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Are We Done With Torture Porn Yet?

M Butler blood gore horror hostel movies saw torture porn

Sometimes I feel like I'm at a bit of a disadvantage when I write these posts, as I haven't seen a proper horror flick in years. The last thing I saw that even came close was Crimson Peak, and that turned out to be a Victorian soap opera briefly featuring the mere mention of the concept of ghosts, so I don't count that shit. The main reason I haven't seen a proper horror flick since before I finished college is that they always fell into three categories, none of which interested me. There was that brief period where everything was a remake of a Japanese movie in the early 2000's, and more recently everything has fallen into the camp of either found footage or torture porn. Found footage is easy enough to explain away, in that when you use shitty hand-held digital cameras and unknown actors, your production costs shrink proportionate to the size of the producer's ever-expanding stiffy, but torture porn... that one requires a little more thought. It didn't start out as garbage, but rather was carefully chiseled down until nothing but garbage remained.

Shit, I may have put the cart before the horse a little bit in that last sentence, so let's back up and get a little context. First off, we all know what torture porn is, right? I mean, if not, that last paragraph probably came off a little weird. Torture porn can be a moderately subjective term, but it refers to movies like Saw or Hostel, which prominently feature vulnerable people being horrifically tortured and play off of your discomfort as an observer instead of going for a genuine scare. These movies can actually be traced back to the tradition of splatter films, which typically went for a preponderance of gore over scares. Probably the most famous example would be Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (or Braindead if you don't live in the US), with site favorites Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 coming in as close seconds. These movies all take their blood factor and crank it up to 11, not necessarily to scare you, but to get your visceral blood-thirst turned way the fuck on. They have their gross moments, but most of the crowd viewing these movies (especially by today's standards) isn't cringing in their seats, but cheering and reaching for the popcorn. That blood pumping onscreen gets your blood pumping in your chair. I defy you to try watching Dead Alive's infamous lawnmower scene and not cheer at least once.

But something weird happened in the 2000's: horror directors decided that they wanted to keep the gore, but increase the verisimilitude. Suddenly, we weren't watching our semi-insane hero gleefully mow down a house full of zombies with a landscaping device, but rather watching scantily clad women tearfully beg for their lives as an uncaring foreigner slices open their achilles tendons. I may have mashed up a couple of scenes from Hostel for that metaphor, but I don't care because Hostel is a garbage movie for garbage people, and my having seen it once was one time too many. Removing the absurdity from this genre in a sense neutered it. What can we say that we really got from Hostel, other than a healthy dose of xenophobia and an hour and a half of fleeting heeby-jeebies? It is a cheap, lazy tactic, and we see it all the goddamn time, from Saw 2-7, to Turistas, to many of the remakes of classic horror flicks such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street. The people behind these movies and so many more like them seem to have confused making the audience squirm with eliciting any kind of genuine reaction. Any asshole can have someone realistically taking a blowtorch to the face while they cry for their mothers and beg for mercy and get a reaction, but this is like pulling a girl's pigtails to show her you like her. It's an easy reaction, but is it conveying anything other than “now I have your attention”? If they're going for a scare, they've missed the point entirely.  And if they're going for visceral splatter homages, they've missed it again.

A good scare gets your adrenaline pumping and, most importantly, keeps you thinking about it after the fact. This is why our site showrunners still have a hard time watching The Exorcist, or why I have to have the lights on and another person in the room when I watch The Shining even though all of us are in or approaching our 30's. The movies worked off of inherently terrifying concepts, as opposed to gross things. Conversely, splatter flicks worked off of over the top grossness mitigated by a notable separation from reality. When intense gore and realism get thrown together, you somehow get a whole less than the sum of its parts. You get grossed out at the time, but after the fact, all you can think is, “man that scene where the girl was crawling through a pit of hypodermic needles was ooky”. This is because all they did was take an ooky concept and then show it to you. If I shit in a bag and make you smell it, I'd get the same reaction. A good splatter flick can't afford to take itself too seriously, and a good scare can't afford to show you everything. Torture porn does both, and invalidates any effectiveness or longevity it might have as a result.

If you want to see how that kind of movie can work really painfully well, watch Michael Hanneke's torture porn condemnation Funny Games. The plot is simple enough: Idyllic upper class family gets held captive and terrorized by two random strangers in their idyllic summer home. The catch? Absolutely no violence is seen onscreen. There is implied violence aplenty, but it is because Hanneke knows that your own brain is your worst enemy in these scenarios. Instead of graphically showing a shattering kneecap when one of the characters is hit with a golf club, all you hear is a fleshy impact sound and a scream while the shot stays on his horrified wife's expression. You don't see their child being assaulted by their captors, but you hear his screams, and your asshole brain fills in the grisly details. Think about it. Would the two little girls from The Shining be nearly as terrifying if, instead of simply alluding to a great beyond in which the vulnerable child could join them, they said, “come play with us Danny, and by “play” we mean “die”. WE ARE SCARY BOOGA BOOGA!”

Of course it wouldn't, because a good scare lets you fill in the blanks, so as to imprint it in your mind and make it stick.  Torture porn doesn't accomplish this. Conversely a good splatter flick should be viscerally enjoyable, not just people getting hurt for the sake of filming their tears while Eli Roth brings himself to climax with a cheese grater. So can we be done with this lazy genre for assholes now?  I hear literally anything else would be a better use of people's time.



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