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Twenty-First-Century Torture Porn Horror Film Cycle

Twenty-First-Century Torture Porn Horror Film Cycle
© Photograph by Stanislav Istratov

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.”

Historically, the thematic treatment of torture has been mired in controversy. The gothic fiction of Edgar Allan Poe inspired films such as ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1932), in which a woman is abducted, bound, stripped down to a slip, and forcibly injected with an experimental serum that causes excruciating pain. In most of the scene, her image is sustained within the frame as she writhes in pain. Her screams are unrelenting until she dies onscreen, tortured to death. Her screams amplify the violence of the scene beyond what could be presented visually, but at the insistence of censors, the audio track was remixed, toning down its violence. By the time ‘The Black Cat’ (1934) was produced, the Production Code Administration was taking a harder line. In the climactic scene, the antagonist ties his nemesis to an embalming rack in the dungeon and tells him he is going to skin him alive. However, the flaying is approached obliquely, depicted only in shadowed silhouette; the victim’s anguish is shown only through his contorting hands. By this time, the political situation had changed and the Production Code Administration was working to suppress the use of sound to convey physical pain. According to Stephen Prince, “This suppression would have lasting consequences for American film, helping to make screen violence into the largely pain-free phenomenon that it remains even today” (2003: 75).

In the 1960s and 1970s, torture was thematically key in Inquisition-based films, including the notorious ‘Mark of the Devil’ (1970, Michael Armstrong, WGER), whose original title ‘Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält’ literally translates to the more exact “witches tortured to death.” (Although a work of exploitation, the film incorporates a range of historical practices of the Inquisition, whose instruments of torture are preserved at the Criminology Museum in Rothenburg, Germany, including medieval technologies of punishment used to force captives into stress positions for prolonged periods of time for the purpose of extracting confessions.) The film follows an eighteenth-century witchfinder and his apprentice at work in Austria. The witchfinder, driven by lust and greed in his pursuit of Satan’s disciples, tends to target attractive young women who are disrobed, tortured, and killed. Multiple sequences depict his victims subjected to medieval torture-techniques including whipping, branding, burning, the rack, water torture, ripping out tongues and fingernails, eyeball impalement, and rape, all in fairly realistic detail by the standards of the time. The price of admission included a vomit bag, to promote the film’s visceral appeal, which would prove to be a major marketing component of torture porn films to come.

Torture porn as a filmic category or cycle of the horror film exceeds the thematic treatment of torture. Although some critics reject the label [Lowenstein (2011) argues that torture porn is just another iteration of the splatter film], torture porn is defined by its extensive and graphic depiction of torture. It dwells on the details of incisions in spectacular close-up. It utilizes special effects technology to deliver verisimilitude and a sense of immediacy. The term was coined in and circulated via film critic David Edelstein’s 2006 New York Magazine article, ‘Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn.’ In it, David Edelstein used the term to refer to a variety of recent films with good production values and wide distribution that centred on the torture of relatable characters. The viewer is placed in both the victim’s and the torturer’s point of view, making the viewer complicit in the brutal violence. Most of the titles David Edelstein mentions are horror films — ‘Saw’ (2004), ‘Hostel’ (2005), ‘Wolf Creek’ (2005), ‘The Devil’s Rejects’ (2005) — though others are not, notably ‘The Passion of the Christ’ (2004). (‘The Passion of the Christ’, as a passion play, is designed for a different purpose: emotional Catholic mortification of the flesh in sympathy with the character of Christ.) These films did well at the box office not despite, but because of their intense subject matter. David Edelstein goes on to tie these films to the national debate about torture, a debate catapulted by 9/11 and fueled by the wide availability of evidence that by 2004 ordinary American soldiers were torturing prisoners in Iraq, and the fact that many Americans found these practices acceptable.

The mainstream success of ‘Saw’ and ‘Hostel’ also made it hard to ignore a trend of increasingly graphic and extended horror sequences in profitable horror films released starting in 2003: ‘House of 1000 Corpses’ (April 11), ‘Wrong Turn’ (May 30), ‘28 Days Later’ (June 27), ‘Freddy vs. Jason’ (August 15), ‘Cabin Fever’ (September 12), and the ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ remake (October 29). Early 2004 also saw the release of the ‘Dawn of the Dead’ remake (March 19). David Edelstein was not alone in connecting the popularity of these films to “9/11,” a term which connotes not only the attacks of that day, and an abiding fear of terrorism, but its aftermath in public policy decisions domestically and overseas, particularly the “war on terror.” The United States of America was primed for fear and an escalated threat to the body.

Despite David Edelstein’s expression of ambivalence toward these films, the appellation of “porn” together with the masochistic and sadistic aspects of the film-viewing experience implies that viewers get some form of sexual gratification from these images. His assessment aligns with a larger pattern of critics historically linking horror and pornography in order to condemn the horror film. In 1968, for example, an article in Variety referred to ‘Night of the Living Dead’ as “pornography of violence” (October 16: 6). In 1976, the charge was levelled at ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ (1974) in a Harper’s Magazine review by Stephen Koch entitled ‘Fashions in Pornography’ (November: 108–111). In 1984, cultural historian Morris Dickstein referred to “the portrayal of explicit sex and of graphic violence developed in tandem” in slasher films as “a hardcore pornography of violence” (1984: 51). The coupling of pornography and violence is a semiotic move to condemn films deemed to violate representational taboos, films that go too far, something for which the horror film frequently strives. But unlike these earlier attempts to link horror and pornography, in the first decade of the twenty-first-century, the term torture porn caught fire among critics, social commentators, and filmgoers alike.

The use of the porn moniker conveys not only the sensual excess of the display of naked flesh, but also the horror film’s physical manipulation of reflex reactions, for instance, startle or disgust, and its use of sexual imagery to arouse the audience. Both horror and pornography are “body genres,” designed to elicit intense physical reactions in viewers, fear and sexual arousal, respectively, though horror traffics in both (Williams, 1991). Horror has a long history of including sex scenes, and of eroticizing the depiction of violence. Beyond market consideration of appealing to an adolescent target audience, there is an affective logic to this pairing. Neurologically, if you stimulate viewers sexually, it not only draws their attention but also primes them to react more strongly to other feelings, such as suspense and fear. Strong emotions make for more memorable experiences, and that can add up to bigger box-office revenues (Plantinga, 2009: 6, 61).

David Edelstein’s inclusion of ‘Irreversible’ (2002), a work of New French Extremity — a term coined by art critic James Quandt in 2004 to describe a body of violent French films — is instructive in how the term torture porn muddies the waters. Although the films of New French Extremity overlap with torture porn in their use of graphically gory scenes, tightly framed and shown in extended take, the French films tend to combine explicit sex and graphic torture in a single scene. Although the violence in torture porn is sexually charged, it is usually not presented in the same frame as sex (Weissenstein, 2011: 54). Furthermore, the sexual encounters in New French Extremity films are joyless, devoid of any emotion except aggression and rage. The depiction of sex in torture porn varies from duplicitous [‘Hostel’, ‘Captivity’ (2007)], or menacing [‘Hostel: Part II’ (2007)], to absent (‘Saw’). The French films also differ in tone. Unlike the profitable torture porn films, the French films are designed to be deliberately hard to watch and deliberately hard to like, drawing on stylistic elements of the avant-garde, such as “drawn out sequences of passive meditation [or] inscrutable character interactions” (Palmer, 2006: 29).


Also published on Medium.




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