The first time I heard the term "torture porn" it was spoken by none other than George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead) in one of the countless horror documentaries that can be found on YouTube, Netflix and other streaming video sites. Turns out that the term actually found its origin with critic David Edelstein in response to films like Saw and House of a 1,000 Corpses, among others. It was a description that was trying to get at the shift in the 90s and 2000s towards hyped-up gore without the tongue firmly planted in the cheek. It had lost its humor and self-awareness, it was just violence: raw, bloody, relentless from the beginning of the film to the end. Where much horror used humor to blunt the violence in the narrative, this new crop of directors sought to push the boundaries of gore, not to mention with bigger budgets.
There have been many franchises that have evolved from the torture porn style of horror cinema, everything from the Saw series to the Final Destination series, along with Hostel 1 & 2, by maybe the most prominent proponent of this style, Eli Roth. On top of these franchises are stand alone films like Turistas, The Ruins, Grotesque and the new wave of French extreme horror that contains films like Martyrs, High Tension and Inside. There are several examples from various countries, both East and West, that would fit into the category of extreme horror/torture porn.
Violence in horror, in general, has been a perennial favorite scab to pick for film critics who either don't see the value of the genre, period, or who are truly concerned about the use of violence in modern horror films, especially since the rise of the slasher genre. As a horror fan, it is a fair concern to have. My parents' generation was one that found cussing and sex in movies much more troublesome and ungodly than violence. I think criticism that takes the moral weight of violence seriously is worthwhile, but I don't think violence or, even, extreme, gory violence in film is necessarily unscrupulous.
As a Christian (and a proponent of nonviolence, also) who has seen quite a number of these films, I have had to come to understand the nature of torture porn and the ambiguities present in discerning that ever elusive point where the violence spills over into the profane. Torture porn, though an inadequate descriptor wholesale, does speak to the problem with these films when they lose their moral nerve: they begin to lose the humanity in the machinery of their horror style. They become surrogacy programs for the audience's bloodlust.
It is often easy to see the movement towards this tipping point when the central conceit of each film is contained, simply, in the questions: what new and creative ways will the filmmakers find to torture and kill the characters within the films? Will they be be able to outdo the gore of the previous films (if part of a franchise)? It is at this point that the characters in these films cease being human and instead become test dummies at the whim of the filmmakers and the audience stops seeing the cost of the violence and succumbs largely to the thrill of the kill.
The easiest way to get a sense of this downward trend within extreme horror franchises is to watch the first and the latest films in the series. The first Saw and Final Destination, for example, are both inventive films--read: inventive, not necessarily great films--that play off the central modus operandi of the slasher flick and yet put a twist on it that illuminates new narrative concepts. In the midst of these stories, the momentum surrounds very human characters (though not always well drawn) trying to figure out what is going on and why they are in the midst of it. Yes, both of those films feature violently creative deaths, but I would argue that the camera's gaze is not to glorify the violence, itself, but to show the actual dangers which these characters must navigate.
In other words, the first (and maybe the second) films are more concerned with the human narrative arc and less concerned with the gory visuals.
By the time the latest installment has hit (7 Saw films and 5 Final Destinations), it is not surprising to see that the equation has shifted: the human narrative arc becomes less important than the gory visuals. I admit there is something viscerally arresting about seeing characters being dispatched in over-the-top and creative ways. However, those who are like me feel disgusted at that base enjoyment of violence that does not move the narrative along in any meaningful way nor respects the humanity of its characters, our surrogates in these films, by showing the weight and cost of the violence done to them.
The violence in the worst examples of torture porn is light and cheap and acts as the worst sort of catharsis: we get to be accessories to horrible violence done to surrogates and walk out of the theater or go to sleep with barely a mere existential hiccup. Proper use of violence in all film, including horror, has a way of making the characters more human and the weight and cost of what is seen and felt heavy and costly by the end of the film.
I mentioned the new wave of French extreme horror films like Martyrs and Inside and from what I have seen of these films, they have actually found a way to do extreme horror and the graphic, gory violence that accompanies the sub-genre well. As you may have read in my reflection on Martyrs a few weeks ago, Pascal Laugier placed the violence within a context that was brimming with meaning, both morally and speculatively. There is a sense of justice for those wronged in the film and the violence, though hardcore and very difficult to watch, the violence was grounded in meaning and existential dread. There is no way to come out of that film (or the other French extreme horror films) feeling unaffected or apathetic about the experience. It takes a toll and it gets under the skin. Those who aren't affected by Martyrs are probably either sociopaths, psychopaths or...well, probably a rapist.
These films make their characters more fully human even though they are having awful, brutal violence being done to them, but the filmmakers never let you turn these characters into test dummies or the machinery of the sub-genre. This is the best type of surrogacy when it comes to torture porn/extreme horror, because the audience participates in the violence on the screen and comes away from it changed and deeply affected by what has just taken place. That is cinematic violence that negotiates the weight and cost of its visuals profoundly.
Here is the hard part about drawing lines on proper usage and misuse of violence in horror (or really any genre) though, there are differing interpretations on films. It takes discernment and, as much as Christians hate to hear these words, there is a level of subjectivity involved. There is no such thing as a formula where the variables are all accounted for and we can separate the wheat cleanly from the chaff. There are some I think most people would consider chaff, but there are others that are disputed.
Take, for instance, my complete distaste for Eli Roth films like Hostel--and from what I have heard, his latest, The Green Inferno. I found Hostel to be a rather sleazy example of extreme horror. At least with the Saw sequels there was a derivative nod towards the heavy moral center of the first film, Hostel was Saw stripped of its moral code and humanity. On top of that, it didn't even work on the base level for me. I was literally bored in the film. If there is anything potentially more dangerous than indulging bloodlust cheaply, it is being apathetic or bored while watching brutal violence.
And, yet, Jason Zinoman, author of Shock Value, writes:
Eli Roth makes the same argument that Wes Craven did about his movies' extreme gore--that these scenes are widely misunderstood and that they are actually antiviolence. Updating this political argument, he claims that the subtext of movies like Hostel is the anger about the Iraq War. Some critics agree, but George Romero doesn't. 'I don't see it about any collective angst,' Romero says. "I go to these conventions. There are gore clubs, gore magazines--that's where the torture porn grew out of."
Zinoman goes on to say that Romero largely views the political interpretation of these films as angst over the Iraq War that Roth and others make "is grafted on to the movie after the fact." Zinoman goes further to say that Wes Craven--a director I have respected for how he approaches violence and saturates it with meaning--likes Hostel. That presents a challenge to my reaction to the film, that someone I highly respect and is thoughtful about violence likes a film I found pointless and dehumanizing in its use of violence.
For once, I find myself on the side of George Romero (which seldom happens, to be honest) in finding the justifications of these films largely tacked on in the wake of their popularity and criticism. However, if I sat down with Eli Roth or Wes Craven and had an in-depth discussion of the film with them then maybe I could see their vantage point and start to see the value of their aim. I don't know. And that is the problem. Art isn't mathematics.
The best I can do is give a film within the extreme horror/torture porn sub-genre a critical eye and tell it like I see it. Even another Christian may have a perspective that hits on something that I don't see in it. It's possible and that's why drawing these lines is hard work. Work that too few people are willing to consider and endeavor on in this day and age, yet I think it is a moral duty to consider these things within a society and culture where violence of all sorts is rampant and fills up the headlines, day in and day out. The largely apathetic stance of my parents' generation towards violence in media can no longer be overlooked and tolerated.
The other side of the trouble is we all have blindspots. I grew up with The Evil Dead trilogy and they have been continual favorites of mine and I was one of those people who actually really enjoyed (even bought on Blu-Ray) the 2013 remake, Evil Dead. However, just the other day, I had a friend, Lucy Moss, who considered the remake to be akin to torture porn. This suggestion just blew me away, but as I got to thinking about it, it made sense. Now, I am not sure I would call it torture porn, wholesale, because I do think it maintains some of the intentionally goofy gore of the originals even though it is housed in a film that fashions itself more of an actual serious, big budget horror film.
That suggestion, though, still made me check my own blindspots. How many horror films have I watched and enjoyed or loved where the justification for the usage of the violence was legitimate. How often did I let nostalgia or a love for a series of films blind me to the problems inherent in torture porn that found their way into these films? It is a jarring realization to be sure and one that I am becoming more aware of myself.
However, horror cinema is such that the violence is much easier to give meaning and weight to than, for instance, the average action flick. If you look at action films, the body count is often much, much higher than it is in horror films and it is much more likely to turn violence towards human life into a statistic rather than an intimate affair. All forms of transportation blowing up, gun spray in open public places, car chases driving through busy intersections, etc. all put human life in harm's way, yet it is like static, the audience tunes it out because the camera is focusing on the action, instead of the consequences of the action on the environment around it.
Horror films are often more intimate and the violence is more personal. Even torture porn does not make the mistake of action films in making violence blunted by obscuring incidental violence done, it just makes the other mistake of not challenging the audience to be cognizant and mindful of the morality of the response they have as voyeuristic surrogates to the violence done on the screen.