|| Print ||
|Written by Joe Lipsett|
|Monday, 03 September 2007 19:00|
(This) is a film with one clear purpose: To establish the commercial credentials of its director by showing his skill at depicting the brutal tracking, torture and mutilation of screaming young women. When the killer severs the spine of one of his victims and calls her "a head on a stick," I wanted to walk out of the theater and keep on walking.
So opens one of the few zero star reviews I have ever read by critic Roger Ebert. The film in question is Wolf Creek, a 2005 slasher film that concerns a group of three mid-twenty-something travelers in Australia who are abducted, tortured and killed by a serial killer named Mick Taylor. The infamous "head on a stick" moment is shocking in the film for various spoilerish reasons, but in my mind it also served to cement the presence of a new, more sadistic type of horror film. Ebert himself addresses this idea later in his interview review when he questions "what the hell is the purpose of this sadistic celebration of pain and cruelty?" The answer, in short, is that it is the horror film cycle du jour: after almost two decades of slasher films, genre audiences briefly embraced Japanese (j-horror) and videogame inspired horror films, and it is now the time of the torture horror film.
Ebert's question is valid, especially for those critics who see the violence, misogyny and torture as disturbingly realistic and verging on pornographic. The truth behind the existence of these films, however, is much more complicated than simple bloodlust or fetishistic desire; torture films, and by extension all horror films, serve an important economic and cultural function.
Horror is, along with science fiction, a fantastic genre (so named because the fantastic can and almost assuredly does occur within the narrative). One of the defining qualities of these fantastic genres is their ability to project and criticize the issues of the day. One of the best examples is Alien (1979) - a combination of the two genres - in which the fears of a society on the verge of technological modernism is assaulted by both the archaic (the Alien) as well as the future (Ash, the android played by Ian Holm). In addition to being scary as hell, the film questions the portrayal of sex and gender, as well as the role of capitalism in a manner that can be overlooked by the casual filmgoer or analyzed in-depth by an active viewer.
Their questioning of social norms, however, is not the only reason horror films continue to be released, while other genres (musicals, Westerns) lie dormant for decades in between cycles. It is because horror films are the filmic equivalent to a cash cow. Due to the historic success of horror movies (and other ill-regarded genres such as teen comedy), the Hollywood machine remains profitable despite financial losses on expensive flops. A prime example is this summer's 'blockbuster' sequel Evan Almighty ($200 million budget, $90 million gross to date). Economically, the genre is a prop that ensures studios have enough cash to make money losers. New Line would have been unable to distribute Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy had they not survived the early years as the "House that Freddy built," a reference to the economic windfall the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise provided.
Let's examine the numbers. Horror films rarely rely on star power or well-known directors, their narratives are typically stitched together from previous horror films, and the most expensive element is the increasingly gorey special effects. In fact, they are so cheap to produce (budgets often range from 5 to 20 million) that many films are in the black before they exit theatres, leaving the most financially lucrative of all ancillary markets - DVD - as mere icing on the cake. Compare this to recent summer blockbusters like Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean (with budgets of $150 million each) and horror films suddenly seem like a feasibly shrewd investment.
Why is such a financially powerful film genre treated with contempt by everyone from the MPAA to Roger Ebert? The simple answer - according to many critics - is that horror films feature little in the way of narratives, focusing instead on violent, misogynistic acts for the visual pleasure of their (primarily) young, male audience. Disregarding even the sheer narrow-mindedness of such an argument, it is obvious that the cultural importance of contemporary horror films has been overlooked.
What is interesting is that the criticism lobbed at 'torture' films is, in fact, the same criticism leveled at slasher films nearly two decades ago. Torture films owe much of their existence to the slasher films that preceded them. It was these films that established several of the conventions that now define torture films. During their initial release, slasher films were bemoaned as misogynistic and harmful by feminists and film critics alike, but devoured by audiences - events which are being echoed with contemporary torture films.
In the late '70s and early '80s, three films were singled out as being especially offensive, despite their respective accolades: Halloween (1978), Dressed to Kill (1980) and Maniac (1980). There is little debate that these films can be seen as misogynistic: female characters are brutally attacked or slain when they enter into sexual situations or fantasies. Submitting to such a simple reading, however, overlooks the message behind these films. Maniac - arguably the most appalling and difficult to watch of the three - features a thoroughly unlikable and unsympathetic protagonist. The option of identifying with such a man is impossible, and his actions are continually presented as horrendous. Likewise, the events that lead to Angie Dickinson's death in Dressed to Kill: Michael Caine's killer psychiatrist is clearly mentally unstable and acts as a punishing figure because of the sexual ambivalence he feels towards mature, sexually forward women. Halloween appears to be the most black and white with its central conflict between Laurie Strode's virginal mother figure and Michael Myers' evil, emotionally void 'shape.' Under closer examination, however, Laurie can also be seen as a sexually repressed teen whose only sexual release can occur when she lashes out with phallic instruments (a knife, knitting needles, and a straightened coat hanger). In this way all three films have redeeming elements in an alternative reading.
The variety of possible interpretations, including complicated representations of gender and sex in oft-dismissed features such as Terror Train (1980) and Sleepaway Camp (1981) all the way through to High Tension (2003), suggests that there is more to slasher films than initially meets the eye. Film scholar Tony Williams, who specializes in family horror, suggests that the rise in popularity of slasher films is a direct response to the changing socio-economic status faced by teenagers in the United States in the '80s:
Similar examinations of the portrayal of teens, women and minorities have been performed by film scholars such as Gary Heba, Sarah Trencansky, Robin Wood and Carol J. Clover. Each have focused their examination on the portrayal of slasher film characters and the subsequent message that is put forth. Their analyses suggest that the appeal of these films results from their embracing of deviations from the norm. In many cases, slasher films specifically focus on teenagers as opposed to adults (their unique style of dress, talk and life changes), especially the final girl who straddles the gender divide with her unisex name, her asexual appearance, and her sexual disinterest. In this way, teenage boys in the audience relate to the Final Girl, while queer audience members relate to the subculture status afforded the characters outside the dominant group, and girls relate to the feminist assertions of a girl who can stand up to a chainsaw-wielding psychopath.
The fact that slasher films are inherently more complicated than they were initially thought to be suggests several things in this era of torture films. The first is that horror films are inherently cyclical: contemporary films bear a number of characteristics in common with the films of previous decades, including narrative, story structure, editing style and mise-en-scene. It is therefore hardly surprising that torture films bear a striking resemblance to their slasher elders (hence the similar criticisms).
Historical film scholar Adam Rockoff charts the progression and transformation of the slasher film in Goring to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film. Throughout his analysis, he suggests that slasher films should be considered as having two distinct cycles, the first of which begins in 1978 with Halloween and ends around 1986 with the diminishing returns from the three principal slasher franchises (Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween and Friday the 13th). The second cycle coincides with the surprise success of 1996's Scream and begins tapering off a few years later with the rise in popularity of J-horror films such as The Ring (2002) and The Grudge (2004).
A second reason torture films are worthy of detailed examination ties into their cyclical status. These films evolved out of their previous incarnations, so that slasher films begat torture films, which consequently upped the gore and the special effects just as slasher films did following the release of Psycho (1960). Torture films are an extension of the ideas that began in slasher films: a proclivity to embrace conservatism wherein the various killers play the part of the punishing father (what Williams describes as "the return of kronos"). The deviation from the norm that accompanies midnight trysts and smoking up at summer camp gives way to the bad daddy who aims to restore the authority of the 'top 4,' which Robin Wood famously defined as the middle-class, heterosexual white male.
It is this idea - the ability to role-play fictitious characters in real life role-playing situations - that cements contemporary horror films as cultural artifacts. There is no denying that these films are embedded with the imprints of the society from which they were produced, which means that slasher films from the '80s are a direct response to the demise of the nuclear family and the loss of social values. It is for this reason that children are led astray at camp, in space, and in suburbia. It brings to mind a favourite Simpsons quote: "Won't somebody please think of the children?!"
Horror films from the torture cycle reflect a similarly political dimension, albeit with equal doses of both conservatism and liberalism. There remains a focus on the family with the suggestion that something seems horribly amiss, but the fear present in these films is now expanding beyond the confines of the family or a single location. These films are now expanding their commentary further and further into the filmic world and, as a result, the real world. Contemporary horror films are a byproduct of an American society embroiled in a (stalemate) desert war, and these torture films seem to increasingly point towards a fear of 'otherness' that is encountered when Americans leave their safety cocoon.
The urban legend-themed Saw films are simplistic in their defense of living a 'pure' life - those who do not have sins or vices (drugs, adultery, etc) are not targeted for punishment by Jigsaw. In comparison, Eli Roth's Hostel is more interesting and complex. Based upon a suspicious website Roth and Aint-It-Cool founder Harry Knowles discovered online, the film concerns the sale of young backpackers to high bidders who then mutilate and torture them. The idea itself is hardly revolutionary; the idea of wealthy philanthropists hunting people was initially explored by Richard Connell in 1924's The Most Dangerous Game and has been filmed as both a film version as well as an episode of the original Twilight Zone television series.
Whether or not the torture-porn horror cycle will have a decent run is debatable; many critics believe that the films should not be clumped together under such a banner, while others point to the already declining box office revenues (each of the past year's so-called torture films has been a flop save last October's Saw 3). Interestingly, slasher films continue to be released (Black Christmas, Hills Have Eyes 1 & 2, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Silent Hill) and more are expected in the year to come, including high-profile remakes of Halloween, Hellraiser, Prom Night and Terror Train. This recent trend of remaking old classics - themselves rife with social commentary of their respective time - suggests an implied connection between the time period that produced the original film and the new one. It is not difficult to read the underlying message behind the recent remake of The Hills Have Eyes 2 (2007) in which US Army troops venture into the desert, encounter hostile and deformed enemy combatants and are wiped out. There are few works with a more obvious reflection of American attitudes regarding the conflict in Iraq outside of the current season of Battlestar Galactica.
One way or another, the current trend in horror filmmaking will die out and a new sub-genre or cycle will take its place. The current criticism leveled towards torture-porn horror films, however, reflects both the continued stigma against the genre as well as the refusal to accept that horror films, even slashers and torture films, represent the identity of the time period and the nation that produce them.
It is possible to see Hostel 2 as misogynistic and exploitative, but to do so overlooks the innumberable readings contained within. Besides, how can you deny the social, political and cultural relevance of a film in which a man is castrated and his parts are fed to a dog.