Wednesday, January 9, 2008

HC: That's Torture-Tainment!

If you’ve spent any time at your local DVD rental store, you’ve no doubt seen the covers for the Saw trilogy (and coming out soon: Saw IV!), the Hostel movies, Captivity, The Hills Have Eyes, etc. Just the DVD covers make me feel queasy. If you haven’t seen them, I’ll try to describe them: “your worst nightmare!” A cover picture or drawing or logo promising 90+ minutes of torture and horror and pain and violence, not only for the character in the movie, but for you, too. And done realistically, much more so than the old days of horror films. I mean, your chances of being thrown in a lake by the Frankenstein monster are slim. How many vampires do you encounter in your daily life? Seen any 200-story-high Japanese lizards roaming around your neighborhood? In this new batch of horror movies—most of which, full disclosure here, I haven’t seen—the evil-doers are sick people, cruel people, and unfortunately, scarily, people that you or I could actually encounter.

I do like being scared during a film. When the Wicked Witch pops up in Oz, I’m still scared, even though I’ve seen the film 20 times. I remember sitting excitedly in a theater watching Aliens, with my heart beating so fast I felt like I was on a roller coaster. Even more realistically scary films like Jaws, or Hitchcock’s Psycho or The Birds I really love. The recent 28 Days Later was great. But there’s a real difference between a random killer shark and this new breed of torturetainment.

My first encounter with something that should have been rated “Too Scary and Realistic for Holly” (or 2S/R4H) was an X-Files episode. I was a big fan of this well-written television show. I watched and enjoyed many year’s worth of episodes, and loved “Eugene Tooms, Mutant Cannibal” and the flukeman and the aliens, etc. Then one episode came along that was so horribly violent I gave up watching the show. You X-Filers will no doubt remember the inbred family episode. I sure remember the scene where the kindly sheriff (who had investigated the inbred family) and his lovely wife are in bed and one of the inbreds breaks into their house and storms up the stairs to confront the sheriff. The sheriff hurries his wife under their bed to hide while he deals with the intruder. We see the rest of the scene from her point of view, terrified under the bed, as the Inbred beats the sheriff to death with a bat, and the blood from his body slowly crawls towards his widow’s shaking, petrified, heartbroken body as she tries not to scream. She, too, ends up getting beaten to death.

It was so visceral (and unfortunately very well done) that I was a wreck for a few days after it, and I still vividly remember it…again unfortunately.

I don’t think entertainment should be all Pollyanna and light and sweetness, but I also try to weigh the amount of upset versus the amount of enjoyment. Here’s an example:

Thanks to my beloved Netflix, my husband and I recently watched Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect. She was great, I enjoyed the show and admired the writing and the acting, but the level of grisly and gruesome was very high and deeply upsetting. The first series was about a serial torturer/rapist/murderer, complete with close-ups of either the dead women or police crime scene pictures of the dead women. The show was worth seeing, but, being a very visual person, I’ll never get those images of the tortured women out of my head. I may not be able to remember the fact that a member of your family died, or I may forget your name, but I’ll always have those pictures in my head. Perhaps I should rent and watch all the movies I'm knocking before I knock them...but then they'd be in my head FOREVER.

We’ve all seen real-life horror pictures—concentration camp victims first come to mind—that are necessary to see for historic purposes. I’m not sure how necessary it is to see realistic violence wrapped up in an entertainment package. Everyone’s threshold is different, too. I couldn’t/wouldn’t ever see a Saw movie, but I loved the Dr. Phibe’s films from the 1970s with Vincent Price, in which he tortured/killed the operating room doctors who couldn’t save his wife. The new musical Sweeney Todd, about the demon barber of Fleet Street has, big surprise here, lots of blood in it! But I really enjoyed the blood because it seemed appropriate and not overdone.

There are all kinds of realistic horror films. Psycho is one of my favorites, and I’ve seen it numerous times, but I always have to make sure I’m psychologically ready to see it, and I wouldn’t watch it alone, ever. Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is a perfect film (and one of the rare occurrences where I actually agreed with a film winning a Best Picture Oscar!), and it’s also deeply disturbing. With both of these films, even though they are powerful and distressing, there’s also a sense of restraint about them. Hitchcock shows very litte; Demme shows a lot, but only what is necessary to tell the story. Lambs is gruesome, but not exploitive. The new DVD covers (and possibly the films, too) seem to be all about exploitation, and frequently the promise of rape.

Maybe we’re just used to what we’re used to, in terms of the amount of sex, violence, horror, cursing, whatever we’ve seen in movies. My son, who is a very gentle soul, loved the Saw movies, and insisted on telling me the plots. He thinks they’re very imaginative and well-done…which makes me want to see them even less—if they’re well-done they will bother me even more!

So this all comes down to…is it the films, or is it me? As I’ve gotten older I’ve definitely gotten more squeamish and sensitive about what I see or read. When you’re 15 and seeing Psycho for the first time, it doesn’t occur to you that this could happen to you. When you’re a 45-year-old mother of two and you go to the local DVD store to find a few hours of entertainment, and every other DVD cover makes you want to run home and hide under the blankets, the entertainment world hardly seems escapist.

Films can be educational, inspiring, etc, but they are basically an entertainment unit. Sitting in a theater being scared can be enjoyable. When does it turn creepy and weird to enjoy watching people being tortured. Is it all on a sliding scale? I loved Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, but my sister found it too gory. My son loves Saw, but I can’t even imagine seeing it. Is it all opinion? When do “entertaining” movies get to be a little too close to a snuff film?

If you grow up with this level of horror movies, does it affect you adversely? If horror movies are like this now, what’s next on the horizon? I shudder to think.

When real life and news reports and dire climate change reports get to be too much, it’s time to put away the serial killers and rapists, horrific torture scenes and the like, and it’s time to take out the Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy operettas from the 1930s and 40s. But that’s for another blog entry…

Am I just a big wimp? Yes, I’d rather see Little Miss Sunshine than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. So sue me. Just don’t make me go to the DVD store alone. It's too scary.

© Holly Caster, January, 9, 2008

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