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Film

More than gore? The meaning behind 'torture-porn' horror

@Russellisation

The horror genre has always been one to create moral panic, with conservative critics taking issue with the ‘video-nasties’ of the 1970s, or indeed the slasher obsession of the 1980s. Whilst it’s easy to consider these eras ‘passing fads’, there’s also inherent truth within their material, with horror acting much like the court jester, revealing the truth behind the facade that others are too reserved to reveal. 

Such is illustrated throughout the history of the genre, with Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre being a prime example, flouting and mocking the law and order of America in the wake of the national bruises of the Watergate scandal as well as the ongoing Vietnam war in the 1970s. More recently, the horror of Jordan Peele’s Get Out speaks to the ongoing racism of the American institution, with the Black Lives Matter movement demanding institutional change on the matter. 

The concept of horror exposing and stapling up the scars of a nation is no new fact, yet still many consider the bloodthirsty splatter trend of early 2000s horror as a mere sickening fad in the footnote of exploitative horror, when in actuality it speaks to a lot more. 

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Popualrised in the article Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn from the New York Magazine, it wasn’t until 2006 that this stint of graphic horror films would be known under the venomous umbrella term of ‘torture porn’. Suggesting that horror had become too gratuitous, focusing on human pain rather than frivolous gore, the article focused on such films as James Wan’s original Saw, Eli Roth’s Hostel and more, proposing these films held little value at all. 

Whilst they certainly don’t shoot for the stars, playing on the provocative spectacle of gory violence, such films certainly hold an intrinsic cultural purpose, working to reflect a sociological truth much like the slasher films of the 1980s did. As Eli Roth told The Guardian in 2013, the genre exists in a context of political reality, stating, “Horror films have a very direct relationship to the time in which they’re made. The films that really strike a nerve with the public very often reflect something that everyone, consciously or unconsciously feels—atomic age, post 9/11, post-Iraq war”. 

Therefore, to understand the true nature of ‘torture porn’ cinema, it’s important to contextualise such films within the politics of America in the aftermath of the new millennium, with 9/11 soon to fuel national paranoia, materialising in the War on Terror in Iraq. When considering the climate of fear in which terror could seemingly come at any time, as well as the government facilitated torture of Iraqi prisoners by the United States Army and the CIA at the dawn of the war itself, suddnely the cinematic trend that reflected such horrors makes sense.

Consisting of 62 traps over nine movies, the most infamous of these horror flicks was the Saw franchise, telling the story of a maniac architect of death traps, used to punish the most immoral humans of modern society. Though, crucially, whilst Saw became the scapegoat for this ‘despicable’ contemporary trend, the majority of the series focused on the punishment of those who had been doing far worse for generations. 

It doesn’t excuse the violence, but it certainly gives the splattering of crimson droplets more meaning than the surface suggests, hitting back at a political system that is far more violent in reality than the gory fiction of horror. Exploring the franchise with similar depth, the film academic Thomas Fahy explains, “They are out torturing people that they feel embody sinfulness because we live in a society so corrupt and so infused by criminality and violence that we’re apathetic, and then they use extreme violence as part of their message”. 

Whilst the first Saw movie, released in 2004, was considered the agitator in this trend, its influence sparked the release of countless others, including The Collector, Captivity and Would You Rather. Importantly, however, the trend also sparked the remakes of such flicks as The Hills Have Eyes, I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left, three equally visually graphic films from the 1970s that were made even more over the top for the thrill of modern audiences. 

Such horror, it is clear, has festered beneath the surface of the American psyche for generations, waiting in the wings to replace the modern trend, with the shady political identity of the new millennium coaxing it out to thrive. In reflection, it’s certainly easy to see how the mid-2000s climate of fear provided the perfect hotbed for such a genre to breed, with audiences enjoying the blood splatters of the genre whilst their intrinsic connotations were embedded in the history of American cinema.