Torture porn has been thematically present as a trope in the horror film since its inception in the 1930s Hollywood cycle. But the thematic treatment of torture has largely been characterized by its oblique or off-screen presentation. Torture alone does not make a horror film a work of torture porn. Torture porn refers to a specific cycle of ultra-violent films that dominated the box office between 2004 and 2008, films that focus on the capture and torture of sympathetic characters who are subjected to extended and graphic torment, shot in spectacular close-ups that dwell on the details of the injury. Torture porn is part of the post-9/11 shift in the horror film expressing a resounding surge in fear of terrorism and, specifically with torture porn, of our own ambivalence about torture and invasive government surveillance (Briefel and Miller, 2011; Wetmore, 2012). The controversial cycle emerges during a heightened period of national self-questioning and debate over the George Walker Bush administration’s policy of “enhanced interrogation.”
When Bruno Dumont’s ‘L’humanité’ won three major awards at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, the audience’s outrage was decidedly off-putting for the director. The thunderous wave of boos and catcalls intimated more than mere disapproval over the jury’s decision; the film’s tribute was perceived as both a perversion of modern art cinema by the shock tactics of Hollywood’s horror franchise, and a threat to the nation’s ceremoniously political tradition since the dawn of the French New Wave (“La Nouvelle Vague”). With his intimate close-ups of an eleven-year old blood-spattered rape victim, shattering the cool, idyllic vistas of the French countryside, Bruno Dumont had committed the ultimate in cinematic transgressions: he had mingled art-house prestige with sensationalist trash, and been commended for it.
In recent years, Western television stations such as BBC, HBO or Showtime have produced several historical series which managed to catch the attention of a wider audience. The storylines of ‘Band of Brothers’, ‘Rome’, ‘The Tudors’ or ‘The Borgias’, to name just a few, are set in historical times and in real locations. Furthermore, many characters portrayed there are historical figures and likewise, the events that are shown in these series actually took place.
Slashers, those horror movies that consist of a monster or maniac stalking and or killing a succession of people, usually teenagers, are considered even less deserving of study. They are “at the bottom of the horror heap” critically, “the most disreputable form of the horror film,” and although a few slashers from the 1970s, such as ‘Halloween’ or ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ have been examined for cultural significance, these are rare examples. The 1970s are considered a brief “renaissance” in horror, where progressive films challenged societal norms and traditional depictions of female subjectivity, yet the late 1980s as an era are denied that status.
Clive Barker, novelist, artist, writer and director, has already achieved considerable success in two major aspects of the horror genre. First, he has resurrected a notion of “British horror”; previously mainly understood as a phenomenon of Hammer Film Productions, the maverick talent Michael Reeves or exploitation auteurs like Pete Walker. Clive Barker, with his self-conscious re-working and re-configuration of the British horror tradition, has simultaneously progressed the tradition but also called attention to its neglected backwaters, and re-engaged with the centrality of “Englishness” at the core of the genre.
For the past seven years, the slasher film (alternatively called the “Woman in Danger Film”) has performed exceptionally well at the box office. In a 1981 news article, Variety claimed that thirty percent of all the new movies involved horror or violent themes. Most prominent in this group have been ‘When a Stranger Calls’ (1979), ‘Silent Scream’ (1980), ‘He Knows You’re Alone’ (1980), ‘Prom Night’ (1980), ‘Final Exam’ (1981), ‘Happy Birthday to Me’ (1981), ‘My Bloody Valentine’ (1981), ‘Student Bodies’ (1981), ‘Psycho II’ (1983), ‘Body Double’ (1984), ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (1984), and ‘Careful, He Might Hear You’ (1984), as well as ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ (1980), a particular case which I will mention later. This, of course, represents only a partial list. Sequels and spin-offs abound, as well as other films which incorporate violence against women but which do not posit this theme as the central action.
In histories of the horror film, the 1960s is usually presented as a crucial period and one that is defined either by the phenomenal success of Hammer Film Productions’ ‘Curse of Frankenstein’ (1957) or by the making of ‘Psycho’ (1960). In both accounts, the period is a break from the past and one that witnesses the emergence of the contemporary horror film. Furthermore, these accounts tend to replicate an image of horror as a low budget, a disreputable genre that deals with dark, disturbing and potentially subversive materials, an image that ignores or marginalises other developments in the period. The result even misrepresents both Hammer Film Productions’ output and Alfred Joseph Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho,’ neither of which were simply low budget efforts. On the contrary, while Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was a prestige director who was working on a lower budget than usual, ‘Psycho’ was in no way a low budget horror film: and, as Heffernan has demonstrated, even Hammer Film Productions’ horror films were not low budget projects but the product of an explicit strategy by the studio, which was attempting to break out of low budget filmmaking and into the lucrative first run market in the United States of America.