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How 'Torture Porn' Captured the Violent Atmosphere of a Post-9/11 World

Films like 'Saw' and 'Hostel' may have felt like gratuitous gore, but they also reflected an era in which death and torture was entering everyday life.

by Charles Graham-Dixon
Sep 19 2018, 6:49pm

Image taken from the official theatrical poster of Saw.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

In his 2006 article: Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn, New York magazine’s David Edelstein coined the term when referring to a cycle of ultra-violent, extreme horror films, which depicted scenes of sustained torture and, in the opinion of many critics and observers, revealed in doing so. Torture porn films made decent money too. To date, the Saw franchise has taken over $976 million worldwide.

Many commentators, Edelstein included, felt that, unlike many of the brutally violent slasher, exploitation, and cannibal films of the 70’s and 80’s, torture porn went too far: “As a horror maven who long ago made peace with the genre’s inherent sadism, I’m baffled by how far this new stuff goes—and by why America seems so nuts these days about torture.”

Edelstein’s article appeared as the torture porn sub-genre boomed. Successful titles included Eli Roth’s Hostel series, Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, Wolf Creek, and the Saw films, which proved so popular a Saw ride was created at Thorpe Park in England. The common thread in many of these films were captive victims suffering unspeakable and sustained violence from their captors and being forced to torture each other or be killed. The Saw series contains 81 murders, many of which have been ranked in online articles and videos. What do you prefer: Timothy being torn and twisted apart by a rack in Saw III or Dina being dismembered by a circular saw in Saw 3D?

A series of even more extreme European films were released during this period—not all horror movies per se, but titles pushing the boundaries of extremity with their physical and sexual violence and unremitting torment of their characters. Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film or "New French Extreme" films such as Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible and Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs were not just stomach-churningly violent, they shared a deeply nihilistic worldview, which made viewing them a truly bleak experience.

To explore torture porn or indeed any cycle of horror films, it is vital to look at the political landscape of the time. Horror movies of the 70’s such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Last House on the Left coincided with anxiety surrounding America’s war in Vietnam. Slasher films of the 80’s such as A Nightmare on Elm Street vicariously mirrored Cold War fears and torture porn’s boom coincided with 9/11, the War on Terror and the Iraq war.

During this period, the Bush administration supported torture to "get results." Former vice president Dick Cheney remarked that waterboarding techniques were: “Just a dunk in the water,” and shocking images from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison of prisoners being sexually abused, tortured, and humiliated by US Army personnel were beamed worldwide. So, whether torture was glorified or condemned, it was everywhere, and horror films of the time reflected our collective anxieties on the subject.

In a Guardian interview, Hostel and Cabin Fever director Eli Roth explained how horror films related to the political climate: “Horror films have a very direct relationship to the time in which they're made. The films that really strike a nerve with the public very often reflect something that everyone, consciously or unconsciously feels—atomic age, post 9/11, post-Iraq war.”

Looking at the Hostel films, Roth’s delivered a clear critique of the xenophobia, ignorance, and culture of fear that was rampant in post-9/11 America. Two all-American backpackers go to deepest darkest… Slovakia, and look what happens—they get tortured for fun by groups of sadistic "violence tourists." Whether audiences who flocked to see Hostel in their millions supported the Bush administration or didn’t, one thing was certain: being scared and watching extreme violence was all the rage.

Were torture porn films popular because audiences had become more sadistic? Perhaps some had, but for most, these films not only reflected the extremity of the real world, but they also allowed audiences to be scared in a way that didn’t seep into their real lives. People’s anxieties could be visualized on screen to provide cathartic relief: “The truth of the matter is,” explained Eli Roth on Fox News in 2004, “at times of terror people want to be terrified but in a safe environment. With all the things going on in the world like Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, where our government did nothing for anybody, people want to scream, but there’s nowhere in society where you can go scream at the top of your lungs. Horror movies let you do that.”

When David Edelstein came up with the term "torture porn," his suggestion was that horror movies had become too gratuitous, and in many cases he was right. When A Serbian Film director Srdjan Spasojevic said in a publicity interview that his film—which contained repeated rapes, murders, incest, and pedophilia—was: “...an attempt to show how we feel on the screen living in today’s world… a giant horrible metaphor for the things that are happening to us,” the film needed to deliver an intelligent, allegorical message that, although shocking and harrowing, provided room for thought. It failed. As Mark Kermode said when discussing A Serbian Film for BBC Radio 5 Live: “It doesn’t work on the level of allegory and isn’t to be taken seriously in the way it thinks it is. Torture porn is one thing, pompous pretentious torture porn is something else.

David Edelstein suggested in his original article that much of the multiplex horror between 2004 and 2010 was just plain nasty—violence for the sake of violence. But, whether Edelstein intended to or not, the term torture porn ended up as a blanket and often pejorative term that negatively labeled a whole range of films. Like "video nasty" or "slasher films," torture porn is an inherently negative and reductive term—it fuses pornography and torture, rendering any film with this label as cheap and dismissible.

“It immediately discredits the film,” said Eli Roth on Ain’t It Cool News. “It's more reflective of the critic than the film. It shows a lack of understanding and ability to understand and appreciate a horror film as something more than just a horror film. The gore blinds them from any intelligence that goes into making the film. And I think that the term ‘torture porn’ genuinely says more about the critic's limited understanding of what horror movies can do than about the film itself.”

Personally, I am not a huge fan of the so-called torture porn sub-genre. Barring some exceptions, the majority I have seen either made me feel unwell, slightly depressed, or both. However, I recognize that labels and buzz-terms automatically reduce a film’s chances of being taken seriously. As an example, we can look back to George A. Romero's Trilogy of the Dead. In Dawn of the Dead we see an American shopping mall filled with hungry zombies, mindlessly consuming; while Night of the Living Dead features the nihilistic killing of it's black hero by police officers. We now value these films as cultural and social artifacts, railing against consumerism and racism, but for a long time, they were just "splatter films" and hardly likely to warrant critical discussion.

Looking back at horror films from the early to mid-2000’s and the climate of fear and government-condoned torture is it is hardly surprising that films detailing these things did so well at the box office. Audiences have long been thrilled by being scared and seeing violence on screen. As the real world has gone through cycles of collective fear and threatened or actual violence, the horror genre has responded in kind. Yes, many films from this cycle were vomit-inducingly violent and often devoid of artistic merit or political context, but the term "torture porn" risks overlooking a body of work, which could tell us a great deal about what was going on in the world and how people felt about it.

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