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Readers offer 'Chaos' theories

Manufacturing victims: A scene from "Chaos."

Roger Ebert’s review of the horror film “Chaos,” and the subsequent exchange of “open letters” between the film’s makers and Ebert, inspired an unusual number of impassioned and thoughtful responses from readers. (One of them, an account of a Los Angeles screening attended by the filmmakers, has already been printed in Scanners, the editor’s blog, and is also reprinted as the last item on this page.)

-- Jim Emerson, Editor of

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Dear Roger Ebert:

Thank you for your answer to the makers of “Chaos." There has always been murder. There has always been evil. But there will also be hope right up until the sun burns out. Hope helps us get past both our certain knowledge of death, and our utter ignorance of what comes after.

Not every artist feels that way, of course. Many choose a path of nihilism because they feel that it helps them step out of the “mainstream.” (This is the same reason that millions of angsty ignored teenagers discover Nietzche and Rand every year.) But I have noticed that these artists are usually our younger ones. By the time they are older, and have lost loved ones , they are usually looking for as much hope as the rest of us. If the makers of “Chaos” have more films in their future I would to love to see their reaction to this movie in a few years. Charles G. Thompson Dallas, Texas

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Dear Roger Ebert:

I just read your review of "Chaos," the filmmakers' reply and your response, and I'd just like to comment on it. I should say that I have not seen the film, so I am only going by your criticism and the debate that followed. But I think I can make a few points about it.

There are essentially two justifications that they brought up for making the movie. You replied to both of them, but I'd like to add my two cents.

1. The ridiculous "educational" message that opens the film. As you rightly pointed out, the only message one could possibly learn is "that evil people will torture and murder them if they take any chances, go to parties, or walk in the woods" and "that evil reigns and will triumph." You neglected to mention one thing: The only victims who did anything "wrong" were women. Were we to take the message seriously, it is this: that women (especially young and pretty ones) should stay home and do what they're told, and if they don't, they DESERVE to get tortured, raped, and killed. This is a classic example of what feminists call the "protection racket," and there's probably enough in this one movie to fuel a dozen Susan Sontag books.

2. The "violent films for a violent society" justification. For one thing, it's based on a failed premise: our society may be violent, and in fact violent crime rates have risen slightly in the past two or three years. But crime rates are nowhere near what they were in the late 1970's or early 1990's, and in general have been declining. (Statistics here: .) Following their logic, their film should not have contained any more violence than the most violent film of 1993.

But even this reasoning is bunk, and you let them off much too lightly when you simply called it a "surrender." The filmmakers claim that they "tried to give you and the public something real." This claim has a simple rebuttal: Their film is not a documentary. It is fabricated out of whole cloth -- more accurately, out of the celluloid scraps of better films, as you and others pointed out. The filmmakers chose what to put on screen; it is no more "real" than an episode of “Full House.”

They may not accept this rebuttal, so let's try a simple thought experiment. Let's suppose this film was based on actual events that happened in real life, where every drop of screen blood matched a drop from a very real human. Do you think the filmmakers would be able to look the victims and their families in the eyes? I personally think they wouldn't even be able to shoot the film without feeling as you did -- "filled with sadness and disquiet," this time about themselves.

There is, of course, something much uglier going on here. There is an unspoken rule about seeing horror films: we don't just want to recoil at the violence, we want at some level to identify with the killers -- to vicariously live out our own sadistic urges. But we don't want to admit this, even to ourselves, so we dehumanize the killers. It's usually done in one of two ways: either by making them utterly inhuman and preternaturally powerful (the un-killable villains in the "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" films utter not a single line of dialogue), or by making them people who are completely outside of society (usually they are depicted as poor rural whites, which opens up a whole other can of worms). Because this is clearly the only reason to see this film, I suggest a better title for the movie: "Id."

This isn't really all that novel. It has been going on long before films were invented, from Roman gladiators to Grand Guignol. In fact, if the filmmakers had copped to their motives, I would say you were being too hard on the movie, and would recommend you give it one star instead of none. But they do not. Their response is not an intellectual rebuttal by filmmakers who take their subject matter seriously. It is the reaction of a person who has lived all his life in one dark corner of his own basement, blinking when the lights are turned on.

Having said all that, I'm glad you brought the film to my attention. I am a rather shameless fan of vicarious sadism, and will definitely see it as soon as possible. Just not in public.

-Karlheinz Noise Cambridge, MA

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Dear Roger Ebert:

I wanted to thank you for the letter you wrote and posted on your website regarding the film "Chaos" and your response to it. I have not seen this film myself, and so cannot comment directly on it. I have, however, seen films that have prompted the same response in me that "Chaos" prompted in you. Films such as "Irreversible" and "Seven," for example, purport to convey the "truth" about the human condition but in reality are exercises in stylish, chic nihilism.

The great film critic Robin Wood, in his book "Hitchcock's Films Revisited," made a fascinating comparison between the Hitchcock film "Shadow of a Doubt" and the David Lynch film "Blue Velvet." Wood called "Blue Velvet" an example of "the mortician's art," because in the battle between good and evil, it gave evil all the drama and power while making "good" an object of ridicule. This is almost exactly how I felt about the David Fincher film "Seven," which treats its killer John Doe with what I feel is a chilling admiration, while "good" is represented by the ineffectual Pitt and world-weary Freeman characters.

Compare that film with "The Silence of the Lambs." "Lambs" presents truly evil characters, but balances them with a fierce, powerful force of good represented by Jodie Foster's Clarice (not surprisingly, the Fincher film I most admire is "Panic Room," and I truly feel that Foster's presence helped moderate Fincher's more nihilistic tendencies). There can be tragedy, defeat, and sadness in film without resorting to the numbing deadness of nihilism. "Vertigo" is one of the most tragic films in existence, but it leaves you with (as you put it) a true catharsis, because it plays fair and shows how its characters so completely determine their own fates with their own decisions. Films like "Irreversible" and "Seven" do not provide catharsis. Rather, they prompt a feeling of bleak despair because they teach that evil can have its way with you at any time, and there is nothing you can do about it. I am well aware that evil exists in the world. Part of my job includes evaluating and treating sex offenders, and I have heard some of the worst that men and women can do. Why do I keep doing it? Because I have to believe that there is a reason to keep fighting, and that even those who have committed terrible crimes can change for the better, if they want to. It may seem trivial to take a film to task for presenting a bleak worldview. But film, and art of all kinds, reflects the kind of society we live in. Robin Wood, in his critique of "Blue Velvet," writes "A civilization gets, by and large, the art it deserves." If we as a society want to see less of films like "Chaos," we need to demonstrate faith in each other and in our mutual power to fight against, well, chaos. Sincerely, Steven Knauts, Ph.D. Atlanta, Georgia

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Dear Roger Ebert:

I write in appreciation of your August 19, 2005, response to the makers of “Chaos.” Although I have not seen that film, I agree profoundly with the position you take on artists and responsibility.

It is appropriate that you draw attention to the Ancient Greeks. For Aristotle, the fragility of human life, when contrasted with the immense and destructive power of nature, was indisputable. The challenge for human beings was to remember the kinds of acts that enable them to sustain themselves in the natural world. Art, at its best, facilitates such recollection.

Possibly the makers of “Chaos” intended to awaken those who have become anaesthetized to the unlimited natural forces that threaten human beings and their communities. But the real world horrors they cite in their response to your original review are already familiar to us; we know too well the evils of our time. We count on those who are shielded from destruction to show compassion for those who remain exposed. We count on our artists to help us to remember truly human acts, so that we can ourselves be capable of such acts, and perhaps bring into existence a slightly more human world.

It is indicative of an utter lack of perspective that the makers of “Chaos” take as the evil to be eradicated the corny PG-13 horror film. That they refer to real-world evils in an effort to justify their work is to be ignored if the work itself leaves us paralyzed with hopelessness and offers us no ideas.

Sincerely, Stephen B. Hawkins Doctoral student in Philosophy University of Ottawa Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

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Dear Roger Ebert:

I believe your reference to ancient Greek tragedy and poetic theory is apt in this context, but, perhaps for reasons of space, you unfortunately conflated Greek attitudes towards art that are not compatible. Plato, as I have no doubt you know, decried both poetry and drama. His complaint was that fictional discourse by its nature leads people to respond emotionally. That, for Plato, was bad: a way of manipulating the populace. Aristotle’s famous treatise on tragedy aimed to defend it against Plato. Essentially, he admitted Plato’s charge. However, he pointed out that real tragedy (and by extension real art of any sort) does not simply leave its viewers with an emotional response. Real art challenges the viewers to think about their response and thus returns rationality to the equation. Surely, for most of the play, Oedipus Tyrranus offers as bleak a view of human nature as is possible. But as it does so, and especially in the conclusion, it invites us to contemplate how we are similar to Oedipus. Without this element, movies such as “Chaos” are simply exercises in a form of pornography. I have not and will not see that movie, but something like any one of Stephen Seagal’s many films illustrates the point graphically. We are invited to glory emotionally in Seagal’s brutal revenge without ever thinking about its implications. Thanks, John Tomas Chicago, IL

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Dear Roger Ebert:

As a fan of Kevin Gage and webmaster for his fan site, I have really been struggling with how to report about Chaos. There's no way I would watch something like that, but I still had to figure out what to say about it to our readers. I hate to diss Gage's work, but I also hate to promote films that sell sadism and pointless violence.

Your review and your response to DeFalco and Bernheim's rebuttal said it all for me. It not only gave me something to point my readers to for more information, but helped me find the realize that I don't need to apologize for my distaste for this sort of material.

Thank you for watching this film and writing about it so that others can be spared the experience.

Regards, Donna McMaster Corvallis Oregon

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Dear Roger Ebert:

While on your holier-than-thou jag against the film "Chaos" you seem to have forgotten that you were directly responsible for such scenes as: 1) a gun being placed in a sleeping woman's mouth/trigger pulled/gusher of blood; 2) large quantities of drugs taken for recreation; 3) scenes of promiscuity; 4) a man with breasts (the actual inspiration for Seinfeld"s "Bro"?) hacking off the head of a beefcakey actor in a Speedo, while a Nazi...but why go on? I speak, of course of “Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls,” your version of “Sunset Boulevard” on bad acid. I know the film has attained the status of cult classic over the years, but I recall that when it came out it was pretty reviled. I suppose that you will defend it by telling us that it had an element of hope. What was that, the large breasted women who might (in your wildest dreams) give you a tumble, or the fact that gas was at 30 cents a gallon and could (oh, let's hope!) go back down to near that level. I can almost hear a twenty-something Roger Ebert defending himself by saying: "I'm just presenting a portrait of evil and corruption in the world..." The occasional violent and shocking film should be par for the course for you by now. Getting in a lather about it serves no purpose except to expose the limits of your own suspension of disbelief, a rather necessary element for any honest critic, I would think. To paraphrase Harry Truman, "If it's too hot in the screening room, get out." Besides, Shakespeare set the bar for this sort of thing with Titus Andronicus hundreds of years ago. Life has always been evil, Roger. Get over it. Doug Finch Brattleboro VT

* * * * Dear Roger Ebert: Your review of “Chaos” left me feeling sad beyond words. I am glad I read it so that I will not make the mistake of going to the movie and supporting the people who created it. I have never understood people who create evil and couch it in terms of art. I am a firm believer of artistic expression but believe there must be a purpose to art other than to exploit people's misery and death.

In your response to the filmmakers' letter to you, you note that a movie such as "Chaos" is exploitive. There is no better word to describe it. A movie that simply allows you to watch people be gruesomely tortured, raped and murdered, without commenting on these actions or using them in a particular context, exists only to exploit the pain of the people being murdered in the film and people who have been murdered in real life. The people die, are raped and are murdered for no other reason than the audience's enjoyment. A film that would handle this type of topic in this way is no different than a snuff film.

What the filmmakers seem to miss, although they address it in their letter, is that what happens in the movie, unfortunately, happens to people almost every day, in some form. Often the violence is not quite that extreme, but in some instances it is. What the filmmakers did is just expose the pain and suffering of the real like victims so that they could make $9 a person at a theater. The real life victims who have died in such a fashion would watch, if they were still alive, their utter pain and humiliation and horror splashed upon a screen as entertainment. No one in the audience can help the people on screen, just like no one was able to help the real life victims. The filmmakers do not seem to understand this horror and violation.

Instead, the audience members watch and perceive murder and torture. Handled as the filmmakers of “Chaos” do, where the camera is simply a conduit for viewers to witness this horror, the action in the movie becomes real, and real violence is perceived by the audience members as having happened. In effect, by not commenting on the murders or placing them in context, the filmmakers have themselves committed the crimes perpetuated on the screen.

Further, a film that handles its material in the way “Chaos” does commits violence not only on the characters in the film, but those watching the film. Demonstrating these actions in a manner in which no comment is made does, in fact, sanitize the material. People sitting through that movie will watch women being tortured, raped and killed. The movie goers will leave the theater feeling saddened, but just a little more able to handle these type of actions. The message they will take is that, according to the film makers, what happens is horrible and awful, however, there is nothing you can do to stop it -- it is going to happen. A viewer will leave subconsciously thinking, "Gosh, that is awful, but it happens, and that is it." Movies like this make it seem as though any effort expended to stop violence against people is fruitless, and that the violence, while sad, is inevitable. And when something is perceived as inevitable, on some level, it becomes acceptable. This message is destructive.

This movie appeals to people's most base impulses, such as those that make us look towards an accident. The difference is that the accident on the side of the road is a desperate and unintended result. A movie such as a “Chaos” is a product that was purposefully created. The filmmakers market the movie and try to get as many people as possible to see it. The problem is that this movie is not meant to entertain but to horrify, without a point.

The filmmakers ask you in their letter "How else should filmmakers address this 'ugly, nihilistic and cruel reality.'" My answer would be to donate their time to women's groups by filming public service announcements about where battered women can seek help. Or perhaps they could do safety videos to be shown in schools about the dangers of talking to strangers and doing drugs (which seems to be the crimes the girls in the film committed that justified their deaths). Or perhaps they could just do a movie that addresses the violence addressed in “Chaos” and show every showing for free with a question and answer period after each showing to explain why they created such a movie.

People will say that because I have not seen the film, this reaction is not justified. But I do not believe that you must subject yourself to horror in order to decry that it exists.

This e-mail is not nearly as eloquent as I wish, however, it expresses my reaction to your review and editorial. That people put something into the world that simply shows for entertainment the pain and suffering of another human being is desperate and truly sad. I believe the world is, in part, an "ugly, nihilistic and cruel" reality because of people like these filmmakers who continue to introduce such horror into it.

Sara Simberg Cranford, NJ

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Dear Roger Ebert:

I'm a journalist and fellow critic for the horror-themed website Dread Central. I noticed your write-up on the film “Chaos” and the pointless violence contained therein. I also saw how the filmmakers responded to you. Well, there are a few developments in this debate that may interest you...

I attended the Los Angeles screening of “Chaos” and director DeFalco and Bernheim were in attendance. In order to create more publicity, they were handing out copies of your review and their "clever" response letter. The audience, however, saw through their charade and lashed out during the Q&A.

Basically, DeFalco (adorned in a wrestler outfit and red contacts) started the discussion by shouting about how "hardcore" this film was. He then spouted out phrases like "I am a demon" and "I am the king of violence and evil!" But when members of the audience started in about the pointless violence of “Chaos,” the duo fell back on the film's opening "cautionary tale" crawl. As they started on a long diatribe about how they're trying to "warn and save lives," members of the audience pointed to DeFalco's acts of shameless exhibitionism (which are also displayed on the film's website). After awhile, DeFalco basically stooped to threatening the audience ("You saw what's on screen! You know what I'M capable of!")

I loved your response to their letter, but at the same time, to pay them any attention only fuels their agenda. These men are nothing more than two mindless hacks who are looking to dig up controversy, so they can sell their bad exploitation product.

Best, Andrew

P.S. Sage Stallone and many of the “Chaos” actors crashed the screening. Apparently, they were forced to do the film by contract, when they had originally signed for a "Last House on the Left" remake (producer Bernheim came onboard, replaced the creative team, and decided to plagiarize the film instead). None of them seemed too fond DeFalco or his film.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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