Torture Porn: More than just icky?

I like how small the print of the critic’s names is.

David Edelstein coined the term “Torture Porn” in January of 2006 in an article where he accused Eli Roth’s Hostel as a horror film with “money shots” instead of scares, and “scenes of sensual stimulation”instead of horror. After this nifty little term was coined, it started showing up in reviews everywhere. Saw, The Devil’s Rejects, Hostel: Part II, High Tension, Martyrs, Inside, and Ichi the Killer were all included in the fun. And if people weren’t clued in already, Fox News decided to run a Glenn Beck episode on the subject. (I know there should be a hyperlink, but it appears that that episode can’t be found anymore…)

However, I did find this nifty picture of something similar.

So Torture Porn exists. The sub-genre spawns many, many films each year from studios large and small. The films can be made with relatively small budgets, no name actors, no prior franchises, and no television marketing. In fact, most Torture Porn films don’t even find physical retail status. Online horror sites like Bloody-Disgusting attain exclusive rights to a majority of these films and make them available for streaming.
The trend is really no different from the slasher movies of the eighties or the exploitation films of the seventies. Once a formula has been established, film studios have no trouble producing variations on a theme for as long as the money rolls. Exploitation films, some as early as Freaks (1932) and as sadistic as The Last House on the Left (1972), were met with public outrage and boycotting. Articles were written about the lost new generation of sick artists doing anything for a kick. Conservatives knocked the films as nothing more than meaningless drivel, films existing merely for the opportunity to make people mad. It became clear to conservatives, relatively quickly, that most murders must be caused by these violent, disturbing, and irreverent films.
However, it didn’t take long for other critics to defend these films. Amongst the rabble-rousers, critics like Roger Ebert and Kevin Maynard defended these films as glimpses into the minds of a new generation of storytellers. Young people who were reacting to the Vietnam War. The films, disgusting and irreverent as they are, the critics point out, show real societal concerns by the writers and directors of the time. Ebert felt so strongly of the matter that he even wrote his own exploitation flick.
Slasher movies, beginning famously with John Carpenter’s Halloween, quickly became the new exploitation flicks. After a couple of years of outcries, it became apparent to many critics that these films, too, were representing a voice. And strangely enough, this voice was rather conservative. 
We all know the story, though, don’t we?
 Virgins live, sluts die. 
Heavy drinkers die, the sober dudes find a way out.
And, unfortunately, those people who aren’t white can’t seem to survive these conservative screenplays.
So here’s my generation’s answer to the problems of the world, Torture Porn, and what exactly are critics talking about now?
Nothing, really…
Now, I realize that the genre is young, but it has been five years since the term was coined. We’ve got literally hundreds of these films out and ready for dissection. And yet the issue is still being argued over as if Hostel just came out this past December.
A lot has changed since 2006. Now we have a formula. However, the formula is no longer a thinly veiled bit of conservatism. No, my generation is much more nihilistic .

And pretty.

The thing is, the people between 20 and 35 years old right now have had to spend their youth witnessing terrorism at a huge scale and the subsequent wars that terrorism has started. Now I know that WWII and the Vietnam war were horrible. The Holocaust was one of the most devastating things that has happened in human history. However, those things did not happen everywhere. What I mean by “everywhere” is that we have the internet. And on the internet we have videos. And those videos come from phones. Phones that are in the pockets of everybody. We have a video of Saddam Hussein’s hanging. We have thousands of videos of the World Trade Center attack. Thousands of videos from Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Things are instantaneous, and absolutely uncensored. The Vietnam War may have been the first televised war, but the Iraq War is the first uncensored look America has ever had at what war really is.

I won’t get into too much detail about my theories of war, but let’s just say nihilism is involved.

Furthermore, we don’t only have videos of war. We have videos of everything. Petty arguments, fights between friends, murders on sidewalks, automobile accidents, sports injuries, etc.
We have a video for every single baseless and immoral act imaginable. We have videos online to fill every hour of every day for over a thousand years.
These videos are viewed every day on the internet, where people 20-35 most frequent, and they have done something to our brains. We either see the world more clearly, or we see a side of the world that no human being was supposed to see so much of. It used to be that morticians, doctors, and police officers saw the worst stuff. You had to be built a certain way for the job.
I can see all of those things in about ten seconds.
However, I’ve never seen those things in person. I’m detached. We are detached. And what happens when you’re introduced to all of the terrible things of the world by the emotionless, objective lens of a camera phone? You become desensitized. You become emotionless and indifferent toward violence.

You write stories.

This is an excellent example of Torture Porn commentary

It is no coincidence that these films started coming out rapid fire around the rise of youtube and other video sharing sites. These films are a direct response to the desensitization of this generation. Now we have movies that beg the audience to flinch and feel sick. People go to these movies to feel a rush of excitement. The violence is so horrible, but we can survive it. We can watch it and not get sick. It is an endurance test.
And what are these films saying? Sometimes I think they’re commenting on the baselessness of humanity. Films like Hostel and Saw, hypocritically I must add, are commenting on the violent and immoral qualities of the generation today while exploiting those very qualities of their audiences. The films are making excellent points about the unnecessary hatred and violence of the youth today, but they would never be financially successful without that very youth paying money to see them.
Not only that, but those films are drenched in some of the most despicable violence you could ever imagine. Things you can never take back once you’ve seen them.
There should be way more writing about this subject. If this sub-genre is really so offensive, why don’t people investigate further into what it is trying to say? Films like Afterschool and Benny’s Video have embraced the qualities of the genre while commenting on the effects those qualities can have in a way that is extremely effective. While other films, such as Wolf Creek and, oddly enough, The Last House on the Left remake, seem to be selling the goods without any such commentary.
This sub-genre is just begging to be written about. I’d like to see more people question this genre and look at it from the perspective of professional film critics, not angry rabble-rousers insisting that they aren’t watching art.

By the way, I watched Martyrs this week. It made me feel very, very sick.

[There are definitely articles written on this subject. I’m not acting like I’m the first one. However, it is important to point out that an abundance of critics have stuck to their guns on this without giving any real reasons why. A majority of critics refuse to call it art and therefore won’t watch it, but you know, it’s there and it’s growing. It’s not going away.]

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  • RS

    You make an interesting argument, that torture porn is a means of making a largely desensitized, detached generation feel *something*. What happens, though, when the audience becomes desensitized to torture porn? Will filmmakers then move to snuff films? Disturbing prognostication.

  • Torture porn also seems to put things in perspective in an odd way. Here we are worrying about what our shoes say about us, and somewhere in the world something terrible is happening. Like you said, we've grown up in a world where everything is accessible. So in order to have a moment of clarity we have to go to extremes. Maybe.