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Why Torture Porn Isn't

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.

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.)

 

Another thing many detractors miss is that the Saw movies are heavily rooted in the industrial music culture of the early ’90s, drawing heavily from the kinds of uncensored videos that bands like Ministry, Nine Inch Nails and Danzig were making back then, from the porcine imagery (derived from the Manson family’s frequent use of the word pig) to the decaying-warehouse production designs and the original scores by music producer and NIN member Charlie Clouser. That’s okay most of them are too old to like music that’s too loud. But mark my words: Some day, parents will be decrying some new slasher movie by saying it isn’t as worthy as the good old horror classics they remember, like Saw.

Eli Roth’s Hostel movies are a slightly different story, and quite different from each other, too. The first is an unabashed exploitation movie primarily influenced by Takashi Miike, the cult-favorite Japanese filmmaker who cranks out as many as three new movies a year, frequently marked by incoherent plots and over-the-top cartoonish violence, but who’s best known here for the more artful and restrained Audition (which nonetheless culminates in a guy getting his feet cut off with piano wire). Hostel, which features a cameo by Miike, begins with about a half-hour of ridiculously beautiful naked European girls, then sends our heroes — a couple of dumb-ass, college-aged American backpackers and their Icelandic companion — off to be tortured and slaughtered by rich businessmen who have paid for the privilege. None of what follows can be called realistic — a guy slips on blood and accidentally chainsaws himself; a Japanese girl has her face melted until her eyeball hangs out — but it’s worth noting that never once is the audience invited to take pleasure in the pain of the heroes, or feel sympathy for the villains. Unlike Jigsaw, or Freddy Krueger, there’s nothing appealing about Hostel’s bloodthirsty bourgeois, and we root for their comeuppance, which they mostly get.

The recent Hostel: Part II plays things less campy than the first and does invite us to see things from the villains’ point of view, even if it ultimately ends up mocking them. The idea here is similar to the thesis posited by the Tyler Durden character in Fight Club: When the real world traps you, you can learn how to feel alive again by committing violence. Roth goes further, by giving us characters — once again, wealthy Wall Street types who have placed the winning bids in an underground Internet auction — who believe that killing someone will make them “real” men, only to realize, after it’s too late, that it only makes them crazy. Roth has said that this is a satire of the military mindset in Iraq, but Hostel: Part II also makes an allusion, midfilm, to Elizabeth Bathory, the infamous Hungarian countess who bathed in the blood of young virgins in hopes of staying young. It proved just as futile, of course, as the kills our misguided businessmen make in the hope of reinvigorating their own fading youth.

For all the howls of contempt Hostel: Part II has received — after watching a bootlegged copy, Movie City News’ nominally liberal David Poland ranted about a “coarsening of the culture,” like some puritanical televangelist — there actually isn’t much gore onscreen, especially relative to Roth’s previous Cabin Fever, a disease movie based on several mysterious, life-threatening illnesses Roth himself purportedly contracted over the years. Roth does a lot with sound and cutaways in Hostel: Part II to make you think you’re seeing more than you are, and though the climactic act of violence is quite explicit, it still isn’t torture.

Director Roland Joffé’s Captivity is less defensible, as it isn’t “about” anything more than the psychological torture of a victim who must fight her way to freedom. But it’s notable that many of the film’s tortures — being force-fed eyeballs, getting buried in sand, crawling through tight spaces — are only slightly more extreme than many of the stunts on TV’s Fear Factor, where contestants do such things voluntarily.

When Paris Hilton went to jail, people cheered and mocked her screams for her mother, yet in Captivity, when a similarly vapid supermodel is imprisoned and tormented, those of us who enjoy watching it are called misogynistic and sick. Funny, I didn’t hear anybody say that about those who enjoyed Paris’ real-life captivity, but god forbid someone should make (or like) a movie in which Elisha Cuthbert acts like she’s being abused in a fictional setting, because that would be sexist.

Every successful horror movie that comes to my mind features the same basic formula — a character, or group of characters, is terrorized for most of the movie by something dangerous or evil. The terror may not take the form of actual torture, but it’s certainly no shopping spree either, whether it’s merely ghostly noises keeping a person awake all night, or an evil demon possessing bodies and committing mass murder. Invariably, one or multiple heroes survive the torment, figure out the key to overcoming it, and get a big cathartic moment in which he/she/they triumph over the adversary. Such moments may be fleeting — nowadays, especially, the evil thing/person is likely to turn the tables on our hero(es) once more at the very end. But in all the best horror movies, the cathartic moment is there, which in turn allows us in the audience to exorcise our own fears. One of the reasons David DeFalco’s ultra-unpleasant 2005 Chaos — in which teens attending a rave in thewoods get brutalized by evil rednecks who look like pro wrestlersdoesn’t work is that there is never any hope for the victims: The villains’ triumph is inevitable, and they never once show any vulnerability, serving no purpose other than to commit atrocities like force-feeding a girl her own nipple until she vomits or killing her and then having sex with the corpse; you get the sense DeFalco only cares about being as depraved as he possibly can be. The protagonists in last year’s prequel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning are equally doomed, since we know full well that Leatherface and Sheriff Hoyt can’t be defeated or have their crimes exposed prior to events we’ve already witnessed involving them in a chronologically later movie.

 

In the Saw movies, by contrast, the victims do have a fighting chance, because, in a pretty smart narrative move, series co-creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell show us, quite early on in the first film, someone who has survived one of Jigsaw’s traps as a result of playing by his rules. So even though most of the major characters do end up dying in the three Saw films to date, we know there’s always a chance that they won’t. (Fans still argue about whether or not Cary Elwes’ Dr. Lawrence Gordon survived the events of the first Saw; since his fate is never revealed on-camera, one can’t be sure.)

None of these movies depends upon torture to quite the same degree as The Passion of the Christ, a movie explicitly conceived to make Christians understand the level of pain Jesus went through prior to and during crucifixion. Some will say Mel Gibson is more artful than Eli Roth or Saw II and III director Darren Lynn Bousman; I say you could probably cut about 20 minutes of torture scenes in The Passion and not affect the plot. But I wouldn’t advocate that; it’s a good movie, and it’s also Gibson’s vision, for better or worse, just as Saw II is Bousman’s. I’m also a fan of Clive Barker’s 1987 Hellraiser, in which Barker implies that torture is sexually pleasurable for both victim and torturer (way further than Saw goes), and which probably did more than any other movie to bring sadomasochism into the mainstream, by turning a guy with a checkerboard carved on his face and multiple nails in his head into a pop-culture icon. Made 20 years ago, it’s still more extreme in its torture-related implications than anything on the market today; Barker has been pushing the idea of a Hellraiser remake, and a similarly themed project called Tortured Souls, but hasn’t found a studio willing to bite. Yet, Pinhead action figures are sold at Hot Topic, alongside newer toys based on Saw.

Justifying the merits of these movies to fellow critics (and certain members of the general public) can sometimes feel like arguing with your mother — you want her to respect your taste and point of view, but in the long run, isn’t it essential to like a few things that piss her off? So, it’s not particularly upsetting when elder statesmen of criticism like Roger Ebert or Kenneth Turan pan a Saw movie; we expect them to. The grating thing is how some critics don’t just pan the movies but also pan the people who watch them, acting as though we’re some depraved new breed who like unprecedented levels of hideousness, even as the movies themselves deliver exactly the same kind of visceral kicks horror films always have. “Unprecedented”? Just wait until people start trying to remake 1970s grindhouse fare like Ruggero Deodato’s infamous Cannibal Holocaust or Meir Zarchi’s interminable rape-and-revenge flick I Spit on Your Grave. As a matter of fact, you might not have to wait long — The Punisher director Jonathan Hensleigh just made an Italian-style cannibal movie called Welcome to the Jungle, and it has already screened a few times. (Upon seeing it, Jeffrey Wells of the Web site Hollywood Elsewhere commented, “It creeped me out in a way that I’m not likely to forget.”)

 

You know what’s really torturous? Endless moralistic scolding from people who don’t seem to get horror to begin with, and who should know better. There’s going to be enough sanctimony to go around in the coming election year — and it, too, will simply be a repeat of what has come before.


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