Blood Visions: Torture Porn and the Mainstreaming of Grindhouse

Joey Shapiro on 2018-07-20

Balancing repulsion and attraction, these grimy films captured the public eye and irrevocably shifted the horror landscape

Jigsaw (2017, dir. Michael and Peter Spierig)

Eye gouging used to mean something. In 1980, Lucio Fulci released the seminal Dawn-of-the-Dead-on-steroids horror film Zombie, and with it one of the most iconic and gruesome moments in all of exploitation cinema was born: a zombie grabbing a woman through a window and, excruciatingly slowly, dragging her towards a jagged shard of wood until it skewered her eye in extreme close-up. It was a lowbrow variation on Luis Buñuel’s highbrow eyeball mutilation in 1929’s Un Chien Andalou, and to horror fans of a certain sensibility it carries the same game-changing significance: even within the gory history of zombie movies it’s a brutally inventive moment that still induces shudders in 2018.

Zombie (1980, dir. Lucio Fulci)

Zombie was, naturally, banned upon release along with 71 other supposedly obscene films as a “video nasty” in the U.K.; Forbidden from being sold on home video and hardly destined for mainstream success anyway, it was passed around on bootleg VHS cassettes and grew to its now-legendary status as the definitive Italian zombie movie.

Fast-forward to 2005. Saw II, the first hard-to-watch sequel in what would become a consistently hard-to-watch franchise, opens with a man locked in a grimy, dimly-lit room and given two options by his captor: cut his eyeball open to retrieve the key to his escape or allow a bear-trap-like steel mask to slam shut on his face in two minutes. The scariest part of the scene — aside from the atrocious fluorescent lighting — isn’t the moment when the bear trap inevitably closes on his face, but rather the prospect of this man slicing into his eye. In spite of, or perhaps because of, this nauseating opening sequence, the film made $31 million its opening weekend, nearly eight times its budget, and audiences loved it enough to come back for six sequels over the next decade.

Saw II (2005, dir. Darren Lynn Bousman)

The fact that a movie featuring eyeball mutilation and death-by-bear-trap went from being fodder for sleazy 42nd street grindhouse theaters to being standard multiplex entertainment in the span of barely over two decades is startling, but Saw II was the norm among 2000s horror, not the outlier. The rise of torture porn horror spurred on by the surprise success of the first Saw film in 2004 was rapid and unprecedented, flooding theaters with such sadistic horror that eyeball gouging went from being the stuff of horror lore in Zombie to being an opening scene, a teaser for the even more gruesome main act. Films like Saw, Hostel, and The Human Centipede were no longer doomed to become illicit bootlegs shared by gorehound horror fans but were instead seen as commercially viable film franchise material, spurring on a decade-long horror trend that foregrounded the darkest depths of horror cinema and converted the unrelenting brutality of splatter films like Zombie into a mainstream attraction.

For better or worse it’s impossible to discuss the repulsive attraction of torture porn without going into the Saw franchise: eight films, two videogames, and one short film worth of pure cinematic sadism. The film’s co-creators Leigh Whannell and James Wan have been quick to claim that Saw is something loftier than torture porn, but if anything it defines the term: there’s no discernable substance to the films and their appeal lies solely in watching half-drawn, morally compromised characters die horrible, creative deaths. There is, however, plenty of unintentional subtext to these movies that makes them reek of something far worse than pointless violence: conservatism.

The premise of the franchise in a nutshell is that, in each film, the serial killer Jigsaw (who the franchise creators have gone on record to label as more of a “scientist” than a murderer, a comment which elicits a major “yikes” from this writer) traps a group of people who he believes to have done something wrong, which could mean anything from heroin addiction to having an extramarital affair, and forces them to mutilate themselves and other to be set free. The franchise is dependent on the idea that all the victims of Jigsaw are themselves guilty in some way; even Donnie Wahlberg’s hardened detective character in Saw II, the protagonist who we’re ostensibly meant to sympathize with, is revealed to be a criminal by the end of his film. Because no major character is ever painted as wholly innocent, the character audiences identify with most closely is ultimately Jigsaw himself, who by the franchise’s logic never hurts anyone who didn’t already deserve it. The films make an explicit point to show that Jigsaw never kills anyone, instead placing them in “games” that lead to death if lost — he’s not a murderer, he’s a gamer (how many times have you heard that line before?). His hands are hardly free of blood, but the filmmakers bend over backwards film after film to suggest that, hey, he’s not such a bad guy, he’s just a vigilante!

Which brings me back to the conservatism. By the end of every Saw film we realize the people being tortured are all “bad people,” and thus the filmmakers aim is to justify their torture — it’s okay to torture these people because they’re people who you don’t like in the real world. Never mind the fact that having an affair or being an addict is hardly criminal to begin with, these films want you to cheer on the slow deaths of characters who have committed even the most insignificant antisocial behavior. That hyper-conservative, borderline fascist message is eerily reminiscent of the Death Wish films, a cornerstone exploitation film franchise that revolved around the idea of a righteous vigilante killing off all the violent criminals that the justice system — run by flaming liberals, might I add — isn’t efficient enough to punish sufficiently. It’s a conservative wet dream that upon a cursory glance can be hard to argue with; after all, who doesn’t wish death upon rapists and murderers? If you think about it for more than a few seconds though it becomes clear that that’s not justice, that’s dictionary definition eugenics, and the protagonist’s mission to “clean up the streets” is more reminiscent of Travis Bickle than Bruce Wayne.

Death Wish 3 (1985, dir. Michael Winner)

Saw carries on this cinematic legacy of vigilante-enforced survival-of-the-fittest with a topical mid-2000s twist: instead of rooting for criminals to be hunted down and murdered without trial, audiences root for criminals to be locked up and tortured without trial. The real-world parallels are pretty obvious; in late 2003 it came to light that prisoners at a variety of American detention centers around the world, particularly the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, were being systematically and brutally tortured by American soldiers and prison guards. The torture, meticulously documented in nightmarish photos taken by the soldiers themselves, was enacted in bizarre and unfathomably disturbing ways that now call to mind the traps that would soon play out in the first Saw film, released less than a year after the Abu Ghraib reports came out. In more capable hands, a horror film like this could have provided a compelling commentary on this government-approved torture and used it to reflect on the larger issue of American interventionist politics and abuse of power. Saw, however, was not made in capable hands, and its complete absence of political commentary means that the takeaway isn’t a condemnation of the sadistic violence it depicts but rather an implicit justification and explicit glorification of it.

People who claim they watch the Saw movies for their story — and I’ve met many such people — are in the same camp as those who claim to read Playboy for the articles: they’re lying, they’re literally just in it for the porn. Torture porn is an all-too-fitting label then for this thoroughly upsetting niche of horror because these films are viewed in the same way one views pornography: they’re both uniquely physical experiences inextricably tied to the release of some very unsavory bodily fluids. Instead of a pornography of sex (or just “normal pornography” for short), these films embody a pornography of violence in which viewers pay to see strangers without personality get murdered in innovative, increasingly brutal ways. These films deviate from the splatter films of yesteryear — your Zombie, your Blood Feast, your Evil Dead — in their complete humorlessness, making them feel a lot grosser, both visually and ideologically. They’re far grittier than their grindhouse forefathers, but ultimately gritty is just another word for dirty and there’s no denying these are irredeemably dirty pictures.

That isn’t to say their politics are always entirely misguided; some torture porn leans liberal! Hostel is a vapid, cruel, indefensible movie made by a filmmaker without any kind of values — Eli Roth, tied with Rob Zombie for the biggest hack in modern horror — but somehow, beneath the ample power drills and buzzsaws at play here, there lurks a seed of social critique. The film is Eurotrip by way of Saw: three American frat bros go backpacking in the Eastern Bloc in search of good sex, drugs, and parties, but their sex tourism leads them smackdab into the wrong end of an even darker illegal industry in which bored international businessmen pay to torture unsuspecting tourists.

Hostel (2005, dir. Eli Roth)

It would be a little bit generous to give Eli Roth any credit for the underlying social and political commentary — after all, this is the man behind The Green Inferno, a film that boils down to an excruciatingly long cry of, “Three cheers for neocolonialism!” — but Hostel can be read as an almost cohesive critique of American arrogance. It’s a film that, intentionally or otherwise, acts as an ideological counterpoint to the Saw franchise in that it’s very much anti-violence and, as an added bonus, pointedly anti-consumerism. The protagonists aren’t much more than a greatest hits album of the worst qualities found in frat boys, but it’s hard not to sympathize with them in the last half hour of the movie when they’re being carved up by even more despicable people: capitalists. The film that leads up to the torture-filled third act is a parade of excess, a long and winding road lined with condoms and coke, and it’s clear from the start that this blind pursuit of cheap hedonistic pleasures is what leads to their deaths. In other words, consumerism kills, literally.

It’s a uniquely post-9/11 horror film in that the deadly culture shock the three characters experience is akin to many Americans realizing in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks that a good portion of the world hates us. Sure, there are probably more subtle ways to communicate that idea in film than creating a black market slaughterhouse for American tourists, but god knows that device gets the point across pretty well. Americans, as exemplified by these three clueless man-children, are arrogant and ignorant of the world around them, and there’s a precise moment in the film when the trio’s bubble of security and safety is popped and they’re dragged kicking and screaming into a darker real world hostile to Americans. It’s a deeply paranoid and flawed film that, despite being more interested in triggering gore-induced nausea than thoughtful reflection, does have some merit in its attempt to expose the seedy flip-side to misguided American exceptionalism.

Eli Roth and Edwige Fenech on the set of Hostel: Part II

Any political brownie points Eli Roth won for Hostel, however, were promptly rescinded when he released Hostel: Part II, the filmic equivalent of that annoying kid in your intro philosophy class who thinks he’s hot shit because he read the Wikipedia summary of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The film is unrepentantly smug and the violence is pointless by design, no longer hiding even the vaguest semblance of deeper meaning. It’s a self-aware exercise in sadism in which the audience is the ultimate victim, punished for watching it and expecting to find either entertainment or art. The film is deliberately hard to watch, not in a fun gross-scary-movie way but in a genuinely unpleasant way that unfairly implicates the viewer in Roth’s cruelty as an artist.

The structure is virtually identical to the first film — train scene, hostel scene, party scene, torture scene, escape scene — but with one key difference: instead of three obnoxious bros seeking out cheap sex, it’s three art student girls on vacation in Rome. In other words, these characters haven’t done anything wrong; they’re not getting killed for being ignorant or annoying, they’re getting killed because they’re decent, normal people and Eli Roth wants to upset you. Roth deliberately inserts nearly 40 minutes of exposition in which you’re introduced to these characters and grow to like them — unlike the first film in which the exposition highlights how despicable our protagonists are — only to pull the rug out from under his audience with a shit-eating grin by torturing and killing these girls, none of whom are ever even given a chance to put up much of a fight like the boys in the first Hostel did.

In most horror films, characters are only killed off when they’ve violated an unspoken rule or done something wrong — think camp counselors having sex in the woods instead of watching their campers in Friday the 13th — but in Hostel: Part II the protagonists are completely innocent and their torture is never justified, it’s just shrugged off as bad people doing bad things to good people. Whereas Saw has a conservative slant and the first Hostel is more-or-less left-leaning and critical of American attitudes of the time, Hostel: Part II just lazily opts for bitter cynicism. The film doesn’t end with the three girls escaping and defeating their captors, but rather with two of the girls bleeding to death onscreen and the third girl — this is not a joke — writing a check to her captors in exchange for her freedom and thus becoming an honorary member of this elite torture club. The world, the film seems to tell us, is filled with evil people who prosper and good people who suffer, and there’s no justice or sense to it. It’s an unfathomably cruel movie, even more so than the Saw films and arguably far less responsible. At least the filmmakers behind Saw seem interested in the ethics of the torture onscreen; Hostel: Part II is a black hole of misery and sadism, a pointless showcase for pointless violence against decent people.

The Human Centipede: First Sequence (2009, dir. Tom Six)

None of the aforementioned films hold a candle in the “gratuitous gore” category, however, to what is by far the most infamous horror film of the 2000s: Tom Six’s The Human Centipede, a transparent cinematic exercise in shock tactics and nausea. Six’s film is perhaps the only horror film of the 21st century that has been truly capable of shocking audiences into speechlessness like the golden age grindhouse horror of the ’70s and ’80s. The premise would be laughable if it weren’t executed with so much crazed passion: a psychotic German surgeon kidnaps three unsuspecting tourists and stitches them mouth-to-anus to form the eponymous centipede. It’s all surface level, entirely devoid of meaning beyond some vague allusions to Nazi medical experiments, but it’s a different sort of vapidity than the mean-spirited amorality of Hostel: Part II. Unlike nearly every other torture porn film that came before it, The Human Centipede has a sense of humor about itself; Tom Six knew he was making a film that’s hollow and gross, not deep or scary, and he milks it for everything that comically revolting premise promises and then some.

In spite of the very of-its-time visuals — like Hostel and Saw before it, it’s filmed in fifty shades of neutral colors — the film has clear precedents in horror history. For one thing, it’s the most faithful in spirit of any torture porn film to the sub-genre’s roots in ’70s and ’80s splatter films; films like Nekromantik, about a street sweeper whose bored wife falls in love with a corpse he brings home, and Blood Sucking Freaks, in which a magician tortures young women on stage but never tells his audience it’s all real, both embody the kind of tongue-in-cheek, gag-inducing line-crossing for which the The Human Centipede strives. For all of its uniquely modern perversity, Centipede is ultimately just the next logical progression of this tradition of tasteless exploitation films. Even though splatter films like Nekromantik overflow with schlocky fun when watched in 2018, when those films were released they were seen as nasty, shocking provocations that violated all notions of good taste in the same way as The Human Centipede; it’s hard to imagine people looking back on this film quaintly, but it’s certainly happened before.

Blood Sucking Freaks (1976, dir. Joel M. Reed)

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like The Human Centipede. Like at all. It has very little value as art or entertainment outside of being a cinematic endurance test, the newest Mount Everest of gross horror movies, and you couldn’t pay me to watch it again. That’s the entire point of the movie though: it’s one big gimmick all the way down to its jokey claim of being “100% medically accurate.” It’s Cannibal Holocaust by way of William Castle, the legendary horror director/producer who employed gimmicks like launching skeletons over the audience during climatic scenes and handing out $1000 life-insurance certificates in theaters for when viewers “die of fright” during his films. While Tom Six’s film is less, ahem, conventionally enjoyable than those of Castle, the appeal of both directors’ films lies more in the gimmick surrounding the film rather than the film itself; it’s not a sincere artistic statement (with a premise like that, how could it be?) but rather a challenge to prospective viewers who think they’ve seen it all in horror movies. It would be a bit of a stretch to call it satire or parody because the underlying humor to its depravity is never quite so explicit, but it’s certainly designed for the sole purpose of being the most extreme and disturbing horror movie ever released theatrically. I can assure you, if only to prevent you from watching it yourself, that it succeeds with flying colors.

This is all to say that the sadism of content in films like The Human Centipede is matched only by their sadism of form. These films are openly hostile towards their viewers, denying any kind of pleasure one can usually get from watching scary movies by relying more on instilling discomfort than fear. Even in the case of the Saw franchise, which tried to lure viewers back again and again with a serial narrative in which each film acts as the next installment of a larger ongoing story, the plot is never the main attraction for torture porn; it’s hardly a secret that people watch these movies almost solely for the shock value of seeing just how far these filmmakers will go in torturing their characters. It’s horror with a short attention span, a scary movie clip show that leaves extraneous plot and character development on the cutting room floor, leaving only the spectacle to remain, a ruthlessly efficient succession of repulsively gory set pieces.

Torture porn faded away just as abruptly as it arrived, dwindling down beginning in 2009 only to have vanished completely by 2010, save for a few stray sequels. Its popularity seemed dependent on the misery of its viewers; not to oversimplify things, but America wasn’t doing stellar from 2001–2008, and beginning with Obama’s 2009 inauguration there was a renewed optimism that didn’t leave much room for movies about Slovakian pay-to-torture factories or surgeons-turned-entomologists. When Jigsaw, the Saw prequel intended to revive the franchise after a seven-year radio silence, was released this past year, it opened to the lowest box office of any film in the franchise: the final nail—or, in the case of Saw III, the final nail bomb—in the coffin for the sub-genre’s forseeable future.

Hereditary (2018, dir. Ari Aster)

I can’t imagine many people are mourning its absence right now in what is quickly revealing itself to be a fertile few years for challenging, original horror films like Hereditary and The Babadook. Still, despite their quality ranging from “forgettable” to “unspeakably upsetting,” these films clearly had a sneaky appeal to them, an allure that drew you in with morbid curiosity just as it was pushing you away with its naked violence. Sure, as isolated case studies they’re clearly a little short on complexity and depth, but collectively, by some bizarre balancing act of repulsion and attraction, these grimy, low-budget films captured (or, rather, gouged) the public eye and irrevocably shifted the horror landscape from the in-on-the-joke irony-drenched horror of Scream and American Psycho to the scary movies of the new millennium: cold, brutal, and willing to dive headfirst into darkness mainstream horror had ever dared explore.