CATEGORIES Columns, Cinematical
Sometimes it's difficult to reconcile being an animal lover and a film fan. How many movies kill off the hero's horse in the midst of battle? Quite a few. How many manage to find comedy in dogs being crushed by pianos? Not quite as many, but more than you'd think. As someone who sat through 'Dogtooth' with a cat on his lap, I'll admit to laughing maniacally at a hilarious but truly horrifying sequence involving a harmless cat and a pair of garden shears, but I can guarantee that I felt really bad for a good while afterward.

For those of us who count the furry, the feathered and the scaled among our closest companions, some movies can instantly rub us the wrong way (and Cinematical's own Scott Weinberg thinks that the MPAA should take notice). However, we can usually take solace in knowing that these scenes are staged -- that thanks to good ol' fashioned movie magic, no animal was actually killed. This has not always been the case, though.

What about movies that feature actual animal deaths? No makeup, no animatronics, no dummies -- but the actual killing of an animal for dramatic purposes. Most of the time, actual animal deaths are associated with a certain breed of trashy horror movies (oh, Italy), but sometimes more famous and respected films can feature the real on-screen death of an animal.

This begs the question(s): If the film is "art" as opposed to "junk," is the death justified? Why would it qualify as exploitation in some cases and not in others? Is this ever OK?

This debate arose here on Cinematical a few weeks back
when I wrote about the horror film 'Cannibal Holocaust', which features multiple instances of live animal deaths captured on film. Berating a film so infamously controversial may have been akin to beating a dead horse (man, if there was ever a relevant metaphor), but it remains a tough watch. In addition to the elaborately staged -- and to the film's credit, incredibly effective -- human-on-human violence, the film features a pig being shot, a turtle being torn to pieces, and a monkey being beheaded -- and the camera lingers grotesquely on each shot, in order to achieve maximum shock value.

These days, movie sets are tightly monitored for any all kind of animal cruelty (you can't even swat a real fly when a a camera is rolling), so to see non-documentary footage of animals being slaughtered on camera in service of a debauched horror movie is just plain upsetting.

Few films have truly managed to capture what death truly looks and feels like. There's always that invisible wall between fiction and reality, the thing that allows an audience to remind itself that "it's only a movie." 'Cannibal Holocaust' removes that wall. This is sick stuff, the very definition of an exploitation film (a term that's taken on oddly cuddly overtones in recent years) and the choice to kill animals -- unwilling participants who are killed just to get a reaction from the audience -- feels despicable (although the crew did supposedly eat the animals afterward, so it could be argued that they weren't completely senseless killings).

It's easy to wag your finger and cry about murder and moral bankruptcy when the film in the crosshairs is trash (and even if you like it, the film is undeniably trash in its very construct), but what about when the film is a internationally recognized masterpiece from one of cinema's most respected directors?

The film is 'Andrei Rublev' and the director is the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. A vividly realistic look at life in medieval Russia, the film is long, difficult, often confounding, occasionally boring but above all, somehow, still entrancing. It also features the horrifying death of a horse during an extended raid sequence: the horse stumbles down a set of stairs, lands hard and is stabbed through the neck with a spear. Although the film features other instances of staged animal deaths (a cow being set on fire was safely accomplished by coating the cow in asbestos, which, quite frankly, still sounds pretty horrible), but the horse was purchased from a slaughterhouse, killed for the film, and then returned to be processed.

The scene, shot in a single wide shot, is undeniably effective: a tragic, emotionally horrifying movie moment if one ever existed. Horses and their inherent beauty are a recurring theme throughout the story, and it's a sequence that feels vital to the texture of the film.

Therein lies the conundrum: does that make it okay? Does the fact that the horse died while creating "art" allow us to forgive Tarkovsky and his crew of the same thing that we instantly condemn the crew of 'Cannibal Holocaust' for? Both films are killing an animal to evoke a reaction, one going for sadness, the other going for shock, but at the end of the day, they've both taken a life. The ability of many film fans to look past Tarkovsky while admonishing 'Cannibal Holocaust' reveals a weird, potentially troubling double standard.

And there are many other layers to this. What can be said about 'Apocalypse Now', which features the death of an ox in a native ritual? Francis Ford Coppola didn't orchestrate the killing, but when his local jungle extras had a celebration unrelated to the filming, he turned on his camera, captured it documentary style and inserted it into the climax of the film. Is that evil? Is that-immoral?

On the other end of the spectrum, how many of you knew that the lovable talking animal film 'The Adventures of Milo and Otis' was originally a Japanese film called 'Koneko Monogetari: The Adventures of Chatran' that allegedly killed dozens of puppies and kittens during production? Devin Faraci wrote an article about this that will break your heart if you, like me, watched this film multiple times in your blissfully clueless youth. The film remains widely available on just about every $5 video rack around the country.

If we refuse to watch 'Cannibal Holocaust' on sheer principle, shouldn't we also refuse to watch 'Apocalypse Now'? If we're disgusted by the secret background of 'Milo and Otis,' should we treat 'Andrei Rublev' with equal disdain? Should it be judged on a case-by-case basis or is this a case of blanket moral wrongness?

It's a tough question that doesn't feel like it has an easy answer (unless you hate animals and/or you're the person who will post the inevitable "thousands of animals are slaughtered everyday, why do you care?!" comment). Animal lovers can only take solace in knowing that this is a debate that belongs firmly in the past ... the very fact that animals are protected on modern movie sets proves that we, as a species, have grown up a little.