Do I Make You (Torture) Porny? A Retrospective on the Torture Porn Craze of the 2000s

Joanna Psaros

17 September 2021

Saw 2004

Saw. Hostel. The Human goddam Centipede. 

What is it about watching a woman take a blowtorch to the eyeball that is so satisfying?

On second thought- don’t answer that. 

With the odd outlier, today’s horror scene is defined by critically acclaimed, often independent films. Think The Babadook, It Follows, and Ari Aster’s masterful Hereditary and Midsommar. 

But this wasn’t always the case. Cast your mind back to the dark ages of the naughties; a time when jeans were low, sunglasses huge, and Kim Kardashian Paris Hilton’s lowly assistant. For better or worse, this was the era of torture porn. 

“Torture porn;” a term coined by film critic David Edelstein; describes a sub-genre of horror characterised by sadistic violence and gore, escalating shock value and, well, torture.  Edelstein went on to critique the genre, reflecting that “Explicit scenes of torture and mutilation were once confined to the old 42nd Street, the Deuce, in gutbucket Italian cannibal pictures like Make Them Die Slowly, whereas now they have terrific production values and a place of honour in your local multiplex. 

He wasn’t wrong. In 2004, Australia’s James Wan and Leigh Whannel’s Saw grossed a whopping $103.9 Million- or over eighty times its budget. (Since selling the franchise Wan and Whannel have veered well away from their torture-iffic roots, going on to make the well-received, suspenseful The Conjuring and The Invisible Man).  

What distinguishes torture porn from other exploitation flicks such as 2010’s A Serbian Film– infamous for its horrendous climax in which the tale’s antagonist is manipulating into committing rape against his son- is their queasy sense of playfulness.

Photo by Donald Tong on Pexels.com

Their aim is not to horrify or even necessarily frighten audiences. It’s to have fun with them. The epitome of guilty pleasures, these films invite you to check your morals at the door and enter a ridiculous, darkly funny playground that dared you not to look away. 

Torture porn films’ efforts to one up each other with unashamed bloody gimmicks culminated in the bizarre Human Centipede. For the uninitiated, a “human centipede” is a chain of misfortunate humans sewn rectum to mouth by a mad scientist (played by “actor” Dieter Laser). High concept indeed, the franchise makes Saw’s bloody dismemberment seem positively quaint. 

For a hot minute, The Human Centipede was a genuine phenomenon due not to its entertainment value (the film is meanderingly paced, shockingly-poorly acted, and often outright boring) but as a result of morbid curiosity. It has more in common with the gross-out “Two Girls One Cup” than the legitimately witty Eli Roth’s Hostel

But did The Human Centipede bite the hand (or rectum) that fed it and doom the very genre from which it was spawned? History suggests yes. By the time the third and final chapter of the franchise was released in 2015 torture porn was well and truly on its last legs- a relic of a bygone era like Leonardo DiCaprio dating age-appropriate women. It appeared audiences were hungry for more than blood and we slowly saw the welcome return of old-fashioned concepts like suspense and an actual story. 

But if we’ve learned anything from Hollywood history it’s that audiences are fickle creatures, and everything old is new again. Like it or not, we could see the return of torture porn before the 2020s are out. After all, what better to distract us from our first-world problems than a blowtorch to the eyeball? 

Popcorn, anyone? 


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