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NOTE: Some of the images that follow are of a graphic nature. Viewer discretion is advised.

When do images like these move into the realm of art?
(from top left: Takashi Miike’s Imprint / Eli Roth’s Hostel /
Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! / David Cronenberg’s Crash)

Having been a part of the demographic of this new breed of horror films casually labelled “torture porn” since I started high school a little more than five years ago, I’ve seen a fair share of what’s been offered in the genre and how people my age, or close to it, have reacted. A lot of people I know tend to eat it up: the general public seems to assume that torture is as extreme as horror gets, and if such “entertainment” is offered in a clean and glitzy multiplex or a Blockbuster, it must be normal to like it.

Granted, this isn’t the first time movies are being fashioned in such an exploitative way. Exploitation films were popular fare in the ’60s and ’70s here in America, but audiences were willing to admit that the movies they were watching were crappy. The movies were cheaper to see and tended to be about something taboo, so even if the movie sucked, at least it could be an intriguing failure and didn’t cost as much.

People couldn’t have thought this was the next Antonioni film:
they knew what they were getting into.

But today is different. People now take exploitation movies much too seriously, and maybe it’s because the marketing for these kinds of films don’t call them what they are anymore. At least back in the day, the trailers used to say things like, “Shocking! Outrageous! Denounced by the Vatican!” and people seeing it on their TV screens were in on the joke (somewhat). However, ever since The Blair Witch Project, people have fallen for the kind of horror that comes dangerously close to being (or seeming) real, which ,ashamedly, will probably result in a release like The Poughkeepsie Tapes (coming to a theater near you February 8) making a decent chunk of change at the box office.

I worked in a local video store for a little over a year, and I saw people from all economic, social, and racial backgrounds come into the store. It would sicken me to see how strongly a surprising number of these people felt (positively, I mean) about these “torture porn” movies, or how upset people would be when they found out our VHS copy of Faces of Death was rented out. People don’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation, the danger of what today’s general public defines as entertainment in the horror genre. It’s no longer about seeing a cheap double-bill for pure fun. Today, the attraction is seeing torture or death in any way, which seems to be less about curiosity for taboo subject matter than it is about getting a thrill, actually being turned-on to a degree.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with violence. Point to just about any David Cronenberg movie, and I’ll tell you it’s brilliant cinema. So, what exactly is the difference between these two camps? Somebody in the general public doesn’t have a problem sitting through Saw multiple times (and, i.e., likes it), but the same person could never in his/her life watch Salò in its entirety.

No caption necessary.

But let’s all admit: we love exploitation flicks. Who doesn’t like a good movie from Jack Hill, Russ Meyer, or John Waters? Whether you love or hate Foxy Brown or Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! or Pink Flamingos, anybody who has seen one of these can admit it’s unlike anything he/she has ever seen before. Check out these genres/subcategories of exploitation flicks from its Wikipedia entry, and see how they make you respond as you scan each one:

  • Black exploitation
  • Sex exploitation
  • Shock exploitation films (shock films)
  • Biker films
  • Cannibal films
  • Chambara films
  • Zombie films
  • Mondo films
  • Splatter films
  • Spaghetti westerns and Euroflicks
  • Women in prison films
  • Bruceploitation
  • Giallo
  • Nunsploitation
  • Nazisploitation
  • Pornochanchada
  • Pinku eiga(Pink Film)
  • Dyxploitation
  • Hixploitation
  • Cat III
  • Teensploitation
  • Rape / Revenge
  • Martial arts film
  • Slasher film
  • Revenge films
  • Propaganda film
  • Carsploitation

Each of the names of these various sub-genres reaches somewhere inside us and tells us to watch. We may very well choose not to in the end (rape? pornochanchada? hixploitation?) but there is definitely something alluring at first about each of them.

Despite the primal appeal of these categories, violence, sex, and taboo topics can all be used as art (but let’s focus on violence since we’re talking about “torture porn”). Violence has been used marvelously to externalize inner pain in the past and nowadays. Miike has done this extraordinarily alongside many great directors before him. Cronenberg does so impressively in The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Crash, and Spider, each one realizing madness, anger, and angst with copious amounts of gore and flesh.

Sam Peckinpah is given credit as the director who turned violence into art with The Wild Bunch, and since I’ve only seen one of his films, the one I will mention is Straw Dogs. To be frank, though, Peckinpah doesn’t really need The Wild Bunch to earn his “artistic violence” cred. He does so from Straw Dogs alone, which shows what a man is capable of when pushed over the edge: shooting someone head-on with a shotgun, scalding a man with boiling whiskey, or closing a bear trap on somebody. And despite what you may think of Natural Born Killers (I see it not as glorifying violence like some people do but as giving even a torture-holic a generous overdose of violence — it’s supposed to make the audience feel a bit disturbed), it’s a great externalization of anger toward our celebrity-worshipping culture not unlike the way The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is a visual tornado and fever dream of wrath in its many forms.

Therefore, any movie using torture or sadistic violence has the potential to use it in a non-exploitative manner. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with using torture in a film. It can either be used very artfully as in Takashi Miike’s Audition or Imprint (his Masters of Horrors contribution), or torture can be used in a way that lowers it to a level of unimportance as in Eli Roth’s Hostel.

So, my personal beef with movies like Hostel, Saw, and company is that they don’t have any imagination. (Eli Roth himself will tell you how the Italian giallos of old have inspired him.) Hostel believes that just laying out the T&A and torture to be seen is sufficient. But if the sex and violence have no subtext, there really is no excuse for showing it. “For realism” is often quoted as a reason, but it’s a dumb one. What’s intrinsically artistic about showing something real? The news is not art, and documentaries are art only because real events are shaped into a creative whole, not just because these movies show real people doing real things at a real time.

At first, Hostel wasn’t bad. The movie revealed itself in the beginning as some kind of incarnation of “Hotel California,” and even though I wasn’t buying the dialogue, I was turning a blind eye to for the sake of the remainder of the movie, hoping it would only improve. Then, however, Hostel fails when it decides to explain why everything is happening, when it tries to give logic to what is going on, when it tries to shock and give a twist. But no, there is nothing shocking about businessmen paying a company to provide them with a human to torture, so my respect for the film dimmed.

Another fault: if the audience doesn’t care about a character, how can you expect them to be upset when the same character is killed? How is the audience to sympathize with cardboard cutouts? In Audition, I was genuinely interested in the welfare of our poor hero because I could sympathize with his disastrous search for love. How can one not care for the likable Seth Brundle in The Fly? Even though he’s nuts, it’s Jeff Goldblum playing him. And those final shots get me every time.


Movies like Hostel have high potential to be great cinema, but they are far from the mark. What also separates today’s exploitation films from those in the past is ambition in the right area. Back then, since they had so much freedom, the directors and writers tried to be different if not necessarily artistic. Ironically, “torture porn” movies tend to suffer because they try to be art. Their problem is that they’re trying in the wrong direction. Today’s exploitation films can still attempt at being art, but if they continue to be the same rote murder and mayhem, nothing exciting and artistically stimulating will ever come from the genre.


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