Horrifyingly Close to Reality

by Marco Lanzagorta

20 September 2009

Western culture’s perspective of torture is complex and paradoxical; it's considered immoral, illegal, primitive, and indecent, yet it's shocking to see that torture methods continue to be used in the interrogation of prisoners of war.

Torture porn movies are complex cultural products that deserve serious academic attention and analysis.

The previous installment of Dread Reckoning argued that “torture porn” flicks such as Martyrs (2008) and Frontier(s) (2007) rightfully deserve critical attention (see Dread Reckoning: International d’Horreur). Furthermore, these films can very well be considered the pinnacle of the torture porn subgenre. And as such, Martyrs and Frontier(s) have the potential to become true landmarks of the horror genre. However, their substantial amounts of violence, gore, and brutality have earned them harsh comments not only from critics, but also from devoted fans of fright cinema. But then again, considering that horror is about breaking taboos, contravening norms, and transgressing borders, any controversy is a good sign that there is something interesting lurking in the shadows.

In particular, most films belonging to the contentious torture porn subgenre have been severely criticized not only because of their scenes of torture and mutilation, but also because of their transgressive treatment of women. Such a controversy demands a more meticulous look at these films, paying special attention to both their historical context and to the place they occupy on the history of cinema.

The term “torture porn” appears to be originally coined by the New York Times film critic David Edelstein in a short article that appeared in January, 2006 (“Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn”). Edelstein expressed his complex fascination and bewilderment for the unquestionable popularity of films that feature numerous scenes of torture and sadism. Specifically, Edelstein uses Hostel (2005), The Devil Rejects (2005), Saw (2004), Wolf Creek (2005), and The Passion of the Christ (2004) to characterize this cinematic trend.

It is crucial to realize that all the films quoted by Edelstein were released in American theaters within a year and they enjoyed overwhelming success at the box office. Furthermore, the accounts of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse of prisoners held in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq had been made public in the spring of 2004. As a consequence, one is inclined to believe that the rise of the torture porn subgenre insinuates an underlying cultural shift.

However, it is debatable to assert that the torture porn subgenre was born as a direct consequence of the public discontent and trauma for the Abu Ghraib incident. Even though it is indisputable that the new-millennial trend of vicious horror flicks can be seen as a cultural “return of the repressed” signifying the tribulations of the post 9/11 world, it is unlikely that relatively minor anxieties can produce such a significant cultural shift. Therefore, rather than a cause and effect process, perhaps the rise of the torture porn subgenre is simply the logical next step in the evolution of the hyperviolent film.

Indeed, even though the flicks quoted by Edelstein became popular at a particular point of time and within a specific cultural landscape, they are not the first ones to showcase scenes of torture. In this regard, it is worth to briefly explore the surprisingly long history of cinematic representations of torture and sadism. From fanatical witch hunters to demented Nazi doctors and idealistic cenobites, torture, sadism, and masochism appear to be ever present in the history of cinema.

Perhaps the first step in this task is to better understand what we mean by torture. According to the United Nations, for instance, torture implies acts in which severe and prolonged pain and suffering are inflicted on a person for purposes other than killing him. Thus, in principle, a violent and gruesome death should not be mistaken with a form of torture, does not matter how bloody or painful it may be.

As a consequence, in spite of all their viciousness and gory assaults, Friday the 13th (1980), Halloween (1978), and Predator (1987) do not appear to feature scenes of torture. But if you think about it, such a distinction is not crystal clear in other films. For example, one wouldn’t call Alien (1979) and Dawn of the Dead (1979) torture flicks, but serving as an incubator and being eaten alive could qualify as forms of torture.

Similarly, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) is rarely described as a torture film, even though it features one of the most harrowing and extended sequences of psychological torture found in the annals of American cinema. And equally difficult to classify as a torture film, The Exorcist (1973) boils down to the story of an angry demon inflicting severe and prolonged pain and suffering to a young kid.

Therefore, because of our complex cultural intertextuality, it may be difficult to define the exact generic conventions of the torture porn subgenre. Nevertheless, it is possible to avoid sophisticated intertextual conundrums and identify a torture flick as one where acts of torture are the main visual and narrative drivers of the storyline. 

Most likely, Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) was the first film to showcase a scene of torture. Arguably the best collaboration between horror legends Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, The Black Cat is loosely inspired by the literary works of Edgar Alan Poe. However, it manages to remain faithful to the eerie atmosphere that characterized Poe’s oeuvre. A required viewing for the enthusiastic fright film fan, The Black Cat is often considered as one of the best horror movies that emerged during the ‘30s and ‘40s.

A sinister and gloomy tale of human corruption and obsession, The Black Cat culminates with a character being skinned alive. Even though such an act of torture happens out of frame, it was enough to generate disapproval by critics. However, The Black Cat proved to be extremely popular with Depression-era audiences and the film quickly became the highest grossing release of the year.

Bringing to mind the ostensibly cathartic effect produced by the recent wave of torture porn flicks, The Black Cat appears to have brought some sort of solace and comfort to audiences preoccupied with the appalling cultural and economic problems of the period. However, The Black Cat did not initiate a trend. Indeed, The Black Cat is one of the few movies released during the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s that featured scenes of torture. The only two other examples that come to mind are The Raven (1935) and The Hands of Orlac (1935).

Even so, in these early films all the scenes of torture are veiled and off screen. However, by the early ‘60s the production code that regulated the sex and violence content of Hollywood productions weakened and eventually collapsed. As a consequence, during the ‘60s and ‘70s, a large number of horror films had more explicit scenes of torture, sadism, masochism, and humiliation.

The first clear trend of torture films that emerged during these years can be termed as the inquisition flick. As with The Black Cat, Poe’s work served as inspiration for a film about madness, corruption, and obsession. Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) takes place in 16th century Spain and the climax involves a young man trapped in the titular torture device. The torturer, played by the inimitable Vincent Price, is revealed to be the demented son of an inquisitor.

While the violence was kept to a reasonable level, the commercial and critical success of The Pit and the Pendulum is likely to have influenced a series of films that depicted a demented inquisitor torturing, mutilating, and humiliating innocent bystanders. Most of the time, their victim was a young virginal girl who refused the sexual advances of the inquisitor.

Not surprisingly, the amount of violence and sexual situations increased with each new entry in this subgenre. The most notorious flicks in this trend include The Witchfinder General (1968), The Bloody Judge (1970), Mark of the Devil (1970), and Mark of the Devil 2 (1973). Evidence of the cruelty and brutality of these films is the fact that most of them have been banned or censored at some point in time.

Nevertheless, perhaps the most bizarre, offensive, cruel, nasty, sadistic, demeaning, and brutal torture films are those that belong to the Nazisploitation cycle. As the name suggests, these films take place at the high of World War II and feature Nazis committing a variety of sexual atrocities to prisoners or innocent bystanders. Brutally explicit in terms of sex and gore, Nazisploitation films offer abundant scenes of torture and humiliation. Needless to say, these flicks are not easy to watch by the average moviegoer.

The first film in this notorious subgenre appears to be Love Camp 7 (1969). A truly unbelievable story, about two female agents infiltrating a Nazi sex slave camp to rescue a Jewish scientist, is a shameless excuse to portray numerous scenes of rape, torture, sadism, lesbian sex, and sexual degradation. Interestingly enough, Love Camp 7 not only was seminal in the gestation of the Nazisploitation film, but it also defined the narrative and visual structure of the Women in Prison films that were extremely popular during the ‘70s.

Following the success of Love Camp 7, a large number of Nazisploitation films were released during the ‘70s. Some of these films include: Ilsa, She Wolf from the SS (1974), SS Hell Camp (1977), SS Camp 5: Women’s Hell (1977), SS Experiment Love Camp (1976), SS Girls (1976), Nazi Love Camp 27 (1977), Salon Kitty (1976), Love Train for the SS (1977), Deported Women of the SS Special Section (1976), Bordel SS (1978), The Red Nights of the Gestapo (1978), and a contender for the best title in the history of motion pictures: Caligula Reincarnated as Hitler, aka The Gestapo Last Orgy (1977).

The staggering large number of Nazisploitation titles released in such a brief period of time is a clear indicator of the popularity that these films enjoyed. Furthermore, it is truly unbelievable that even respected directors contributed interesting films to this overlooked subgenre. Indeed, Liliana Cavani made The Night Porter (1974) and Pier Paolo Pasolini, the controversial Italian art film legend, directed Salò (1975).

One of the most controversial and disturbing films ever made, Salò is a loose adaptation of the Marquis De Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom. Pasolini cleverly adapted de Sade’s story to take place in the Fascist Italy of 1944. Featuring scenes of torture, degradation, and sexual humiliation, Salò nevertheless provides an incisive criticism to the complex political, social and moral tribulations that haunted the WWII years.

Not surprisingly, Salò was originally labeled by critics and audiences as disgusting, pornographic, repulsive, and immoral, decadent, and depraved. Therefore, it is perhaps ironic that a truly disturbing film like Salò has managed to become an icon of cinematic art. Today, rather than being considered as another demented entry in the Nazisploitation subgenre, Salò is appreciated for its many artistic merits.

In this regard, it is conceivably that Salò forces us to reconsider the case of Martyrs. Indeed, both films were repudiated and demonized because of their onscreen obscenities. In the case of Salò, for instance, it was a long time before critics and scholars were unable to see beyond the superficial decadence of the film. Thus, it is within the realm of the possibility that Martyrs may one day be rightfully recognized as a true landmark of horror cinema. For this to happen, of course, critics, scholars, and audiences need to get over their impulsive disgust and learn to appreciate the beauty that sometimes hides in the most repulsive scenes of violence and brutality.

In any event, even though Salò took cinematic violence to uncharted lands, certainly was not the last film to portray scenes of torture. A more recent example of torture films are those in the Hellraiser franchise. The brainchildren of Clive Barker, the Cenobites are demonic entities that explore the extreme limits of pain and pleasure. Each Cenobite is characterized by a specific type of self-mutilation and most of these films present a variety of brutal, gory, and original torture devices. Furthermore, as angels from the abyss, the Cenobites are in charge of torturing souls for eternity.

As such, it is perplexing that Hellraiser (1987), and it gory sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988), never generated as much controversy as the recent wave of torture porn flicks. Arguably, the torture and brutality in the Hellraiser films appear to be perceived by audiences and critics as “safer”, making these movies far less repulsive than Martyrs or Hostel.

One reason for this reaction could be that the viciousness in the Hellraiser films has a strong supernatural undercurrent. As such, audiences could distance themselves from the onscreen horrors by simply taking a skeptical position. However, all the films quoted by Edelstein present torture inflicted to humans, by humans. As such, they feel more “real”.

Another reason could be that most of the central characters in Hellraiser appear to enjoy torture and self-mutilation. As such, the images of pinhead and chatterer do not feel gruesome, but they feel tantalizing, alluring, appealing, and fascinating. Furthermore, it has even been reported that Hellraiser motivated a number of people to look for exotic forms of self-mutilation and masochism.

However, these arguments entail sophisticated moral conundrums. For instance, both arguments suggest that most people have no problem with onscreen torture and mutilation, for as long as the victim is supernatural or happens to enjoy pain. In other words, it does not appear to be a problem with torture, for as long as the ‘right person’ gets tortured.

Such moral puzzle was further explored by the hit TV series 24 (2001-2009). Recent seasons of this show have delved into the issue of torture as a legit mean to interrogate nefarious terrorists. In episode after episode, torture is always portrayed to be the most efficient and effective method of obtaining information from the bad guys. Even though some critics have pointed out at the problematic subtext, most audiences appear to enjoy the show without remorse. But then again, 24 trivializes moral issues because all the villains are really evil and there is little doubt about their alliances and treacheries.

As evidenced by the Nazisploitation, Inquisition, and Hellraiser flicks, torture in films has a long, rich, and sophisticated history. And by no means was our exploration intended to be a complete and comprehensive treatment of the topic. In any event, those who claim that the modern torture porn subgenre is a brand new cultural product manufactured and consumed by a decadent postmillennial society should see a few Nazisploitation movies from the ‘70s. And those who think that Martyrs is the most depraved and obscene film in the history of motion pictures, should take a look at Salò.

In a sense, perhaps the main difference between the Nazisploitation films and the modern wave of torture porn movies is that the former where shown exclusively at grind-houses, drive-ins and midnight showings, while the later have been shown at family-friendly multiplexes and the DVDs are readily available at the local Walmart.

Therefore, the big questions remain unanswered: why are these films so popular? Is it because the audience identifies with the torturer in a cathartic process that safely vents frustrations and repressions? Or is it because the audience identifies with the victim taking a masochistic stand? To date, no clear evidence exists to suggest the exact process in which audiences become engaged to these films.

Regardless of the answers to these questions, torture porn is likely to remain a complex cultural phenomenon for the years to come. It already poses interesting academic challenges for critics and scholars. For instance, traditional theoretical frameworks such as Carol Clover’s gender cross-identification process, which was successful to explain the popularity of slasher films, breaks down in the modern torture porn subgenre because the “final girl” usually succumbs to her assailant.

In addition, Western culture’s perspective of torture is complex and paradoxical. On one hand, it is considered immoral, illegal, primitive, and indecent. On the other hand, it is shocking to see that torture methods continue to be used in the interrogation of prisoners of war. Furthermore, Christian religion delves around the adoration of a symbol which is an instrument of torture, and Catholic churches are ornamented with icons portraying a man brutally tortured to death.

Without a doubt, ignoring, condemning, censoring, or wishing away torture porn films will not further our understanding of the intricate cultural dynamics that shape our world. Torture porn movies may deal with immoral and depraved themes that are contrary to our social norms of conduct, but they remain complex cultural products that deserve serious academic attention and analysis.

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