No pain, no financial gain

Ciara Hamilton 30 October 2008

As the latest Saw film arrives on our screens just in time for Halloween, the tagline reads ‘you won’t believe how it ends’. The fifth in the franchise, the previous films have a combined box-office revenue of approximately $555 million, which suggests that this money spinner will not be ending just yet. Having upped the gore factor to almost unprecedented levels, it is just the latest in a long line of the new ‘torture porn’ genre to fill our screens.

Over the past few years we have had four previous Saw instalments, Wolf Creek, Untraceable, Captivity, he Strangers, The Hills Have Eyes and Funny Games, not to mention the numerous equally gruesome lower budget efforts that have simply slipped off the radar. And of course, where it all really started to get nasty, Hostel and it’s even nastier sequel, with its scenes of syringes being tabbed into ears and excessive brutality against each and every female character.

This is a trend that shows no signs of slowing down. While for some these films are particularly offensive, their makers are clearly laughing all he way to the bank. Horror films make up a considerable chunk of the fim business, and these films usually at least triple their low production budgets; Hostel alone raked in a massive $80 million worldwide.

So what lies behind their almost guaranteed success? There are a variety of factors, including the fact that studios can churn out a couple a year relatively cheaply, and directors can use a string of low-paid, unknown actors. But this alone would not be enough if it were not for the audiences going to see them. So what is their appeal? Does anyone actually find watching someone’s eye being blowtorched off an enjoyable filmgoing experience? If not then why do audiences keep going back?

“It’s the same as why people stop to look at car crashes. It’s just the age-old human fascination with death and injury”, says one male student. “Old horror films just aren’t scary anymore, with all the new films it’s like testing yourself to see what will frighten you”. Perhaps it’s true that violence is always normalised, from generation to generation; who finds the nineties slasher films scary now?

But in recent years gore and torture seem to be prerequisites for a horror film to be successful. I actually enjoyed the first Saw. Back in 2004, I found the torture unpleasant but the ending was highly original, extremely clever and genuinely shocking.

However, the yearly sequels seem to be nothing more than the studios’ effort to make a quick buck churning out bloodbath after bloodbath, each one even nastier than the last in an attempt to draw in evermore desensitized audiences.

So where is the future for those fed up of the ‘gorno’ genre? Asian cinema has always been at the forefront of truly terrifying horror, managing to deliver far deeper chills than its inferior Hollywood remakes. The Ring, for example, with its combination of psychological depth and atmospheric build-up has firmly cemented its place as one of the twenty-first century’s classic horror films. Recently, however, European cinema has emerged with a fear factor to rival that of its Asian counterparts. Take Austrian director Michel Hanneke’s Caché, highly unnerving in the way it gets under your skin and stays there long after the credits have rolled.

Interestingly, last year Hanneke released Funny Games for the U.S. market, an entirely sadistic and brutal tale about the mental and physical torture of a suburban American family. It has been suggested that Hanneke made the film as a reaction to the torture porn wave, in order to highlight our – the audience’s – part in perpetuating the genre.

It is a far cry from his European offering, which ramps up the tension by tapping into our modern-age fears simply through the omnipresence of CCTV and the lack of musical score. The past eighteen months has seen European cinema produce many more excellent horror films, the most notable being Spain’s offerings of Pan’s Labyrinth, and The Orphanage, which show it is still possible to scare simply through atmospheric tension and suggestion, devoid of Hollywood gore.

These films are effective as they rely on the classic techniques of old, using good acting, solid scripts and excellent cinematography to produce films which are spine-chilling and disturbing. So this Halloween, if you want to move away from the schlock and look for some genuine shocks, it might be worth taking a more continental approach.

Ciara Hamilton