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Last month we were discussing what I consider a disturbing and unwelcome trend in Horror, the so-called "Torture Porn." I come late to the discussion; many of the latest studio film offerings seem to be shying away from the bloodbaths usually associated with this subgenre; however, it still appears alive and well in the independent cinema of direct to DVD and cable television releases (probably because the costs are so unprohibitive.)
I don't think I need to defend my stance; I did so last month. How anyone can claim enjoyment from watching the debasement of fellow human beings (and typically female human beings) is beyond me, and recalls the bread and circuses of Ancient Rome. (And spare me the apologia that these are films of suspense and cat-and-mouse confrontation between victim and persecutor. No, they're not. WAIT UNTIL DARK was. So was THE COLLECTOR. And WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? And several others that don't come to mind immediately. In none of these was the emphasis entirely on the acts themselves, and the characters were three-dimensional instead of pieces of anonymous meat to be diced and abused.
And while we're on the subject, spare me the defense that "not all victims are women; some are men!" True. In HOSTEL it was a group of young men on the receiving end of the blades; however, in HOSTEL II we were right back to the young ladies, as we were in WOLF CREEK, MOTHER'S DAY, and too many others to mention.)
I don't consider these Horror in any sense of the term; years ago, they would probably be labeled "Suspense" films. They contain no supernatural elements so common to Horror; even allowing for movies such as PSYCHO and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE , the actual horror factor is nil. Horror relies on shock and a careful buildup to create genuine fear and suspense; these movies are all visceral punch, one right after the other, like the sex acts in a typical porn release. (Hence the subgenre's label.) And while I would argue that these films were birthed in the slasher films of the 1980s, those films didn't dwell on the individual acts of killing; there was the sudden violence, the splatter of gore, and then we were on to the next scene, unlike the intricate examinations we see today.
Drew Daywalt, an extraordinary filmmaker of Horror shorts (and a soon to be released full length effort that I'm looking forward to - learn more about his work on his website, which you can access from my LINKS Page) offers a thoughtful hypothesis: he believes that Torture Porn has been around long before film, and can be traced back to the works of Edgar Allen Poe, in particular "The Pit And The Pendulum," and to the Grand Guingol Theater of France. I can see his point, and the Grand Guingol certainly produced shocking, horrific effects with little plot or character development. But it was not considered the be-all and end-all of Horror; indeed , it was looked upon as much of a subgenre as Torture Porn today.
And although I concede Mr. Daywalt's argument about Poe, I don't necessarily agree with him. Poe worked with his own sense of morality, and the victims were often guilty of crimes deserving retribution ala EC Comics (in such tales as "Hop-Frog") or he used the torture to delve into the mind of the victim, chronicling his desperation and ingenuity in attempting to overcome his fate (as in "Pit"). Never was the physical act emphasized to any large degree; it was the psychology that fascinated Poe.
Many defenders of Torture Porn argue that the films do the same thing; the torture is used to examine the psyche of the victims, and their attempts to escape their fates. But perhaps the biggest difference between Mr. Poe's work and the movies today is the difference between the printed page and the silver screen.
I'm one with Harlan Ellison, who received criticism for his stance in the 1980s against slasher movies from one fan, who noted that many of Mr. Ellison's stories contained scenes of extreme violence themselves; he pointed out the moment in "The Prowler In The City On The Edge Of The World", when “He found a woman bathing, and tied her up with strips of her own garments, and cut off her legs at the knees and left her still sitting up in the crimson swirling bath, screaming as she bled away her life. The legs he took with him.” Mr. Ellison responded, quite correctly in my estimation, that “…there is a vast qualitative difference between the printed word and the visual presentation four times life-size of graphic violence.”
Yes, there are exceptions to every rule; there are films of extreme violence that are thoughtfully mounted and executed (no pun intended here either), and despicable books and short stories that are nothing more than a list of atrocities. But I think I've made my point. Much of this new "horror" seems involved in simply exploring pain, humiliation, and mayhem for the sole purpose of exploiting blood-soaked special effects and nihilism. There is no respectable place for graphic forms of torture in the Dark Fantastic. Correct?
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Let me propose a film subject to you:
A political revolutionary, leading a small band of like-minded individuals and his popularity growing, runs afoul of the local establishment. Fearing his growing influence, the town leaders decide to appeal to the larger government at large, a state-run dictatorship that has occupied them for several years. They imprison the leader, and subject him to a series of tortures to break his spirit and dissuade his followers. We actually see the flesh stripped from his back during an agonizing beating, and the prison yard fills with his blood. Finally, whipping the crowds into a frenzy, the state calls for his execution, tortured to death in front of the population. He has metal spikes driven into both wrists, his body hung in an excruciating position until its own weight suffocates him. All the while he is laughed at and derided by the occupying army, finally dying after hours of torment and humiliation.
Who'd pay to see something so horrifying?
Well, more than a few, actually. Of course I'm describing THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, one of the most financially successful independent films ever produced. (Remember when there were whispers about Mel Gibson's folly? Financing a biblical film from his own pocket? Completely subtitled? It would be a huge failure said the naysayers, who were remarkably quiet when it broke box-office records...)
Now, I didn't care for Mr. Gibson's film; I thought the ideas presented had been expressed better in other films. Still, I recognize its artistic merit; it is extremely well-made. But what so surprised me was that no one who saw the film seemed offended by the violence, graphic as it certainly was. There were moments in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST that were easily as brutal as anything seen in SAW or HOSTEL; yet moviegoers who wouldn't be caught dead (pardon the unintentional pun) at a Horror movie saw nothing wrong with the scourging and crucifixion scenes. Indeed, many commented on how "powerful" and "spiritually harrowing" they were. Obviously, in this instance, the torture was part of the larger emotional impact, and they saw past the violence they might have condemned in another film.
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In the classic novel “1984,” George Orwell's hero Winston Smith fights against the oppressive society that controls all thought and existence. He falls in love (which is forbidden) and becomes a secret revolutionary. He is betrayed and tortured by O'Brien, an member of the state who attempts to break Smith physically and psychologically. The last several chapters of the novel detail his torture and eventual submission.
Although it isn't by any means graphic, certainly not in the way the way of current cinema or splatterpunk literature, the novel packs an enormous emotional wallop because of the slow, methodical way Winston Smith is turned from a defiant if reluctant hero into a cringing, battered and thoroughly brainwashed cog in the society of Big Brother. We've come to identify with if not admire Smith, and his reconditioning is a heartbreaking reminder that there is no heroism in pain and degradation; anyone can break at any time, in any manner, not matter how strong their resolve. (Rod Serling dealt with a similar theme with his powerful drama THE RACK, concerning North Korean prisoners of war.)
My human companion Bob recalls the impact “1984” made on him:
"The two books that broke my innocence when I was growing up were '1984' and 'The Return Of The King', the last of the 'Lord Of The Rings' trilogy. Both spoke truths I hadn't considered before, and they were stunning. When Frodo has his finger bitten off by Golem, and is crippled the rest of his life, I realized to my shock that not every loss in battle leads to a clean, quick death, like in the movies. Sometimes heroes were literally scarred by their experiences, maimed to return from war missing arms, legs, eyes, and other body parts. I knew this intellectually, but to have it happen to a character I'd grown to know and love was absolutely unnerving.
In the same way '1984' changed my views of heroism under fire. In all the war movies the hero who is captured and tortured remains calm and stoic in the face of pain, never breaking and giving only his name, rank and serial number. In '1984' not only does Smith break, but in that harrowing final moment in Room 101, when he has a cage filled with rats attached to his face, and he is given the choice: he can accept the punishment himself, or he can be freed and have the woman he loves take his place instead...when Smith screams, "Take her! Take her!” the bottom literally dropped out of my world. Not only was he not stoic in the face of pain, but in an utterly craven act betrayed the woman he loved to save himself. And I realized that, movies aside, this was how torture worked in reality. There was no sense of the heroic, only the panicked urge to save yourself at the cost of anything else.
When Smith broke, that was truly eye-opening..."
Another companion remembers a different moment from "1984" : when Smith, broken and bloodied, stands before a mirror and is told that he is not even a man anymore; that they are going to stop the torture, but not because of anything he did. He didn't hold anything back from them; there was simply nothing more to learn from him, and they were stopping because they'd used him up. And O'Brien reaches into Smith's broken mouth and finds one remaining tooth there, and deliberately pulls it out. That is truly the stuff of nightmares.
I don't think anyone comes away from that unmoved, unlike the Technicolor carnage in many books and films, and I would defend those scenes in "1984" in any conservative court of Art in the land.
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Obviously in these instances, Torture is Art, presented for artistic reasons for artistic effect. They have been written or filmed with taste and care, with their own sense of morality, and just as I'd hesitate to embrace all scenes of torture as Art, neither can all scenes be tarred with the same brush of exploitation as the long graphic rape sequence in I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and the sexual depravity of A SERBIAN FILM.
Or can they? Both films listed above have their defenders; there are those who argue that I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE is a powerful feminist indictment of the stereotypical male view of female sexuality carried to its most brutal and logical extreme. Others will note that A SERBIAN FILM is a parable for the horrors that country underwent during its period of civil war, and is an unblinking look at man's continued inhumanity towards man. They argue that both movies work in the same sense of counterpoint morality, showing compassion and love through the lens of pain and suffering.
I don't agree, and I have my reasons, but they have their reasons as well. Who's right? Or is there any completely "right" or "wrong" in this argument? There's the rub...
I would want to try and find a definition we can all agree on, that satisfies all requirements for Art with a capital "A". Of course there will be exceptions, but once we've established some rules, then we can consider the slippery slope of works that seem to dance up to the line of unacceptable without quite crossing it, or that march over the line fearlessly, with full knowledge that they are doing so. (And some of these efforts do indeed reward the reader and viewer by forcing them to consider their own reactions to the work, and stand as disturbing examples of High Art.)
Let's try and see if we can agree on some points...
I'd argue that for Torture to be Art there has to be an honest sense of being able to step back from the acts in question and assuredly map out exactly what the artist is trying to achieve. In other words, the writer or filmmaker cannot simply move forward and create on pure instinct; he has to have a firm subtext and final argument he is trying to make, separate from the work itself. He has to have a unerring sense of where the morality of the act lies, even if he is presenting it in opposite terms for effect, and he has to know exactly where the line is that he is crossing, even if he shades it for the audience. (Or, if he doesn't know exactly where the line is, he has to have a definite opinion on where it should be before he walks blindly across it.)
Let's look at a fairly common torture device in these movies (and books as well): sexual degradation.
(And again, I ask any young readers who may have wandered this far to please leave and rejoin me in December; what follows is strictly for adult consideration.)
Let's take two examples and see if we can codify our definition; let's use the aforementioned I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and another film, BLUE VELVET, both of which have a central moment that examines the act of rape as both violence and eroticism. (And before anyone objects, I'll state quite plainly that actual rape is not in the least erotic; however, the fantasy of the act, not the brutal reality of the crime, has served as a basis for many works; I point to Anne Rice's "Beauty" trilogy as an example.)
In BLUE VELVET, we're introduced to a young man named Jeffrey, who stumbles upon a mystery when he revisits his home town: a severed ear is found in the woods. Jeffrey becomes obsessed with finding out who the ear belongs to and solving the mystery behind it. His investigation leads him to a lonely, mysterious woman named Dorothy, a local torch singer. Entering her house while she's out, Jeffrey begins to search it, when Dorothy suddenly comes home. Jeffrey hides in Dorothy's bedroom closet and watches as she slowly begins to undress.
When Jeffrey makes a sound, Dorothy grabs a knife and opens the closet door. She forces Jeffrey out and demands to know why he's there. As Jeffrey tries to answer, Dorothy suddenly orders him to undress. Shocked but wary of the large knife she's carrying, Jeffrey complies, standing naked before Dorothy. Do you like hiding in closets and watching women undress? Does it excite you? demands Dorothy. Did you like watching me undress? Jeffrey is stunned and stammers an answer, and Dorothy, still holding the knife on him, begins to kiss him more and more passionately. He takes Jeffrey to bed and continues kissing and touching him, still holding the knife.
Suddenly there's another knock at the door. Dorothy pushes Jeffrey into the closet and warns him to remain silent. The villain of the movie, Frank Booth (brilliantly and terrifyingly portrayed by Dennis Hopper) enters. He knows Dorothy, and from their conversation, it appears as if he has a relationship with her. They talk and Frank, a man with a very short fuse, begins to bully Dorothy. He demands she undress, and when she hesitates, he strikes her. Jeffrey watches it all, becomes more and more agitated, but remains silent. Frank continues to strike Dorothy, then tears her clothes off and forces himself on her, raping her violently. When he is finished, he leaves her lying on the floor and walks out. Jeffrey tries to help her, but she lies there in a stupor, both suffering from the pain and seeming somehow in ecstasy at the abuse. And the scene fades...
My description can't come close to the emotional power of that scene, and it confirmed my opinion that David Lynch, previously of ERASERHEAD, THE ELEPHANT MAN and DUNE was a major talent and artist. When I first saw BLUE VELVET I don't think I breathed during that entire sequence (which I seem to do a lot with Mr. Lynch's work). I was astonished at how assured it was, and the slow, deliberate drawing of the line between sexual violence and sexual fantasy, and how seamlessly one bleeds into the other. By the time Frank Booth is committing his foul act, we know without a doubt that we are far over the boundary - but at what point did we begin to cross it? When Frank struck Dorothy? When Dorothy began kissing Jeffrey while threatening with her knife? When Dorothy ordered Jeffrey to undress? Or perhaps, we think, we crossed the line the minute Jeffrey entered Dorothy's home uninvited...
Mr. Lynch was commenting on not only violence, sadomasochism, perversity, eroticism and voyeurism, but he knew exactly what he was trying to say about them, and the fact that this scene outraged and startled so many is a testament to his skill. I think he wanted to start people arguing, and in no uncertain terms he succeeded. We also learn a great deal about the three main characters through this remarkable scene; Jeffrey is basically a good person, but he is fascinated and drawn to the darkness, sexual and otherwise, like so many others. Dorothy is a damaged person, hurting terribly inside and with a low sense of self that invites others to use her as they will. And Frank? Frank is simply evil; raw, uncompromising, a hair-trigger whose occasional tenderness masks a sadist lurking, waiting to spring forth with psychotic rage.
Now...what of the central rape scene in I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE? For those who have not seen the movie (and you're missing nothing, in my opinion), a young woman rents an isolated cabin by the lake. She draws the attentions of some local thugs who frequent a nearby gas station. As they watch her shop in town and sunbathe on her front lawn, their contempt and hunger grow, and one day when she is out boating they crowd her craft with their own boat and hijack it, forcing it towards shore, and once there they begin abusing her.
The next 20-25 minutes consist of nothing more than a series of graphic assaults on the young woman by each of the four men. After the first assault she reacts with anger, but more annoyance then genuine fear, almost as if understanding that 'boys will be boys.' The men have now stripped her and taken her clothing, and she begins to walk naked back to her cabin. Cornering her in the woods, she is beaten and raped again by the second man, and then left lying on the ground, bloodied. Slowly she makes her way back again to her cabin. When she reaches it the men are waiting. They beat her yet again and force her inside, and the third man attacks her (he's portrayed as a mental defective, which adds another distasteful layer to the proceedings.) Finding a draft of her new novel, they begin mocking it, and the forth man attacks her, the most brutal assault of all, leaving her lying battered and bloody on her cabin floor. The men depart, thinking her dead.
The rest of the movie consists of the young woman's recovery and revenge; she begins hunting the men, tracking them down and using her feminine charms and sexuality to get close to them, seductively working her way into their homes so that they drop their guard, and then murdering them. It's this section that the apologists point to when defending the movie. See? they say. The movie's really about female empowerment! She gets back at all the men who have raped her, and she kills them all! In the end she's the winner!
It's true, the assaults are not photographed in a glamorous way; they are shown as brutal and unpleasant, but I'm not certain this is the result of the director's deliberate vision or simply the side-effect of the low-budget filmmaking process - stark, harsh lighting, poor sound quality, and a dumbly staring camera that holds on the scenes of cruelty for far too long.
It's the subtext that I find so disturbing. What is the filmmaker trying to say? That rape is bad? To quote my young friends, "Duh!" But in what way? The men are all presented as soulless, inhuman oafs. They have no redeeming qualities about them; the leader of the group is initially presented as a handsome, clean-cut, fairly sympathetic individual. The young lady seems attracted to him when she first arrives in town. Yet in a short time he's leading the attacks against her, becoming her first rapist.
What is the message? All men are evil? All revert to their base instincts at the slightest provocation? But there is no provocation; the young woman keeps to herself, and doesn't appear to lead them on in any seductive way (such as Jodie Foster first begins flirting with the men in the bar around her in THE ACCUSED). Is the filmmaker saying that all men will attack a woman simply because she's available? Does that make any sense? The woman is very good looking, but she's not a ravishing beauty. If she were less attractive; say a bit overweight, would their ardor cool? Would the movie have ceased to exist?
What I found astonishing was the young woman's reaction to the first assault. She yelled at the men and struck them, but not in a fearful way; rather, she simply seemed annoyed, as though someone had tried to kiss her when she didn't want to be kissed, or pinched her behind when they were walking by. She didn't react at all like someone who'd been sexually violated! It wasn't until they began stalking her in the woods that she grew afraid. Is the filmmaker saying that all women should expect an assault and just deal with it as an annoyance? And would the woman, particularly after the second assault, really continue to walk home stark naked for the leering camera? Wouldn't she attempt to find something to cover herself, even if it was only some leaves on loose branches?
What do we learn about the characters from this prolonged scene? That women are victims? That men are predators? Or that sex is the great unequalizer, making men monsters and women toys for their amusement? I put forth my final argument: the movie is sold as an exploitation movie that promises some backwoods sexuality; the poster shows a woman in a very high cut pair of shorts and torn shirt, obviously (in my mind) playing on the physical charms of the actress and enticing moviegoers in with the promise of seeing her in various states of undress. (The remake plays on this even more so, and I find it despicable.) But as anyone will tell you, rapists don't choose their victims by how beautiful they look or if their clothes are sliding off them. Any woman can be a victim, that is the frightening statistic, and while the movie doesn't exactly suggest that the young woman had this coming to her, the advertising certain whispers it. And that is false, and cheap, and sensationalistic, and simply wrong.
If the filmmakers wanted to make a serious movie about how a young beautiful woman can fall victim to an ugly crime (as the aforementioned THE ACCUSED did exceptionally), then they failed. And if they are using that line simply to avoid being called on the shoddy, exploitative movie they did make, then their pleas of innocence fall on deaf ears.
By the definition listed above, I think the Torture in BLUE VELVET certainly falls into the realm of Art; I think I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE should be placed on a shelf somewhere and allowed to grow dusty. David Lynch knew exactly what he wanted to say on an intellectual and emotional level, he knew exactly where the line was that he planned to cross, and he was well aware of the morality behind every moment, even if he didn't comment on it explicitly.
And this is where I'd like to leave us, for now. I want to conclude this discussion next month by examining other specific works; the novels of Jack Ketchum, "Lord Of The Flies," SE7EN, MARK OF THE DEVIL, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, THE DEVIL'S REJECTS and others, and hopefully wrap things up with some concluding thoughts we can all agree on. Or not. Passionate argument is good for the lifeblood of any art. I hope the same sentiment holds true with ours.
I will see you then.
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As I promised last month, I'm back again with some final thoughts on the subgenre known as "Torture Porn," although, in truth, my heart really isn't in it. I don't know if I'm changing anyone's mind or simply listening to myself talk. Those who are enthusiastic of the subgenre will not be deterred by my warnings that repeat exposure to the violence lends a disconnect in the suffering of their fellow man. Likewise those who want nothing to do with it may not be persuaded that in some instances graphic violence can lend a power and subtext to a work of art.
And honestly, discussing works of cinema and literature (to use the terms loosely) that offer nothing more than a voyeuristic window for viewers to indulge their darker fantasies of human degradation and pain is an unseemly subject; you want to not only wash thoroughly but use excessive amounts of bleach as well when finished.
But there are a few points I do want to yet make, and examine in detail some works that I find symbolic of the careful tightrope between gratuitous sadism and emotional catharsis.
First, people have been complaining about the dark side of Horror for generations. Hitchcock's classic PSYCHO was considered exploitative and vulgar; THE EXORCIST was picketed by church groups and savaged by many authorities in the field (notably Jeff Rovin in his book “The Fabulous Fantasy Films”) and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD became infamous because of a Reader's Digest reprint of Roger Ebert's review, run as a denouncement of the graphic nature of the movie. Time has its way, and all three are rightly considered milestones; NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is now preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, so we can see clearly who had the last laugh.
There has always been a movement in Horror that packaged the movies as almost a dare to viewers: are you strong enough to sit through them? This probably reached its previous nadir in the 1960s and 70s with several low-budget exploitation films that promised violence and torture and graphic special effects; perhaps the most famous being MARK OF THE DEVIL, which handed out printed vomit bags to the audience in case anyone felt sick during the carnage. Around this time Herschell Gordon Lewis had also carved out his niche (no pun intended) with gorefests that were flooding the drive-ins. So the idea of a movie existing just for the sake of blood and mayhem is nothing new; it can even be traced back to the Grand Guignol Theater of Paris in 1897. The slasher films of the 1970s and 80s, with their cardboard characters and death-by-number plots, can also be seen as a forerunner.
Still, many writers and directors were able to create vivid and powerful works by stretching the formula and applying their own talents to what could easily be cliché. Mr. Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD was very violent, but the subtext of the movie hummed along swimmingly beneath the more exploitative elements, helped by superlative writing, directing and acting. Peter Jackson threw all caution to the wind with DEAD ALIVE and troweled on the gore so overwhelmingly that it became comic and strangely innocent fun. Michael Reeves drew a powerful performance from Vincent Price (one of his best) and shouldered the heavy-handed debauchery with WITCHFINDER GENERAL. Tobe Hooper exercised a suggestive form of restraint with his cataclysmic THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. In none of these is the degradation and submission of their victims the sole purpose for the movie (although WITCHFINDER GENERAL does come close; it's saved by Mr. Reeves' skill, but it's my least favorite of his films). The violence is integral instead of gratuitous, and the film retains the vision of the artists that knew exactly where the taboo line lay that they were crossing and knew exactly what they wanted to say in doing so.
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One of the most accomplished yet visceral films I've seen in recent years is James Van Beeber's THE MANSON FAMILY. (I prefer the original title CHARLIE'S FAMILY, which the distributors insisted be changed so people wouldn't mistake it for a coming-of-age movie. Who knows? They might be correct...) The movie tells the story behind the infamous Tate/LaBianca Murders committed by the cult lead by Charles Manson, and has achieved some infamy because concludes with a full, completely accurate recreation of the murders. It has divided critics and viewers alike, which any great work of Art should do.
When I first sat to watch the movie, I was not terribly enthusiastic about it. I was at a film festival, and wanted to be polite to Mr. Van Beeber. Still, as someone said to me after I described the film, "Why would anyone want to sit through a snuff film?", and that was my initial attitude as well. Two hours later, stunned, I knew I'd seen something extraordinary. (Actually, I knew that within the first ten minutes; as the movie unwound before me and the skill and command of the storytelling played out, I realized I wasn't moving from that seat until the last image!) Roger Ebert, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, said in his review, "We come to the question of a star rating. Convention requires me to assign stars to every film. Do I give THE MANSON FAMILY four stars because it does what it does so successfully and uncompromisingly, or do I give it zero stars, for the same reason? I will settle on three, because it is remarkable enough I do not want to dismiss it. That doesn't mean I think you should see it." Well, I think you should see it, but it definitely is not for everyone; I recommend it for adventurous viewers who want their senses stung and conventions shaken.
This movie seems to have everything in it that I would find abhorrent; an emphasis on violence, a recreation of a night of utter terror, misery and pain, and makeup effects that create the carnage as realistically as possible. What makes THE MANSON FAMILY different from HOSTEL or LIVE ANIMALS or THE BUTCHER or countless other Torture Porn efforts? The obvious answer is the talent of Mr. Van Beeber. He knows exactly what he's doing with THE MANSON FAMILY; what he wants to see, where he expects the film to go, where he intends to lead you, and what the movie is actually about. He knows when to skate up to the line of common decency, and when to stride across it in a full-tilt mambo. He's uses time and images as distance from the actual crime (and part of the film; as I stated earlier, it took him almost 15 years to complete the movie, and the way he uses the earlier footage with the latest is one of the most ingenious parts of the film). Mr. Van Beeber works with color, music, photographic effects, scratched film stock (created deliberately) in the same manner as Oliver Stone for NATURAL BORN KILLERS, and I think Mr. Van Bebber succeeds completely where Mr. Stone only comes close.
The story behind the making of the film is fascinating: Mr. Van Beeber started filming the movie in 1988; he ran out of money and spent the next fifteen years trying to find backing. When he finally found enough money to complete the movie, the cast had naturally aged. Mr. Van Beeber had the brilliant notion to use his earlier footage as flashback material, and restructured the film so that it was viewed as a moment in history by the participants and outside observers. This stepping back allows an introspection that gives the film its undercurrents. A local newsman is doing a retrospective on the Manson Murders, and declares, "I think the Manson Murders was the end of the hippie movement," a statement so basic and true that it resonates across the decades. And by contrasting the Manson Family with a group of contemporary teens gathered in a basement, Mr. Van Beeber demonstrates that today's youths are as alienated and depraved as any of the Manson followers. This is what gives the movie it gut-punch power, along with recreating the 1960s flawlessly, without the nostalgia of HAIR or FORREST GUMP.
I actually believe the murder scenes, as skillfully accomplished as they are, are the weakest part of the movie; here we venture into simple low-budget Horror territory, which is a bit of a come-down from the magnificent preamble. I would have preferred a little less detail, since the murders are so well-known (much the same as ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN ended long before Nixon's leaving office; the audience filled in the blanks themselves). But this is a minor carp, and I could very well be incorrect; Mr. Van Beeber believed it important to the integrity of the film and the memory of the victims to not shy away from the events in question, and I can't argue with that.
The most telling scene in the movie, in my mind, occurs just after the LaBianca murders. One of the cult women hadn't participated fully, and her compatriot advises her to stab the corpse of Rosemary LaBianca. Then they'll write "PIG" on the wall in her blood. As the woman begins to comply...the film fades over to the same woman, older, incarcerated, serving time for her participation in the murders. She beings to cry softly, and she says, "But I know ...Rosemary LaBianca was not a pig! I know this!" There, in that one moment, is the core of the humanity of the film, the moral center that is never far from Mr. Van Beeber's mind or purpose. The victims are not nameless, cardboard characters, and they're definitely not forgotten.
THE MANSON FAMILY could easily have been Torture Porn, but it is not. And the reason it is not is the clear vision and yes, morality of James Van Beeber. He has made the film with great skill, honor and very clean hands, and it shows in every frame.
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Perhaps no other author has elicited such a polarizing response in the field, and concerning the subject of Torture Porn, than Jack Ketchum. And perhaps no work of his has created more controversy than "The Girl Next Door." The New York Times referred to the film of the novel as "repellent," while Stephen King declared, "The first authentically shocking American film I've seen since HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER over 20 years ago...This is the dark-side-of-the-moon version of STAND BY ME."
The novel (and the film based on the novel) was inspired by the Sylvia Likens murder in 1965. (These murders were also the subject of the recent film AN AMERICAN CRIME.) The fact that so many people are unaware of this horrible crime is perhaps an indictment of America and its ability to sweep unpleasant things under the rug, but that's a topic for another time and place. Briefly, young Sylvia Likens and her sister were put into the foster care of a relative, Gertrude Baniszewski, who was mentally unstable. She began to abuse Sylvia, first with threats and intimidations, then with beatings, and finally with terrible torture. These activities took place in Baniszewski's basement, and were witnessed by several children in the neighborhood, who kept the activities a secret. Indeed, many of the children themselves turned on Sylvia, participating in the tortures at Baniszewski's insistence. After several weeks, Sylvia succumbed to the abuse and died. There is a lovely monument to her in the town where she lived, in her memory, as an attempt to come to terms with the horrible things done.
The newspapers at the time mentioned the parallels to "Lord Of The Flies," with neighbor turning on neighbor for no reason, and childhood innocence corrupted into physical and sexual violence. It was an astonishing crime to many, especially at that time, and it pulled back the covers on the dark underbelly of middle-class suburbia, much as David Lynch suggested in BLUE VELVET.
Jack Ketchum is an award-winning writer, a Horror Grand Master, and an honest and appreciable talent. Although he writes primarily in Horror, his subjects very rarely venture into supernatural territory; his venue is the naturalistic terror of real-world events, and his monsters are serial killers, abusive husbands, rapists, drug addicts and psychopaths. Because he writes convincingly of lives crossed with the violently abusive and their reactions, without the distancing of paranormal imagery, he has been tagged with the Torture Porn tag several times.
I don't believe that to be a good fit, for several reasons. First, Mr. Ketchum has an immense talent to back up the mayhem he chronicles, and like Mr. Van Beeber is well aware of where the line is he intends to cross. Second, like Mr. Van Beeber he works within his own center of morality, and we never forget that the focus of the stories is on the victims and their humanity. It can be said, accurately I believe, that occasionally he can go too far, but I think he's always trying to present an artistic vision, and those times when he overindulges in the pain, good intentions goes a long way towards acquittal.
Certainly, "The Girl Next Door" can be viewed as an exercise in cruelty; fully the final third of the book details Meg Loughlin's (the fictional counterpart of Sylvia Likens) abuse and degradation. But Mr. Ketchum works skillfully, never letting any of the characters (even the abusers) become less than three dimensional, and framing the narrative through the eyes of a reluctant witness to the proceedings: David Moran, a young boy who befriends Meg and her sister when they first arrive in town; who becomes uneasy with the treatment of Meg early and by the end rises to a fierce protector. Everything is seen through David's eyes, and his decency carries the work through the most sordid patches. Things are also softened somewhat by the flashback method; the events took place a long time ago, and as horrific as they are, there is nothing we can do about them today.
First and foremost, Mr. Ketchum's desires and goals are very clearly delineated. This is a harrowing work observing a moment of absolute inhumanity, but he never lets us forget that the focus is on Meg, and not the abuse that befalls her. Mr. Ketchum intentions are pure: he's said in various interviews that he became fascinated and outraged at the events that occurred, and wrote the book because he wanted to ‘get' Gertrude Baniszewski. He follows through on that promise indeed; in actuality the perpetrators of the crimes against Ms. Likens were never suitably judged for the severity of their actions; in "The Girl Next Door," the story comes to a much more satisfying climax, and one gets the feeling that rough justice has been dealt.
Still, the story, in the end, is about torture. The ominous opening lines apprise the casual reader that this will be an uncomfortable journey: “You think you know about pain? Talk to my second wife. She does. Or she thinks she does.” Yet if we can agree that sometimes torture is Art, as I've argued throughout this essay, an art that is as grim and unsettling as the paintings of Rene Magritte, then Mr. Ketchum is an artist, describing matter-of-factly, without salaciousness or melodrama the unfolding events, telling only as much as he needs to get the point across. And during the most horrible torture of all, late in the novel, Mr. Ketchum demonstrates a taste and morality that astounds. We hear what the others plan to do to Meg; we see the preparations, but when it comes to the actual act, Mr. Ketchum draws the curtain in an unnerving moment that stands as not only a testament to knowing where the taboo line is, but the anguish and muscle of subtlety, knowing when to stop the narrative.
Chapter Forty-Two in its entirety is as follows:
“I'm not going to tell you about this.
I refuse to.
There are things you know you'll die before telling, things you know you should have died before ever having seen.
I watched and saw.”
You may argue that this make the unseen actions even worse, allowing your imaginations to fill in the screams and pain and horror, and you'll receive no rebuttal from me. And I believe that attests both to the brilliance of Mr. Ketchum and "The Girl Next Door." Humanity is shown in a shocking and unnatural light, but it is never discarded, never belittled, and never abandoned. It remains long after the pain and nightmare has finished, and lingers in the minds and hearts of all readers. Whatever else befalls young Meg Loughlin, she's not left behind or forgotten.
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Cultural and Horror critic Kathleen Murphy writes, "Horror isn't polite." Very true. But I would argue that it isn't deranged and psychopathic either; the nature of Horror requires that we go beyond the blackness to the light that lies just beyond. That is the nature of Horror and Dark Fantasy at its finest. But many of the films being made today eschew the light entirely; instead of detailing the horrific in contrast to the 'normal' (as Stephen King puts it in "Danse Macabre" ), they're far more interested in detailing the amount of damage the human body can endure, for the sole titillation of the audiences darker impulses. It's the 'car wreck' reflex; everyone slows to survey the damage beside the highway. Many do so for a simple there-but-for-the-grace-of-God moment; but they also slow to see the bodies and blood amid the twisted metal. Most will deny this in polite society, but as Ms. Murphy points out, Horror is not polite. But the Torture Porn films, in not choosing to explore any other detail of the carnage, play strictly to this instinct, to the detriment of both the genre and its viewers.
Lovecraft wrote about events and images being so horrible that the reader would go mad. Many dispute this, and declare the human psyche extremely resilient in the face of such atrocities as Auschwitz , Hiroshima , the Killings Fields of the Khmer Rouge, Jonestown, and other tragedies. Yet it does happen, albeit in a way that Lovecraft did not intend. A human friend relates watching the BBC drama THREADS , about the aftermath of a nuclear war. By the time the film was finished unspooling its stark images, my companion didn't care at all about anyone or anything in that movie. It was simply bleak and depressing, and his emotions had shut down.
And so it happens with constant exposure to extreme violence. It doesn't lead to murders and mayhem, as the naysayers of Horror fear. No, Heavy Metal music, violent video games, and gory movies do not turn innocent youth into serial killers, but the effect is much more insidious. Those who laugh at those false assertions should know that constant exposure to violent imagery does inure the viewer to the violence; much like taking snake-bite venom in small doses immunizes you against a full attack. The human mind watches the pain and suffering in HOSTEL , A SERBIAN FILM , THE HILLS HAVE EYES , and THE DEVIL'S REJECTS , and after a time shrugs and thinks "eh." Then they turn on news footage of casualties in an overseas war zone or the aftermath of a terrible natural disaster, and when they turn off those images, they shrug and think, "eh." Empathy fades, and a little more humanity is lost.
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Is torture Art? Obviously it can be, in the correct hands, as works such as "Lord Of The Flies," "1984," "The Girl Next Door," WITCHFINDER GENERAL, BLUE VELVET, MARTYRS, PEEPING TOM, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, THE MANSON FAMILY, FRENZY, MARATHON MAN and others clearly demonstrate. It can be jarring and unsettling and disturbing and cause the reader or viewer to reevaluate their opinions on life, death and the human condition.
But it can also be the lowest common denominator, the easy hook in a movie or film, and leave nothing behind but a sordid bad aftertaste. I cringe a bit every time I see a youngster dressed as Freddy Krueger. In the original and brilliant NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, Mr. Krueger was an complete psychopath, a child molester and murderer; lean, mean and vicious. But somehow over the years he's softened to become almost a mascot, a harmless cartoon character that totally belies his origins. (And for that you can blame not only the filmmakers, but the distributors as well, always looking for another cash cow to milk until dry.) Will we someday see children dressed in the leather apron of the hulking torturer from HOSTEL? I devoutly hope not, but who can say?
“Rue Morgue Magazine” has a regular contributor that goes by the nom-de-plume of “The Gore-Met.” Unlike myself, he is an enormous fan of films filled with extreme gore, and yet even he has lost patience with this new subgenre. In an incisive essay in “Rue Morgue” #94, he makes an extremely astute observation: in discussing his discomfort with Torture Porn, he says, “This may seem odd coming from someone who has spent nearly a decade celebrating gratuitous violence in the pages of this magazine, but there is a difference between violence divorced from reality and violence divorced from consequence.” Well spoken, honest and appreciated.
Is Torture Art?
It can be, but the brush must be in the hands of a master, and not the fingerpainting of children.