Monday, October 27, 2014

Ask JKM a Question: Torture Porn?


My friend and regular reader, Trent, sent me this question in July, and I have been holding onto it for the week of Halloween.  Thank you for your patience, Trent!

Trent writes:

“Torture-porn seemed to all but disappear as a hugely successful sub-genre from the movie landscape. Some say that it was found-footage that killed the sub-genre. Some say it was inferior productions. Some squarely place blame on the "Saw" franchise. 

However, like every sub-genre, there are standouts and complete fails. If you were to construct a Best 3 and a Worst 3 list of torture-porn themed films, what would it be?”



Trent, I love this question, and have been a defender of the torture porn genre for some time now, though it took me a little time to be "sold" on it.

For one thing, torture porn (or gorno, as it was briefly known) was given its name by those who don’t like it or approve of it, mainly cultural and movie critics. Anything with the word “porn” in it is instantly going to be controversial, and derided by the Establishment. Slasher films were controversial once upon a time too, but imagine if they had been tagged with the moniker “knife porn” or “mask porn” in the 1980s. 

Torture porn’s very name means that it has a steep hole to climb out of in a wide cultural context. The name drives people away, and holds the movies up to scorn.  

And in terms of horror fans, there always seems to be a generational divide, and that factors in with torture porn too. The folks who grew up with the Universal Monsters didn’t have much nice to say about the slashers of the 1980s.  And many of those who grew up with the slasher films have been especially hard on torture porn.  I readily admit it: I find this hypocritical and inexcusable. Those fans are old enough to remember when the previous generation hated “our” horror. I will not be that cranky old man, who judges newer horror more negatively while forgetting the battles my generation faced with its brand of genre entertainment.

Why did torture porn drop-off?

It wasn’t inferior films, and it wasn’t the Saw franchise, any more than the Friday the 13th films scuttled the slasher genre.

It was simply, changing times that killed the trend, and that’s a normal function of life. The slasher franchise lasted, perhaps, give years (1979 to 1984), before rubber-reality took over (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, Candyman, etc.).  Torture Porn arose, in earnest a few years after 9/11 and as the Japanese horror remake phase was still playing out. So, say that torture porn lasted from 2004 (Saw) to roughly 2008 - 2009 and the dawn of found footage as a mainstream sub-genre (with Cloverfield, REC, Paranormal Activity being the initiators, or re-initiators if one factors in The Blair Witch Project [1999]).  So historically speaking, torture porn didn’t last any shorter a duration than did the slashers of the 1980s.

I reserve the right to alter this list in future books, or posts, but right now, looking back, these are my selections for the best torture porn films.




3. Hostel (2005)

This Eli Roth masterpiece expresses one key aspect of the torture porn paradigm: you reap what you sow.

In particular, America in the immediate post-9/11 can be said to have not lived up to its historical values. This isn’t a pleasant realization, especially if you consider (as I consider myself…) a patriotic American. 

But Hostel reminds us that we are not above the rest of the world; we are connected to it. And it suggests that when we don’t live up to our values, other countries and individuals take heed.  For example, after the shock and terror of 9/11, our government dismissed the Geneva Conventions as “quaint” and those who had established them as “Old Europe.”  We tortured prisoners in Abu Ghraib and set up a prison, Guantanamo Bay, where combatants who had been taken off the battle field would have no access to any legal apparatus for years, even decades.  And then we wouldn’t take “yes” for an answer when Saddam Hussein allowed inspectors into Iraq to look for WMD. We wanted a war in Iraq (although it had nothing to do with 9/11), so we engineered one.

At least in terms of sub-text, Hostel concerns the blow-back that occurs when innocent Americans travel overseas and run afoul of a torture business crafted in our own capitalist image, one that has become the driver of the local economy in “New” (Eastern) Europe.  Americans are worth more to torture, and so unlucky travelers from the U.S. become nothing more than a resource to be used up by the torturers.  The film is visceral and disgusting, but never immoral. We never adopt the point of view of the torturer, only the tortured, and that is a key quality of the film. It puts us in the torture chair, and asks us how it feels.  We believe that these kind of things can’t happen to us, that as Americans we have a privileged standing in the world. Hostel says, not so fast, and that blow-back is a bitch.



2. The Strangers (2008)

In some key ways, The Strangers is the absolute inverse or opposite of Hostel. Here, a lovely young couple, played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman are ruthlessly attacked as his house comes under siege from masked, lunatic spree-killers. Ultimately, we find out that the couple is ambushed so relentlessly for no other reason than it happened to be home. The doorbell was answered, and the game is afoot.

Again, one has to go back to the galvanizing event that spawned the torture porn genre: 9/11. On that day, 3,000 innocent American men and women died needlessly, and through no fault of their own.  They went to work, and work, that day, turned out to be the absolute worst place to be.  The terrorists chose a symbol – the World Trade Center – to attack, but not specific people (outside the rubric of being American citizens).  If Hostel was about the way our actions will be mirrored back to us by a watching, developing world, The Strangers is about how terror can strike out of the blue, for no discernible reason or cause.  It feels personal to us, but to the terrorist (or spree-killer) we are incidental to their plans, just someone to be destroyed.




1. Martyrs (2008)

The human lot, perhaps, is to suffer. And what, finally, comes from suffering? 

Is there a point where suffering is so complete and total that it gives way to something else, to something transcendental, something beyond the human capacity to see or understand?  These are the key questions in Martyrs (2008), a brilliant horror film that uses its extreme violence to consider the human equation, and the human tolerance to pain and suffering. 

One driving and fascinating question about suffering, raised in the film, asks if suffering brings us closer to God, or at least seeing God.  For a horror movie to be truly classic, truly great, there must be a point about the violence featured, there must be a reason for it.  Martyrs takes its lead character through the ringer, but the violence suffered by that character ultimately means something for the audience beyond mere rubber-necking or gawking.  We are asked to consider the idea that only when we face pain, death, and suffering, are we truly in touch with “life.”  One can reject or accept that notion, but one can’t argue that the violence in Martyrs is gratuitous or unnecessary.

Other torture-porn films that I feel are legitimately great include Irreversible (2002), which may be more rape-and-revenge than torture porn, Saw (2004) -- which suggests that there are no “safe” options in a post-9/11 world, and every move we make is going to cost us an arm, or an eye, or a leg -- Hard Candy (2005), and the Last House on the Left (2009) remake.  A recent torture porn movie of pure, unadulterated beauty -- which moves past the 9/11 era -- is Would You Rather (2014).


Now, in terms of the worst torture porn movies, I need to do a further study, honestly.  I have watched many films in the genre, but not all of them, and so I should probably save this consideration for Horror Films of the 2000s, when I am seeing every single torture porn movie again.  I’m tempted to knee-jerk say The Human Centipede (2010), because I have not been able to discern the film’s deeper meaning, or the purpose for its violence. And yet, I think The Human Centipede is well-made, and it is deeply scary and unsettling without actually being overtly gory. I don’t actually think it’s a bad film, just one without purpose.


Don’t forget to ask me questions at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4:43 PM

    I did not anticipate it but I ended up liking The Human Centipede. What made all the difference was the beautiful direction of photography.

    -T.S.

    ReplyDelete

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