Ah, torture horror. Some people think it has something to say. Other people… well, to quote Chris Magyar from Jabootu.net, “It’s only the bestest happiest trend to ever come along and swallow up every half-assed “scary” movie along the cheapest, most exploitative lines possible.”
To be honest, I lean rather towards the latter, when dealing with the examples of it I’ve seen. I’ve watched Hostel… or tried to. I’ve watched Saw films… or, again, tried to. The problem is that, of the movies I’ve seen, I’ve never been able to actually care about what’s going on. The greatest flaw I’ve seen with “torture porn,” as it’s often called, is that it isn’t scary. Either you have to develop enough empathy for the victims to care what happens to them, or you have to be able to get into the head of the bad guy enough to understand and sympathize with him. Either one creates a scare – either because you’re scared for the victim, or because you’re horrified at the fact that you can see where the killer’s coming from.
Looking at the two most easily recognized examples of torture horror – Hostel and Saw – they both fall short, at least for me. Neither one has victims who are particularly likeable – Hostel’s victims, if anything, you almost *want* to end up dead. And the killers are utterly nonsensical. In Hostel, the killer we get the most insight into wanted to be a surgeon. So, what does he do. Does he perform twisted, untrained surgeries on perfectly healthy people, trying to prove that he could have been a surgeon if they’d let him?
No, he takes bolt cutters to people. The closest he comes to trying to be a surgeon is that he wears a mask. There’s no rhyme or reason to why he’s killing people… he just is.
Saw creates an even more egregious breach. In Saw IV, we’re finally given a look at the Jigsaw Killer’s motivation – trying to make people work for the lives that they’ve (in his view) taken for granted and squandered. Now, many of his crimes do force people to do horrible things in order to survive. But in the very first movie, one of his victim’s best chance for survival would be to do nothing. Instead, his attempts to save his own life result in his painful death. In setting up such a killing, the Jigsaw Killer breaks his own (admittedly probably retconned) motivation.
You might be frightened by the idea that random people might pay for the privilege of torturing you to death, and I’ll admit that this can be a scary idea. But how many times can you do it before it gets dull?
Obviously, I don’t like this particular type of ‘horror’ movie. However, I do give it more credit than most people do. Torture horror isn’t a new phenomonon. People far more interested in film than I have traced it back to the 70’s, and Wes Craven’s breakthrough hits, “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Last House on the Left.” And, to be fair, these movies do fit into the mold of a torture porn much better than the mold of a slasher flick (where they have often been relegated prior to the new term being coined). But not even this is the birth of the genre.
No, I’d say that torture horror stretches back at least 200 years – to the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. This book, probably thick enough to kill somebody if you hit them with it right despite not being finished, is the earliest example I’ve ever seen. De Sade never really got to fully detailing the months that would have put the book beyond the pale, but he was well on his way. I have to say that I couldn’t possibly recommend the book; it’s grotesque in the extreme, and basically a 600 page ode to sin, degradation, and misanthrophy. But if you do enjoy movies like Saw and Hostel… well, I suppose you might find this one an interesting historical artifact. Other works of his are less focused on the torment and torture, and more on his libertine philosophies, and tend to prove more interesting for it, but for a window into the soul of a man who so loathed everything and everybody in the world that he might actually do the sort of things you see in this genre, 120 Days is the best you’re going to find… hopefully.
Recommendations for the Genre:
None, really. I haven’t seen one movie that I liked enough to suggest it, and the book includes enough perversion and obscenity that most people won’t be able to read it through.
However, if you’re interested in a hybrid of torture horror and the gothic horror genre (much, much more heavily gothic than torture), you could do worse than Richard Matheson’s Hell House. I intend to go into more detail on this book later, but suffice it to say that the book contains several very uncomfortable scenes where the spirits psychologically torment the house’s victims.
As always, I’m open to debate. If you want to come to the defense of this genre, I’m game to debate it with you. 🙂