Torture Porn: Eli Roth vs The Grauniad

Porn has always been a difficult thing to define; it always comes back to that "I know it when I see it" pseudo-definition. So if we can't all agree on what, exactly, qualifies as pornography, it's harder still to agree on what might constitute "torture porn."

Which isn't stopping everyone and their mother bandying the term around haphazardly.

As a working definition, it would seem to make sense that torture porn is a sub-genre of horror in which torture (usually of young women) is exploited for the titillation of the audience. Recent examples include Switchblade Romance, Wolf Creek, the Saw series, Captivity and Broken - this kind of movie has existed for a while, and undoubtedly films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre could be slotted in under the torture porn banner, but it's also a type of movie that seems to be on the rise at the moment.

And though the box office suggests that the public loves this stuff, the Guardian really doesn't. I don't blame them, to be honest: I think this is one of the worst things to happen to the horror genre in a long time, despite the fact that ostensibly it's brought the genre more into the public eye.

But what I have to take issue with in the Guardian's coverage over the last couple of weeks is the way it seems to have made Eli Roth a scapegoat. Roth, and Hostel, are name-checked over and over again, in the article I linked above and in an interview with Quentin Tarantino over his currently-bombing 'movie', Death Proof. It's pretty hypocritical. Tarantino's movies are, by and large, mindlessly violent, and no amount of fawning will change the fact that they don't exactly treat women brilliantly -- this is the guy who wrote From Dusk Till Dawn, remember?

But then Tarantino has been wildly successful, and, oh, yeah, he doesn't make horror films (and certainly not in the gleeful, single-minded way Roth does) so he's somehow more respectable. What a load of utter nonsense.

But I'm straying off the point. The point being, Hostel is not, and should not ever, be considered torture porn. Sure, it's gory, sure, it's scary, and sure, there are some horrible, morally corrupt characters in it who enjoy inflicting pain on other people.

Crucially, though, the film itself doesn't savour the violence.

Hostel is actually a lot less gory than people tend to think. Whereas other films linger over the violence and gore -- take almost any sequence from a Saw movie, for example, particularly any of the death scenes from Saw 3 -- Hostel cuts away from the action, preferring to imply the violence instead. The most horrific scene, in which a girl's eye is attacked with a blowtorch till it's left dangling by a thread, just isn't dealt with in the way it would be in any torture porn director's hands. If you imagine, say, Alexander Aja tackling that scene, it would have taken a lot longer; we'd have seen the torch approaching, her skin burning, and she'd be screaming for a long, long time. And Greg McLean probably would have thrown in several misogynist expletives, too.

And she probably would have been naked.

Actually, that's not entirely fair, because there's little or no nudity in Wolf Creek. But the scale of the violence and implicit hatred towards women in that movie puts it in a whole different league from Hostel. If anything, Hostel works as a commentary on those women-hating attitudes: the film begins with young men merrily objectifying women, and ends with the gender politics swapped around, as the women exploit them, and the boys find themselves objectified in a far more horrifying way. Hostel is well-written and well-thought out, rather than just being a straight-forward enjoyment of violence.

To take it further, Hostel is even a sort of condemnation of society, of people, and of our inability to empathise with our fellow humans. The businessmen carrying out the torture have become so jaded that the only way they can get their kicks is by buying another person, and doing all sorts of unthinkable things to them. These men are certainly not sympathetic characters, and the audience is never invited to do anything but fear them.

Lumping Hostel in with torture porn is lazy thinking. And it also misses the point - and misses those films that actually might be dangerous. Because it is worrying, isn't it, that there are so many films being made (and becoming successful) that have nothing more to offer than 90 minutes of a woman screaming?


Jason Arnopp said...

Don't have a problem with the torture trend, myself. After all, horror movies should horrify, and torture can obviously be really disturbing. It also reflects the world: the use of torture in war. And where do you start with the torture porn trend? Tobe Hooper's Texas Chain Saw Massacre? :-)

Sarah Dobbs said...

Honestly, I probably have less of a moral problem with it than just a boredom problem.

Watching an endless stream of generically pretty girls getting tortured just to titillate an audience is really dull.

But yeah, TCM counts; there's just been a resurgence recently.

I like scary horror movies. Torture doesn't scare me. It just makes me depressed and misanthropic.

Ron said...

No, not Tobe. Nobody gets really tortured in TCM. I'd start it with the classic "I Spit... On Your Grave."