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20 October, 2007

Has the "Torture" genre Ran it's Course?

Horror trends tend to be cyclic in nature. The Classic Monsters had their first run in the 1930’s and ‘40’s, then were resurrected in the late ‘50’s and ‘60’s by Hammer Films. The “Cannibal Zombie” craze began in 1968, with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and continued into the ‘80’s, mainly in European films. It was Danny Boyle’s 2002 hit 28 DAYS LATER, as well as RESIDENT EVIL, released the same year, that brought them back into the forefront pushing the “Dawson’s Creek meets Freddy Krueger” school of horror into a well-deserved decline.

In the early 1970’s, the growth of independent film led to an increased freedom for filmmakers to explore avenues heretofore taboo… sex, drug use, and violence began to be portrayed in more realistic fashion. Exploitation films, long the staple of the seedy inner-city grindhouses, began to move into the suburbs, and new audiences were exposed to the themes these films offered. One of the most prevalent of these themes was Torture, usually of a female victim, the more graphic and bloody the better.

The torture genre wasn’t new to Horror, and to be accurate, torture, as a separate genre, is a misnomer. What I refer to as “torture” films may fit into any genre of Horror; it’s the focus of the subject matter on the infliction of pain, rather than the simple killing of a victim, that makes a torture film. Robert Florey’s MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932), starring Bela Lugosi, could be considered a torture film. Indeed most of the various Poe adaptations, by either Universal or AIP, could be looked at as torture. Certainly, 1935’s THE RAVEN is a torture film, as is Corman’s 1961 classic THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM.

The modern torture film, however, owes its existence to the 1965 film BLOODY PIT OF HORROR ~aka~ THE CRIMSON EXECUTIONER (as well as a half-dozen other titles…), directed by Massimo Pupillo under the pseudonym Max Hunter. This unremarkable little movie stars Mickey Hargitay as the titular Crimson Executioner, who is reborn in the body of his descendent when a group of young models arrives at his castle for a photo-shoot. He proceeds to torture and murder the group, in increasingly vicious style, until the hero puts an end to his spree.

Though not the stuff to give Eli Roth or Rob Zombie nightmares, this was pretty strong imagery in the mid-‘60’s. Given decent production values, and a director with more talent, say a Bava or a Fulci, and this might have gone down as a tremendous example of the early Eurohorror movie. As it is, it’s a curious milestone along the way.

The torture film would eventually become a staple genre for European directors, who frequently enjoyed more artistic license than their contemporaries in the U. S. did. But they weren’t blazing the trail here, as directors such as Herschell Gordon Lewis, Andy Milligan, and Ted Mikels had been raising the level of gore ever higher in their films.

Lewis especially, since giving birth to the gore-film with 1963’s BLOOD FEAST, had pushed the envelope further and further in films such as BLOOD ORGY ~aka~ THE GORE-GORE GIRLS, THE WIZARD OF GORE, and SOMETHING WEIRD. While these films had a surfeit of gore and blood, there was a certain inept innocence about them that kept the viewer from taking them too seriously. That would soon change, however.

European directors may not have led the way in the torture genre, but they were able to put a harder edge on their films than American directors could, at least early on. Amando de Ossorio’s LA NOCHE DEL TERROR CIEGO ~aka~ TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD isn’t often thought of as a torture film, but it contains an opening scene of overt torture, as several Knights Templars slash a sacrificial victim’s naked body with swords, then drink her blood. The 1970 film Hexen bis aufs Blut Gequalt ~aka~ MARK OF THE DEVIL, a remake of Michael Reeves’ 1968 film WITCHFINDER GENERAL ~aka~ THE CONQUEROR WORM, adds nothing to it’s predecessor other than seriously upping the intensity of the torture scenes, including a rather vicious tongue-ripping instrument.

Mexican filmmakers were able to get into the act as well, with 1972’s Edgar Allan Poe: Dr. Tarr's Torture Dungeon ~aka~ Mansion of Madness. One of the numerous Poe-in-Name-Only films that have periodically sought to capitalize on the author’s name, this one was weaker than most, with no Poe, little torture, and the only madness on the part of it’s financiers.

However, it was the debut feature of a young filmmaker named Wes Craven that truly brought the torture genre to life. LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, also released in 1972, a sadistic, nasty, repellently violent picture, was a blatant effort by director Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham (who would later create the FRIDAY THE 13TH series…) to offend the sensibilities of as many people as possible. Featuring scenes of rape, torture, beatings, killings, even a cringe-inducing genital amputation, this stood out at the time as one of the most offensive Horror Films ever released; certainly the most brutally realistic to that time.

Two years later, Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE brought the same ferocious realism and savage brutality to the screen, but unlike the earlier film, which saw only limited distribution, Hooper’s film was a commercial success, seeing nationwide, and even foreign, release. While there was relatively little on-screen gore in the film, the visual impact, much like the shower scene in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, had viewers remembering things that they didn’t see but thought they did.

Craven answered back with 1977’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES, a gore-drenched, ultra-violent expansion on some of the themes he first visited in LAST HOUSE. Though personally I didn’t care as much for it as I did TCM, there’s no denying that it raised the bar for torture films, and by doing so perhaps contributed to their eventual decline. The first heyday of torture would end before the decade was out, as a new genre swept Horror… the Slasher film. But there would be one more landmark of torture cinema to come: 1978’S DAY OF THE WOMAN ~aka~ I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE.

Allegedly written in response to writer-director Meir Zarchi’s encounter with a just-raped woman in Central Park, DAY OF THE WOMAN was deemed by many critics, including Roger Ebert, as worthless trash, the worst of independent cinema. The story concerns a young woman who takes a cabin in upstate New York for the summer in order to write a book. She falls prey to a group of local thugs, who repeatedly rape and torture her. She finally snaps, and begins taking violent revenge on her abusers.

While there’s no denying the lack of quality and tastelessness of the film, to describe it as the worst or most offensive film in the torture genre would be an exaggeration. That dubious honor, at least in this Unimonster’s opinion, will forever belong to a true piece of cinematic excrement, 1976’s BLOOD-SUCKING FREAKS ~aka~ THE INCREDIBLE TORTURE SHOW.

Nothing more than a bad example of Grand Guignol, this is easily the most repellent film I’ve seen in nearly 35 years of being a confirmed Gorehound. What plot exists in this reeking crapfest involves a theater owner who stages supposedly fake torture shows for the public, while providing select customers with victims to indulge their own sadistic fantasies. From the routine cutting off of limbs, to the doctor who drills into a woman’s head, uses a blender on her brain, then consumes the results with the aid of a straw, this is simply one long repugnant exercise in audience abuse.

The torture genre faded into the background with the rise of Slasher films in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s. The payoff in films such as HALLOWEEN or FRIDAY THE 13TH wasn’t gore for gore’s sake; it was the building of suspense followed by the sudden shock of an axe to the forehead, or a spear through entwined lovers. Though torture films didn’t disappear, it would be more than twenty years before they would once more become the dominant genre in Horror.
As the Slasher genre began to run out of steam in the early to mid ‘90’s, however, two of the best examples of a film that used torture as a part of a well-written, well-executed script, rather than as a gratuitous replacement for an intelligent plot, were released. The first of these was the best Horror film of the first half of the decade, and the first Horror Film since Rueben Mamoulian’s 1931 version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE to win the Best Picture Oscar—1991’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

Adapted from Thomas Harris’ novel by Ted Talley, and directed by Jonathan Demme, this superb movie was elevated to classic status by the inspired performance of Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. Also contributing to the overall perfection of the film is a superior job by Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, the young FBI agent-in-training assigned to interview him in connection to a series of murders. The interplay between these two characters is the focus of the film, and the viewer can’t help but be drawn into the story.

The second of these films was nearly as well done as SILENCE… and even darker in tone. David Fincher’s SE7EN ~aka~ SEVEN, starring Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, and Brad Pitt, is a tremendously effective and suspenseful blend of mystery, thriller, and horror; an intelligent film that doesn’t shy away from the gore. Once again, superb performances elevated this film far above the standard genre fare, particularly Spacey’s as the mysterious killer.

The torture genre got another boost in 1999, when a cult film from Japan would take the gore to an entirely new level, becoming the first legitimate film worthy of the “Torture-Porn” sobriquet. ÔDISHON ~aka~ AUDITION, directed by Takashi Miike, is a difficult film to watch: viscerally disturbing and emotionally draining. It’s also a very effective example of it’s type, and prime evidence of why Miike is so highly regarded, both in his native Japan and abroad. The plot involves a widower who decides to audition prospective brides. The one he selects has something special in mind for him, though, and what results is definitely not for the squeamish.

RESURRECTION, an often-overlooked film from Russell Mulcahy, was another 1999 release, and was little more than a rehashed SE7EN. Still, the quality of the production as a whole was high, and Christopher Lambert does an atypically good job with the material he’s given.

Over the next few years there were occasional entries in the torture genre, and films such as ANATOMIE ~aka~ ANATOMY, JOY RIDE, and MAY were well-received, though not financially successful. It would take the debut film from a hard-core heavy metal rocker to break the grip of the “Dawson’s Creek meets Freddy Krueger” genre first popularized by SCREAM in 1996. 2003’s HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, by first-time director Rob Zombie, was conceived as a throwback to the grindhouse films of the ‘70’s, such as LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, and as such was a labor of love for Zombie. Following Universal’s refusal to distribute the film without some rather drastic cuts, Zombie purchased the film outright, and began shopping it around. Lion’s Gate Films, a Canadian producer-distributor with a penchant for supporting high-quality independent films, especially genre films, picked it up and gave it nationwide distribution, backed up by an aggressive marketing campaign. The movie was both a critical and financial winner, putting the final stake in the heart of the “Buffy-ized” style of horror that characterized the second half of the 1990’s and first few years of the new millenium.

One of the primary themes of the modern torture film is the “Road Trip through Hell…” motif, inherent in most examples of the genre. Whether the trip is set in the desert southwest, the Australian outback, or the backwoods of West Virginia, leaving the main road is a mistake as deadly as having sex was in Horror Films of a generation ago. No fewer than five torture films were released in 2003 featuring that theme, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES included. The others were DETOUR, MONSTER MAN, WRONG TURN, and the remake of the 1974 classic, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.

Directed by Marcus Nispel, and starring R. Lee Ermey and Jessica Biel, this remake succeeded by honoring the original, not by slavishly duplicating it. Though formulaic in the extreme, it’s still a formula that works, in this case to the tune of just over $80,000,000 at the Box Office.

The next year gave us only one major torture film, but it would redefine the genre and create one of the most successful franchises since Jason retired his hockey mask. 2004’s SAW, directed by James Wan, made even mainstream critics take notice of a Horror sub-genre that, for decades, had existed almost as a sub-culture of Horror.

Several factors combined to draw such attention to the film. One, it was undoubtedly that rarest of commodities in film… something original. Not that there weren’t films that had previously incorporated some of the elements of the story, most notable of which were American-International’s DR. PHIBES films of the early ‘70’s. But never had the time-worn plot device of the ‘death-trap’ been married to the possibilities offered by the technology available to modern filmmakers, as well as to the willingness to push beyond previous boundaries of blood and gore.

Jigsaw and his life-or-death torture machines gave full credence to the phrase “torture-porn”, torture simply for the sake of torture. The genre exploded following that film’s release, with movies such as HOUSE OF WAX, HAUTE TENSION, CALVAIRE, THE HILLS HAVE EYES remake, and the two SAW sequels dominating both the Horror media and the Box-Office. Add in the TCM prequel, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING, and Rob Zombie’s sequel THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, and you’ll see that torture films were becoming the dominant genre in horror.

But that trend may have peaked. 2006’s HOSTEL, directed by Gorehound favorite Eli Roth, pushed beyond even the SAW franchise’s level of brutality, and in so doing became the target of every group opposed to Horror Films and their depiction of gore, blood, and violence. Roth, who first made headlines with his over-the-top gorefest CABIN FEVER, was hardly fazed by such criticism and began production on a sequel as soon as the $20 million opening weekend ended.

HOSTEL opened the floodgates on the torture genre, and clones and copycats began appearing as soon as scripts could be written. In the 18 months since HOSTEL premiered, we have seen a score of such imitators come and go, and all have had one common denominator: They’re just not very good.

From the heavily-touted remake of Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES, to the made-on-the-cheap HOSTEL clone TURISTAS, to the abysmal CAPTIVITY, Torture films have swamped theaters and DVD racks in the last year-and-a-half, to the point where I think we’ve finally had our fill of blood and gore.

The recently released sequel to HOSTEL grossed approximately 36% of the original film; an anemic 17 million. An impressive amount of cash, to be sure, but hardly what was expected. And CAPTIVITY, victim of what had to be one of the most poorly designed promotional campaigns ever conceived, barely earned 2.6 million, more than half of which came on it’s opening weekend.

While it may be too early to say that the torture film’s reign is over, at least for this cycle, there’s no doubt that it is drawing near. Much will depend on the performance of the fourth entry in the SAW franchise, due in theaters October 26th. If the film does comparable numbers to it’s predecessors, then there may be a temporary reprieve. If not, then studios will begin shying away from this type of film as if it were contagious.

And what will take it place as the dominant genre in Horror? Perhaps Classic Horror will continue the resurgence began with 1999’s THE MUMMY. Such a development would not be unlikely, what with big-budget remakes of both THE WOLF-MAN and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON currently in production.

Perhaps Rob Zombie’s successful remake of HALLOWEEN will spark a return of the Unstoppable Slashers to the theaters, and soon we’ll see updated versions of Michael, Freddy, and Jason stalking fresh victims.Or maybe, just maybe, if the Unimonster gets his wish, 2008 will mark the beginning of the second great era of Giant Bugs and Japanese Kaijû.

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