A gateway to action movies

by Risto Kolttonen

One purpose of this article is to provide some insight on how people can get used to watching action movies. Another purpose is to encourage the reader to encounter the possible fears he might have concerning action movies, so that he will eventually be able to enjoy the movies without getting too upset.

In this brief article I will lump together a few different movie genres under one umbrella term: action movies. The genres include horror films (e.g. Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead) and action films (e.g. John McTiernan's Predator). The purpose of the blurring of distinctions is that it makes the article a little shorter. Whatever remarks will be made here concerning horror movies apply equally to "proper" action movies, and vice versa, so simply speaking of action movies in general seems appropriate. If the distinction is needed, I will use separate terms.

To make a long story short, watching action movies is a skill that can be learned. Just like singing or playing guitar, progress can be achieved by practicing. It is of course true that some people are born with certain innate talents that manifest themselves in different ways, e.g. someone can be a wonderful singer with little or no practice while another individual could excel in sports. The situation concerning watching action movies is no different. Some people just have weaker nerves while some have better, and this affects the way how well they can stand action movies.

Based on a personal experience, I know that the initial attitude towards action movies can be parodoxically two-fold. On the one hand we would like to guard our minds from excessively shocking film material, but on the other hand there may exist a weird kind of fascination towards watching action movies. So at the same time there could be both a strong drive not to watch and a strong drive to watch. What should a person do in that situation?

Again, based on my own past, I would recommend that people start to watch action movies. First of all, the feeling of being scared can, strangely enough, turn into a liberating experience. It is of course very worthwhile to ask: "What does watching action movies liberate us from?". That is very difficult psychological question that I am not able to answer in a satisfactory way. I can only refer to our existing world where numerous people watch action movies and claim that it liberates them in some way.

The word "catharsis" originates from the Greek language and means purification. The ancient greeks had a lively culture of theater in which the so called tragedies, or tragic plays, were an integral part. It has been said that watching the tragedies caused "catharsis" to the viewers, liberating them from their everyday anxieties.

For whatever reasons, action movies remain popular and people want to watch them. It is the same with literature.

It is a long-standing topic of debates whether children should be allowed to watch action movies. Personally, I am pro-choice, allowing the children to decide for themselves. There are valid exceptions to this rule when dealing with very young kids, but in general, I think a 12-year old is mature enough to decide which movies he wants to see.

But what about potentially traumatic experiences? Can a movie cause temporary or even permanent mental damage? Back in the 1980s when I went to elementary school, I remember a certain case where a friend of mine was obviously a little bit shocked after seeing a movie, but the incident caused no permanent harm. Let me illustrate this case in some detail.

It was a normal, boring day at school, I think in 1985. We were about 12 years old. It was probably a Monday, since my friend said his family had just visited his relatives in a bigger city. During their stay, my friend was allowed to watch James Glickenhaus' The Exterminator. The movie is actually called The Exterminator - Teloittaja in Finland ("teloittaja" means the executioner in Finnish). For some reason it enjoys a strong cult status in Finland. Based on the fact that my friend kept repeating certain sentences over and over, I deduced that he had been shocked by what he had seen. The pale look on his face provided additional support to my theory.

For the following few days, he kept describing how a soldier's head was cut off in the movie, and that the scene was in slow motion, with a distinctively nauseating sound effect accompanying the action. I do not know how many times he mentioned the severed head, mercury-filled custom bullets for a handgun, and the fact that a mob boss was put into a meatgrinder. However, I know I began to feel a bit shaky myself. Quite obviously the movie had been horrible, but at the same time interesting. He said I should definitely watch it, but my mental barrier prevented me from handling the situation rationally. In short, the description I heard scared the hell out of me. The scariest movie I had seen was Alfred Hitchcock's timeless classic Psycho, and although it is a very suspenseful and scary movie, it does not contain explicit violence.

As time went by, I noticed that almost all young guys were into action movies. The VHS video cassettes had begun to be common, and rental movies were easy to come by. One night I was staying overnight at another friend's place. This guy was called Jussi, and his family was liberal in that they allowed their son to rent and watch whatever films he wanted. The primary purpose of my visit was to acquire copies of computer games for the then popular Commodore 64, but Jussi was not content with just hanging around with the computer. He insisted that on the next day we would go to a nearby video rental shop, and rent all kinds of nasty and exciting action movies!

I felt really uneasy about his suggestion, but I did not want to appear as a whining wimp, and so I agreed. My mind soon rambled wildly and I kept generating all kinds of scary preconceptions in my brain. Then the thoughts began to revolve around the disgusting The Exterminator scenes I had heard of. Trying not to act nervous, I asked Jussi: "Dude, what kind of movies do you mean? Have you seen this thing called The Exterminator? I have heard it is quite horrible. Somebody's head is cut off and stuff like that.".

Surely enough, without hesitation or pausing, Jussi jumped up and replied: "Yeah, The Exterminator! I have seen that one. A guy gets thrown out of a flying helicopter, with a hanging rope attached around his neck, and the guy's head just rips off when he falls down. It is cool!".

I thought: "Oh no! Yet another extremely disgusting scene in that damned movie. I'll probably pass out if I see it.". We were of course both mistaken. There is no such scene in The Exterminator. Either Jussi meant some other movie, or he was just bluffing, pretending to have watched the movie. Thinking back now, I suppose he was just mistaken, because he had seen so many action movies, and once you are at that point, it can be hard to remember what happened in which movie.

Eventually we went to the video rental shop, and I allowed Jussi to make the choices, because I knew nothing about the videos. All I saw was video tape boxes everywhere, with scary looking titles, each promising hell of a lot of action. I vaguely remember asking something like this: "Hey, Jussi, you know dude, I am not too familiar with those sick action flicks. So could we avoid the heaviest stuff like The Exterminator this time and maybe choose something easier to watch?". I do not remember what he replied, but we ended up renting Wes Craven's horror film Nightmare on Elm Street. The other movie we took was Commando starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

When we watched those two movies, everything went well. I did not pass out, but I guess I did feel slightly uneasy at times. From that moment on, I was also kind of hooked on action and horror movies. I figured out that if I was ever feeling too scared or disgusted, I could always convince myself that it was only a movie. In my mind, there is always a clear separation of what is fact and what is fiction. I think that distinction is very important to remember.

Another key thing is to start out slowly with the easier movies. If you have doubts, fears, anxieties and very little experience with action movies, pick out the mainstream movies first. They are a good starting point, but once you have "mastered" them, they can get boring and predictable pretty quickly.

After you feel confident that you are at ease with the standard, conventional action movies, you can continue your journey to the yet unknown territories. For the intermediate and advanced levels, I recommend obscure italian movies.

By the way, I have never given a damn about the silly "suitability ratings" that are supposed to dictate that, e.g. certain movies are not suitable for persons under 18 years old. If you want to watch a movie, nobody else is in a better position to judge your decision than you.

In conclusion, always remember that watching movies and getting scared or disgusted is meant to be fun. You can surely laugh a lot, and even when you feel like not laughing, you can try the laughter of the nervous kind, if you know what I mean!