Early on in Jackass: The Movie, cast members Johnny Knoxville, Chris Pontius, Dave England, and Ehren McGhehey sit around a table with a muscle stimulator (a device that sends an electric current through the muscles of whatever part of the body it is hooked up to). Knoxville starts with the stimulator pads on his cheeks. The switch is thrown and he screams in pain before ripping them off. Englund then squeezes them in the palms of his hands. The switch is thrown and he screams in pain, his hands contorting in unnatural directions as his muscles spasm from the electric current. McGhehey then has them placed on his pectoral muscles. As the electric current is turned up his body tenses and shakes as he shouts in agony. Knoxville picks up a different stimulator pad, exclaiming “This one’s for the gooch!” before a cut to Englund with the pad placed on the aforementioned area. Again he screams in pain as his legs kick back and forth while he endures it all. And then, in the logical conclusion of the scene, Chris Pontius has it done to his testicles.
If someone heard about this scene without knowing what Jackass was, it would be very easy to misinterpret it as being from some kind of sadistic horror film. The body horror genre mainly involves gross bodily mutilation to an individual or group, examples of such being Cabin Fever, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, and John Carpenter’s The Thing. The torture inflicted upon the members of the Jackass crew, both in front of and behind the camera, rivals that of the Saw franchise, the work of Takashi Miike, or the films of David Cronenberg. The main difference being the overall tone of the films and who the violence is perpetrated to.
Released in 2002, Jackass: The Movie is an adaptation of the popular television show produced by Johnny Knoxville, director of the film Jeff Tremaine, and Spike Jonze. The show, and the first film specifically, feel very indebted to the skate videos of the 90s and early 2000s, a genre which Spike Jonze helped to popularize in directing Video Days for Blind Skateboards, and co-directing perhaps the greatest skate film of all time: Yeah Right! for Girl Skateboards. Skate videos would feature various parts from different professional skaters attempting tricks, most of which would succeed, but usually not shying away from showing the failures as well. In addition, it was not uncommon for skate videos to have a variety of skits in between different skaters parts, a particular example being in Yeah Right! where actor Owen Wilson appears to do a very complex trick by swapping him out with skater Eric Koston who actually performs the trick.
It’s within the framework of small segments strung together in a larger piece that the Jackass films lie. But where a skate video is all about accomplishing stunts, Jackass is about setting up an impossible stunt and failing for the amusement of the viewer. A good example of that being the Mousetraps stunt, in which Ehren McGhehey attempts to crawl over hundreds of mouse traps placed on the ground. As soon as he steps onto the floor all of the traps start going off, attaching to his body or just flinging themselves at him. There’s a frankly beautiful overhead shot of McGhehey rolling through the traps as they all go off in chain reaction. By the end of the segment, McGhehey’s bare torso is almost completely red, and covered in welts resulting from the chaos. It’s a hilarious scene, but also goes to highlight some of the immense amount of pain the performers in these films go through for the entertainment of their audience. While the cast members scream in pain, each of them has chosen to participate in the stunts. So while it accomplishes the same goal as a body horror film, by bending and breaking the body in unnatural and unnerving ways, the fact that each of the participants are willing, and the cast is so jovial while filming, that it surpasses the horror and becomes comedy.
Like all of the best body horror films, there are certain moments that are still incredibly difficult to watch. One scene involves Steve-O at a Japanese restaurant snorting wasabi. His screams of agony are followed by intense vomiting, and by the end of the scene he eats the vomit and throws up again. It is an incredibly disgusting scene which, to get personal for a moment, forced this writer to watch it with their hands in front of their eyes. Another scene involves Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O getting paper cuts, on the webbings of Knoxville’s fingers and toes and at the corner of Steve-O’s mouth. It’s an incredibly visceral scene, made even more so by cinematographer Lance Bangs fainting just from watching it. It’s this kind of willing mutilation to the human body that makes these films stand out amongst other “low-brow” comedy films, and the fact that it’s all real just makes it even more unique.
2006’s Jackass Number Two takes the same formula as the original, but with a much larger budget. Most sequels that just keep the same idea with more money thrown at it would feel pretty stale, but because of the Jackass formula, it allows them to be much more inventive with the pranks and stunts shown to viewers. The film opens on the core Jackass cast running through a suburban street, before it is shown that they are being chased by a herd of bulls. The very next scene involves Chris Pontius getting the head of his penis bitten by a snake. The success and larger budget of this film has allowed the filmmakers the kind of creative freedom they were always deserving of, and opens the door for the cast to mutilate themselves in more elaborate ways.
A great example of the body horror at work in this film is the sketch titled The Leech Healer. During the segment, Steve-O has a traditional Indian leech healer apply a leech to his eye. The men behind the camera yell for him to keep his eye open so they can get the shot, but as Steve-O’s screams become more and more panicked it becomes clear that the pain being inflicted is too much to bear. Steve-O runs out of frame before it cuts to show his bloodshot eye, a circle embedded in it from where the leech was originally attached. It’s a truly gut-wrenching sequence to watch, and feels like the most intense stunt in all three of the films.
The film’s crowning achievement is a sketch called The Fish Hook. It begins with Steve-O and Chris Pontius on a boat, Steve-O attempting to shove a fish hook through his cheek. He tries for a while but is not able to do it. Pontius steps in and helps him finish piercing the hook through his flesh, exclaiming “That hurt to do that to you.” Steve-O then says “Alright, cast me out!” and jumps into the water. The scene then cuts to an underwater shot, revealing to the viewer that the water is filled with sharks. The rest of the scene plays out with Steve-O attempting to swim away from all the sharks before eventually getting back on the boat. In a way, it’s the perfect Jackass stunt, beginning with revolting body mutilation before transitioning into an incredibly dangerous and intense suspense scene, all the while being so absurd to still make the viewer laugh.
Jackass Number Two has the most winning stunts out of any of the films. The Beehive Limo where members of the cast think they’re in a limo to a photo shoot, only to then have the doors locked and bees poured in through the sunroof. Medicine Ball Dodgeball where the entire cast plays dodgeball with heavy medicine balls, in a completely pitch black room. The Toro Totter where Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, Chris Ponius, and Ryan Dunn all sit on a four way teeter-totter while a bull tries to attack them. And it ends with a great musical sequence in which each member of the cast performs a stunt, ending with Johnny Knoxville paying homage to perhaps the biggest filmic influence for the Jackass style: Buster Keaton.
Jackass 3D, released in 2010, is not necessarily a bad film, but does little to improve what had been done before it. While still having some great and disgusting sketches, such as Ehren McGhehey having a tooth pulled out by a Lamborghini, pulling off chest hair with super glue, or having the cast try to stand behind a running jet engine, the film doesn’t elevate in the same way that the second film did over the first. And with the cast having aged more, and having done these things for ten years at that point, the willingness to put their body on the line has definitely lessened. It is possible that the 3D technology could have made this film stand out from the other two, but with it now being so inaccessible, watching in 2D does not quite have the same effect.
While obviously not for everyone, the Jackass films stand alone amongst a trove of forgettable comedies. Not only because of the evolution of physical and slapstick comedy present in all three films, but the willing masochism of all the participants provides a very real sense of danger to every scene. The viewer never knows whether the next scene is going to make them laugh, make them squirm with discomfort over the ways in which the human body can be abused and manipulated, or just make them want to vomit.