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Why Torture Porn Isn't 

Notes on the contemporary horror movie

Wednesday, Sep 5 2007
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It cannot be denied that torture porn exists.

Pony up about 70 bucks, find the right Web site or adult bookstore, and you can get yourself a video of a professional dominatrix beating someone up. There are people who watch — and make — these videos for sexual thrills. Torture and porn: Not my preferred combo, but it’s out there.

What torture porn is not is mainstream horror movies like Saw or Hostel. But critics who can damn sure tell the difference between Basic Instinct and actual pornography seem unable to make the distinction between fantasy and reality when it comes to some of the best contemporary horror films.

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Many of the criticisms are familiar: Movies like Hostel are called misogynistic, degrading, sick and socially unredeeming, or deemed entirely unworthy of discussion, as opposed to such “classics” of yesteryear as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Exorcist — both of which faced the exact same kinds of criticisms in their day. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby, for one, complained about the latter film’s “splintery cross-cutting” and an audience “getting their kicks out of seeing a small girl being tortured and torn, quite literally,” before adding, “The audience watches as if attending a porno film.”

Some wonder aloud why anyone would want to watch torture in a movie when there’s enough of it in the real world, but such questioning reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of horror. Horror movies allow us to confront our fears in a safe setting, and many of the best have reflected the biggest threats of their time. The giant monster movies of the 1950s were rooted in phobias of nuclear power; zombie movies frequently satirize consumer culture and the military; and the contagious curses of recent Asian horror movies like The Ring reflect the modern fear of biological weapons, stemming in part from the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s 1995 sarin gas attacks on Tokyo subway passengers, six years before we started worrying about plastic sheeting and duct tape.

All of this presupposes that what one sees in so-called torture-porn movies even qualifies as actual torture. Dictionary.com defines torture principally as “the act of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty.” By that standard, pretty much every action or horror movie in cinematic history contains “torture.” As does every Three Stooges short.

Ironically, by that same standard, the Saw movies contain less torture than most horror movies, in that most of the excruciating pain experienced by the characters is self-inflicted. John “Jigsaw” Kramer, the bogeyman of the series, places his victims in death traps that are usually fast-acting and can only be stopped by an act of self-mutilation or the murder of another human being. These are definitely nasty things to do to someone, but Jigsaw does them out of a deranged kind of philanthropy — he believes those who survive will be stronger people for it — as opposed to the prolonged information-getting we usually associate with torture today. The only real torture scene in the Saw movies takes place in Saw II, when Detective Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) beats up the cancer-stricken Jigsaw in hopes of obtaining a confession, breaking his fingers one by one. Jigsaw gives him one, but it turns out to be false (which is, of course, the primary real-world criticism of torture as a tactic). Matthews, in fact, has been made Jigsaw’s pawn precisely because the mad genius disapproves of the way the dirty cop has used torture and trumped-up evidence in the past.

Now, there’s certainly an argument to be made that fans of the Saw series enjoy seeing each new and elaborate trap Jigsaw has created. It’d be a stretch, though, to think that they get any kind of sexual thrill, save perhaps for the trap in Saw III that involves a naked woman being frozen to death. It would also be a stretch to assume that this is the only reason people watch the Saw movies. The hook of the first film — the dilemma of whether or not to saw off your foot to escape leg shackles — is taken directly from the ending of Mad Max but is more deeply rooted in the kind of hypothetical playground debates young boys engage in, about whether you’d rather burn to death or drown. The plots of all three Saw movies are puzzle boxes, webs of mini-challenges and tangled motivations that are only fully unraveled at the movie’s end. Not to mention that Tobin Bell’s performance as Jigsaw is a wonder; he’s the best “real-world” horror antihero since Anthony Hopkins first played Hannibal Lecter. (And if you think that Jigsaw is somehow less realistic than Lecter, watch The Silence of the Lambs again and tell me how “realistic” it is to wear a dead man’s face without anyone noticing.)

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