It’s time to put an end to it. Since David Edelstein’s 2006 article about Hostel, the phrase “Torture Porn” has been bloated short hand for any movie that features torture or excessive gore. Beyond being a misuse of the term, the problem with its spreading like an infection in an open wound caused by a crowbar is two-fold.

One, it’s been tossed around so liberally that it barely has any meaning anymore. Two, when it does have meaning, it’s used as a loaded gun to take down a certain brand of film that deserves more thoughtful criticism.

When Saw IV-VII co-writer Marcus Dunstan was on Reject Radio, I casually tossed out the phrase, and he shot it down with the vigor that it deserves. I’m as guilty of using it out of laziness in conversations as the next one, but the point Dunstan raised was a good one, and it can be illustrated here with a series of questions:

  • Is Avatar “3D Porn”?
  • Is Closer “Infidelity Porn”?
  • Is Forrest Gump “Nostalgia Porn”?
  • Is 12 Angry Men “Drama Porn”?
  • Is Caddy Shack “Comedy Porn”?

It’s simple. No one would logically label or reduce those films to such simple monikers, let alone evoke pornography in doing so.

The truth is that modern-day films obsessed with human bondage or even those simply passionate about effects make up and gore have been simple-mindedly dismissed with two words.

It’s clear that the derogatory phrase is low on the totem pole of social importance (the Nobel is not winging its way here right now), but with the success and rise of more gore-filled horror films (that come with the advancement of technology, make up, and with a generation of filmmakers who grew up in the 70s and 80s), the use of the phrase has become so widespread that it’s almost a guarantee that it will show up in discussions of films ranging from Saw to The Passion of the Christ.

When films that disparate are labeled with the same phrase, there’s a problem. It becomes difficult to know what people mean when they use it.

The second problem is a bit more oblique. There are gradients of quality within any genre, but calling something a “comedy” doesn’t instantly disparage its existence. Pornography is normally viewed as being empty of any meaning – a vessel meant only to deliver sex scenes. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t fly in the world of narrative storytelling, and to call a film porn of any kind (when it’s not getting straight away to the bumping and the grinding) is myopic and lazy.

Movies like Irreversible, A Serbian Film, and Audition deserves more than dismissal. When asked about the phrase a few years ago, director Eli Roth stated that using it, “genuinely says more about the critic’s limited understanding of what horror movies can do than about the film itself.” At this point, it’s difficult to disagree. Many films that have been labeled as “torture porn” have a great deal more metaphorical meaning and social commentary to offer than dramas that don’t feature anyone taking a box cutter to the human eye. It’s just as Romero’s self-inflicted “splatter film” label reduced his work beyond its true worth.

These films are designed to have a strong impact, and that’s a good thing, but flippantly viewing them as purely for the prurient is the equivalent of laughing your way through a haunted house. There are people out there that don’t wish to see such graphic depictions of things that actual happen in life (which is fine), and there are movies out there for them (like Marmaduke*), but it’s become too easy to tar great horror with pejorative.

It’s inspiring that the phrase that’s meant to hollow out any gory flick has created so much earnest discussion (including the very piece that spawned its modern use). There have been many editorials about the human condition and why we should value films that depict such unflinching violence. That will stand as one of the great achievements of the phrase. Still, it’s time for the phrase “torture porn” to die, and I would hope that those who use it regularly would at least appreciate that we don’t jab a screwdriver into its nostrils and run garden shears down its side before killing it.

*Which is considered its own brand of torture porn by some.

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