You might not want to read this over breakfast.
Not long ago, I watched four films in one day. The first three featured projectile vomiting, while the fourth showed a woman throwing up into a toilet bowl, after which she had to fish her mobile phone out of the puke. And, as an afterthought, her chewing gum as well.*
Vomit has become such a recurring motif in today’s cinema that it has almost ceased to make an impact, unless it comes with a gimmick, like the turbo-powered, Pepto-Bismol-coloured puke in Gentlemen Broncos, or someone being sick on a squirrel in Hot Tub Time Machine.
At what point, though, did vomiting cease to be a movie taboo? The first instance of explicit puking I could think of was in The Wages of Fear (1953), though even there it was more a case of aural than visual effects when Charles Vanel overdoes his liquor at the start of the voyage into hell. John Waters called Ingmar Bergman “the king of puke”, and it’s true Ingrid Thulin retches repeatedly and painfully in The Silence (1963). Then again, Bergman never actually shows us what she is regurgitating. Though I’m sure that if he had, Sven Nykvist would have lit it beautifully.
Waters, clearly an authority in this area, wrote in Film Comment that Mai Zetterling’s Night Games was “one of the first Swedish films to feature incredibly realistic vomiting”, though I have yet to track down a DVD to see it for myself. But in the 1970s the barf gates opened, the Pope of Trash himself leading the (dis)charge with Pink Flamingos. It was “the cheapest special effect ever”, he told David Hochman of Entertainment Weekly. “A can of creamed corn, and presto!”
In the same year, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie introduced the world to an Australian variation, the Technicolor yawn. Dustin Hoffman puked in Papillon. There’s chucking up in La Grande Bouffe, though it got a bit lost amid all the farting and incontinence. And The Exorcist put an entire generation of filmgoers off pea soup for life, as well as introducing the term “projectile vomiting” into common parlance.
After that, it was gastrointestinal regurgitation a-go-go. The six main causes of vomiting are pregnancy, inebriation, illness (including poison-induced), gluttony, shock and demonic possession, with bulimia a recent addition. The gross-out bar was set high in the 1980s by Mr Creosote’s one wafer-thin mint too many in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, challenged only by Lardass’s blueberry pies in Stand By Me, until Team America: World Police gave us the drunken puppet puke-a-thon.
Novelty upchuckings include cherry stones (The Witches of Eastwick), puking on doughnuts as digestive aid (The Fly), parasitic dairy dessert (The Stuff), gourmet nosh for aliens (Bad Taste) and entrails (City of the Living Dead). Honourable mentions are due to invisible Chevy Chase regurgitating a Chinese takeaway in Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Bill Paxton spewing in zero gravity in Apollo 13 and Hugh Grant’s vomit-encrusted jacket in An Awfully Big Adventure.
In 1998 Waters remarked to Hochman: “Vomit hasn’t been done to death in the movies.” But his observation no longer applies; nowadays it’s rare to encounter a film in which someone doesn’t blow chunks. And they nearly always make it look unfeasibly quick and easy. Thulin in The Silence conveyed all the debilitating awfulness of vomiting. Admittedly, that was Bergman, who specialised in the debilitating awfulness of life in general, but more common today is the cheerful chunder of comedies such as Date Night, where Steve Carell pauses to vomit almost casually before picking up where he left off.
I’m afraid the next stage is inevitable: it’s only a matter of time before someone throws up in 3D.**
*For the record, this film was Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Ari Graynor, I salute you for making this scene funny (and gross) rather than mean-spirited drunk-shaming.
**No sooner written than seen. Piranha 3D and Jackass 3D both featured three-dimensional upchucking.
And here’s my Film Vomit Top Ten, ranked according to historical significance, inventiveness and/or grossness. Also personal taste, though ‘taste’ is perhaps an unfortunate word in these circumstances.
- Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)
- Stand By Me (1986)
- Team America: World Police (2004)
- City of the Living Dead (1980)
- The Exorcist (1973)
- Carnage (2011)
- The Stuff (1985)
- Gentlemen Broncos (2009)
- The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
- The Silence (1963)
And here is a great Film Vomit tumblr.
This piece was first posted on the Guardian website in May 2010. It also appeared for a limited period in my self-published e-book Anne Billson on Film 2010. It has been lightly edited.