Over at Film School Rejects, Cole Abaius presents a good argument for retiring the term "torture porn," a phrase coined by New York Magazine's David Edelstein in the 2006 feature "Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn." Edelstein's feature offers plenty of ideas to chew on as to why ultra-violent movies like 'Saw' and 'Hostel' have gained such mainstream popularity, but what's stuck with us is the glib idiom.

As Abaius points out, it's lost all meaning. It's reductive and dismissive, used by critics or viewers to write off movies that they themselves don't find any worth in, as well as their audience. The term can apply to anything from the Guinea Pig films to 'Salo,' and I'm sure there are people who would argue that both contribute to film from a theoretical standpoint.

I'd go a step further, though; using the word porn as a pejorative is equally lazy and reductive. Just because you don't like something or agree with it or find any worth in it doesn't mean you can completely write it off. While it's impossible to ignore the connection between sex and death, the term "torture porn" implies that the viewer is getting off on violence, which I don't think is necessarily the case. Meanwhile, our lexicon is now full of ridiculous terms like food porn, shoe porn, and handbag porn. Why? What does that exactly say?

I reject the notion that all porn is useless and devoid of meaning or value, just as I reject the notion that upsetting, truly disturbing horror movies are all mindless exercises in voyeurism or some sort of Freudian fever dream. And there are plenty of pornographic movies and horror movies that are mindless crap -- but if we're going to write about them at all, we need more constructive, interesting and insightful language to bolster our arguments.

For Halloween, I rented a number of movies, but only two of them were chosen specifically because the thought of watching them made my palms sweat: 'Inside' and 'Martyrs.'

Although new movies like 'A Serbian Film' have found even more inventive ways to punish audiences, the French have been at the forefront of a new wave of horror since 'Seul contre tous' ('I Stand Alone'), 'Baise-moi' ('F*ck Me') and 'Haute Tension' (High Tension') were sprung on art house fans. 'Inside' (À l'intérieur) and 'Martyrs' are regarded as the queens of this genre, and for good reason. The first is about a pregnant woman due to give birth the next day who's being stalked by a nameless woman who wants to steal her baby. I tried to watch it once before and had to turn it off. The second is about a disturbed young woman, Lucie, who was horribly abused as a child; her friend Anna goes with her in what she thinks will be an attempt for Lucie to confront her abusers but instead turns into a bloodbath that uncovers the true nature of who abused Lucie. It begins with an introduction by the director, who invites the viewer to hate him for creating such a movie.

I did question why I wanted to watch them. It wasn't to torture myself, or to get off on the violence. I found myself totally drained after watching 'Martyrs,' and it's not an experience I'll revisit. But I watched it to push my own boundaries and see how far I was willing to go along with the filmmaker or, just like with being a kid and covering your eyes at the scary parts, find out what I could handle. (And yes, I did cover my eyes during parts of 'Martyrs.') Whether or not I found that to be an interesting, worthwhile journey is something I'm still thinking about.

All of these movies could qualify as "torture porn," but for every person who dismisses them as exploitative crap, there is at least one other person who would argue vehemently their artistic and cultural merits. I'd rather read or partake in an interesting discussion of the movies, what they're about, what they mean, and why they watch them than read yet another review that simply writes them off.
CATEGORIES Horror, Cinematical