenings of Raw.
But the prosthetic Marillier chows down on was in fact made of “candy”. “It’s like gummy bears that are melted a little bit,” the director revealed. “And the raw chicken breasts, too. Everything that they eat [in the film] is candy.”