13 Days of Horror: Day 8 – The ‘Torture Porn’ Sub-Genre

‘Torture porn’ is the derogatory title given to a sub-genre of horror that came to prominence in the early 2000’s. Combining elements of the graphic splatter genre with the killer violence of slasher films, these films focused heavily on showing it all. Not shy to show the crimson, these films depicted graphic scenes in an attempt to transcend the audiences horror experience. The term ‘torture porn’ was coined by New York film critic David Edelstein around the time of films such as Saw and Hostel. Not one to shy away from his feelings, Edelstein derided these films and in doing so labelled them with a term that only denotes negative connotations.

I don’t agree with this label and when talking about these films I don’t refer to them as such. Pornography in its loosest term is all about arousal derided from imagery; there is no way that any audience, regardless of their bloodlust or appeal for boundary-pushing horror, is seeking or receiving arousal from watching such films. It is a term coined solely to debunk the authenticity and relevance of these films in the annals of horror history. Just because a film seeks to test the strength and stomach of its audience does not mean it is has been produced for arousal or enjoyment. Like all great horror films, these entries make us think and feel the world of pain, torture and human-on-human violence in a way that makes us feel uncomfortable – uncomfortable enough to feel the effects of these films long after we have finished watching them. The only possible similarity to pornography is the voyeurism of both mediums.

Hostel

 Saw was the first such film to begin this category in 2004, swiftly followed by Hostel in 2005. Films like Ichi the Killer (2001) and Base-Moi (2000) had all the traits of this modern splatter sub-genre but the prominence was not highlighted until Saw came on to the scene in 2004. With its unrelenting portrayal of bodily disfigurement and an intense focus on showing everything, these films inevitably caused controversy as the pushed the boundaries of taste in pursuit of new heights for the horror genre. Soon after the ‘torture porn’ term was derived and the focus was on these films, studios pushed to produce more of these films to capitalise on their appeal. Once again, the box office did the talking.

Martyrs

Like most horror films, these type of films are cheap to produce but have massive audience appeal so the revenue gained is what ensures the continuation of this sub-genre. The ‘New French Extremity’ pioneered the overseas market for these types of film, with shocking entries such as Switchblade Romance, Martyrs and Frontiere(s) making for conversation in newspapers and classrooms across the world. There’s something inherent about world cinema and the ‘torture porn’ sub-genre as any company outside of the Hollywood machine will always push boundaries and test the audiences’ resolve. Though American cinema is as infamous with this sub-genre as any other country, there is something more damning and unsettling about this kind of action on foreign soil.

Human Centipede

And its foreign soil that provides the influence for these films. As with any horror sub-genre, it finds its prominence in a decade where it mirrors societies fears and concerns. The body horror sub-genre was relevant in the 1980’s as it paralleled the increase in deaths relating to body-invading viruses like HIV, so it comes as no surprise to see that the popularity of this sub-genre peaked in the early 2000’s due to the War on Terrorism overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the 21st Century we are a population soaked in technology; Digital TV, mobile devices, tablets, laptops, Youtube and Apps enable us to access a wealth of information at the click of a button. Never before were we exposed to a war that was taking place abroad but felt like it was next door. The intense 24/7 coverage of the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the leaked videos of drones hitting and soldiers torturing civilians inside broken down prisons seeped into the fabric of our perfect society. We were exposed to the harsh truths of war and the world we live in today, and the fact that the only monster under the bed or in the wardrobe is ourselves – its humanity itself that is its own monster and will be its own undoing. This fear translated on to the screen and as only great art does, it made us face it. Saw, Hostel, Martyrs, Eden Lake, The Collector – they showed us what we saw already on TV: that humanity was capable of this.

Hostel

That’s the thing that is most terrifying about this sub-genre, and for me its what separates it from the slasher film. In a typical slasher, its a masked killer with no real motivation or intent other than to kill the sexually promiscuous. In a ‘torture porn’ (it’s killing me to use this title…) film the killer is real: you can see their face and they look the neighbour next door. The people that kill in these movies look just like your postman or your solicitor, your supermarket cashier or your retired neighbour. These films show us real people carrying out sadistic acts of violence to satiate a need and a curiosity, and that is terrifying.

Hostel 2

So where next for this controversial sub-genre? As with any of horrors greatest impacts its appeal to audiences is slowly dwindling. The attention of the audience will dwindle if they are exposed to too much of the same thing, and such is the case with ‘torture porn’. After Saw 3D finished off the sub-genres most successful franchise the need for this kind of film left the multiplexes too. A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede (First Sequence) pushed the boundaries too far and instead of sitting in this sub-genre they began to create one of their own. Critically derided and almost unnecessary, these films caused controversy not for art but for purpose and so remain as separate entries. There has been a steady stream of low budget, low advertised films due to the continued success of the straight-to-DVD market but in recent years – certainly the past three or four – there haven’t been many to start a New Wave. That’s not to say it’s dead in the water; like fashion there are always trends that peak and return and so, in the wake of the next war or exposure to violence in mainstream media we might again see audiences facing their fears through the safety of non-fiction.

A Serbian Film

TOMORROW: Horror Masterpiece – Martyrs

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