What Torture Porn Is And What It Is Not

What-Torture-PornThe term “Torture Porn” gets used a lot these days. Admittedly I use it quite frequently too. But it’s become one of those terms that different people seem to think means different things. As a result, there doesn’t seem to be one standard definition of what Torture Porn is… what makes something torture porn… what excludes something from being torture porn… ect. ect.

So, If I’m going to be using the term whenever I talk about films like Hostel 2 or Saw 3, it’s only fair that I should qualify and define what I mean. What do I mean when I say something is “torture porn”. First, let me start by saying what (in my definition) torture porn is NOT:

Torture Porn is NOT:

1) Horror in general. Some traditional media writers love to latch onto the newest phrases “the kiddies” are using these days and are just using the term as being synonymous with horror in general. It’s not.

2) Sex In Horror. I know that sounds silly, but there are actually people out there (trust me, I’ve talked to them) that think when they hear the term “Torture Porn”, it refers to gratuitous sex and nudity in horror films.

3) Bloody, gross, shocking kills. I think this is the biggest one. A lot of people will conjure the term “torture porn” to refer to films that have disgusting, over the top or shocking kills. While I agree that this is PART of what makes a torture porn… on its own it’s not. If it was, every 80’s slasher horror movie could be categorized at “Torture Porn”, and that just wouldn’t be applicable.

What Torture Porn Is:

Remember, this is just my definition, but I think it works. Think of sex and porn. You can have sex in movies… but they’re not PORN. In real porn, the sex is the whole point. There is no story, there is no plot, there is no development… the whole movie just exists to get us to the sex. That’s it.

With Horror movies, you get some great and fun ones that have gruesome over the top kills… but many of them aim to give you laughs along the way… create mythologies… develop some characters…. build an atmosphere of fear… in other words they aim to do more than JUST show a gruesome kill shot.

Therefore, when I evoke the term “Torture Porn” I’m referring to a horror film, that basically has nothing else going for it… nor does it appear they were going for anything else other than just gruesome bloody kills. Like porno… it only has one real function and fails at everything else… or doesn’t even attempt anything else.

So you get a film like Hostel 2. Nothing in terms of story… nothing in terms of fear… nothing in terms of suspense or tension. It’s just: “Oh look, they’ve just got a girl there… and yup… they’re cutting her open”. It’s empty, and because it’s empty it’s unsatisfying. At least films like the Freddy or 13th franchises aim to give a fun experience as well as trying to scare you and yes… gross you out

Here’s how I summed it up in a letter to Eli Roth:

“We don’t just want to see a guy get tied down and take a chisel through his thigh. We want emotionally investable characters that we can follow that gets caught up in something dangerous, unknown, mysterious and scary. We want to see him battle those elements through twists and turns making discoveries along the way that leaves our hearts in our throats……….. and THEN we want to see him get a chisel through the thigh.”

Anyway, I don’t know if my definition will become the standard… but at least now you’ll know what I’m referring to when I use the term “Torture Porn” around here.

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13 thoughts on “What Torture Porn Is And What It Is Not

  1. i think my problem with your definiton is that it is way too subjective to used as a standard….

    where you see a film with nothing else going on but violence someone else sees a full movie. I thought hostel part two had a lot more going for it then just the violence….you didn’t and thats fine.

    in fact if you add up the screentime the violence in hostel and hostel part two probably only comes to twenty minutes per film….

    if I got out a porno that had aqs much sex as the hostel films have violence I would fucking pissed off. especially if I had to sit through 45 minutes of “storyline” until I got my first money shot…….I just think it is a snobby term used to denegrate these films some of which are fine additions to the horror genre and some are not. I am not saying they are all great but to lump them all in with this terrible title and dismiss them as junk doesn;t wash with me.

  2. I think most people miss the point of Mr. Roth’s flicks. To me they act as sort of black comedies slash satires with extra punch on the gore for key scenes.

    I have to agree with Vern in saying that John’s reaction to Hostel 2 is just that – his reaction to the film. Because he didn’t “LIKE” the characters, he accuses the film of not developing them. Seems like lazy criticism of the film to me.

    Again, view Cabin Fever and the Hostel films like comedy-satire (often the most misunderstood and maligned form of filmmaking) and they are actually quite watchable.

    Roth may not be the best screenwriter, but hey I thought the H2 script was more than 100 times better than the Transformers one, so What do I Know?

  3. Okay, I’m glad I misunderstood you about the first HOSTEL. But I think with HOSTEL 2 just because you didn’t like it you are lumping it into a category it doesn’t fit into. I think it fits your definition even less than the first one does. For one thing, the protagonists are far more sympathetic than the obnoxious dickheads in the first one. You are clearly supposed to be upset when they get hurt. The most gruesome part of the movie is Heather Matarazzo’s scene where she’s hanging upside down. I’ve seen CANNIBAL FEROX and that type of thing but that scene actually made me have to look away. Not the goofy Countess Bathory thing but just her hanging there, the veins popping out of her neck making you realize that she really did that for the scene. That is not a scene for getting your rocks off, it’s upsetting like it should be and makes you feel terrible for her character. So how is it porn? It seems like the people who use the TP word always punish horror movies for being effective. If the whole movie had been the goofy cartoon violence like when she tears the guy’s dick off it wouldn’t have had as bad of a reputation. (See also WOLF CREEK.)

    And I guess we’re getting away from the “torture porn” angle now but I don’t see how you can say they didn’t expand on anything in the sequel or that they didn’t show “anything from anyone’s perspective” – I’m not sure what you even mean by that. If you’ve seen the movie, you will remember that half of it follows two rich dudes who are the customers who pay money to kill people at this place. You see the whole process from the auction montage (my favorite part of the movie) to the tattooing to even going into the prop room to pick out their costumes and weapons and then what happens when they try to actually go through with it. You don’t have to like it but it is absolutely expanding on the concepts of the first one and showing them from a different perspective.

    Still not that great of a movie, but it just doesn’t make sense to call it torture porn.

  4. Ok I think John has a point Hostel 1 not torture porn (his definiton) SAW 1, Not torture porn, SAW 2 50/50 alot of the story wasnt based on the ppl trapped in the house except 2 Amanda and the kid. But I will disaggree with John about SAW 3. There was reason for all the victims to be there and that guys was fighting his moral delima of forgiveness or revenge. Also the deaths in the begining was of Amanda’s own sick mind which you figure out at the end. Truthfully I think the Amanda chararter is into torture porn lol. Will SAW 4 be like SAW 2 or SAW 1 or SAW 3? Wow thats kinda cool same franchise 3 diffrent ver of movies hahaha. But I John I salute you for your input on your term of “torture porn” I like the phrase “torture film” better thou.

  5. “It’s empty, and because it’s empty it’s unsatisfying”

    So you are saying porn is not satisfying? I think most of your post hits the nail on the head, but there must be a little bit more to it. As empty as porn is people still watch it, enjoy it, and it fulfills its purpose. With movies like Saw 3 and Hostel 2, it doesn’t seem to get any of these things across. Maybe they are just shitty movies in general, as well as being torture porn. I dunno.

  6. Hey Vern,

    If you’ll notice, I don’t suggest the 1st Hostel film fits my definition of “torture porn”. I actually think the first one had a little bit of depth and interest in it.

    The second one however…. was just… total… garbage. They didn’t look at anything from anyone’s perspective. If that actually had gone into the guys who run things a little, instead of just showing us that they’re there… I would agree with you… but as it is, they didn’t do, show, explain, introduce or expand on anything. So yes, Hostel 2 (in my opinion) perfect fits into my def of torture porn.

    Cheers.

  7. Excellent post John. I’d often get frustrated with people misusing that term, and I think you nailed a great definition for it.

  8. See, this is why it bugs me when people use the term torture porn – they never seem to apply it to movies that fit even their own definition. I don’t think the HOSTEL movies are that great, but they don’t come even remotely close to the description you gave. If somebody went to the HOSTEL movies just to see torture they would be banging their nipple clamps against the wall in anger afterwards because the vast majority of the screen time is spent on, yes, developing characters and a story. Not great characters, not a great story, but Roth is clearly trying to do exactly what you are telling him he should be doing instead of what you imagine he is doing.

    The first one, for example, spends half the movie setting up these obnoxious frat boy characters as they go on their vacation, try to get laid and getting lured into the warehouse. Then there is a short section about them getting tortured. Then the guy from the SCARFACE DTV sequel escapes and that’s when the movie gets more interesting, the main part of the movie which is about him escaping.

    The second one shortens the “luring in” part of the movie but adds the subplot showing the operation through the point of view of the two asshole businessmen, which made it more interesting I thought (although maybe the whole movie should’ve been about them and make it more of a HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER type vibe). Regardless, neither one of them spends much time on the torture. I think you are confusing the actual movies with the non-existent ones they tried to make you imagine in the purposely overblown advertising.

    The other thing that bugs me about the term “torture porn” is that there is such a thing as “torture porn” which you will find in the bondage section of your local adult video store. I’m not sure what the sickos who are into that shit are gonna do now that “torture porn” has been appropriated by the People Who Don’t Understand Horror Movies But Want To Tell People Who Do Which Ones Are Morally Appropriate To Watch Lobby Of America. I would suggest that for now on actual torture porn could be called “mediocre modern horror movies” as a way to further complicate this discussion.

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