When torture porn emerged, the gore was equally distributed among men and women. But the recent merging of blood and lust, in the form of sexy victims, has created a misogynistic climate more frightening than the movies themselves
Sidney Prescott said it perfectly in 'Scream.' When asked why she doesn't enjoy horror movies, she says: "They're all the same, some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can't act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It's insulting." While randy Rubinesque babes are definitely slasher flick archetypes, '70s directors like Wes Craven and Dario Argento simply used the sex appeal as a harmless spoonful of sugar to let the mass murdering medicine go down. And regardless of their lack of higher brain functioning, these victims were imminently more watchable than today's scream queens.
"Horror movies were once all about fear and frights," Wes Craven recently said. "[Today] they're all about pain and suffering." Instead of the thrill of watching buxom bimbos try to outwit deformed psychos like Michael Myers and Freddie Kruger only to be quickly stabbed and followed up by another bikini-clad Betty, these days we are assaulted by drawn-out scenes of everyday women suffering terribly at the hands of seemingly harmless acquaintances. "People aren't scared of the guy with the hockey mask and chainsaw," 'Hostel' director Eli Roth explained to Premiere magazine. "Right now, people really want realistic violence. People are terrified the killer lives next door and torture is on everyone's mind because of the Iraq war and terrorism."
This new sub-genre of horror has become known as torture porn or, less commonly, gorno (a quaint marriage of gore and porno). Film critic David Edelstein coined the term in New York Magazine last year in reference to 'Hostel' (2006). Edelstein wrote that Roth was one of the first horror movie directors to use violence to titillate in a similar manner to pornography. Metroactive's Hannah Strom-Martin hazarded a more detailed definition of the new film genre: "Gorno is, like porn, an extreme depiction, in film or photography, of parts of the body - in this case, a body that is being tortured to death." The lingering shots of blood and gore leave us with the same adrenalin rush that people might get from having sex in a public place or rubber necking at the scene of a car crash. The enjoyment comes from a childlike fear of getting caught doing something one isn't supposed to be doing.
Film critics consider Roth the father of torture porn and he is also the founding member of a newly formed group of torture porn directors known affectionately as the Splat Pack. The club includes Leigh Wannell and James Wan ('Saw'), Alexander Aja ('The Hills Have Eyes'), Rob Zombie ('The Devil's Rejects'), Greg McLean ('Wolf Creek') and Neil Marshall ('The Descent'). Rather than appealing to audiences, these directors attempt to out-gross one another without crossing the line (to Wes Craven, thst would be a snuff film). Some say that the increase in blood lust in the torture porn genre has resulted from the splat packer competition - uniting sex (pure pleasure) and death (pure displeasure) is the ultimate horror formula.
Kira Cochrane recently pointed out in The Guardian ('For Your Entertainment') that horror films of the past have never lacked a large amount of misanthropy. Men and women seem to be embracing torture porn as a sort of reverse feminism, as though the equal opportunity gore is the ultimate equalization of men and women. But the recent spate of sexually-charged violence against women and the sheer volume of women as victims is shifting the balance. In horror films, men are virtually never sexually assaulted while women in gorno have become more prone to sexually violation, returning them to the role of sex objects that feminists in the '70s tried so hard to combat.
In Robert Rodriguez's 'Planet Terror,' Rose McGowan plays a pole straddling go-go dancer; the movie is generously packed with close ups of McGowan's breasts and buttocks and even throws in a lesbian make out session for good measure. With her sexiness established ten times over, McGowan's character is rewarded with her leg being ripped off and a threat of rape. While feminists might argue she is a positive character because of how long she survives, she still doesn't make it to 'final girl' glory. However, Tarantino does score some points for making his female heroines kick Stuntman Mike's ass to hell and back.
This doesn't even touch on the trailers that precede 'Grindhouse' in the theatres, which include a topless woman bound, gagged and tortured by Nazis and a cheerleader getting stabbed through her vagina (although, to their credit, MPAA forced the director to make this scene a little less explicit).
'Captivity' borrows 'Grindhouse''s tool of punishing sexuality, launching it even further into the mainstream. The film is about a model and her driver, both of who are abducted and kidnapped, but advertisers chose to focus primarily on the sexy model to sell tickets. The marketing company behind the film was recently attacked for tantalizing audiences with the prospect of one of FHM's sexiest women in the world, Elisha Cuthbert, as bait in four series of photographs. Each one is labeled: abduction, confinement, torture and termination. Complaints by industry insiders, including a writer for 'Six Feet Under,' Jill Soloway, and Joss Whedon (creator of 'Buffy'), campaigned to have the billboard removed. Soloway wrote on the Huffington Post website that "...the torture [was] almost a punishment for the sexiness."
The splat pack argues that the irony in their films belies any misogyny. But as Kira Cochrane writes: "Irony - with its inherent insincerity - can be an emotionally deadening tool...[it] just adds another layer of soul-sucking cynicism to the mix." The emotional deadening is further highlighted by the fact that the women in torture porn are becoming less developed characters. While in 'Hostel' Roth offers up vacuous but well-rounded empathetic young Americans looking for a good time abroad, in 'Hostel: Part II' the co-ed girls are simply objects loosely characterized as the geek, the sex kitten etc. The women thus become objects to slice and dice, symbols of sweaty sex to torture.
Roth and his ilk might argue that sexual violence on women is the only way to stretch gorno to its limit, but one splat pack member, Neil Marshall, has proven there are other ways to push the envelope. His gorno film, 'The Descent,' boasts an all-female cast of strong characters, none of whom gets their boobs out or becomes threatened with sexual violence. Despite the lack of sexual content, the film is more enjoyable than most of the other torture porn movies because it hinges on more than blood spatter (in this case, the extreme sport of spelunking). The characters are also fleshed out to form a rich tapestry of characters, the strongest being as fallible as the weakest. The women address the issue of sex but only in passing, as though it is a mild irritant. When one of the characters asks another whether she has a guy in her life, she says: "Oh, I'm a sports f**k." It says a lot when a torture porn heroine has more balls than all the splat packers put together.