Thursday, 7 June 2007

The New Sadism

"Did you invent the term 'torture porn'?," my friend Phil asked me.

This question was posed around the time of last Fall's release of Saw III, and 'torture porn' was becoming a common internet term for horror movies (often in the mainstream) that are increasingly focused on their protagonists' mutilation.

"I don't think so," I answered. But thinking about it now, maybe in an offhand way I did. I addressed the issue in my early 2002 review of Final Destination 2--probably the most negative review that movie got. And several months later, in a mid-year report article, I refer to said film as "death porn." My Saw II review was among the very first to hit the net, and there my Rotten Tomatoes headline quote is, "Real porn is more dignified than this."

I can't take direct responsibility for everyone on the Ain't It Cool talkbacks adding 'torture porn' to their lexicon.

Besides, I prefer branding these movies with the term "The New Sadism."

The New Sadism implicates the audience's culpability in these films' attitude in ways that Torture Porn does not. The New Sadism is an overground movement. Torture Porn sounds like its locked in the basement dungeon of a backalley video store. The New Sadism lets you see graphic and prolonged disembowlings and castrations at a mall multiplex. You can watch them in an audience with 14 year olds still standing beneath Rihanna's Umberella-ella-ella-eh-eh.

An easy mistake is to dismiss all these films outright. The New Sadism is the horror movie equivalent of Nu-Metal (which was big at the turn-of-the-millenium). It's seen by many as a perversion of a genre's purity, and by others as a genre at its most accessibly hardcore. The bottomline is that, even at a low playing field, some of these movies are better than others. The people who are most militant and unwavering in their dismissal of horror movies are always the ones who never watch them.

But I can say that, as a trend, I don't like The New Sadism.

It's the dominant movement in horror movies right now--just ahead of the Japanese People Are Scared of Mute Ghost Children genre.

Here's how it happened:

In Christmas 1996, Wes Craven's Scream opened. It grossed $100 million and reignited popular interest in horror films. Scream is a postmodern take on the teen slasher films of the 70s and 80s, given a very hip sensibility. It's hard for many to admit now, but 10 years ago Scream was seen as enormously cool. (Christmas 96 rocked for mainstream counterprogramming. We also got Mars Attacks! and Beavis and Butt-head Do America.)

Scream had so much crossover appeal because it's a feminized horror movie (more on that in a bit.) It was about 10 times as smart as it needed to be, thanks largely to a script by newcomer Kevin Williamson. It made stars Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and Drew Barrymore seem cool. It spoke to teenagers, as well as people who just love slasher movies.

As a 17 year old who was into horror (and most other genres), I was obsessed with Scream for a while. In my years at high school it was (barring Kids and Romeo and Juliet) one of only two teen movies released in that whole period. The other was Clueless, which I never cared about.

Inevitably, other movies tried to cash-in. The forgettable Urban Legend and its even more forgettable sequel Urban Legends: Final Cut followed. The market looked right for another Chucky movie. We got Wes Craven Presents Wishmaster, Disturbing Behavior, Halloween H20, and The Faculty.

The most popular of these late-90s follow-ups, besides the good but overstuffed Scream 2, was I Know What You Did Last Summer. That movie's pedigree was due to several factors. For one, it brought Scream scribe Williamson back. I don't know what's since happened to that guy. He was in some ways the horror version of John Hughes. The first two seasons of Dawson's Creek are also better than you think. I Know What You Did Last Summer has one of the fucking best horror movie titles ever. Conversely, its sequel I Still Know What You Did Last Summer has one of the worst. But Williamson's typical dignity for his teenage characters was missing in I Know What You Did. These kids were sort of dispicable. And the intriguing premise, of four youths trying to bury the secret of a man they accidentally killed, is too slickly directed by Jim Gillespie. It looks beautiful, but it needs a stripped down grit.

The teen horror phase ended around the time of 2001's Valentine. Judging by the voices on the Internet back then, nobody wanted it back. These movies, which were most often not that good, were derided for casting TV stars, occasionally getting PG-13 ratings, and often wussing out from being truly violent.

Enter The New Sadism.

I pick Final Destination 2 as the transitional movie between the teen and sadist subgenres. The original Final Destination, of which I'm a big fan, places squarely in the teen horror genre.

The major difference goes back to the issue of Scream's feminization. In Scream, Sidney's (Neve Campbell) fight for survival is a mirror of her personal struggles. Following her mother's murder, she wants life to leave her alone. The ghostface killer isn't allowing that to happen. The series is about a character's blossoming, with the horror element mirroring that story. There's a touching innocence to Scream if you watch it today. It's really great.

But it's actually typical of most slasher films before it and of its time, in that it's primarily concerned with survival. These movies are about claiming one's dignity. We want Jamie Lee Curtis to beat the Boogeyman in Halloween. We want to see the special needs kids vanquish Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm St. 3: Dream Warriors.

The New Sadism doesn't care about survival, only execution. As horror movies become more popular (Craven speaks on the Nightmare DVD boxed set about how he'd mainly see kids who didn't fit any mold at his movies on opening night), the formative process of horror movies is reversed. It's a countdown to extinction. The bloodier, the better.

What this means is that horror movies have lost their appeal as an empathetic outsider pop art--something detractors never understood about them anyway. In the 2005 remake of House of Wax, glamourous young stars Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray and Paris Hilton are convinced that all backwoods people are crazy imbred hillbillies. At the end, it's revealed the deformed redneck trying to kill them was abused during childhood. Fear those who are different than you, especially if their lives have been harder. That means they will kill you.

The New Sadism is typically about regular people caught in an animalistic land of primative psychopaths. It's not about who's gonna live, it's about how they'll die. This was the basis of Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses, which was celebrated by some as the antidote to years of Scream-wrought horror. It was also the focus of Marcus Nispel's corrupt remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wolf Creek, Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes remake, Turistas and Severance.

Saw II was the point where I really objected. The increasing nihilism of these movies was getting defended as keeping with the spirit of horror movies. That is total bullshit. Horror got overtaken by people who like the genre far more than they understand it. The attraction to wanting to make these films is simple. If you're studying film craft, it's easier to detect and practice the overt style of horror sequences than other genres, which are often less pronounced. Horror gives newcomer directors a chance to get noticed by showing how "uncompromising" they are. It's why there are now almost as many zombie movies coming from film students as the typical film school projects about suicide and drugs. It's why Saw II, Hostel and Turistas feel like a pissing contest between Darren Lynn Bousman, Eli Roth and John Stockwell, each out to prove which of them is the most hardcore.

The thing defenders of The New Sadism don't grasp about some detractors is that the objection is not about the level of violence in a film. It's 2007. I can take it. I'm used to it. I've imagined far worse. What offends is a filmmaker's attitude about violence. The greatest human plague facing us today is the spread of evil. Everybody feels this. Witnessing audiences laugh as a boy gets crushed into a pancake by a plate of glass in Final Destination 2, or cheer as Nispel's camera pulls out of a gunshot head-wound in TCM03 is a way of coping with this vulnerability. Laughing at death is a way of proving you're above it. Not caring about things is always easier.

But a good horror film, like any worthwhile movie, has to connect us to the world (if not to ourselves) to have significant value. The other route is to tune out--to fetishize cruelty. The popularity of the first few episodes on a season of American Idol work this way. Contestants make fools of themselves publically and the shallow viewer finds self-worth in their humiliation. It's that simple. Jackass defenders frequently bring up that the stars are willingly hurting only themselves. This is true. But the audience's relation to that show is no different than if they were hurting others. Pleasure is derived from seeing people on the screen in pain. It's sadistic either way.

My favourite defense of movies in The New Sadism (favourite, as in the stupidest) is common among IMDb message board users. "If you don't like it, don't watch it."

Great. And if I don't like that there's a war in Iraq, the solution is that I don't watch the news.

Another common response on The New Sadism's behalf is that society has always objected to horror movies, and this is no different.

This is compelling, but not really true.

Controversy, and in some cases outrage, has accompanied horror movies before. The difference is that the ones these proponents are talking about never had much popular cultural impact. Maybe that shouldn't make a difference, but it does.

1972's The Last House on the Left and its more exploitative 1977 retread I Spit on Your Grave played in drive-ins and seedy urban areas. They were niche films. Their appeal is precisely that they weren't in synch with the standards of dominant culture. They were a reaction to it. That's why those movies were important. They didn't fit the sanctioned template. They felt defiant, and that made them political.

Sure, there's a satiric element to Hostel. It's a cheeky/gruesome take on American perception of foreign cultures. But Hostel's popularity amongst the under 35 demographic means that it is part of dominant American culture. It no longer has a defiant value. Saw II counters what Dawn of the Dead and The Last House on the Left meant by pitching its extreme nature as something institutional and corrupt. That shit is so basic to me. The desire to see unorthodox cult movies infiltrate the ultramainstream is just insane.

The New Sadism isn't necessarily a curse. Though perhaps the most brutal entry in the subgenre, I thought Alexander Aja's remake of The Hills Have Eyes was terrific. It was imagined in vivid visual terms, its violence was never pacifying, and it had moral and social context. Aja really knows what he's doing, and that's a crucial difference. Those who doubt he's the most talented new horror director need to look at this thing again.

Otherwise, hey, Hostel Part II opens tomorrow.

I've said all this as somebody who cares about the horror genre enough to believe it's worth more. When you're yelling "Awesome!" at a guy cutting off his own foot in Saw, what exactly are you rebelling against?


alex said...

Good post Mark. I think it's also worth analyzing the idea that whereas a lot of the appeal of "Last House on the Left" comes from Craven making exploitation cinema with a complex moral center, 'Hostel' and 'Saw' don't really aspire to anything beyond creating a vacant moral context for their portrayals of sadism.

Mark Palermo said...

Good point. Last House has an interest in sociology and ethics that a lot of this new breed only pretend to have. I don't think it's the easiest movie to defend, but Craven was a humanities prof before he was a filmmaker, and it shows.

Saw somewhat tries to present the character of Jigsaw as a figure of morality, which says enough right there.

Boost Ventilator said...

You should listen to the interview with horror film director Trent L. Strauss (You're Soaking in Her and Art School Arsonist) talking about his latest release The Toolbelt Killer on WFMU's The Best Show. I have the mp3 if you are interesed.

Mark Palermo said...

I looked up Mr. Strauss. Wow. He seems very into self-promotion, but I can't say it's not intriguing. It's weird that he's had a near death experience, stranded multiple days during an Everest expedition, yet revels in material like this. I find personalities like that sort of fascinating.

Joefilmfan said...

Torture porn is inevitably going to wear it's welcome out in the marketplace. There's only so much women are going to take before they step their foot down on their Travis Bickel boyfriends. No more Saw IV on Friday night.

Becauase I Said So 2, or no sex.

Boost Ventilator said...


riley said...

just in time for summer parties (or summer death scenes) great instructions for making a realistically fatal blood-spewing geyser from a swiffer wet jet.

and no porn or dog meat anywhere in sight (oops, you're still NC-17).

Hey, wasn't there some dog meat in your first big picture? and the wheel goes round...

riley said...

almost forgot the link to the afore mentioned bloody funny madness!

Mark said...

Sir - did you see Hostel: Part II yet? I wish you would, if you haven't.

I Know What You Did Last Summer was based on a 1980s sub-trash basically unknown teen horror novel which I am pretty sure nobody in the entire world has actually ever read. This could account for the film's issues.