Noël Burch wrote,
"[A]ll really censurable images, whether erotic, repugnant, violent, or truly subversive (as opposed to images that ambarrass a party or a regime, though not society as a whole, and therefore inconvenience a government but do not traumatize its constituents: shots of the slums at Nanterre as opposed to shots of a fraudulent election) are, despite other possible differences, forms of aggression. ... Le Sang des bêtes is certainly not a film for children, but neither is Last Year at Marienbad." (Theory of Film Practice, p. 124)
Films, images retain the power to disrupt our complacency. We just have to keep recognizing how to burrow under our skin the right way. Cruelty can be rationalized, and once it is, its effects are won over as a commodity--one can undergo it willingly (cf. the end of Brian De Palma's brilliant "Be Black Baby" sequence in Hi, Mom!). This is what has happened to the horror film as a genre, very early on even, so that critics who want to argue for horror as 'subversive' must do so on the level of thematic content & interpretation at least as much as on the level of form or simply the pure realization of bloody, terrifying content ... probably more so. (Romero makes thrilling, subtle parables--superb films--but he doesn't assault our eyes and bodies. Fulci? Maaaaaybe.)
Ridley Scott started out as a worthy filmmaker--his first three features are really notable works, though I don't know that he's shot a single good frame since Blade Runner. (No, I haven't bothered to see everything.) I recall the strobe climax of Alien to be interesting precisely because it went out of the ordinary for special effects or mere "atmospherics" to weave in some literal, optical, graphic extremity. (There's also some strobe violence in the first Blade film, right? I have that sitting around somewhere, maybe I should take a look.) These sorts of images, semi-intelligible happenings, get back into the potential of psychic violence that films in the horror vein, grand guignol films, dark oneiric fantasies, can project. (They're what Buñuel thinks about in the moment before he slices the eye in Un Chien andalou, perhaps.) In my imagination, this is what certain recent films I still haven't seen, only heard of, only wish I had a(nother) chance to see, take to the extremes: João César Monteiro's Snow White, the films of Philippe Grandrieux ...
Flicker films remain one of the supreme forms of violent, aggressive cinema. Of course, when I see one of these films, I've come to the theater knowing what I'm in for, looking forward to it. Maybe I myself am even commodifying the experience, certainly I'm well-prepared and whetted for Sharits' neon frames or Kubelka's monstrous-sounding black-and-white Arnulf Rainer for the carefully controlled rushes that these films bring me. Regardless of what it does to me, however, and how I might nullify the violence, rationlize it, and experience it as aesthetic rapture, I see and hear the discomfort these films can still bring to others (which is so rare or tame in horror cinema). And cruelty, the subjection of an audience to discomfort or worse for some purpose, remains mostly a frontier for the whole medium. Is it a frontier worth exploring (and by exploring, destroying)?
There's a specter haunting this discussion, of course:
He doesn't look very happy about it, though ...