One of the wonderful things about the world of horror is all the sub-genres that lie within. What may be scary to one person may not be to another, vice versa, etc etc. However, one of the latest sub-genres is a bit puzzling to me and that is “Torture-Porn”. We live in a world in which we love to and feel the need to put labels on things. I’ve even heard of a lot of films go from being called “throwbacks” to “nostalgia-porn”; it seems to be spreading. But this one, torture-porn, is a bit odd as it’s placed on some films but not on others which may very well have the same amount or more torture involved – or even a different kind of torture; just like horror, different people see and feel different things. The label seems to be horror-centric while films like the dark drama Antichrist (2009) could very easily fall into such a category with the horrific things that go on in that film. Even the documentary Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997) would be lumped in. For this though I’m going to focus on two films that have spawned such a label from critics: Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005).
First up is James Wan’s Saw. When Saw came out it was seen as highly original in the horror world: instead of a masked killer coming at you with a knife, you would instead be placed in a trap where you would have to endure torture to escape it. I’ve always enjoyed it and found it original as well, then something happened… I recently re-watched The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) starring the late great Vincent Price. In this, Price plays a maniacal ‘mad doctor’ of sorts who vows revenge on those he feels responsible for his wife’s death. In doing so, Dr. Phibes designed elaborate traps to torture his victims. While watching it nowadays it hit me “Oh, this is like Saw before Saw.” The reasoning and certainly the amount of blood is different but the method is there regardless. The idea of torture used in horror isn’t new by any means. A 33 year gap with the likes of The Last House on the Left (1972), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and Seven (1995) amongst others in between the first Dr. Phibes film and the first Saw and it’s given a name just recently. With that said, I still enjoy Saw very much. For this scare flick to be brushed off and referred to simply as a gory film for gore’s sake is mind-blowing to me as things seen in most ‘Body Horror’ is just as, if not more, disgusting to see. Plus, if you watch a horror movie and all you take from it is its amount of gore, you aren’t paying attention.
Now on to Eli Roth’s Hostel. When this came out I was very excited to see it. While I wondered and asked if it was good, all I had heard was amount of blood and torture – nothing about the actual film itself really. I saw it and instantly the pacing had hit me: its flow reminds me of the slasher films of yesteryear. I also found it interesting that there was a Psycho (1960) twist where you believe one person is in fact the lead only to have them killed off partway in. I found this film to be original as it revolves around a corporation where people pay to torture and kill captives. It’s another film of this Torture-Porn label in which people have focused far too much on the gore to really notice or enjoy the growing tension and the underlining fear of being far out of your comfort zone. It’s interesting to me that this film has been categorized as such as most of the gory visuals are very quick with plenty of cutaways with not too much focused on at any one time. The “torture” isn’t throughout the film but leads up to it, much like that of Audition (1999) which isn’t given this silly sub-genre name. If you watch this film for what it is then you’ll get the flow, the 80’s slasher-like pacing, and the tension. However, if you’re watching it and only see it for the gore and the torture, like most critics seemed to do, then you’re going into it with that in mind and that’s all you’ll see and remember.
Of all the sub-genres and all the labels, “Torture-Porn” is a stupid, made up term. Torture is like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder. The only difference between the films people put under this label and those of the “Slasher” genre is the act of the killing is more focused on and they’re gorier. It’s not so direct as a one-on-one as it could very well be traps or a money making corporation involved but when you look at it, it’s no different from others already categorized into sub-genres. It’s just a negative term brought about by and for those who can’t handle gore and there’s plenty of blood and guts all over the wide world of horror in its many sub-genres; so let’s just stop singling out small groupings of art because all we took away from it was their nasty visuals.
Christopher Michael Carter is the author of Gun Control for Polar Bears and the blog Beavertown Productions. He lives in Bevier, Mo.