Monday, October 26, 2015

The Phrase 'Torture Porn' Needs to Die Already, Because We’re Butchering It

The term “torture porn” has been used and abused since David Edelstein coined it in his review of Hostel back in 2006, referring to, among other things, the “money shots” he believes horror fans flock to theaters to see. What seemed a nebulous concept from the beginning (did Edelstein mean to imply that horror fans were getting some form of sexual pleasure from scenes of graphic violence? or was he merely incorporating the word “porn” as a condescending pejorative?) has morphed into something completely meaningless over the years, a phrase thrown by critics and detractors at any horror movie they simply don’t like. In a world where “shoe porn,” “food porn,” and “real estate porn” exist, I know I shouldn’t be sensitive about this inane phrase, but as a habitual watcher of horror, I am.

Take Goodnight Mommy, a German horror film that recently picked up quite a bit of hype on the festival trail, for instance. It’s the story of twin brothers who are convinced that their mother, recovering at home from reconstructive surgery after an ambiguous accident, is not really their mother. It’s a simple, human story, beautifully rendered and filled with evocative images that capture the characters’ feelings and simultaneously unnerve the viewer. It’s just barely a horror movie, though; more of a drama or psychological thriller, it's merely peppered with some of the signposts of horror. One of those signposts, however, is literally a scene in which one character is tortured.

Cue the outraged and operatic cries of “torture porn,” in one of the cases where I truly - if naively - didn't see it coming. To be clear, I’m not entirely sure that there is a valid use for the term. However, if I were to apply it to any movie, I suppose I’d apply it to movies like those in the Saw franchise, where torture and gore has become the raison d’etre of the film itself, in lieu of plot or characterization. How that is different from most of the slashers and exploitation films of the seventies and eighties (many of which are revered today), I’m not sure. (Edelstein claims that in those older movies, the characters were “interchangeable” and “expendable,” and the characters in these newer “torture porn” movies are not. It’s the first time I’ve seen anyone consider good writing a detriment.) Goodnight Mommy is just the “torture porn” witch of the moment; I could point to at least ten other films that have been stamped with that moniker time and again, and give at least ten reasons why I disagree with each instance.

Although there is literal torture shown in Goodnight Mommy, I would not – could not – categorize the
movie as “torture porn.” The torture scene was intense and difficult to watch, certainly – at one point I actually said out loud, “I can’t handle this!” while throwing my hands in front of my eyes, albeit briefly – but I find myself hard-pressed to claim that the violence was gratuitous, assuming one is even remotely aware of the conventions of the horror genre and the methods used to elicit emotion therein. Rather, the violence was present in service of the story it was telling. I won’t go into details for fear of giving too much away, but the film deals with difficult subjects, from grief to paranoia and beyond, and horror has long been one medium for exploring those dark subjects. Perhaps it’s not the medium everyone would choose to examine those issues, but does that make the attempt, or the feelings it does manage to provoke, any less valid?

Edelstein, and many others, might very well say yes. The people who most often toss around the term “torture porn” are those who typically don’t like, “get,” or even watch horror films, and so I’m not sure those people could ever understand the movies they’re intent on dismissing. Edelstein declares, “As potential victims, we fear serial killers, yet we also seek to identify with their power.” I can’t speak for other horror fans, but I find that statement laughably off the mark. The truth is, even I’m not sure I know every reason I enjoy being scared, but I do know that it’s not because I like to play-act at being a murderer. The fact that so many watchers and lovers of horror are women also points at a larger reality Edelstein is missing. That he would assume to project his own desire for power and need to identify with the killer onto others seems symptomatically male. He fails to consider that viewers, especially women, may identify with the feelings of powerlessness and subjection expressed by the victims, but in a far more manageable way than we are forced to do in daily life.

I like watching things that challenge me, that make me face uncomfortable truths in uncomfortable ways. I like films that force others to face my uncomfortable truths, the truths I identify with but am afraid to speak aloud. I like things that make my heart beat fast, that make me squirm, that make jump out of my seat and run for cover. And I know that after watching a particularly intense horror film, I'm left feeling a kind of relief. It is cathartic, in a way, to feel completely horrified and paralyzed for a concise amount of time, and then be able to turn off the television and walk away.

But that catharsis is of an entirely different sort than the “money shot” Edelstein spoke of in his pivotal review. That’s fine; his experience with horror is rooted in detached moralism. Mine is rooted in my humanity, no matter how messy or offensive you may find it.

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