By Rachel Corbett
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
As "torture porn" movies deepen their imaginative excursions into terror and violence against women, some of their creators are not only defending themselves from attacks by women's activists, they're calling their work feminist.
(WOMENSENEWS)--When the movie "Hostel" raked in $19 million on its debut weekend and gripped the No. 1 spot for a week in 2005, some critics heralded the comeback of horror, which had been in a box office slump for a decade.
But to others, the film's shocking violence and grisly torture scenes marked the beginning of a descent into a subgenre that New York magazine film critic David Edelstein dubbed "torture porn."
Women have long borne the brunt of on-screen terrorizing says Jill Soloway, a consulting producer of ABC's TV show "Dirty Sexy Money." But she says the difference is the element of torture in movies that followed "Hostel," such as "Captivity," which prompted a storm of criticism for its graphic ads.
"There's all this blood spurting and it's like waiting for the money shot in a porn movie," says Soloway.
Eli Roth, who directed "Hostel" and its sequel, "Hostel Part II," and other directors say the term torture porn misrepresents their work, which depicts exaggerated violence as a way of expressing horror with real violence and war.
"Torture porn is an absurd term," Roth said in a phone interview. "People are forgetting that it's not real violence."
In Roth's first "Hostel" film, three U.S. frat boys visiting European red-light districts are lured to Slovakia, where they've been promised a village full of beautiful, sex-starved natives and are subjected to decapitation, chest-drilling and cannibalism.
The film's female characters receive similar treatment, but often while they are naked or dressed in lingerie. The leading woman in the sequel, "Hostel Part II," is nearly raped but ultimately outsmarts her attacker by pretending he arouses her, catching him off guard and castrating him. "The film is about control in sexual power," Roth said.
Lindsey Horvath, who works in film advertising and is president of the National Organization for Women's Hollywood chapter, doesn't see it that way. "We think the term is devastatingly accurate," she said about calling the films torture porn. Both she and Soloway emphasize that they do not want to censor the films but have organized against graphic, torture-porn advertisements, since they are in public view, where onlookers don't make an active choice about seeing the images.
Last March, Soloway, Horvath and others campaigned to remove billboard ads for "Captivity" that depicted actress Elisha Cuthbert being gagged by a black-gloved hand, tubes shoved up her nose and left for dead with one breast about to fall out of her shirt. The words on the ad were: "Abduction," "Confinement," "Torture" and "Termination."
The Los Angeles-based Motion Picture Association of America rejected the ads on the grounds they were too indecent for public display. The ads ran anyway--appearing on some 30 billboards across Los Angeles--although they were eventually pulled a week later by the After Dark production company. The company claimed the wrong files had been mistakenly sent to the printer.
Upset that the ads ran, activists then pressured the association to remove the R rating given to "Captivity," and make it unrated, to restrict its appearance in theaters and video stores. The Motion Picture Association suspended the "Captivity" rating, delaying its release from May until July, when it eventually grossed $2.6 million at the domestic box office.
"Captivity" director Courtney Solomon took his depictions of sadism one step further by hosting a premiere party for the film with a sado-masochistic theme. He hired the SuicideGirls--punk rock West Coast strippers--to spank guests and chain each other up in provocative positions. Adding to the ambience was a shirtless man suspended from a rack by piercings in his flesh.
Solomon has also called his film "feminist" because the female victim overthrows her assailant in the end.
"Hostel" director Roth also claims the "feminist" label, and says his movies have been unfairly associated with "Captivity." He says he found the film's ads offensive and thought, "I'm going to be blamed for this and I don't even want to see that movie."
Roth says women's rights activists are wrong to see him as the enemy. Graphic violence was necessary to show that torture is scary, not titillating, he said, and the scenes are meant to parallel images from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison as well as criticize violence against women.
But Horvath, of NOW's Hollywood chapter, said, "I just think if you're looking to end that kind of behavior against women, you don't continue to create it."
Filmmakers like Roth take pains to distinguish their fictional work from illegal "snuff and rape" films, where actual crimes are carried out on camera.
"A snuff or rape film is worlds away from a fictional horror movie," wrote First Amendment attorney and screenwriter Julie Hildman in an e-mail interview. Hildman has written that "torture porn" is an unfair label. "One has victims of terrible crimes; the other has actors who walk away unhurt."
Although they were made before "Hostel," two other films--"Saw," which grossed $18 million at its opening weekend, and "House of 1,000 Corpses," which grossed $12.6 million--have also been labeled torture porn by critics. But the subgenre's box office draw has dropped with the many knockoffs and sequels that followed.
Some critics have refused to review torture porn films because of the ways women are depicted as drug-addicted prostitutes ("Saw"), strippers ("The Devil's Rejects") or sex addicts ("Black Snake Moan").
Critics like Soloway see a connection between the dearth of women in Hollywood and torture porn.
In 2007, only 7 percent of the Screen Directors Guild's members were female; no woman has ever won an Academy Award for best director; and the horror, fantasy and action genres have the smallest fraction of female directors.
"Men are making films and calling them feminist when they don't understand the feminine experience," Soloway said. "It's their salute to how they see female power."
A few months ago, Horvath said she began receiving calls from publicists pitching the new film, "P2," to NOW as a critical look at violence against women, and she attended the premiere.
"Essentially I watched an hour and 45 minutes of a woman being stalked, drugged, nearly raped and terrorized," she said. In the end, the character escapes and kills her attacker. "It's like as long as the woman kills the guy at the end, then of course it's a female empowerment movie."
Roth said that for his upcoming thriller "Cell" he has been consciously writing strong roles for his female characters. And, expressing an ongoing interest in his brand of "feminist" horror, he said that he experiences fear from seeing "Keira Knightley's skeletal figure on the cover of Vanity Fair. Perhaps that'll be the subject of my next film."
Rachel Corbett is a journalist living in Brooklyn.
Women's eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at