The Ascent of "Torture Porn"

Brent Bozell

8/24/2007 12:01:00 AM - Brent Bozell

Several years ago, I was visiting with a neighbor, a career military man, a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. I asked him what his most harrowing experience was. None of those, he answered. He then walked me through his assignment in the military police, in San Francisco during the '50s, when his job was to go undercover to penetrate the lowest, darkest corner of society and expose what to most was simply unthinkable: the snuff-film world, the dark, seedy rooms where men sat, having paid hundreds of dollars apiece, watching grainy 8-millimeter footage of real humans being tortured and killed.

We wondered then if a "civilized" society could ever accept this genre in the open. It's worth asking again because we are inching ever closer to it.

As long as there's been a Hollywood, there have been "horror" movies. But what qualifies as horror in the eyes of today's horror movie manufactures is altogether different from anything Alfred Hitchcock considered as art.

Take Darren Bousman, director of the forthcoming horror flick "Saw IV." He eagerly told that in his new movie, "there is a scene where I physically regurgitated in my mouth. There is stuff in this movie that I'm dying to see, whether it gets past the MPAA (ratings board)." Scenes that make the directors vomit make them happy? Bousman told a horror-movie website he's looking forward to his next movie, a horror-film-meets-musical: "There's nudity, there's violence, there's tons of hot girls, there's breaking out in song while ripping spinal cords out. It's great!"

Perhaps you're thinking that these remarks sound like over-enthusiastic pre-release publicity, and I agree. But now take Eli Roth, the maker of the recent flop "Hostel: Part II." His delight with gory moviemaking is breathtaking. He told Interview magazine, "Everybody says that I'm different on the days we're shooting the gore -- that I'm just extra happy. I try to have that same excitement and enthusiasm for every scene, but when we're doing some really disgusting scene, I'll catch myself gleefully jumping up and down at the monitor. I'm so happy I could cry."

And then he said something even more remarkable: "We're in a really violent wave, and I hope it never ends. Hopefully, we'll get to the point where there are absolutely no restrictions on any kind of violence in movies."

It's been a bad year at the box office for horror movies, but that's not due to a reluctance to display gore. Due to their low cost and potentially high reward, Hollywood studios are churning out the horror product, 42 movies this year compared to last year's 23. Why aren't they working? Even scary-movie producers acknowledge that there's virtually nothing you can do to a human being onscreen that is taboo any more. The audiences have become desensitized, numb -- bored.

Which is why these horror manufacturers have now drilled even deeper into the dark side of the human psyche. Self-proclaimed lifelong horror-movie fan Don Kaye wrote a piece for suggesting the current ocean of gore on screen has even drawn its own name: "torture porn." It doesn't necessarily involve sex or nudity, although it can. "Instead, it expresses the idea that its viewers are intensely, pruriently aroused by the sight of human bodies -- usually young, nubile ones, and quite often female -- getting torn into bloody chunks in the most awful ways imaginable."

Exhibit A in this new genre is the forthcoming film "Captivity," starring blonde beauty Elisha Cuthbert. In another case of over-enthusiastic publicity, studio executives were forced to withdraw promotional posters in New York and Los Angeles that showed graphic images of the abduction, torture and death of Cuthbert's character on billboards and taxicabs.

Kaye argued that the current tide of blood-splattered "torture porn" causes viewers to feel disgust, not hair-raising fear. The characters are never developed enough to make the audience feel any emotion about them. They're simply straw men and women, there to be sliced and diced. Filmmakers are trying to help audiences enjoy a smackdown of pain and death.

But is this what audiences really want? The current downturn in the horror-movie assembly line could suggest a real disgust with the new trends, or it could simply be an oversaturated market. Or perhaps the horror movie manufacturers will decide that not even "torture porn" is enough and it's time to go deeper still.

What then?