Monday, July 26, 2010

Defending The Indefensible: Torture Porn and Horror Today

Well, first things first. I better be more careful what I wish for.

In recent reviews here on the blog, I have lamented the "safe," mainstream nature of some 2010 Hollywood horror fare. I've even mentioned in some cases my first edict of the genre: Do the Psyche Harm.

Well, lo and behold, I've finally gotten around to screening Pascal Laugier's controversial Martyrs (2008), a movie that -- most definitively -- does the psyche harm.

The continuing controversy over that film -- re-counted in detail via the remarkably divided critical reaction -- comes down to one thread, simply: Is the film art, in the self-same tradition as The Passion of Joan of Arc? Or is it merely an ultra-gory, gratuitous example of that currently despised-genre: so-called "torture porn?"

The debate itself -- re-argued endlessly with the arrival of each new Saw or Hostel installment -- is sort of hypocritical. Some of the same genre voices who have so vociferously defended and championed the once-hated slasher movie trend of the 1980s have been among the very first to jump on the bandwagon deriding so-called torture porn.

Yet in both cases, these horror films (whether slasher or torture porn) decisively reflect what's happening in our culture, in the world itself. One can't (or at least shouldn't...) blame these contemporary movies for holding up a mirror to our contemporary beliefs, to current events, to modern mind-sets and fallacies. Sure, the torture porn films -- just like the slasher films that came before them -- abundantly feature their own brand of highs and lows. But to dismiss an entire sub-genre out of hand with an easy, negative label is to miss out on some very powerful, very worthwhile material.

You see, I'm old enough to remember when it was the the slasher film that was termed an "incitement to violence," and directors of the form (including John Carpenter and Brian De Palma) were actually called "pornographers" by the likes of journalists such as Zina Klapper, writing in Ms. Magazine.

I'm old enough to remember when Janet Maslin in The New York Times (back in 1982...) wrote of slashers: "you leave the theater convinced that the world is an ugly, violent place in which aggression is frequent and routine."

I remember when Commonweal's critic, Tom O'Brien said that Friday the 13th "literalizes the violence against women [that] feminist groups have identified as the core of pornography."


I remember when a critic I deeply admire, Roger Ebert -- who was insightful enough to recognize the social value of Last House on the Left -- opined of slasher movies (and the F13 series specifically) that they portray a world in which "the primary function of the teenagers is to be hacked to death."


He missed the point. The primary function of the teenager in the 1980s slasher film was to survive the gauntlet. To survive in a world in which the deck seemed stacked against him or her; in which Mother Nature herself -- giving cover to Jason during his bloody attacks via thunderstorms and lightning strikes -- seemed determined to snuff teenagers out. In the pervasive "apocalypse mentality" of the 1980s, when the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, James Watt said Judgement Day could well be at hand for this "last" generation, these movies -- and the slasher form itself -- had something vital to tell teenagers.

Be smart...be resourceful, and you will survive.


And yet today, these lessons of recent history seem forgotten. I see the "torture porn" genre harshly criticized, in the very tradition of these attacks on the slasher film, but without many substantive arguments as to what's actually wrong, corrupt or immoral with the form. Is it because these movies openly concern cruelty? Extreme violence? Blood and guts?

If so, when did horror lovers become so...milquetoast? The Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn't all about a simple tea party, you know.

I've written about this before, but good horror movies are all about pushing boundaries, about shattering taboos, about transgressing traditional senses of decorum, and that's what films like Hostel, Saw, the Last House on the Left remake and Martyrs accomplish...in spades. The question becomes: are these transgressions based purely on puerile, sadistic impulses? Or do they carry with them a higher aesthetic purpose? Do these movies tell us something critical about "who we are" right now, at this juncture in history? Is there a purpose and morality to the violence featured on screen, or is it all just bread and circuses?

The simple answer, of course -- exactly like the slasher film before it -- is that the fair-minded individual and reviewer should take each example on its own merits, and judge on a case-by-case basis. One should not paint an entire classification of horror film with one easy brush-stroke.


But at its apex, the the "torture porn" format addresses several important aspects of today's culture with cogent authority. First, it reflects the reality that the media already inundates us (on the 24-hours cable news networks) with ultra-violent images on a almost-daily basis. From government-authorized imagery of vanquished enemy corpses (Saddam's Hussein's sons) to battlefield imagery itself, we've witnessed a lot of real-life "horror" since 9/11. We've seen torture in the photographs from the Abu Ghraib scandal, and also fictional torture performed routinely by American "heroes" like Jack Bauer on 24. And the New York Times won't even use the word "torture" when it applies to the United States doing it. When we torture, it's "coercive interrogation techniques." Ex-President Bush has said he would (illegally) authorize water boarding all over again, too. To quote Bob Dole: "where's the outrage?"

I'll tell you where the outrage is: it's in the moral barometer of the horror film. If we visit torture upon others for our own reasons, is it right for other nations to visit torture upon our people, on Americans? This is the subtextual context of the Hostel films: blow back.

Even if we truly boast noble motives for torture (preserving security, sponsoring democracy across the world) does that behavior make us heroes or monsters? Well, my friends, the self-same question applies to JigSaw (Tobin Bell), a horror movie icon who also has "pure" motives for the torture he inflicts upon others. He wants to "help" them. He wants to "free them" from their demons.

In the 2009 version of The Last House on the Left, Dr. Collingwood expresses not one recrimination about his murderous actions; and that's also the official take of our government today. President Obama wants to "turn the page" on American moral abuses of the Bush Years thus leaving them unaddressed...and unpunished. That's also the state in which we leave Dr. Collingwood in the film. Mari (like America) is safe and sound, but he (like our nation) hasn't yet looked in the mirror and faced the consequences of his bloody actions. That needs to happen.

And the very best of the torture porn films deal with this admittedly gruesome subject matter in a trenchant, thoughtful manner. Martyrs seems to ask, what comes after torture? What arises inside a person after such brutality?

Until we deal decisively and responsibly with what's been done in our names, for our "security," this repressed evil will bubble up and return as symptoms...certainly in our entertainment, especially our dark entertainment. This has always been so, and I submit, will continue to be so as long as horror movies exist. The form mirrors our worst fears, our darkest psychological demons. Horror can comment on our times in a way that other genres can't and don't. Love them or hate them, torture porn films fit this definition to a tee. They live up to the historical legacy of the horror format.

I guess what I'm saying is really simple: don't blame the messenger. Torture porn films may not be to your personal taste (they certainly aren't universally to mine, either...), but at the very least they have a right to exist, and more-so, are actually serving a valuable social purpose within the pop culture, at least in this age. And if it is necessary to deride these films, get to specifics. What is it about the form that is corrupt, immoral or wrong? What about these films debauches you? If you are a critic, you owe it to your audience, to your readers, to explain the "why" behind the dislike of this sub-genre.

It's always easy to bash and mock the movies that don't fit our preconceived notions of what the genre could be (just look at the universal mocking and tongue-lashing that Twilight gets from genre writers, on a daily basis.) A lot of people don't like torture porn, either and that's absolutely fine. It's not my preferred thing, as I've stated. But the form shows us where we are, and isn't, actually, you know, porn. Or if it is, I guess the slasher films were pornography too....

And I guess I'm a porno blogger...

18 comments:

  1. SteveW2:06 PM

    As someone who loves De Palma but can't stand torture porn, I'd draw some distinctions. Of course these are subjective and everyone will draw different lines.

    1) Are the characters interesting/sympathetic in their own right? Or do they exist only to suffer and bleed? Is the movie primarily about how they suffer and bleed? Does their suffering and bleeding become so overwhelming and upsetting that it basically steamrolls whatever other themes (e.g., America's behavior abroad) are present?

    2) Is the characters' suffering prolonged? Does the movie rub our noses in it? Each of us has an "enough" point--for some it may come with the first slash of the razor in "Dressed to Kill." I have a higher tolerance than that, but most torture porn goes way beyond my envelope for watching people suffer pain.

    3) Trapped and helpless versus a sudden attack. It's one thing to experience prolonged suspense followed by a sudden, quick shock--tension and release--and quite another to experience prolonged horror/pain/misery with no prospect of release.

    4) Whose side is the movie on? Does the movie put us on the side of the sickos or their victims? When Hannibal Lecter becomes the "hero" of his movies by being superior to the other characters (wittier/more powerful/smarter), and we're basically put on his side and invited at some level to admire/enjoy his superiority, it really bugs me. When Carrie or Gillian in the "The Fury" turned into killers, we felt their loss of humanity as a real loss. We may at some level cheer on their revenge against their tormentors, but De Palma is skilled enough to also make us feel horror at their turn to the dark side. (Tony Montana is an exception to this rule--we're meant to find him fascinating even though he's a stone-cold killer--but I've always felt that that movie was more Oliver Stone's conception than De Palma's.)

    Just some random thoughts. To me taboo-shattering in movies should be done with a sense of style and fun. Back in the day, many people found the shower attack in "Psycho" or the elevator attack in "Dressed to Kill" too upsetting to be considered fun. Today these moments--seen for the first time--are likely to elicit a jump, a squirm, a scream, then a laugh at how we'd been "gotten." It's a qualitatively different thing than the grim, unrelenting carnage in some of these recent movies. You can push the envelope, but eventually you pop the balloon.

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  2. Hi Steve:

    Wow! That's just the sort of substantive and thoughtful response I hoped my essay would elicit. You really enunciate your points clearly. Thank you so much.

    For me, your fourth point is the one that resonates most deeply with me. I agree with you that it is important (critical even...) to know whose side the movie is on.

    However, what I think is different in 1990s-2000s fare -- and which is a legitimate choice -- is the idea that, simply put, many of the characters in the play have sinned.

    Hannibal Lecter in his own twisted (and yes, sick) fashion possesses a moral code that, for instance, Ray Liotta's FBI superior in the film HANNIBAL does not. Clarice is actually "safer" with Hannibal (physically and emotionally) than with this guy.

    And that in and of itself makes a point about our times; about our culture. The same is true of Jigsaw. He has a moral code. It isn't ours, but he is consistent and adheres to it.

    But -- going back to your point -- Clarice still handcuffs Hannibal and tries to bring him in. You see? She doesn't cross the line (as she did in the novel the book was based on...) and join up with "the monster." We know, finally, whose side she is on.

    But in all of horror history there is this dangerous flirtation with sympathy/identification for the monster.

    I submit it's okay if it is just a flirtation and not a commitment, to extend the relationship metaphor.

    I also agree with you that we all have different breaking points. And that horror films are part of a continuum. Psycho and Dressed to Kill (and Friday the 13th) were considered pornographic by some in their day; just as many of these films are today.

    My point is that in 20 years, Hostel or Saw will seem, likely, just as harmless. The goal line moves. The taboos move. It's silly to decry these films for reflecting who we are...especially if we are not going to change who we are.

    Thank you so much for such a thoughtful and in-depth comment. I may post again later, as I'm still thinking about everything you wrore

    All my appreciation,
    John

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  3. An excellent bit of analysis, John. It is an interesting phenomenon that "the same genre voices who have so vociferously defended and championed the once-hated slasher movie trend of the 1980s have been among the very first to jump on the bandwagon deriding so-called torture porn." It makes me wonder, personally, if this reaction is not generational in nature. I know that the things I once watched in the genre I still hold in high regard (THE EXORCIST, NIGHT/DAWN OF THE DEAD, HALLOWEEN, THE THING). But, I've found as I've grown older that I'm less drawn to the more cruel and visceral. Zombie's HALLOWEEN II remake (THE DEVIL'S REJECTS really hit me hard), is a good example of this. SteveW covers a good bit of my hesitancy with his penetrating comment, as well.

    Still, your main point that what horror genre filmmakers bring with their art is a powerful snapshot reflection of our culture. We are without peer when it comes to espousing our nation's platitudes (and many of them are worth it). It is a common ploy of most politicians/parties to deploy because it distracts (especially during elections). However, many of the underlying aspects (the darker, more unsavory facets in our history and in our current actions) aren't readily available or discussed much in pop societal channels. I guess that's why David Lynch's BLUE VELVET was so powerful, and an eye-opener (in many ways). Maybe, as we grow older (and have gathered the memories and loved ones through the years), our tendency is to move to the more safe and less challenging.

    My recent read of Don Winslow's new book, SAVAGES, noted our penchant for distraction (and the media outlets feeding that). A great example by the author was while the wars conducted by "Cheney and the sock-puppet" played out during the 00's, what were we (in general) enthralled with on the tube? Anna Nicole Smith. When one character in the book didn't want to think about what was really going on in the tale, the novel's narrator commented, "Like the American public." I find your defense of The Indefensible very thought-provoking and more than valid. I may skip some (I've heard plenty with regard to MARTYRS and INSIDE to make me wonder if I'd ever slide them into my disc player), but the fact they exist and draw discussions like this one is well worth the cringing (on my part)... and the look into ourselves (like the insightful writers on the subject like yourself). Who knows? I may yet have it in me to watch these (perchance, even SALO (120 Days of Sodom), the film I opined on awhile back on just this subject, is still in my future, and worth the examination.

    As always, thanks very much for this, John.

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  4. Le0pard13:

    You always make great points, and you are right on the money again, my friend.

    To a large degree, I think this is a generational thing. As you say, as we get older, we gravitate towards things that feel...safer.

    I am not immune to this myself, either: it took me over a year-and-a-half to get to Martyrs, and I am terrified of watching Inside. Truly.

    I can't and wouldn't argue personal taste. I understand why some people are legitimately and authentically disturbed by torture porn, especiallly given my own fear of watching Inside (brrrr...)

    I suppose my point is simply that personal taste is not sufficient grounds on which to dismiss a whole genre, in my opinion. It's like what happened with the slashers, and it saddens me to see so many horror-themed writers repeat the mistakes of history.

    I do think torture porn says a lot about where we've been, as a country, in the last decade, as you suggest. I agree that it isn't pleasant at all...but it is what it is. (And Devil's Rejects is indeed bracing...but, I submit, brilliant...).

    We do love to be distracted from hard truth, so the question becomes: are these violent, gory movies the distraction or the repressed truth coming up to "scare us?" Food for thought!

    Thanks for the great comment.

    best,
    John

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  5. SteveW4:54 PM

    Thanks! I really like how you lay out the issues cleanly and directly too.

    The issue of whose side a movie is on is a tricky one, and rarely boils down who gets handcuffed or otherwise punished in the end. Movies have always loved renegades and outlaws, after all, from the days of Cagney, Bogart, and E.G. Robinson to today. Those guys often ended up arrested or killed too--and yet we were obviously at some level invited to root for them, if for no other reason than the star power of the actors playing them.

    But those old movies didn't rub our noses in the ruthlessness of the characters either. (Cagney sticking a grapefruit in the face of his girlfriend was shocking for the time.) That changed with characters like Eastwood's Man with No Name, who broke taboos by shooting first and repeatedly and in cold blood but was still clearly the hero, by virtue of his being surrounded by people even scummier than he was.

    Then you get to characters like Lecter and Jigsaw, who we're also invited to see as "outlaws" living by some sort of moral code, but whose levels of twisted and highly detailed psychopathy go way beyond those earlier characters.

    To me, any argument can be carried to absurd extremes, and I feel that that's what's happening here. Sure, we all like charming outlaws, but if you try to sell me on a charming outlaw who eats the brains of his enemies in graphic detail, I have to go, um, no thanks. At this point charming roguishness and any notion of a moral code become irrelevant in the face of the sheer vileness of the conception. I start thinking about the moral code of the filmmakers who sit around dreaming up shit like this.

    Anyhow, great post as always. I always like meta-discussions of violence (and sex!) in the movies, as long as they don't get too theoretical and remain rooted in what's actually up there on the scene--which your analysis always does.

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  6. Steve W:

    More good points there (and well-said too).

    I do think it's a delicate dance, as you indicate, vetting violent anti-heroes in these films. In terms of horror, however -- as opposed to crime drama (i.e. Cagnery) or the anti-heroes of the 1960-and-1970s (Eastwood), horror movies also have the added duty/obligation to shock and break taboos, which may result in extremes like those we are seeing today.

    I guess, for me, I must feel that the filmmakers have a reason for the violence; that they are making some larger societal point about violence, about violent behavior, or about our culture. If that's encoded in these gory extremes, I'm okay with it.

    I do agree that gruesomeness simply to shock -- nothing more -- is problematic and debauched. I guess I do see the Saw and Lecter films as being ones where, by and large, there seems to be some sort of larger aesthetic underpinning. There's subtext and value there, in my opinion. By and large anyway.

    And, going back to your first post, I'm a huge admirer of De Palma too! He's my favorite filmmaker, actually. If I had my way, more filmmakers would emulate his style, both visual and thematic. But of course, he was accused of being a pornographer too (vis-a-vis Body Double and Dressed to Kill). So some of this is a matter of perception. De Palma's work is often leavened by humor, which is not the case at all with the Saw films (which I like very much, on a different level).

    And yes, I need to write a post about sex in movies next! Great idea. :)

    Thank you for writing, today. Your comments (and Le0pard 13's too) have really be inspirational and fascinating. Thanks for adding so much to this debate.

    Best,
    John

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  7. When did we ever come up with the label of "torture porn" for a horror movie? Plenty of movies over the years have shown brutality and torture...heck I guess you could lump The Pit and the Pendulum in there then by those standards.
    Horror is supposed to scare us, creep us out, make us think twice about going into that empty parking garage at 2am alone or down into Grandma's basement to see what that sound was. Horror films have always been filled with acts of violence, cruelty, the grotesque. As a society, we have become desensitized to these images and the horror genre as well as other genres have had to push the envelope so to speak to give us something that actually creates some sort of reaction in it's audience, instead of the "ho-hum...seen this before" reaction.
    This "trend" does in fact hold a mirror up to us and we can see clearly that our world is ultra violent, that brutality and torture is nothing new in our world, but it is a sad fact that it only seems to bother us if we go see it in a film.
    Great article
    Dreaded Dreams
    Petunia Scareum

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  8. Anonymous12:09 AM

    tdraicer:

    Hannibal is like Richard III; we are forced to identify with him despite his evil (or insanity) because he is simply so much smarter-and wittier-than his victims. And if it was good enough for Shakespeare...

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  9. Rob Zombie of all people (considering the kinds of films he makes) said that in regards to torture porn he felt that it was the equivalent of a pissing contest - who can make the most gruesome, goriest depiction of violence and what you get is an endless cycle of filmmakers trying to outdo each other. And where does it all end?

    While I do think that THE DEVIL'S REJECTS is a brilliant film I prefer something more along the lines of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (to use a recent example) that eschews in-your-face gore in favor of good ol' fashioned scares. Because, let's face it, what you can imagine is helluva lot scarier than what a filmmaker could show you.

    That being said, I find a film like William Lustig's MANIAC a much more gruesome and intense experience than something like HOSTEL because of the unrelentingly bleak, sleazy vibe that permeates the entire film. Watching it makes me want to have a shower right after. When I see a film like that, it makes me realize that Eli Roth has got a lot to learn. Much like Quentin Tarantino, he seems to be a film buff fan that delights in quoting other films whereas Lustig just went for it and created something that was from the gut and really gets under your skin in a way that is disturbing and stays with you for days afterwards.

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  10. Well, everyone's previous analysis on this will put mine to shame, but you guys hit on something that I have found problematic for some time.

    I generally despised "The Devil's Rejects", mostly due to what you have discussed here. By the end of that film, it's my assumption (and I could be wrong) that Zombie is asking us to root for the Firefly family, or at the very least to feel pity for them as they are tortured.

    It's simply inconceivable to me that anyone would feel anything but contempt for these anti-heroes after what they put the captive band through earlier in the film (let alone what they put everyone through, including the sheriff's brother, in the first film). Given my feelings toward them, the entire second half of the film doesn't work, as the director and I have such a different vision of who the heroes are.

    I had similar misgivings, although not to the same level, about Romero's "Land of the Dead". He spent a considerable amount of time trying to get me to feel pity for the zombies, but I never did. Simon Baker's plea at the end to let them go, as if the zombies are just trying to get by in life (as opposed to the fact they they murder, eat, and infect ANYONE who crosses their paths)seems insane to me.

    John, I'm tempted to give Devil's Rejects another try, as I value your opinion, but I just don't think I can get past these issues.

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  11. BT:

    You raise an interesting point. While the Fireflys do get the bulk of the running time which would indicate that Rob Zombie sympathizes with them I think that he shows both the good and bad of these people and lets you decide whether you like 'em or not. He certainly doesn't shy away from the awful behavior but also shows them to be a tight-knit family.

    The same goes for Sheriff Wydell who comes off as pretty charismatic (thanks to William Forsythe's performance) but his methods are just as rephrensible as that of the Fireflys. Which is perhaps the point. Should we really root for either side? And are they any "good" and "bad sides" to choose from? Both the law and the criminals have good and bad traits.

    That being said, I do think that ultimately, Zombie has affection for the Fireflys giving them a dramatic, almost touching send-off as they meet their end to the strains of "Freebird" but one could argue that this is no different than the climactic finale of THE WILD BUNCH which follows another group of anti-heroes with pretty bad habits and objectionable behavior. Yet, that film has become a classic of the western genre. So, why shouldn't the Fireflys also receive the same kind of treatment?

    In the end, I don't know if I would admire the Firefly family personally but I do find them interesting to watch.

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  12. George P6:00 PM

    Great post, John. It really makes me want to post more substantial stuff instead of playing into the lazier side of blogging. (Guilty as charged!)

    One of the elements that really hit home with me is this basic hesitancy to watch Martyrs. I am intrigued but... I feel like it is sort of a lose/lose proposition.

    If it works, I am going to be bummed out. You can't un-see that sort of shit. While I've seen some fairly depressing/ extreme things (Nekromantic comes to mind), it seems to be stuff I do not re-watch Even stuff less extreme on the gore side, like Requiem for A Dream or Leaving Las Vegas, is just too draining. (And this is coming from someone who enjoys things like Ichi The Killer or The original TCM!) Awesome, it's great piece of art I never want to see again.

    If it doesn't work for me then I feel like I was dragged through the dirt for a dollar. Okay so maybe that's a bit extreme. For example,I think of the hype and trepidation that surrounded "Inside" for me. While not bad, it was just another horror film. I was not quite able to enjoy it as dumb fun or as meaningful.

    Another element of your post I liked was the observation of how horror movies mirror their era. Perhaps the reason I don't like much modern horror has to do with my view of the zeitgeist. When I watch 70s horror I feel nostalgia while when I watch a 70s remake I feel annoyed or underwhelmed.

    Thanks for the food for thought.

    g.

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  13. Trick or Treat Pete: First, I love your blog! Secondly, I think you make some insightful points in your comments. Why do we find torture in art so reprehensible, but this kind of stuff is done in our names, and -- nationally speaking -- people don't seem to work up much outrage?

    I also second your opinion that "torture porn" ought to have a different descriptor.

    Even "Gorno" (gore + porno) feels the need to equate horror with pornography, which I find troubling. I am zealous about this. Calling something pornography is step right before someone attempts censorship. That's totally anathema to me.

    Anyway, terrific comment, and thank you for posting it.

    tdraicer: well said.

    Whenever would-be censors complain about sex and violence in movies today, I simply point 'em back to the classics of Greek Literature, or Shakespeare, just as your comment wittily highlights. Violence is a part of the human condition, and so, sadly, is torture. We shouldn't blame the messenger!

    Thank you both for these great perspectives.

    best,
    JKM

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  14. J.D. Thank you for the comments, my friend. I absolutely share your admiration for William Lustig and Maniac, but it illustrates a relevant point in another way too.

    At the time of its release, it was protested, nearly banned, and widely considered pornography.

    Yet today, separated from the Zeitgeist of THAT era, we can see the value in the film. We can more easily detect the artistry. I believe the same thing will happen to the torture porn films over the years.

    Once we move away from this era, the social commentary will be easier to read in these films, and there will be a more positive feeling about that. At least that's my belief, given that I already detect morally valuable material in Hostel, Saw III, Saw VI, Martyrs and other films of the format.

    I don't know if the movies are a pissing constest for their directors...but I believe, certainly, this coiuld be a part of the equation. I just fall back on my main concern: if I feel there is artistic purpose for the violence, I'm generally okay with it.

    BT: You have every right to feel that way abot The Devil's Rejects. I remember watching From Dusk Till Dawn the first time and feeling it was the most immoral film I'd ever seen. I felt dirty after watching it. It seemed like the movie wanted me to see the murderers and kidnappers as "cool."

    Later, with a little distance, I saw how intelligent and smart that movie was, and that I was off-base in my "defensive" original feels; that I hadn't seen the forest through the trees, so-to-speak.

    But I understand EXACTLY what you mean: it is a sick feeling when you are asked to "invest" in people who do really, really bad, immoral things. The question has to be, going back to my earlier statement -- is there an artistic purpose here? In The Devil's Rejects, I suggest there is deeper, artistic purpose. I should re-watch the film so I can more definitively say exactly what I believe that is, however! :)

    Thank you both for such intelligent and thoughtful comments. This has really emerged as a great debate.

    I appreciate everything you both wrote very much.

    Regards,
    JKM

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  15. George P:

    Thank you for the kind words. It means a lot to me!

    You have a valid point here. If you suspect that this sort of gruesome horror movie is just going to disturb you, no one can blame you for opting out.

    I live on a steady "diet" of this stuff, and so I do seek the transgressive, the decorum-shattering. I respect that other people have different limits and different benchmarks.

    For instance, one of the reasons I haven't watched Inside is that I know it involves pregnancy. I have a little boy, and remember well my wife's pregnancy -- a glorious time -- and there is some part of me that doesn't want to add these sure-to-be-gross images from Inside to my psychic gestalt.

    On the other hand, my wife and I made it through Martyrs and were fascinated by it. Disgusted, but fascinated. It was worth the trip. Again, you have to make that call on a case by case basis, I think.

    All my best,
    JKM

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  16. Sorry I am at work and haven't time to read all the comments yet so if I repeat other folk's sentiments, sorry.

    In regards to slashers:

    I feel that, as a feminist myself, that the slasher film actually is more PRO female then anti-female. Sure, there are the obligatory boobs and stuff but there is almost this Victorian level of decency demanded on women and if they follow it, they survive. Yes, sexual freedom is denied a bit but, in the end, the 'wholesome' female remains. The girl who sleeps around usually gets killed while the boyfriend does as well. And if the boyfriend treats the woman/girl poorly, he is usually offed in the WORST way. So I actually see a protection of women, as ironic and off as it is. Not in all cases, of course, but in many. Michael Myers basically stabbing the sin out of his 'immoral' sister for having sex. Jason having mother issues and being mad at irresponsible sexuality, etc.

    On torture porn:

    There is a great but slow film called I'll Sleep When I'm Dead starring Clive Owen. In the movie, Owen's brother is slowly stalked by Malcolm McDowell and then, in a six second scene, is raped. The longevity of the male rape is suggested with little in the vein of visuals to 'disturb' you.

    Owen ends up on a revenge mission, sure, but he also tries to figure out why his brother killed himself after being raped and how rape on the human psyche, especially males, works. This film was extremely effective in discussing rape and making six seconds very powerful.

    I feel torture porn has these points to make, at times, but, for the most part, especially in many of the Saw sequels, the creators are taking it too far. Is there a point to be had. . .absolutely, but sometimes subtlety is key. In the first Saw, even, there is actually very little torture SEEN. Most of it is implied to a degree. But people attach to the gruesome and inventive ways people die and it gets out of control.

    Just my two cents.

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  17. Hi JKM;

    Love it. Not torute porn, but the thought-provoking blogging you bring to the subject. I'm a bit late to the party I see, but here's two cents:

    I find it odd that the damners of the "torute porn" format (usually moralists) fail to cite what I consider the purest example of the genre, a horror film I saw a few years back. It was very well, almost lovingly photographed and opened with a deceptively exquisite gothic first act that was atmospheric and unsettling and featured a demonic manifestation (it was, after all, a horror movie) and then settled down into its primary objective: delivering a plotless hour-plus of half-naked beating and bleeding. This film pointed up the real difference between films like Devil's Rejects, Hostel, and Saw and actual pornography of violence like the film I cite - the latter is, unless you actually get off on it, deathly tedium (I dozed off several times in the last half hour) and the former give us storylines, characters, and suspense.

    Of course, the film I'm talking about is The Passion of the Christ. And it's no coincidence that it appeared at the same time (relatively) as the other films mentioned, a time (now, actually) when bombing of innocents and torture of the maybe-guilty are condoned and endorsed by the War Pigs of both parties and the expected result from the American Audience is a shouted "Yeah! (pump fist)". Some said 9/11 was the Death of Irony, and it was, but for a different reason than claimed - the falling towers obliterated Reason, the faculty that allows Irony to be perceived.

    What's thought-provoking and disturbing about this trend, to me, is that the "endurance contest" aspect of horror might inure us to actual, real lie atrocity - but does it? As you mention, the bar gets pushed sideways rapidly - I remember Night of the Living Dead both as a boundary pushing, extreme-of-horror film in the 60's and as an outdoor film-in-the-park for families in the early 80's (in Windsor, CT, hardly a hotplate of dystopia). On the other hand, the original Last House and I Spit on Your Grave remain ugly (but important) films and (I would submit) are no less tough to watch now than they were then. Perhaps more so.

    On a different note, I'll agree with you that the distinguishing feature of Lecter and Jigsaw that gives them a legitimate "antihero" status is their moral code, which also applies to other somewhat unpleasant people that we (as audience members) sympathize with like Dexter. Eastwood's Man With No Name, and Jack Bauer. Lecter and Dexter also have a sense of humor (as do the moral-sense-lacking Devil's Rejects, as well as Kubrick's Alex - perhaps this is their redeeming quality?)

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  18. Will: Those are some great points. I agree 100% with you that the slasher films are actually pro-feminist. The term Final Girl is entirely positive. When was the last time we had a Final Guy (besides Ash)? The Final Girl sees things the other people miss; she has an insight the others lack. She is a positive role model, and as I say in Horror Films of the 1980s, one day she grew up to be Buffy the Slayer...not just a survivor, but a champion. How cool is that?

    I also think that subtlety is important, but that, in general, we live in a pop culture where subtlety isn't encouraged. Instead, we get sledgehammers! I'd like more nuance in films of all stripe; but I don't think it's likely. The Saw movies thrive on excess to a point, but again, I put that down to horror's duty to shock and break or nudge barriers of acceptable decorum.

    DLR: What a terrific insight. Honestly, I don't think it has ever been said better than this: "Some said 9/11 was the Death of Irony, and it was, but for a different reason than claimed - the falling towers obliterated Reason, the faculty that allows Irony to be perceived."

    Brilliant.

    And it is supremely ironic, isn't it, that the critics who loved The Passion of the Christ so much hated Hostel, Saw and the rest? When the torture porn was carrying water for their beliefs...it was glorious and emotional and affecting. When horror did it to expose aspects of today's torture argument/society, the same folks complained.

    Wow, all I have to say is that this thread has really been amazing so far. The comments from all the readers have been outstanding, and I'm really seeing this topic ("torture porn") from a variety of angles. Fascinating.

    Thanks to all!

    best,
    JKM

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