“There are many good new scary movies, but few great ones,” wrote critic Jason Zinoman in 2011, and it’s hard to argue with him. Horror might be the most viscerally exciting genre in all of cinema, yet not many horror movies of the past few years have taken the same grip that The Exorcist, Halloween, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre did in the 1970s. Part of that is because of a dispiriting trend of cookie-cutter remakes (Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw 3-D), but even the original horror movies of the past several years seem hesitant to truly unnerve people.
Writing for Slate in a series titled “How to Fix the Horror Film”, Zinoman wrote that horror films should “stop trying to be so damn respectable.” Zinoman, whose excellent book Shock Value traces how horror films of the 1960s and 1970s “went for the throat and then worked their way down”, argues that horror needs to push boundaries in order to be effective. And indeed, one horror subgenre in the 2000s, extreme horror, pushed the boundaries of what viewers could take, rattling and unsettling them like few films of their time.
So why have these films been reviled and given the loaded pejorative “torture porn”? The phrase was coined by David Edelstein in reference to Hostel and other violent films with emphasis on pain and suffering. Edelstein spoke of how well-crafted some of these films were in his essay “Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn”, but he also wrote of why he didn’t know why he was being asked to feel this pain, saying, “I’m baffled by how far this new stuff goes—and why America seems so nuts these days about torture.”
Edelstein’s revulsion is at least thoughtful, but the phrase “torture porn” has since become a catch-all putdown. It’s glib, reductive, and unreflective to broadly dismiss all of these films as worthless without taking into account what the film in question uses violence for, and why. It ultimately doesn’t mean much more than “violent movies that I don’t like”. Yet that phrase has tainted a whole wave of horror films from 2000-onwards, grouping them together regardless of their level of craftsmanship. It’s time to throw out that label in favor of “extreme horror”, and to reconsider one of the more striking movements in modern horror.
What is extreme horror?
First, it’s important to note which films fall under the “extreme horror” umbrella. The most famous films of the movement are the Saw and Hostel films, but the movement also includes the likes of The Devil’s Rejects, Wolf Creek, Captivity, The Human Centipede, and A Serbian Film, as well as the (mostly lousy) remakes of The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The movement began in the late-90s and early-2000s before slowing down at the end of the decade.
Not all of these films are defensible: Saw really doesn’t have much more on its mind than increasingly elaborate Rube Goldberg dismemberments. The Human Centipede is all about its shocking concept, nothing more. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes combine the alleged sadism of the extreme horror genre with the unsavory, leery sexual politics of the slasher film. And A Serbian Film buries any allegory in its attempt to shock the viewer at all costs, eventually playing like a film version of “The Aristocrats.” But the better films of the movement follow in the tradition of George Romero, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven, reflecting the tenor of the times better than almost any other genre films.
2005: An extreme horror odyssey
Take 2005’s Hostel, for example. The film, about a trio of backpackers in Eastern Europe who are kidnapped and tortured by rich, paying customers, is certainly a difficult film to sit through. In a sense, however, it’s the perfect horror film for the post-9/11 era. It’s a period where Americans feel less safe abroad than ever, and the film’s use of torture could be seen as a reflection of the Abu Ghraib scandal. Director Eli Roth plays with audience expectations- the Americans on screen are boorish, arrogant, and nasty, but when there at the mercy of their tormentors, they’re sympathetic. We’re constantly being asked what we expect to see, and whether we want to see it.
There’s also a streak of pitch-black satire of capitalism in Roth’s bag of tricks, both in the first film and in its underrated sequel. The latter is particularly remarkable, as it looks behind the scenes of the torturers’ business, giving a firsthand look at how bodies are casually bought and sold by men looking for the ultimate thrill. The film even plays with the questionable sexual politics of the horror genre, as Roger Bart’s character, a timid milquetoast forced to come along by his alpha-male friend, turns out have the same streak of latent misogyny that lies within the hearts of some horror films (see: most of the slasher films that followed the infinitely-superior Halloween). His gruesome comeuppance, then, is one of the few genuinely fun bits of violence in the film.
Rob Zombie’s excellent The Devil’s Rejects takes the post-9/11 feeling further to what’s still one of the most potent allegories for the War on Terror. Zombie follows the Firefly clan, a Manson Family-like group as they murder their way across the country. They are cruel, and merciless, and it’s easy to root on William Forsythe’s lawman as he chases after them (doubly so because his brother is one of their victims). But as Forsythe catches up with them, he becomes less human, more monstrous, until his methods of torture make him look more and more like the monsters he’s hunting. Zombie’s film is steeped in the language of 70s horror (Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in particular), and while he certainly takes the brutality further than some past filmmakers were willing to, it’s only because he’s reflecting a period that’s even more fraught with terror and moral murk.
The same year The Devil’s Rejects and Hostel premiered, Australian director Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek further tested critics and audiences’ tolerance for extreme horror. The film, about a demented Outback dweller who prays on three tourists, was met with scathing reviews (including a zero-star review from Roger Ebert, who had defended The Devil’s Rejects), but it’s more than just an onslaught of torture and violence. In fact, there’s no violence in the film’s first half at all.
Instead, McLean plays things quietly, building an expressive sense of foreboding and doom with his evocative pictures of the Australian skies, seas, and deserts. It suggests an existential dread in the style of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. And while the film does go grindhouse in the second half, not all of the violence is actually shown (though what is on-screen is pretty gruesome). Ebert referred to the film as a “geek show”, but it’s less about gross effects and more about a grim, hopeless tone, one about a horrifying force of nature to be reckoned with. Instead of a celebration of violence, it’s one that forces the audience to consider its brutal effect. Perhaps that’s why the film received an “F” from the CinemaScore audience poll—it wasn’t the gleeful exercise in torture people expected.
Miike: The godfather of extreme horror
Asian extreme horror has found wider acceptance, with Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook’s operatically violent Oldboy becoming one of the most respected horror films of the 2000s. No one in Asia has gone further with extreme horror than Takashi Miike, whose supremely disturbing Audition might be the crowning achievement of the movement. The film takes its time, beginning as a relatively calm drama about a man searching for a new wife, desiring the most virginal, pure woman he can find. He finds her, but in the film’s second half, his sexism is punished, his expectations subverted as he finds that his new bride is a psychopath, one whose use of acupuncture needles goes further than most doctors would probably recommend.
It’s telling that many of the extreme horror directors (Roth in particular) have cited Miike as an influence. Both Hostel and Wolf Creek start slow, introducing us to not-entirely sympathetic protagonists, and then question what we want to see, whose side we’re on. Michael Haneke might have intended his brilliant Funny Games movies as a critique on an audience’s desire for mayhem, but in truth, many of the violent films released between his films (1997 for the original, 2007 for the remake) follow in his footsteps, Miike in particular.
Miike went further with Ichi the Killer, a film that pushes violence to the point of disgusting, then comically absurd, gruesomeness. One scene shows a man punch his way through a man’s extra-wide mouth (which is slit in a way similar to that of Heath Ledger’s Joker), only to find his fist stuck in the man’s teeth. It’s gross, to be sure, but it’s also darkly funny. Ichi the Killer takes the early 21st century’s obsession with bodies and violence and asks how much we can take before the violence goes from horrific to hilarious (if still horrific). It’s the ultimate parody of the genre.
Still, even Miike might have to bow down before Pascal Laugier, a member of the New French Extremity movement (which also includes the pregnant-woman-in-peril film Inside and Gaspar Noë’s stomach-churning masterwork Irreversible). Laugier’s 2008 film Martyrs might be the end-point for the genre. The film follows Lucie and Anna, two childhood friends dealing with the former’s horrible past. Lucie was abducted as a child, and she believes she’s found the family responsible. But she’s severely disturbed, and Anna isn’t quite sure she’s found the right people.
That’s the set-up for the first half: Lucie’s revenge, and Anna’s reluctant help (and attempt to save one family member). It’s intense stuff, but it can’t compare to the second half, in which one of the characters is subjected to the worst torture imaginable. This section breaks down our defenses systematically, using repetition to show just how hopeless the situation is. The film has certain racial concerns about what bourgeois France has done to minorities (the actresses are of Chinese and Moroccan ancestry, respectively) but more to the point, it becomes reflexive and autocritical of the extreme horror genre. The film asks what kind of pain a person can take, what that suffering means, and whether there’s something transcendent to be found in it. The answers are questionable, possibly even dubious, but it stands as proof that extreme horror isn’t half as artless or thoughtless as many might accuse it of being.
A history of violence—and short memories
It’s common for certain critics to heap praise upon recent horror films that avoid the blood and gore of these films. In a review for Paranormal Activity, Lou Lumenick of the New York Post wrote that “Less is usually more when it comes to horror movies,” while the usually-astute Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune wrote of this year’s The Conjuring that “When a really good new horror film comes out—one that’s more about creative intelligence than executing the next grisly kill shot—it’s something of a miracle in this eviscerating post-‘Saw’ era.”
These critics are short on hindsight, or else willing to ignore the mistakes of critics of past eras in regards to horror. The now-revered films of Terence Fisher (Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein) were poisonously received by critics who found its Grand Guignol violence excessive. Or take George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which Janet Maslin famously walked of, ignoring its biting (ha) satire of consumerism. Maslin also wrote a review for Dario Argento’s famously lurid film Suspiria that argued the film was memorable in spite of the carnage, not because of it. Never mind the artful, vivid fashion Hammer Productions, Romero, and Argento (among others) used violence on film. It was just too much to stomach.
Critics and horror fans have since rescued these films, but many of the same people seem less interested in their modern equivalents. It’s part of a tendency of punishing filmmakers for handling violence well, for shaking up the audience the way they should. Indeed, many critics praise The Conjuring’s director, James Wan, for graduating from the grue of his early films (Saw, Dead Silence) to the more “atmospheric” horror of Insidious and The Conjuring. It’s as if to suggest that true horror, the kind that sticks around for ages, uses gore sparingly, or else dispenses with it entirely.
The discouraging trend
Quite frankly, the issue with Saw was less that it was violent and more that it was incompetent. There’s far too much (nonsensical) backstory, and the violence is unpleasant—and not frightening—because Wan has nothing on his mind other than shocks. Those flaws have passed on to The Conjuring and the Insidious films, minus the gore. They still retain the sense of structural incompetence, but in place of violence, they throw in shock-cuts that range from baldly derivative (often recreating scares directly from Poltergeist or The Changeling) to simply “boo!”
It’s part of a trend that British critic and horror aficionado Mark Kermode has called “Cattle Prod Cinema”, which thinks shocking someone or making banging sounds on a piano is the same thing as scaring someone. The Paranormal Activity films fall in the same wheelhouse. What’s most disappointing about these films finding wider acclaim than the extreme horror films is that they don’t have anything to say about where the genre is today.
Rather, they play to old tropes, often badly. Even Paranormal Activity doesn’t use its found-footage gimmick as a way to comment on modern technology- it’s just a new coat of paint on a broken-down car. It’s not that these films can’t work without violence. It’s that they’re too afraid to do anything new with the old tricks. They want so badly to appeal to a wide audience that they’re afraid to genuinely upset anyone, which is part of the appeal of horror.
Perhaps one might still find these films distasteful, but shouldn’t horror be somewhat distasteful in the first place? It’s a genre that’s meant to shake the viewer to the very core, to provide the ultimate catharsis. Gore can be pushed to questionable degrees, but to dismiss all extreme violence as a crutch rather than a tool is to not think critically or consider a film’s ambitions. There’s a true sense of suspense and dread in these films that runs deeper than what more “respectable” horror films have. Like Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Night of the Living Dead before them, the call our sense of safety into question. What could be scarier than that?