Culture

Listless: In Defense Of Torture Porn

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The phrase “torture porn” tends to arouse some very specific reactions. (Arouse: possibly the worst possible turn of phrase to use in starting off this column.) Popularized as a critic-ism used to describe movies like Hostel, the phrase conjures images of the most graphic depictions of viscera. It’s also largely used in negative connotation, cited as the crassest substratum of genre filmmaking since the advent of the slasher movie.

The reason this is coming to mind is that tomorrow, James Wan’s Insidious opens in theaters. Though that film is reportedly more of an evil-little-kids-are-fucking-scary sort of horror, Wan is still best known for bringing torture porn into the national conversation (along with, again, Hostel) with the original Saw back in 2004. What I’d like to do this week is look at five films that, while they fit into this most maligned of classifications, have transcended that negative connotation and become great movies all on their own. Or you can disagree; there’s as many arguments to be made against most of these movies as there are for them.

(SPOILERS ahoy!)

1. Saw (2004)

It’s probably essential to start with the movie that led to torture porn being a thing, and arguably still one of the best. Sure, the movie boasts some deliciously atrocious acting courtesy of Cary Elwes (the Dread Pirate Roberts himself) and Danny Glover, but in its favor there’s Wan’s direction, which painted the film in nauseating greens and blues that have become the puke-tinged gold standard for an entire genre. There’s also the script by Wan and Leigh Whannell (who also turns in the most magnetic performance of the movie as Adam), which blends gratuitous displays of viscera with some genuine smarts, and one hell of a final twist. It also has a gallows sense of humor sorely lacking from most torture porn flicks, including pretty much every sequel that would follow the surprise success of the first Saw.

2. Audition (1999)

Sure, this came out long before torture porn emerged, but in the middle of the last decade it underwent something of a renaissance. Takashi Miike’s crowning achievement centers on Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi), a single father desperately seeking female company after the untimely death of his wife. A friend of his suggests holding a dubious “audition” for a young actress that will instead serve as a hunt for a new girlfriend. Out of this Shigeharu finds Asami (Eihi Shiina), a quiet young girl as delicate and fragile as a porcelain doll. Shigeharu becomes so smitten that even when the ominous signs start to pile up, he turns on the blinders, until everything goes to hell in one of the most gut-churning scenes in horror film history. The infamously shocking ending aside (cli-cli-cli-cliiiiii), Audition is a stunning example of what torture porn could potentially be if it was interested more in the people than their innards.

3. Hard Candy (2005)

A slight deviation from the normal script, Hard Candy is an exploitation movie about exploitation that’s far more unnerving than many of its ilk due in part to Ellen Page’s breakout performance as a teenaged sociopath and mostly to its willingness to leave the most horrifying moments offscreen. Patrick Wilson ends up ensnared in Page’s trap as an internet pedophile who brings young girls to his house, drugs them up and shoots them in the nude, only to have the tables aggressively turned on him. This is a movie about psychological torture, and at its core is a tricky moral conundrum: How much righteous pleasure can we take from the destruction of a pedophile before, against our better wills, we begin to feel bad for him?

4. Martyrs (2008)

Martyrs is a nasty piece of work, a film that depending on your perspective either depicts the suffering of one of the bravest female protagonists to ever grace the silver screen or revels in her humiliation. It’s also an incredibly smart movie. Starting off with a bizarre, surreal prologue involving the total destruction of a suburban family by Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) and the creature which haunts her, Martyrs then shifts to the story of Anna (Morjana Alaoui), Lucie’s friend, who attempts to help Lucie hide the bodies and ends up the quarry of a strange sect led by a woman named Madamoiselle (Catherine Begin). As Anna’s body is pushed to inhuman lengths in an effort to push her to a higher plane of enlightenment without leaving the earthly one, Martyrs evolves into a bizarre play on the search for higher powers and the potential futility of such an act.

5. A Serbian Film (2010)

Do not take this writing as a suggestion to ¬†watch this movie. I realize fully that this sounds like horror junkie hype designed to entice you into pushing personal boundaries, but that’s how I felt before A Serbian Film ruined me as a person. The sordid tale of Milos (Srdjan Todorovic), an ex-porn star hired for one last job, Serbian uses this simple premise, to a point, to build a compelling examination of the nature of porn and voyeurism, and how in both (sort of like in extreme horror movies), there’s a continual need to cross lines in order to continually shock your audience. Then, about halfway into the film, Milos is turned into the basest form of himself, which opens the door for the film to turn into a reel of absolute nightmares. There are things depicted in this movie which should never have been committed to celluloid, and the most horrifying thing about A Serbian Film is that to a certain point it justifies them. This is compelling stuff, but also something nobody should ever witness unknowingly, or perhaps at all.

  • Amy D.

    Hard Candy has to be one of the most difficult films to get through. But it’s so good.

  • http://twitter.com/jonbukiewicz Jon Bukiewicz

    For everyone’s good, A Serbian Film should probably have been left off of this list. To put it on here and then say “oh but definitely don’t see it” kind of defeats the purpose of having a list of movies that can actually portray a message through the brutality, or are good and watchable in their own right. What about ‘Inside’? Or ‘The Tortured’? Or “The Girl Next Door” (the 2007 version)?

  • Dominick

    “Inside” was #6. I really did struggle with putting Serbian on this list, for every reason you just pointed out. The thing is, though, I think it’s a really important film in a lot of ways, and one I’ve contemplated and discussed at great length since I saw it around Thanksgiving last year. I think it’s a movie where, if you’re not going to see it, you’re not, and if you are nothing I or anyone else could say is going to change that.

  • Dominick

    “Inside” was #6. I really did struggle with putting Serbian on this list, for every reason you just pointed out. The thing is, though, I think it’s a really important film in a lot of ways, and one I’ve contemplated and discussed at great length since I saw it around Thanksgiving last year. I think it’s a movie where, if you’re not going to see it, you’re not, and if you are nothing I or anyone else could say is going to change that.