Torture Porn: laziest form of horror ever?

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After having reviewed the atrocious movie I Know Who Killed Me, I felt the need to go a little further into detail on the subgenre of horror movies that has gained the nickname of “torture porn”.

Torture porns (also known as “gore porn” or just “gorn”) are horror movies that focus almost primarily on torture scenes and images of gore, and not much else in terms of scare attempts. The term can often be used derogatorily, as many torture porns are viewed as lacking any substance, to the point where they might as well just be referred to as fictional snuff.

Now, as a critic, I never like to say that an entire genre or subgenre is inherently bad. I believe that in the right hands, any story can be made into a worthwhile watch. The problem with torture porn is not inherent badness, it’s the fact that, of all the subgenres of horror, it requires the least effort.

Allow me to explain what I mean here: virtually every other form of horror requires some effort on the creator’s part in order to trigger real fear in people. Even jump scares at least require a good build up of atmosphere before the initial “attack”. Gore on the other hand requires little effort on the writer’s part. This is because while torture porn doesn’t necessarily trigger fear, it will almost inevitably trigger disgust.

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Fear and disgust are two different emotions. Once makes us shiver in our boots, the other makes us want to puke. A good horror movie should be able to trigger the former, which can be tough. What induces fear differs from person to person, but virtually all humans are naturally disgusted by mutilations and desecration of the body. In other words, it takes a good deal of effort to convince your audience that they should be afraid of an on screen monster that doesn’t exist in the real world, but convincing them to be disgusted by shots of body parts being sliced open is a walk in the park.

I’m not saying films should never show disgusting imagery simply because it’s “too easy”. What I’m saying is that horror should be primarily about, well, horror, and not disgust. The true strengths of a horror movie often don’t come from the payoff, but from the build up. The fear that something is about to happen and the thoughts of what the something will be are often far more terrifying than the reveal, which may leave the audience with a sense of relief that it’s finally over. Torture scenes displayed in full view for extended periods of time are nothing but payoff. It’s difficult to watch, but purely because of being disgusting, not frightening. There’s no fear as to what might happen when what’s happening/going to happen is being made as clear as day.

To make it clear why torture porn so often doesn’t work as a horror movie, let’s take a look at one movie that centred around quite possibly the most disgusting premise imaginable.

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Yes, we’re going there.

The Human Centipede: First Sequence, is a well and truly disgusting movie, in theory. While it may have the most foul premise imaginable, that being a doctor attempting to stitch three people together mouth-to-anus until they’re “one functioning digestive system”, it’s not a frightening movie, at all. And here’s why:

Outside of the disgusting concept, this movie has next to nothing going for it in terms of horror. The scenes are consistently shot in broad daylight and in a very nice looking house. The characters are not interesting enough for me to care about. The villain is hammy to the point of comedy. And most importantly, this movie actually isn’t that disgusting. When you get down to it, the “centipede” is just three people with their heads wedged in each others asses. We see more or less no visual implications of what’s actually going on aside from the characters’ disgusted reactions. The scene where, sigh, the guy at the front of the centipede has to defecate into the next one’s mouth, is a perfect indicator as to why it fails so hard. There’s very little tension. He just says he needs to shit, while the villain hams it up in the background. This is all shot in daylight, in a perfectly nice looking garden, and since the girl’s face is only half visible, we barely get to see any reaction. While leaving things to the imagination is often a strength, in this case, the rest of this scene is so bland and lacking in tension that it’s hard to feel any kind of fear.

The Human Centipede: First Sequence is a torture porn that doesn’t really convey the torture. And as such, it has absolutely nothing going for it. It isn’t scary, and I don’t care about the story or the characters. The most you’ll get from it is a few laughs from the villain’s ridiculous overacting.

So, is it possible to make a gory horror film work? The answer of course is yes, but it requires a lot of effort from people other than the SFX team. For starters, if you want me to care about what’s happening on screen, then I need to care about the characters. So many horror movies fail by giving us half baked characters no one cares about.

Secondly, the buildup is more important than the payoff. Whether or not you like the Saw franchise or think it’s an effective horror, the basic concept of people having to play games in order to avoid horrifying torture does actually work in this regard. It is far better to have a long, tense build up that culminates in a horrifying sequence of gore, than to see drawn out torture scenes that do nothing but disgust.

Finally, be aware that quite often when it comes to showing gore, less is more. We all remember the Stuck in the Middle With You scene from Reservoir Dogs, right?

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In this scene, instead of showing gory footage of an ear being sliced off, the camera pans out and just focuses on the background. All the while, we can still hear the same music and sound effects. We know exactly what’s happening, but in not showing it this sequence allows us to use our imaginations. Even though this is by no means a horror movie, this is how to induce fear, rather than disgust. We can’t see what’s happening, so our mind can only imagine what it looks like. Quite often, when you leave things up to the imagination, especially when the scene has been built up well, the audience will picture the imagery that would be most frightening to them.

To conclude, it’s not impossible to make a movie about torture and have it be scary and effective. Yet it’s so incredibly possible just to throw a whole load of gore on screen without any sort of effort while claiming it’s a horror movie, that I well and truly fear the bad will vastly outweigh the good for a long time.

And that’s disgusting.

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