Thursday, 7 June 2007

Torture Chic or Torture Porn?

It seems to me that over the millennia what Man fears has not changed much. Oh, the advance of technology and science would seem to have brought along with it new things for mankind to fear, but it seems to me that these phobias can safely be placed under the headings of the same old fears. Certainly, the fear of flying did not exist before the invention of hot air balloons, airships, and aeroplanes, but then it seems to me that the fear of flying can be counted under the old headings "Fear of Heights" or "Fear of Death." Spermatophobia, the fear of germs, certainly did not exist before the discovery of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, but then I am willing to bet the fear of disease has existed ever since the Stone Age (indeed, the people of 17th century London had good reason to fear disease...). Technology and science may advance, but the old fears remain.

Given the fact that what Man fears the most has not changed terribly much since the days of cavemen, one would not think that horror movies would be prone to trends or cycles. In fact, however, horror movies seem more prone to cycles than most film genres. By way of example, in the Thirties there was a cycle of Gothic horror films that produced such classics as Frankenstein. And many of you may remember the slasher film cycle of the late Seventies and early Eighties.

The current cycle in horror movies seem to be towards films that have been labelled "torture chic," movies that focus on Man's inhumanity to Man. There has been a lot written about the cycle in the past year, much of it negative. In fact, two of my favourite blogs, Reel Fanatic and Strange Culture, both featured pieces on it of late. Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly, even wrote about the genre at his site, Whedonesque. In fact, I first heard the term "torture chic" in an article by Vanessa Juarez that Entertainment Weekly published last October. As I said earlier, most of what has been written about torture chic has been negative. The billboard for the film Captivity alone has sparked a wave of controversy (indeed, Whedon himself attacked it in the above mentioned piece). In fact, in most articles and editorials on the subject I tend to hear the term "torture porn" more often than "torture chic."

Of course, movies which focus on the extreme cruelty of humanity are nothing new. In fact, director Wes Craven could be considered a pioneer of the genre. His movie Last House on the Left was attacked upon its release in 1972 for its graphic inhumanity. Eventually it would be labelled a "video nasty" in the UK (a video nasty was any film considered so depraved by some that they were banned from video distribution). His 1977 film, the original Hills Have Eyes, offered up more of the same. While Wes Craven's movies can be argued to have some artistic merit, the same cannot be said for Scream Bloody Murder, a 1973 release directed by Marc B. Ray (who would go on to direct episodes of Kids Incorporated of all things...). And although it was a glossy, Hollywood picture, Lipstick has all the hallmarks of a torture chic revenge fantasy. Forced Entry, a 1975 grindhouse movie starring Tanya Roberts (not yet one of Charlie's Angels), could make many of the current crop of torture chic movies look tame.

Although critics at the time couldn't have realised it, there would eventually be films that would make Wes Craven's efforts look tame at times. In fact, when it came to films about extreme cruelty, the Europeans could make even the most outre American directors look like rank amateurs. Wes Craven's work was mild compared to Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo o le 120 giornate di Sodoma, an adaptation of 120 Days of Sodom by the man who may well have invented "torture chic," none other than the Marquis de Sade himself. Nico Mastorakis' 1975 film Ta Paidia tou diabolou (Island of Death) features a psychopathic couple who kill "sinners" in the most imaginative ways possible. Yet another case in point is the notorious revenge fantasy I Spit on Your Grave, directed (if that is the operative word) by Meir Zarchi. Not only was it labelled a "video nasty" in Britain, it was banned outright in Canada, Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, and West Germany. It is quite rightly considered outright garbage by many. That's not to say that Americans weren't capable of movies nearly as offensive. The 1977 movie Fight for Your Life was purportedly an action movie, but to many it seemed to be an extreme exercise in racism and cruelty. It was classified a "video nasty" in Britain, where it is still for all practical purposes banned.

Of course, before the term "torture chic" was even coined here in America, Japan had its own practitioner of the genre in the form of director Takashi Miike. His 1999 film Odishon (Audition) was so graphic that even Rob Zombie found it difficult to watch. His 2001 movie Koroshiya Ichi (Ichi the Killer) was even more intense. In fact, the British Board of Film Classification refused to allow the film released there unless it was severely cut. Even in Hong Kong, where violent movies are nothing new (after all, it is the home of "blood opera"), Ichi the Killer had 15 minutes worth of footage cut!

Many were probably thankful that, with the occasional exception, the United States was free of such films. All of this changed in 2004 when Saw was released, a low budget film centred on a serial killer with a penchant for creative ways of killing. In its wake a number of movies which focused on Man's inhumanity to Man would be released: Hostel in 2005, Wolf Creek that same year, a remake of The Hills Have Eyes in 2006, and Vacancy this year. And as I mentioned earlier, the movies have come under attack in many quarters. Indeed, the label "torture porn" seems to me to be heard much more often than the term "torture chic."

As someone who counts A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, The Warriors, and Natural Born Killers among his favourite films, I am not going to condemn the entire subgenre of torture chic. I can fully understand why many would denounce the whole subgenre out of hand. Many of these films can be intense and some (particularly those directed by Takashi Miike) are very difficult to watch. That having been said, I do think some films in the subgenre have merit. While it has received its share of abuse from critics over the years, I still regard Last House on the Left as a very fine film. And while his works are the sort that give me nightmares, I must admit that Takashi Miike has a great deal of talent and craft. I even like Alexandre Aja's remake of The Hills Have Eyes; I believe it is a very well executed horror movie.

While I cannot condemn the subgenre outright, I must say that I sympathise with those who do, the primary reason being that so many of these films are poorly made and badly executed. A case in point is one of the most successful films of this sort, Hostel. The movie plods along with a leaden pace to get to where it is going. And the trip, with characters so selfish and self absorbed that they are ultimately unsympathetic, is nearly as unpleasant as the torture that follows. Not that it matters. The characters, whether the ugly Americans or the crazed Europeans, are so poorly developed and acted that they hardly seem like characters at all. As if to add insult to injury, Hostel portrays Slovakia as if it was a Third World country afflicted with war, prostitution, and a crime rate that makes Sin City look like Mayberry. As might be expected, the Czech Republic and Slovakia were not happy with the film. Eli Roth claims that the film is not meant to portray an actual geographical location, but to demonstrate the ignorance of Americans of the world around them. Given the lack of care Roth gave to other aspects of the production (the film is very poorly made), I think a more likely explanation is that Mr. Roth simply failed to do his research or, worse yet, simply did not care.

Sadly, Hostel is not the only bad apple in the barrel where the subgenre of torture chic is concerned. While I am hopelessly in love with Kate Beckinsale, even I cannot pretend that Vacancy is a good film, although hardly as bad as Hostel. Its biggest problem is that it is a banal and bland retread of both Psycho and Peeping Tom (I guess they can at least be given credit for ripping off the best). Turistas is worse than banal and bland; it is every bit as bad as Hostel. In fact, as mind boggling as it might seem, Turistas could be a Hostel ripoff, if not for the fact that they were shot at the same time. Like Hostel the film features American jerks who treat the locals poorly. Like Hostel, the characters in Turistas are entirely made of cardboard. Turistas even takes the lead of Hostel in offending a whole country, although in this case it is Brazil rather than Slovakia. Actor Josh Duhamel even apologised to the people of Brazil on The Tonight Show for the movie! The only difference between Hostel and Turistas is that Turistas is largely incoherent in its latter half. Like the slasher films before them, it seems that the majority of torture chic films are just plain bad.

Of course, what separates the torture chic movies from other bad movies (just pick any movie directed by Michael Bay as an example) is that in possessing no artistic, political, or scientific merit whatsoever, they effectively glamourise cruelty, sadism, and violence against women. Part of the very definition of obscenity (that which makes any piece of pornography, well, obscene) under United States law is any work that lacks artistic, literary, political, or scientific value. And it seems to me that this is true of Hostel, Turistas, and a lot of the other films in this recent crop of movies focusing on inhumanity. In these instances, such films are perhaps better labelled "torture porn" rather than "torture chic."

What makes all of this sadder still is that there are many fine films which have been labelled "torture chic," effectively lumping them in with the likes of Hostel and Turistas. The Descent is not only a well crafted horror movie, but a very cerebral movie as well. What is truly horrifying about the film is not what is lurking out there in the darkness, but the very darkness within its well acted, three dimensional characters. And there is not a scene of torture to be had in the entire film. Yet, there are those who would call it "torture chic." Grindhouse is a well done homage to those Z-grade exploitation movies of the Seventies. It is as much an art film as it is a horror movie, complete with film scratches, "missing" reels and fake trailers. And while there are some scenes of extreme violence in the Planet Terror segment, the film actually owes more to George Romero and John Carpenter than Eli Roth. In my opinion, it is not "torture chic," much less "torture porn."

Fortunately, it seems that the torture chic movies will not be with us much longer. As Vanessa Juarez pointed out in her piece in Entertainment Weekly, cycles in horror movies only last at most a few years. As an example, the slasher film cycle of the late Seventies and Eighties began in 1978 with Halloween and effectively ended around 1984. Given the torture chic cycle began in 2004 with Saw, it will probably soon come to an end. And when it does, I am sure there will be plenty of people who will bid it, "Good riddance."

7 comments:

d. chedwick bryant said...

Horror is a really difficult kind of film to make I think-- i love the old Wolfman movie with lon Chaney Jr. and the old Karloff and Lugosi movies are interesting to me anyway

While clockwork orange is great I wouldn't want to watch it as often as i would other "scary" films like The Birds or something-- again I guess I like old fashioned horror. I'm not even sure how the catagory is organized.

The only horror I have enjoyed recently (and it isn't that recent really) is the comedy-horror of the bbc show "The League of Gentlemen" which takes place in an absolutely horrible town in England-- but it is funny and that takes the edge off the cruelty and horror.

I haven't seen most of the movies you mention here. I'd go see them if I got a free ticket, tho.

Mercurie said...

I love the old horror movies. In fact, two of the most frightening horror movies I've ever seen were made in the Thirties--Tod Browning's Freaks and The Island of Lost Souls, an adaptation of H. G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau. Of course, my all time favourite horror movie is The Bride of Frankenstein.

Reel Fanatic said...

Very well put ... And I respect that, rather than just co-opt Whedon's words as I did, you reasoned it out yourself ... I think horror movies have really gone downhill since the turning point you mentioned, Saw, but I do think there is still some hope for the genre as a whole

d. chedwick bryant said...

The island of Lost Souls scared me as a kid--but my sister and I would watch it again anyway--

when I was little even the Time Machine scared me, the way the morlocks controlled the eloys--(I dont know how to spell those names-)
but still love that movie. I don't care for many remakes. The last time I paid to see scary films-- I saw liev s. in the remake of the Omen and it was ok because I had never seen the orig. and i really like Liev S. I also saw dark water and found it less scary than it ought to have been.
has a horror movie ever given you a nightmare or a good long scare?

Mercurie said...

Reel Fanatic, I do think there is hope for the horror genre. The slasher movies passed, so too will torture chic. It might be a year or two from now, but it won't be forever.

d., I can't say that I have ever had a nightmare from a horror movie, but a few have seriously shook me up. I couldn't go to sleep the first time after I saw Hellraiser. And after watching The Descent I stayed up late because I really didn't want to turn off the lights...

copious notes said...

Mercurie: Congratulations on a thoughtful post about a trend many of us who ardently defend freedom of expression have a lot of trouble with. It does seem a corner may have been turned this weekend with Hostel II finishing sixth at the box office and way below expectations.

Mercurie said...

Thanks for the kind words, copious. The genre of torture chic does give those of us who love freedom of expression a real problem. While I think I speak for all of us when I say we oppose censorship and would not want to see these movies banned, but we do wish that audiences would shy away from them. At any rate, the fact that Hostel Part II failed this weekend is very good news indeed.