Sunday, May 30, 2010

On Torture Porn

It's a great casual dismissal for really gory movies you don't like. Polite company prefaces it with "just", as in "Saw 4 was just torture porn." It's an excuse for cinematic pearl-clutching, as in "have we reached a new low in cinema with this so-called 'torture porn' genre?" At the end of the day, I think it's at best an unnecessary phrase, and at worst a way to delegitimize the use of violence in art.

Apart from dictionary definitions of pornography (which don't strictly apply because they tend to hinge on obscenity), "porn" tends to get used to describe entertainment in which one particular feature gets all the attention - "food porn" for lavish cooking shows, "gun porn" for pulp action novels where weapon loadouts are described more lavishly than the women who provide sexual diversion between missions, "house porn" for home decoration shows. So "torture porn" is, then, a horror movie in which artistic expression, narrative, character development, etc., all take a back seat to explicit depictions of violence and suffering.

In each instance, it's an indication that any artistic merit is secondary to delivery of the particular material of interest. Nobody cares about the cooking technique, they just want to see gorgeously prepared dishes. Nobody asks what the elite commandos do in their spare time, or how they come to terms with their jobs dealing death, they just want to read detailed descriptions of the latest warfighting technology. Porn of whatever stripe puts the satisfaction of the base desire to which it caters ahead of aesthetics or artistic expression.

My objection to the term "torture porn" lies in the effect that this commonly-accepted definition has on how seriously we take horror films (and there's also the distinction between "horror movies" and "thrillers", but that's another post). It delegitimizes horror film as art, and does so by impugning the audience for these films and the intent of the filmmakers.

Don't get me wrong, there are definitely some shitty movies out there that are nothing more than thinly connected scenes of violence and suffering, but are those torture porn, or just badly made horror movies? We don't call dumb comedies "laughter porn", we just call them "dumb comedies." We don't call movies on the Hallmark Channel "traditional values porn", but that's pretty much what they are. And yes, these movies are dumb, cheap, gross, and hollow. That makes them bad movies, not torture porn.

So if calling a certain variety of bad horror movie "torture porn" is unnecessary, then what's happening when a good horror movie gets called "just/nothing more than/another example of" torture porn? I think three things are happening: Function is ignored in favor of form, the audience is underestimated, and the filmmaker's intent is assumed.

We have a weird relationship with violence in America. We abhor it and still can't look away. So as much as we frown on violence, it's one of the first things about film that we notice (well, that and sex, but I don't want to make this more complicated than it already is). Once people start talking about the violence in a film, that's all they can talk about. So anything else after that goes unnoticed, and the entire conversation becomes about violence, so that's all the film is, is the violence. Does the violence serve a function? Who cares? It's violence.

Case in point: Hostel is a very violent movie, and is usually one of the first ones to come up in any discussion of torture porn. I'd argue that Hostel's level of violence is necessary to impress upon the audience exactly how bad Josh & Paxton's situation really is - it's a sharp contrast to the equally vivid hedonism of the first act. It's also a reconsideration of kids on spring break as a commodity - Josh & Paxton are just as much objects for another's pleasure as the girls they're with at the start. Nobody asks why the violence is there, though - they just assume that it's gratuitous. Why does that assumption get made?

Well, that's where audience and intent come in. Part of being an enthusiast of horror film is being an enthusiast of scary things, and that's not always easy to articulate without looking creepy. So it's easy to assume that most fans of horror films are creepy, or are fans for creepy reasons. And some fans (or subsets of fandom) make that easy to assume. To me, these are the people who review horror films in terms of gore, tits, quality of "kills", as if everything else is secondary. If horror films are made for horror audiences, and horror audiences just want gore, then horror films are just excuses for gore. (Not all horror films are violent or gory, and some of the most violent and gory films aren't horror, but again, different post.) If it's a violent horror movie, then it's torture porn. It's product meant to fill a demand, rather than art.

The idea that horror film is just product to fill a demand also delegitimizes director's intent. If it's just product, then artistic intent isn't possible. Calling it "torture porn" prevents any consideration of artistic merit. If the audience wants torture porn (because they're lowbrow and creepy), then what the director is doing is by definition just crass service of that demand. The more a director becomes associates with a particular type of film, the easier it becomes to preemptively dismiss anything else that director does.

Don't get me wrong - there are dumb, cheap, gross, exploitative horror films. There are fans of those films who have very low expectations. I'm not saying that there's no such thing as torture porn or that all horror films are art. But giving bad horror films their own culturally loaded designation muddies the waters. Hostel is worth consideration. Saw is worth consideration. Intense depiction of suffering and pain can be artistically useful. In the words of Rob Zombie (of all people), "art isn't safe." Nor should it be, as easy and comfortable as it might be to pretend otherwise.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Hostel: Not (Not) Another Teen Movie

I caught the last bit of Hostel II on SyFy (I hate even typing it) tonight, and as was the case the first time I saw it, all I could think was "well, that was pointless."

I'm inherently distrustful of sequels in pretty much any genre of film unless they were planned out ahead of time (e.g., the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Night/Day/Dusk Watch, etc.). Especially when it follows an originally unknown quantity. It seems like it's more and more the case - especially with horror films - that if a movie ends up being successful, the initial reaction is not "oh, well done", but "okay, let's make another." Every time the word "franchise" gets thrown around, I get a headache and can do nothing but mutter "goddamnit" for about a minute or two.

Hostel II
was pointless because it didn't add any new fillips to the first's storyline (except now it's girls getting killed), it provided us with unnecessary detail about how the bad guys worked (telling us more about the bad guy almost always makes the bad guy less scary - the Hellraiser movies are a great example of this in action), and it ostensibly told us a story from the point of view of the victimizers as well (which, again, dilutes the impact of the story if handled poorly. I don't think they handled it poorly, but they didn't really do anything surprising with it, either.)

But this isn't about what I didn't like about Hostel II, it's about what I liked about Hostel.

Hostel was marketed as a disturbing movie about a group of college-age guys who are busy partying their way across Europe when they fall afoul of a human-trafficking murder-for-pay racket. The first half of the movie is practically a teen sex comedy, and the second half is when shit gets ill. The advertising emphasized grim Eastern Bloc basements, outfitted with chairs with built-in restraints and horrible stains. Bad things happen here, it said. In retrospect, that's too bad, because I think that tips the film's hand a little. I recognize that it's really hard to market a movie successfully without giving the game away a little (except for Muriel's Wedding, which was decidedly not the feel-good Abba-filled romp the box cover made it out to be), but, well, maybe I'll eventually try my hand at a "how I would have marketed it" post or two.

So, anyway, Hostel. I know you have to give up a little about what the movie's going to be if you're going to get the audience you're trying to get, but I would have much rather preferred that we didn't know going in just how awful things were going to get in Hostel, because the contrast between the first half and the second half in terms of mood is incredible, while continuing the basic themes of the first half in the second.

Start to finish, Hostel is a spring break movie.

Or, at least, it's a movie consistently concerned with consumption, tourism, and the industries that spring up to satisfy both. Josh and Paxton are pretty much your basic all-American fratboys, products of privilege who make their way from country to country doing pretty much the same thing they'd do back home - drink and fuck a lot - and do so supremely confident of their place in the world. They've come to Europe the same way college students come to Daytona or Padre Island or Fort Lauderdale - they're just visiting, they aren't from around here, and just want to know where to find the cheapest drinks and prettiest girls. They'll trash the place and then leave. In that sense, Europe isn't that different from any other spring break location in the U.S.. There's a whole industry built up around spring break - alcohol suppliers, bars, party promoters, travel agencies - all focusing on a very specific market: College students looking for release, debauchery, an excuse to behave in ways they would never behave at home and the resources with which to accomplish that goal.

Josh and Paxton make friends with Oli, an Icelandic backpacker on a similar adventure. Oli tells them about a place in Eastern Europe where everything is even cheaper and the girls are absolutely gorgeous. It's a hostel - one of many catering to young people on holiday. As is often the case with summertime/vacation friendships (see: Grease, "Summer Lovin'"), they don't really know Oli that well (the revelation that he has a kid surprises them and us), and when he eventually disappears, they're mildly concerned but not much else. They have no idea what's happened to him, because as far as they know, everything's fine. Oli will be back, or not. With these sort of transitory relationships, people sometimes just disappear.

Josh and Paxton end up in a really bad situation the same way that most people end up in bad situations on spring break - they have entirely too much to drink and aren't paying attention to their surroundings. The only real difference is scale. Usually these sort of slip-ups lead to comedy in spring break movies - waking up next to an ugly girl, a guy, or some sort of farm animal. In Hostel, it leads to something much worse, and this is why I wish they hadn't given this part away in the ad campaign.  I think it would have been much more effective if we'd discovered just how horrible things had gotten at the same time they did. As it is, we know what's coming. It's just a matter of when.

And this is where attention shifts from one spring break to another.

Just like Josh & Paxton, the people who have come to the unnamed building in Eastern Europe have come looking for the opportunity to behave in ways they could never behave at home in an environment free of guilt or consequence. There is a whole industry built up around the desires these people have, and although the scale of guilt-free behavior and the cost to indulge in it is much, much higher than for Josh & Paxton's, it's the same impulse, and there are people making money from catering to that impulse. One spring break even feeds the other, as teens who have come looking for cheap, easy fun become the cheap easy fun for an entirely different population. On spring break, people sometimes just disappear. Our protagonists and one antagonist even meet on the train, mirroring the sort of loose affiliation between college students from all over the country arriving at a single destination.

The idea of this parallel is driven home by the American businessman at the end, whose raw enthusiasm and anticipation for doing something naughty and forbidden would be as at home at a wet t-shirt contest or strip club as a murder holiday. And just like someone has to come along behind the kids at Padre Island or Lake Havasu to clean up the empty beer cans, go-cups, used condoms and garbage, there are people cleaning up the limbs, the blood, and the personal effects of the unfortunates taken from the hostel. The human wreckage of spring break.

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Friday, May 14, 2010

The Final: Avoiding The Obvious "Failing Grade" Joke

Calling the movies distributed as part of After Dark's Horrorfest "uneven" is probably understatement. Some have been great (The Abandoned), some have been good (The Gravedancers), some overrated (Borderlands, Frontiere(s)), and some just a downright mess (Crazy Eights, Autopsy). The Final doesn't swell the ranks of the great and good, sad to say. It's probably much closer to a downright mess.

It's a good premise: Picked-on teenagers conspire to lure the popular kids to a party out in the woods, where they will be drugged, held captive, and tortured as retribution for all of the horrible shit they've done to the protagonists. The protagonists are fine - they're a ragtag assortment of geeky, left-out kids, and the potential victims are obnoxious and unsympathetic. I don't see a lot of difference between rooting for the death of stupid teenagers and mean teenagers, so it's not a problem to me. It goes back to what the almighty Joe Bob Briggs referred to as "yuppie meat" in his account of a visit to the set of one of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequels. Sort of celebration of natural selection - when someone pokes a tiger, they get mauled, and the only ones who don't see that coming are the ones doing the poking.

I've read others' complaints about the writing - overly dramatic, ham-handed, stilted, pretentious, it gets called. I don't have a problem with that either, because that's how the kind of kids who have these sort of revenge fantasies would talk. The actors playing the protagonists of this revenge flick are playing characters who are themselves the stars of their own internal 24-7 revenge flicks, which they have chosen to make external. A lot of the action takes place in one room, and the protagonists spend most of their time on a elevated section similar to a stage, their victims arranged before them like an audience.  I'd like to think that's a deliberate choice. But of course they're going to be melodramatic and pretentious and histrionic. They're teenagers.  I wanted to strangle the main protagonist for being such a posturing douche, but anything other than a posturing douche would have been wrong for the story.

So there's promise here. The premise is fine, the way the characters are played is generally fine (or at least good enough), but all this promise is let down by a messy narrative. Once they get the popular kids to the party and drugged, we're pretty much set up for a closed-room psychological horror film. There's no mystery as to who the killers are, there's nothing supernatural, so all of the responsibility for a good narrative rests on what happens when you give the powerless all the power and make the powerful powerless. What happens when your fantasy becomes reality? Does it actually feel good to physically abuse that cheerleader who gave you snotty looks in the hall? Does wounding a football player who beat you up on a regular basis make all your own wounds heal? Or is that critical line between what we allow ourselves to imagine and what we are actually capable of doing stronger than we think? And you've already got kidnapping and maybe assault staring you in the face - the stakes are ratcheting higher with every minute, and maybe the really quiet one turns out to be a complete sadist, and maybe the mastermind was all talk, and it's all falling apart and you can't kill them after all, but you can't let them go either. Who's going to end up alive, and given that the victims aren't very nice people but probably don't deserve this, how will we feel about it?

That would have been cool. I would have watched that.

Instead, we get desultory sequences of torture that don't build any tension or anxiety - they start, people are damaged, they end, with very little impact on other events - and even more damaging, a needlessly complicated side plot involving a unlikely supporting character that cuts away from the main story before any sense of fear or uncertainty develops. The proceedings feel sterile and disconnected, and you only get a sense of immediacy once or twice, and just as they develop, well, one of the weird kids starts playing the banjo or we cut to the b-story. Whether you're trying to evoke fear, suspense, fright, dread, horror, revulsion, or whatever, you need to arrange the imagery and narrative of your film in a way that will evoke these things, and there are all kinds of ways to do that. The director dropped the ball here by arranging the elements of the story carelessly. The narrative is as distracted as a teenager and as ungrounded in real human fear as the 85th diary entry about the cosmic injustice of not having a prom date.

So maybe in that sense, the whole proceeding is some big meta-filmic joke - a movie about teenagers with teenage dialogue and teenage concerns, but also a teenage callowness and lack of focus. That might inspire some golf claps and a quiet "well played" murmured from around the stem of my pipe, but that doesn't make it a good movie by any means.

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

In Defense of Rob Zombie's Remake of Halloween.

So what did reviewers say about Rob Zombie's remake of the John Carpenter classic Halloween?

Variety said...
"a hectic, professionally assembled pic that just about cancels itself out on every level by the end."
The San Francisco Chronicle said...
"maybe 65 percent as sick and depraved as 'The Devil's Rejects,' but no less stylish."
The Onion A.V. Club said...
"Zombie's Halloween comes up short where it matters most—it just isn't that scary."
Dr. Gore's Movie Reviews said...
"Zombie needs to stop fantasizing over his drive-in double feature past and try to make something new. He explicitly understands the horror and exploitation movie trigger points and can crank out the blood and guts as well as anyone. But it’s time to let the 70’s go and move on."
Cinema Suicide said...
"Rob Zombie may have no ability to create any kind of suspense or atmosphere, but as a wet, splattery horror movie director, he’s turning out good movies."
Christian Spotlight on the Movies said...
"all this polish and talent seems wasted on a a flawed story with a dramatic message devoid of redemption, peace and hope."
Now, to be fair, it also got a number of positive reviews. But out of the few reviews sampled above, the one with which I find myself in most agreement is the one from Christian Spotlight on the Movies. Honestly, I think they were the closest to getting it.

Variety saw it as "canceling (itself) out", and I'm not even sure I know what they mean. The Chronicle lamented its lesser degree of depravity, but found it...stylish? Dr. Gore and Cinema Suicide wished Zombie would go back to blood and guts and wet, splattery horror instead of what he did here, and the A.V. Club didn't think it was scary. I watched it, and I found it effective and gripping. So what did he get right?

I guess it depends on what you mean by "scary." John Carpenter's original traded on suspense, a sense of cat-and-mouse. The violence would probably be considered tame by today's standards, but it gave us The Shape - Michael Myers as a hulking absence, only seen as a blank, white, implacable face. It's a dark movie, lots of shadows, and that face emerges out of them and you know that shit is about to get real. In that sense, it's stylized and clean, in a way.

Zombie's version is no less stylized, but it's grimy. Michael Myers isn't just a mysterious escapee from a mental hospital, he's the product of abuse, neglect, and poverty. There's a boy in there who never learned right and wrong, or why he should care about what they are. His mother is a stripper, his stepfather's picture can be found in the dictionary next to the entry for "skeevy", and although the time period isn't really specified, he appears to be a child of the 70s, a product of an unhygenic period in history. The scenes of young Michael's home life leave your eyeballs needing a shower. Contrast this to the clean white of the mental hospital, which ends up not so much suggesting cleanliness and purity as a blank canvas against which Myers' and his handcrafted masks are placed as shocks of color. There's just as much violence here as there is at home, and over the years, his youthful pleas to go home are replaced by silence. He isn't in a better place, just a different one. When he escapes, he paints the white walls red. As an adult, he's just as much a hulking shape as the original, but a dirty, grimy one. Even the mask he eventually adopts is dirty. This dirtiness carries over to the events of the movie.

This is an actively hostile movie. It aims to make you uncomfortable. This is a good thing. As the first "slasher" movie, Halloween gave us the unstoppable killing machine, and each successive iteration has trivialized the deaths that occur in their wake to the point that they are used as a quantitative measure of a movie's quality - how frequent, inventive, and spectacular are the "kills"?  Freddy Krueger - a child murderer - becomes a pop culture icon who dispatches teenagers with witty one-liners. Death becomes a punchline. Not here. Here, death is tangible, messy, unpleasant, and people suffer visibly as a result of Myers' actions. The death scenes in this movie remind me most of the crime scene photos from the Tate/LaBianca murders, awkward and horrible. People attacked by Myers attempt to crawl away, covered in blood, screaming and begging for help. Myers sobs at his mothers' abandonment, at not knowing why he cannot go home. The last survivor, covered with blood, ends the film screaming as something inside of them breaks, dies a little at what they have survived, at what others did not, at what they had to become to survive.

Everyone suffers in this movie, physically or emotionally. The fake-out ending of the original is replaced by a less-supernatural alternative - Michael may not vanish at the end, but given what he has done, his continued existence isn't necessary. Which brings me back to the Christian Spotlight review - this is a movie devoid of redemption, peace, and hope. It isn't tense, and it isn't suspenseful, but those would be the wrong notes to strike. Its mood is one of dread, of crushing inevitability. Everything is oppressive, dirty, and claustrophobic. No light, no hope, nothing clean, nothing pure - the best we can hope for is blankness. Michael's abusive home life twists him into something empty and monstrous. In response, Michael destroys everything in his path. Those not left dead are left broken. Life begins in ugliness and ends in ugliness. It trades depravity for despair, atmosphere for suffocation, cancellation for negation. If this isn't horrifying, what is?

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The Whys and Wherefores.

Hi. Put simply, I like horror movies. I don't think they get the same respect as other types of film, and I think that's a mistake. At their best, horror films are art. Hell, even crass, exploitative trash tells us something about our culture that high art doesn't always. And like any enthusiast, I like reading up on what's coming out, what looks good, what doesn't. But it seems like I have a hard time when it comes to opinions about horror movies. Release dates and trailers are no problem, but what's worth seeking out and what isn't is much tougher.

Some places treat horror movies as products containing varying amounts of three ingredients: Gore, tits, and kills. If you like horror movies as framing devices for nudity and violence, I guess that works okay. But I don't watch horror movies for the nudity and the violence - I watch them to feel something. So that doesn't help.

Some places treat horror movies as an undervalued art form - okay so far - but in the effort to validate them as art, end up throwing out critical sensibility. Movies that don't work or succeed at what they attempt are still evaluated positively because it's less about their quality than the genre itself. Fandom is love, but love can make you blind and sometimes a little creepy. So that doesn't help either.

I'm not here to tell people what to go see or what not to go see. I'm just going to talk about what I've seen and what I thought about it, regardless of whether I liked the film or not. My definition of horror might not quite match up with yours, and that's okay. The less anyone can agree on what "horror" is, the more it just becomes film. And I think that's a good thing.

I like horror films, and I think they're as worthy of thoughtful consideration as any other kind of film. So hopefully I'll give a bunch of horror films thoughtful consideration here.