“Evolved” Torture Porn or Armchair Body Horror or…?

“Evolved” Torture Porn or Armchair Body Horror or…?


Watching Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s Inside (À l’intérieur) for the first time recently, I couldn’t help but roll this very question about in my head in regards to the state of the horror genre. Concerning a ruthless, gap-toothed woman on a tear to acquire another woman’s unborn child through back alley means; it’s another brutal entry in the exalted wave streaming from France since the turn of the millennium. While the film surprisingly falters at a few turns with overt “horror flick” cliché, its goal of creating a twisted allegory between justifiable retribution and maternal right is gracefully rendered by the final frames.

Golden Age diehards might disagree, citing the likes of The Last House of the Left and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but generally what’s referred to as “torture porn” was cemented when Jigsaw first stood up, breathed deeply, and grunted one of his now iconic one-liners while slamming the audience into blackness in 2004’s Saw.

Despite the term being coined later with Eli Roth’s first trip to Amsterdam, it’s a misnomer; Horror fans know the “infamous” elements of Wan’s film have long resided in the modern age our beloved genre. In the same fashion as Craven’s Scream in 1996, Saw not only marked a new source of revenue, but also represented a moment in which long boiling aspects were bubbled forth in front of the much wider audience of the general public. No matter one’s personal opinion, the flashy, bloody whodunit with a deer-in-headlights Danny Glover ended up part of a lineage representative of points of rejuvenation for the mainstream prospects of the genre. The introduction of the devilishly clever and terminally-ill John Kramer became a boon for studios large and small to unleash a torrent of similar product–everything from Roth’s aforementioned unisex Hostels to Roland Joffé practically shooting his storied career in the face.

Which is why it’s interesting to ponder what exactly will become of this evolution? The Saw franchise has perma-cooled and Hostel the Third will be DTV, so the original sword bearers have fallen, but has its time passed? Recent offerings like Grotesque and A Serbian Film seem to pushing the “senseless” envelope well beyond anything seen in years with the fury of a tractor driven by Gary Busey on crank. Graphic theatrical remakes are popping up like I Spit On Your Grave and the upcoming Mother’s Day. Self-mutilation is even starting to bleed back into arthouse with Lars von Trier’s critically contentious Antichrist and Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar-hot Black Swan. Yet the most odd wrinkle is the phantasmagorical melding of body horror with torturous excess in the horrifically gastrointestinal The Human Centipede and boy-becomes-girl Victim. Those two might actually hold the future direction of “torture porn” or whatever outsiders deem it nowadays.

Then there’s Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs. The derisive French wonder emotionally dismantling enough for the country’s liberal Ministry of Culture to wring their hands for a bit over its final rating–something unheard of for horror fare. Sure, you can scream about Von Trier, or Aronofsky, or Buñuel, however; Laugier doesn’t mince words about where his 2008 film rests. What makes Martyrs so masterful is how forward thinking its narrative in relation to this recent pseudo-subgenre.

There’s real weight behind the degradation of the tragic Anna and Lucie–physically, mentally, and relational–instead of merely shouting “how fucked up is that?!?” through the aesthetic of music video flash. The lengths traveled to show how shallow the bulk of this new silver screen crop of brutal is profound. Laugier not only subverts the superficial norms of the subgenre but glimpses at how far one must go to truly disturb while still using its conventions. Something not every fad of the genre receives, especially while still en vogue, a masterpiece.

Of course, normal people are still stuck on like-omg-wtf over trapped victims losing limbs by their own will with a camera suffering from Parkinson’s Disease in an earthquake. Those that once lambasted Horror’s latest trend presumably now fail to see how such “smut” has rippled positively throughout cinema; collapsing old barriers and allowing filmmakers to push further in risque directions to more willing audiences. When will it end or transform into something else? Or has it already? Will extremes be pushed so far that classic pre-’70s horror will once again catch the mainstream limelight in revolt? Who knows, but its impact has been welcome and will remain for years to come. All I ask is that “torture porn” keep honing its point.


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2 Responses to ““Evolved” Torture Porn or Armchair Body Horror or…?”

  1. Great article Jayson. I agree that this sub genre needs to evolve and continue to have a point to it in order to remain meaningful or remembered. This will allow it to become much more than a passing fad or a minor blip on the horror radar.

  2. Interesting points to think about here, but I wanted to clarify something about the term torture porn that I see popping up all over the horror blogosphere. The term wasn’t coined in 2006 specifically to describe the Saw flicks or the Hostel films, but rather to describe a trend of explicit torture that critic David Edelstein saw appearing across genres and mediums. His original coinage included films like The Passion of the Christ and television shows like 24.

    I think this is important because it suggests two things: 1) in it’s original coinage, torture porn was something the appeared in a film, not something a film was; and 2) Edelstein suggests that this wasn’t a horror-specific thing, and certainly not something that happened in reaction to mainstream culture: it happened across genres and in mainstream, commercial fare.

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