David Edelstein, formerly of Slate and now of New York Magazine, has long been one of my favorite critics, and his latest feature “Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn” is right up my ally, not only because it has the word “multiplex” in its title (just like this blog column!), but because it addresses a question I regularly grapple with: namely, what’s so appealing about brutal horror films? In tackling the subject, he quotes Stephen King, discusses how the best scary movies implicate their viewers as complicit participants in on-screen violence, and even includes The Passion of the Christ in his new torture porn sub-genre. Unfortunately, in evaluating the recent batch of “sadistic” horror flicks through the prism of our terrorism-plagued times, he comes up with no answer to the query his article raises. Although a self-avowed “horror maven,” Edelstein claims to be repulsed by this spate of films – which he negatively describes as “extraordinarily cruel” (Wolf Creek), and not “art by any definition I can think of” (The Devil's Rejects) – and doesn’t understand why others aren’t as well. Falling back on an obligatory “post-9/11” reference, Edelstein avoids positing a substantive theory as to why these films are so popular, instead simply admitting to dealing with such unpleasant stuff by staring at an EXIT sign, closing his eyes, or distracting himself in some other way because, as he puts it, he doesn’t want to identify with the films’ victims or victimizers.
Somewhat akin to New York Times reporter Caryn James’ (often strained) attempts at cinematic trend analysis, Edelstein’s piece is, I think, generally correct in saying that a number of current horror films utilize scenes of torture to push the boundaries of sadism and gore into more extreme realms. And while I’d surmise that it’s probably something of a coincidence that all of these films have been released in such close proximity to one another, I also agree that, at least in relation to their immediate predecessors, these latest scare-a-thons do, in certain ways, reflect a national consciousness shaped by disconcerting global events. It’s only natural for societal unease to manifest itself through the cinema and, particularly, through the monsters-and-murder-infatuated genre, where our deep-rooted fears of death and torment have always found a comfortable home. Horror has an illustrious history of delivering piercing, highly politicized allegories – just check out any of the work by Joe Dante, Larry Cohen or George A. Romero – and especially with a film like Hostel, pertinent geopolitical subtexts and metaphors about America and its role and perception abroad are, thanks to director Eli Roth’s ham-fisted obviousness, laid right up on the carving table for all to dissect.
I don’t care to defend half of the movies Edelstein cites (Irréversible, this means you). But I would contend that, in the cases of The Devil’s Rejects, Wolf Creek, and Hostel, the fears being exploited – while influenced by the past five years’ terrorism-tinged tensions – have nonetheless long been part of the fabric of horror films. As with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, the aforementioned three movies share a steadfast belief that the world is a fundamentally unsafe place. Far from Disney’s cheery and secure “small world after all,” these exploitation flicks posit an unpredictable, untamable environment populated by human monsters with little care for notions of morality, propriety or any of the other trappings of modern civilization. Whether it be Wolf Creek’s teenage trio gallivanting around the Australian Outback as if it were their personal playground, or The Devil’s Rejects’ Banjo & Sullivan troupe believing that a dusty country motel is a safe haven, or Hostel’s backpackers treating Eastern Europe like a bacchanalian wonderland custom-made for their every carnal whim, these films’ characters painfully discover that skepticism and suspicion should be an ever-present facet of one’s interaction with the world. To behave otherwise, the movies warn us, is to be an arrogant fool, and one fated to learn a very hard, very painful lesson.
Thus, rather than being merely “masochistic,” a film like Wolf Creek functions as a stark cautionary tale about life’s inherent nastiness, and one that – considering events like the recent Danish cartoon controversy – also relevantly relates to our present-day climate. That said, Edelstein’s comparison of the current horror output and 24 – both of which share an infatuation with torture – is off-base, since the latter offers up justified torture as a comforting fantasy (i.e. watch heroes pull off fingernails to safeguard freedom!) and the former dish it out as a haunting nightmare (i.e. watch girls have their dangling eyeball sliced for no justifiable reason!). Furthermore, Edelstein’s statement that, “as potential victims, we fear [serial killers], yet we also seek to identify with their power” is accurate mainly with regards to those films (everything from Friday the 13th to Saw) in which one is meant to enjoy the viciousness of colorful, creative villains. Truly disturbing horror films, however, scare us by effectively forcing us to identify not with serial killers but with their victims; if we’re magnetically drawn to murderers’ powers, it’s primarily so that we might amplify our own terror. With a Devil’s Rejects, that terror comes with a self-reflexive element; with Greg McLean’s Australian import, it comes with a component of culture-vs.-savagery conflict. But in their finest moments, I’d argue that horror films – including those that trade in torture porn – fundamentally appeal to us as unsettling reminders to be wary, to be cynical and, most of all, to be afraid.