Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Trend of Torture

In the past couple of years, it seems that the sub-genre of the “torture” horror film has had a renaissance. First there was the Rob Zombie gorefest, House of 1000 Corpses, which was released in Spring of 2003. A few months later came the Michael Bay produced remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Then in 2004, came SAW, and in ’05 we saw two new sequals in the torture genre with SAW II and The Devil’s Rejects (aka House of a Thousand Corpses 2). This past summer, a film called Chaos, was released, which many critics have pegged as a “rip-off” of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, despite the fact that director David DeFalco denies it as a remake. A couple of weeks ago Eli Roth’s Hostel came in at number one at the box office, and though I myself have not seen it, it is apparently, the torture film to end all torture films. But things aren’t quieting down yet. In less than two months a remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes will hit theatres, and who knows what other horrors are in store for us in the near future.

The plot for most of these films are pretty similar to one another, and fairly unsophisticated to boot. Unsuspecting innocent folk (usually attractive young people) stumble upon a group of psychotic killers, who slowly torture and murder each one of them, with slight variations on the theme. Sometimes the killers wish to dine on their prey, other times they wish to watch their victims to hurt each other, but often the killers view the rituals leading up to death, and the murdering itself, as games or sport. Typically, by the end of the film, there is only one survivor who is able to escape the clutches of these human monsters, sometimes by outwitting and killing their captors, occasionally with the help of others.

The first time this sub-genre of horror had it’s hey day was in the 70’s. In 1972, master of terror Wes Craven directed his first feature film, The Last House on the Left. This film is a grisly depiction of a gang of murderers who rape, torture and kill two young women, and then unknowingly end up at the home of the girls’ parents. The parents, who discover what the murderes have done, subject the murderers to a series of brutal torture, before they kill them. Craven defended the film (which was banned in the UK), as a work that was meant to show the true terrible and horrifying nature of violence. Three years later, Wes Craven followed up his Last House of the Left, with the original version of The Hills have eyes. THHE is a tawdry tale of a family whose car breaks down in a deserted area of the midwest, and is ambushed by a roving family of inbred, primitive freaks. The 70’s also saw what is perhaps considered to be the quintessential torture flick of all time in ‘74 with Tobe Hooper’s ground breaking original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. TTCM followed the story of a group of teenagers who come across a enclave of psychopaths in a deserted part of Texas, and are then successively mutilated and killed in a smorgasbord of gore. On a personal note, I consider myself a veteran of horror films, and one who is not too easily frightened, but to this day I can not bare to see the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre for a second time. I saw the remake when it came out and found it somewhat engaging, though it did not terrify me the way the original did. In it’s polished and stylish presentation it lacked the grittiness and rawness of the original, (though it had quite a good trailer . The original TTCM, feels almost like a documentary, and gives you the shivering sensations that everything you are watching might have actually happened.

But what exactly is it about these sorts of films that have people flocking to the theatres to watch bodily dismemberment? Is it that these films are like a gruesome car accident which we recognize as horrible, yet can’t bare to look away from? We wince and shriek when we see a character mangled on screen, and our stomachs curdle with empathy at the pain that the person on film must be going through. We feel a combination of disgust and horror as we watch fingers be clipped and blood ooze from the wound. But to what end, one might ask? So many of these films, particularly the recent lot have lacked a real point or story. One begins to blend into another with a sense of redundancy, when the main characters are one dimensional, and the film making unartistic. For a horror movie to really work on the level of its genre, it needs to not only operate on different levels, but to tap into our fears on a more metaphorical sense. Yes, everyone is afraid of getting murdered, but it is the mystery of the unknown and the unexpected that can be even more terrifying.

There is a marked difference between the horror movies that are chock full of violence, and those that are not. Certain horror films rely on what remains unseen to create a sense of suspense and terror, while others use the shock and sensationalism of blood and gore. There are many varying shades of grey in between these two techniques. There are ghost stories, like The Ring, pyshcological horror films like Rosemary’s Baby, and serial killer movies like Halloween. But the torture-horror films? I’m not so sure what to think about them. The films in the 70’s had a sort of cinema verite quality –they were terrifying because everything about them felt so real. The actors looked like real people, the settings felt organic, and that small irrational part of your brain wondered whether or not this footage might actually be real…. Yet, this new slew of movies involving torture are so slick and hollywoodized that they feel or at least seem, fake. The actors aren’t everyday looking people, but hunky men (Cary Elwes, Jay Hernandez) and doll faced women (Jessica Biel, Emilie de Ravin) who’s presence shatters the conceit that these terrible horrors could be happening next door, because we’ve just seen them the day before on Entertainment Tonight. The quick editing style, outlandish camera angles, and filtered and colored film stock, also give a lot of these films the aura of music videos rather than documentaries.

Once you take the realistic elements out of these films, what do you have left? A couple of hours of people people abused, mutilated, and killed? As I already stated the plots of these films usually aren’t too intricate, so all there really is to focus on is the blood letting, and anguish. These films just seem to be repetitive after a while. I know these things all boil down to a matter of personal taste, but I really don’t find anything redeeming or particularly enjoyable about watching people be tortured and dismembered without a deeper theme or story behind it. It’s not my cup of tea, and I think these sorts of films just try to capitalize on the “gross-out” factor, and shock value.

I also generally find horror films that deal with the supernatural to be more frightening, then those that merely deal with a couple of psychopaths. (Of course, I’ve found exceptions, like Silence of the Lambs, the original TTCM, When a Stranger Calls, etc.) For me, some of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen are The Exorcist, The Ring, Poltergeist, The Birds, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Jacob’s Ladder, just to name a few. Some people think its scarier to witness the horrors that may reside in the hearts of men, causing them to committ evil acts (none display this more aptly than war movies I think). But I find the monsters that can not so easily be stopped in their tracks by bullets or blades of steel to be the most terrifying of all.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Snakes on a Blog said...

Did you really find the shining scary?

8:29 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

I do. I find it terrifying. Just everything about it. The whole concept of having "the shining" --the two little girls, that hotel, the scene with the woman in the tub. It freaks me out man.

9:41 AM  
Anonymous Snakes on a Blog said...

What about the guy in the bear suit?

2:53 PM  

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