Seen any good surgery on unanesthetized people lately? Millions have, in Hostel, which spent a week as America’s top moneymaker. It’s actually not a bad little thriller, if you can live with the odd protracted sequence of torture and dismemberment. The director, Eli Roth, captures the mixture of innocence and entitlement in young American males abroad: They breeze into a former Soviet-bloc country the way teens in old sex comedies headed for Daytona, confident that their country’s power and prestige will make them babe magnets. And those are some supermodelish babes in Hostel’s Slovakian village, where life appears to be a nonstop naked sauna party. One of our heroes is confused about his sexuality, though, and sympathetic to an old man who makes a pass at him. It’s quite a shock when he wakes to find himself in chains, with that same old man preparing to eviscerate him. The poor sap screams, pleads, weeps: He doesn’t understand why he’s in that place.
As for me, I didn’t understand why I was in that place either, watching through my fingers—or why I’d found myself in similar places many times during the past few years, at The Devil’s Rejects, Saw, Wolf Creek, and even (dare I blaspheme?) The Passion of the Christ. Explicit scenes of torture and mutilation were once confined to the old 42nd Street, the Deuce, in gutbucket Italian cannibal pictures like Make Them Die Slowly, whereas now they have terrific production values and a place of honor in your local multiplex. As a horror maven who long ago made peace, for better and worse, with the genre’s inherent sadism, I’m baffled by how far this new stuff goes—and by why America seems so nuts these days about torture.
It might be, as a screenwriter friend argues, that this trend is mainly a way of ratcheting up the stakes—that in the quest to have a visceral impact, actual viscera are the final frontier. Certainly television has become the place for forensic fetishism. But torture movies cut deeper than mere gory spectacle. Unlike the old seventies and eighties hack-’em-ups (or their jokey remakes, like Scream), in which masked maniacs punished nubile teens for promiscuity (the spurt of blood was equivalent to the money shot in porn), the victims here are neither interchangeable nor expendable. They range from decent people with recognizable human emotions to, well, Jesus.
Is there a masochistic as well as a sadistic component to the mayhem? In the same way that some women cut themselves (they say) to feel something, maybe some moviegoers need to identify with people being cut to feel something, too. Maybe. I can think of no other reason to endure Greg McLean’s extraordinarily cruel Wolf Creek. He creates an overpowering sense of place: the Australian outback, where the mix of endless vistas and claustrophobic confinement leaves you shaking, and where the serial killer—a sociopathic inversion of “Crocodile” Dundee—slices through the heroine’s spinal cord and announces, with satisfaction, “Now you’re just a head on a stick.”
As potential victims, we fear serial killers, yet we also seek to identify with their power.
Some of these movies are so viciously nihilistic that the only point seems to be to force you to suspend moral judgments altogether. In Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, crazed mass murderers take a group of touring musicians hostage before slaughtering them all. Well, one of the women isn’t exactly slaughtered: She’s left hanging in the doorway wearing her lover’s detached face; she ends up running into the road, where a semi turns her into multiple heaps of gleaming innards. When, during filming, the actor playing the most sadistic of the psychos became traumatized by what he had to do, Zombie reportedly told him, “Art is not safe.” But with characters who have no larger awareness—who are just inexplicably deranged—The Devil’s Rejects isn’t art by any definition I can think of.
Are there moral uses for this sort of violence? Certainly Mel Gibson aimed to achieve a kind of catharsis—a purification—via the two-hour beating, lashing, and scourging of his Jesus, although some of us felt that he’d made his usual bloody revenge picture in which the revenge part had been lopped off (or left to the spectator).
Stephen King has written that horror “feeds the alligators of the mind,” yet it remains an open question whether those alligators have a little nap after they’re fed or get busy making more alligators. In her book Men, Women, and Chain Saws, Carol Clover argues that many hack-’em-ups are empowering; the “final girl” always slays the monster. But the “final girls” in Wolf Creek and The Devil’s Rejects die ghastly deaths, and while Hostel ends with bloody retribution, it’s set in a world in which people pay big money for the opportunity to torture and murder—a world of latent serial killers.
In an essay called “The American Vice,” Will Self speaks to the “moral displacement” of modern cinema—which is far different from the viewer’s perspective on, say, Guernica. Of the scene in Reservoir Dogs in which a sadist exuberantly mutilates a bound policeman, Self writes, “We lose sight of whose exact POV we are inhabiting. The sadist who is doing the torturing? The policeman? The incapacitated accomplice? It is this vacillation in POV that forces the sinister card of complicity upon the viewer. For in such a situation the auteur is either abdicating—or more likely foisting—the moral responsibility for what is being depicted onscreen from himself to the viewer.”
That’s a tough charge—and the issue of where the spectator’s sympathies lie at violent movies has always been a complicated one. But there’s no doubt that something has changed in the past few decades. Serial killers occupy a huge—and disproportionate—share of our cultural imagination: As potential victims, we fear them, yet we also seek to identify with their power. A key archetype is Will Graham in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon—a genius serial-killer tracker because he can walk through grisly crime scenes and project himself into the killers’ heads. He’s both the instrument of justice and the empathic consumer of torture porn.
Fear supplants empathy and makes us all potential torturers, doesn’t it? Post-9/11, we’ve engaged in a national debate about the morality of torture, fueled by horrifying pictures of manifestly decent men and women (some of them, anyway) enacting brutal scenarios of domination at Abu Ghraib. And a large segment of the population evidently has no problem with this. Our righteousness is buoyed by propaganda like the TV series 24, which devoted an entire season to justifying torture in the name of an imminent threat: a nuclear missile en route to a major city. Who do you want defending America? Kiefer Sutherland or terrorist-employed civil-liberties lawyers?
Back in the realm of non-righteous torture, the question hangs, Where do you look while these defilements drag on? Consider a nightmarish film that many critics regard as deeply moral, Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, which delivers a nine-minute anal rape (of a pregnant woman). Noé means to rub your nose in the violence and make you loathe it, but my nose had been pretty well rubbed after the first two minutes. For a while I stared at the EXIT sign, then closed my eyes, plugged my ears, and chanted an old mantra. I didn’t understand why I had to be tortured, too. I didn’t want to identify with the victim or the victimizer.
I am complicit in one sense, though. I’ve described all this freak-show sensationalism with relish, enjoying—like these filmmakers—the prospect of titillating and shocking. Was it good for you, too?