Friday, May 14, 2010

Step Into My Parlor

Readers of this blog know that I have nothing against violence in films. Some of the best films ever made wallow in gore and subject matter that take us far beyond our comfort levels. The finale of Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver is incredibly impactful and unnerving 35 years after its release, and during a recent viewing I was surprised at how graphic and inappropriate the interaction between Robert de Niro and Jodie Foster's 12-year-old prostitute seems now. But that's all in context with the story of a young cab driver so revolted by the filth and immorality of 70s-era New York that he launches a one-man assault to clean it up, managing to save a pre-teen runaway who's become its most iconic victim.

That's why I'm so amazed by the current trend of torture porn perpetuated by franchises like Saw and Hostel. There's a difference between whacking a zombie in the head with a shovel and slowly eviscerating a young woman bound to a chair, or chaining a man in a basement and giving him a choice between death and sawing off his own leg. What does it say about a culture that lends its enthusiastic support to a trend that celebrates the depraved dismemberment and murder of youth and beauty? 

I first saw John Carpenter's Halloween in a London theatre in 1979 and was thrilled by the sudden, sweeping way death was dispensed to its teenaged victims. Of course back then there was still a morality equation in play; the popular kids having sex in their parents' bedrooms were the first to be impaled on the wall by a very large cleaver that seemed to emerge out of nowhere. But there wasn't this degenerate slathering over the act, this masturbatory Peeping Tom excitement celebrating the suffering and horror, no pitiful pleading to prolong the act. Just bam! and on to the next gory death. More recent film series, such as the Final Destination movies, let you savor the chain of events that lead to each character's demise -- the trail of leaking gasoline that will result in the inevitable explosion, the faulty window frame that will decapitate the unsuspecting victim going about his business -- but didn't draw out the pain and realization of what was happening. And ultimately the good girl, the Jamie Lee Curtis character who hadn't been doing a hoochie dance in her mother's bra and panties, found her inner courage and dispatched the boogie man. At least until the next sequel.

I'd even put films like Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in this same league. It's not the story of Christ's redemption that is the focus of that film but how he's made to settle his debt to humanity, and each lash of the whip or thrust of the lance is played out with an old-school Catholic frenzy.

My theory to explain the popularity of this trend is that we live in what we perceive to be a serial killer world. Children can't play alone in their own yards, or walk to school as we did. Girls disappear from coffee shop parking lots and are discovered weeks later in swamps; children are seen on video surveillance footage skipping along a street one minute and are found packed in someone's discarded luggage the next. The shift in perspective went from one end of the spectrum to the other in a new sort of empowerment dynamic. We're no longer meant to identify with the victim, we're meant to identify with the killer. By putting ourselves in the killer's position, we bestow ourselves with the killer's power. But let's ask ourselves: is that power of any value to us? 

Valuable films with R-rated content are still being made, like the incredible District 9, where monstrous amounts of gore and inhumanity are showcased, but those movies also house lessons about cultural perspective and our general humanity. But the tide has yet to turn. I'm constantly hearing about upcoming productions where the gross-out level and the inflicted torture and mutilation are being ramped up, like the abhorrent, soon-to-be-released Human Centipede film, which involves three individuals surgically sewn together, mouth to rear, for the further amusement of audiences and one extremely mad scientist. Perhaps the trend has run out of energy and has gone as far as it can, and Centipede will put a lid on the whole movement.

Commentators have wondered how sex and violence might influence viewers since the days of the Nickelodeon. That was when Indians were still falling off of horses and damsels were still being tied to railroad tracks. Now that we're capturing students and lopping off their unanesthetized body parts, I can only wonder to what degree we're truly desensitizing young audiences to mayhem and unrepentant violence, and how that reaction will next manifest itself.


  1. Take a look around your local Blockbuster video (before they go belly-up) and you'll see that the retail giant that once kept their consumer's eyes shielded from anything rated NC-17 now stocks their shelves with endless underground horror titles -- complete with cover art that terrifies my young daughter. Apparently, when times are tough, violence sells.

  2. Interesting. Blockbuster was a client of mine just four years ago (and they were circling the drain even then), and they actually removed adult content from the films they stocked. We used to joke that it was a great place to go if you wanted a couple of dusty VHS copies of "Caddyshack."