Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Problem with Torture Porn

"Torture porn" is a term that simply doesn't make sense when describing horror films that feature graphic depictions of torture. To the uninitiated, it sounds more like a subgenre of porn than a horror subgenre, as evidenced by Roger Ebert's review of ANTICHRIST:

"... These passages have been referred to as 'torture porn.' Sadomasochistic they certainly are, but porn is entirely in the mind of the beholder. Will even a single audience member find these scenes erotic?"
When a film critic with as much experience as Roger Ebert misunderstands the term, it's obvious that "torture porn" has no value in film criticism – not that this stops some people from using it as a crutch to avoid making informed commentary on a film.

The way “torture porn” has come to be used the last few years is (ironically) a perversion of its original usage. When film critic David Edelstein coined the term in his New York Magazine article titled "Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn," he said:
"... Torture movies cut deeper than mere gory spectacle. Unlike the old seventies and eighties hack-’em-ups (or their jokey remakes, like SCREAM), in which masked maniacs punished nubile teens for promiscuity (the spurt of blood was equivalent to the money shot in porn), the victims here are neither interchangeable nor expendable. They range from decent people with recognizable human emotions to, well, Jesus."
That's right, Jesus. Edelstein included THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST alongside THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, SAW, WOLF CREEK and HOSTEL (which he also described as, "not a bad little thriller, if you can live with the odd protracted sequence of torture and dismemberment") in a list of films that took scenes of torture and mutilation out of 42nd Street and Italian cannibal cinema and put them into the local multiplex.

Disregarding the term's origin - and the ease with which even Roger Ebert can misinterpret its meaning – what Edelstein wrote in his original article is nearly the opposite of how the term has come to be used, as a means of describing a film that’s all spectacle with no plot and generic characters.

With that, how do films like THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, SAW, WOLF CREEK and HOSTEL fit this or other similar definitions of the term "torture porn?"

You can't argue that there's no characterization. Even if you don't like the characters in these films, there had to have been enough characterization for you to dislike them.

You can't argue that there's no plot. Except for the SAW films - where the ongoing story becomes increasingly more complex with each installment - the rest of these films are essentially "road movies" - with torture.

(If you want to complain about the lack of originality in these films, you might as well complain about the lack of originality in films where a group of people are stalked by a slasher or fight off monsters in a city, town or whatever isolated location a film has forced its characters into.)

Besides having no obvious meaning, “torture porn” doesn’t even accurately describe the films it’s applied to using the definition people commonly assign to the term.

So, if not “torture porn,” what term could be used to categorize horror films featuring graphic torture without being confusing, inaccurate or pejorative?


Given the resurgence of exploitation cinema's popularity post-GRINDHOUSE, it seems time that Torturesploitation - denoting films in which torture is the primary exploitable element - takes its place alongside Blaxploitation, Carsploitation and Nunsploitation as a subgenre of exploitation cinema.
"There's something going on in "Hostel 2" that isn't torture porn. There's really something going on there that's interesting on an artistic basis. Sure it makes you uncomfortable, but good art should make you uncomfortable."
- Stephen King interview in the Los Angeles Times, June 22, 2007