It could just be me, and it might be a critical eye too fervently trained to pick apart the most basic miscues in Hollywood and the surrounding industries, but the horror film industry has hit something of a boon of late. It seems to come in waves. In the 1970s, it was exploitation, slasher flicks like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and going into the '80s, it was the uber long franchise exploitation of that slasher formula in Friday The 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. Then there was a lull for a few years, as audiences got bored with the same old movies.
Much like its oft resurrected villains, the horror genre always comes back though, and in the 1990s, it found its stride in the teen slasher genre, this time exploiting the exploding high school, college age teen drama, with films like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer.
Fast forward a few years, and once again the genre faltered. When you've seen one psychopathic, inhuman killer, you've seen them all. And so, the next step was something much different, and much more disturbing, born of the proliferation of stylized violence in the films of Tarantino and the psychological mind screws of Asian horror. Hollywood loves its psychopathic killers though, and so after a few years of remaking Japanese films and rewriting classic genres, the horror industry discovered something new―the torture subgenre.
It's not new though. Films featuring sadistic violence and torture have been around for a while, but with nowhere near the following or financial backing of today's Eli Roths. If you head back to the hey day of the 1970s exploitation films though and dig through those Cannibal and sexualized vampire films, you'll find a huge array of scenes in which horrific, disturbing things are done to poor unsuspecting girls and young travelers. What's different about the Cannibal Holocaust's of the film industry is that they were incredibly censored, buried and hardly watched by anyone, for foreseeable reasons. If one were to look up the top 10 torture scenes in films (and yes, there are a few lists if you look for them) you'll find that almost all of them are in films made after 1994, with Pulp Fiction preceding most of them.
Tarantino's famous leather-clad gimp scene started the whole flood, and when filmmakers saw that they could make a movie with that kind of scene and make money, and win awards for it, the torture started popping up a lot more often. It's a powerful storytelling device, if done properly. The kind of tension created by tying up the hero of a film and doing unspeakable things to him is two fold. It creates immediate drama, a situation that may or may not end in tragedy. Second, it creates the opportunity for revenge and exacting pain upon the perpetrators of previous torturous scenes.
It makes for good film. But, when the horror industry started drifting away from slasher flicks, a formula that's fairly straight forward―psychopathic killer stalks and kills teen girls―and started introducing protracted, sadistic killers, with ridiculous methods and disturbing, exploitative plots, things changed in horror. You can take the effort and trace it to the Japanese roots from which it directly arrived, or you can look to childhood inspiration of the Tarantinos and Rob Zombies out there and the exploitation flicks of the 70s. Neither direction is entirely right, as the roots of the genre are a mix of just about everything. Today's horror films are direct relations to the 70s exploitation flicks in style. Teens wandering a desert road on spring break, attacked and chased down by sadistic killers to commence in a painfully long, ever-tense sequence of events.
However, today's victims are often not as innocent as they once were. The killers are still insane, and their motives skewed by that insanity, but filmmakers are finding more and more ways to imbue their motives with a sense of urgency and the exploitation of commonly ill-considered traits. Eli Roth's Hostel, the most disturbing and gory horror film released in the past decade or so, prey's upon the hedonistic expectations of European backpackers.
Many might disregard the torture films of today as disturbing, self ingratiating visions from disturbed filmmakers, but they are something more entirely. Instead though, I think it's a natural progression and exploration of genre methods that we've visited before, but never quite accepted. In a society that finds itself inundated with constant fear of bodily harm, ideological warfare, and an enemy intangible in almost every way, these films offer a very real, very physical release. Looking at exactly how the torture is portrayed within the film is equally important. It isn't merely a matter of capturing a few backpackers and removing fingers. These films are about figuring out why someone could be so disturbed and how anyone could survive such brutality. With that kind of terror and pain, what could possibly occur that could be any worse?
It's the same argument that horror film popularity has been using for decades, and like it or not, war time and mass fear breeds artistic angst and disregard for decency. Horror films are a great example of that.