The Story Behind Torture Porn

As autumn's dark nights close upon us, our thoughts turn to the perfect scary movie to amp up the chills.

For the past few years, the Saw films have become a Hollywood Halloween tradition, pumping out sequel after sequel, with low budgets equaling big profits.

We thought we'd take a look back into both the recent and distant history of a genre that has become known as "torture porn."

With the most recent entry into the Saw series being soundly beaten at the box office by the torture-free Paranormal Activity, is the genre on its last legs?

Let's start at the very beginning...

Next: A Saw Point

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2. A Saw Point

Ironically, though it certainly has its bloody moments, the first Saw is not quite the gore-fest you might assume.

"I guess if we wanted to make a blood-soaked film, we could have made a zombie film but actually because of what we decided to do, we were trying to come up with something a little bit smart," says co-writer (and co-star) Leigh Whannell. "I don't know if we succeeded but that's what we tried."

Whannell and fellow Australian film student James Wan were best mates with a seemingly typical desire - make a film that would get seen and help launch their careers. Wan leaned towards directing, while Whannell had acting ambitions.

With few opportunities presenting themselves, they decided to do it themselves.

"Basically, James and I finished university, as you do, and we wanted to make a film and had zero money, absolutely none," says Whannell.

"We were very atypical students: Poor but ambitious. So for many years we toiled around: I worked at the ABC and various jobs and James worked in advertising agencies and blah, blah, but always we would meet up and talk about this film we were going to one day make and we'd come up with these script ideas and in some cases we'd even start writing a script, always way above our means.

"So finally, maturity started kicking in and we realised that if we wanted to make a film we'd have to pay for it ourselves and what we wanted that film to do was provide James an opportunity to direct, and me an opportunity to act, because I'd always been interested in acting, so in a way, the script was almost a means to an end.

"I love writing but really, I wrote the script so that we could make a film that would showcase him as a director and me as an actor."

Their original concept boasted much more Australian themes (no, we don't mean kangaroos hopping in the background), but after a frustrating time trying to sell the concept and script in their native land, a lucky break brought them to Los Angeles.

"It was an accident that our manager, when we were at the end of our rope, and totally depressed, said that she knew a literary agent over in America.

"She says, 'there's a lit agency in America who's read the script and liked it, so why don't we go for broke? I know that America's a big long shot, a billion-to-one chance but you know, let's just do it' and so we did and it was just an accident.

"Best way to summarise it is that we never aimed for the film to be made in America; America came to us."

The killer pitch they'd dreamed up - based on a short film the two made in 2003 (above) - focused on two men who wake up to find themselves in captivity, forced to participate in a dangerous round of tasks that involve horrific moments - such as digging a key out of a corpse - and real danger.

"We had this short that we had made which was one scene from the script that we'd shot and we'd shown it around to various people and when the producers who ended up shooting the film met with us, actually already knew from our agent what the deal was.

"They knew if they wanted to get involved, James had to direct and I had to play the lead. It's like that old expression, shooting for the best. You shoot for the best first, and if nothing comes back, you go down a level.

"We shot for the best first and these guys actually bid. They actually said OK, and the most outrageous thing we could offer, they said yes to, which was I needed to play the role of Adam.

"Other companies weren't so generous. Other companies were saying maybe James can direct but Leigh definitely can't do the lead. We want Orlando someone. Maybe we'll buy the script but James can't direct. But this particular company Evolution agreed to all of our terms, which was incredible."

With around $1 million in funding and their roles as director and actor secured, the pair recruited Cary Elwes and Danny Glover as a fellow victim and a cop trying to track the evil mastermind behind it all - a mysterious figure named Jigsaw.

"The film is essentially the story of two victims," explains Whannell. "I think the film kind of, to some people, obviously from reading people's reactions, looks and smells like a serial killer film but it's really not in two respects.

"In one respect, the villain, we don't think, is not a serial killer. His aim is actually for people to live. He wants people to go through these little games but he wants them to come out the other side alive but also the other thing is that the primary story focuses on these two guys in the room, which is what the whole story is.

"A lot of the time in these kinds of films, the victims are sort of relegated to the side and you see them for one scene and then they're dead, and you're always following the police or the bad guys.

"In this film, it's all about the two guys in this room and their psychology and I think to me that separates it a lot of other films that made me look and smell like this film does."

Shot in 18 days, the movie was originally rated NC-17 by the MPAA, but after some judicious editing, escaped with an R. Shown at Sundance in 2004, it was picked up for distribution by US company Lions Gate.

And while it launched to mixed reviews, its success was undeniable - it took in more than $55 million in the US alone and $102 million worldwide. Not a bad return for a $1 million investment.

A franchise was born…

Next: Saw Sequels

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Next: A Genre Defined: Hostel

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4. A Genre Defined: Hostel


Saw might have launched torture porn on to the world, but it was Eli Roth's 2005 film Hostel that inspired New York Magazine writer David Edelstein to famously coin the monicker. He based it on the fact that in hacker/slasher films and the likes of Hostel, squirts of blood are treated with the same fetishism as the money shot in porn.

And Roth's film certainly combined sex and death, with Hostel focused on a group of horny American tourists lured to what turns out to be a terrifying abattoir where people are tortured by those who pay for the, er, pleasure.

For Roth, the opportunity presented itself once he'd proved himself with Cabin Fever. "After that, I found myself in this great position where a lot of doors that had previously been closed opened. It's like you are on the outside, then all of the sudden, all the studios want to make movies with you.

"I started taking meetings and a lot of projects got sent to me to see if I wanted to direct them. They were just so bad, that you couldn't believe someone was actually going to go ahead and make the film…"

"So when the film came out, a lot of the do it yourself directors like Peter Jackson, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino who did it own their own were all so supportive and kept saying, just do another one.

"And I thought.... do I really want to follow a low budget horror film with another low budget horror film? Then I saw Saw and thought, why the f**k not? What, seven hundred or nine hundred grand in eighteen days?

"It was a f*****g fun movie, and here I am waiting for these studio movies, so I just said f**k it, I'm tired of this....I'm tired of waiting.

"I wasn't sure what to do so I asked Guillermo Del Toro, and he said whatever gives you the biggest boner man, 'cause you can't work without a boner man, you gotta wake up with a rager.... you have got to have such a boner! And that's when I said, he's right! It's as simple as that.

"Then I asked Quentin Tarantino. I said I'm not sure what to do next. I mean, I could do this $35 million film or this $10 million film and he was like, what are the ideas, what are you thinking about?

"I pitched the idea and he said that is the scariest f*****g idea I have ever heard! That is so disturbing that someone would want to go into a room and kill somebody for the thrill of it! Like it was a sexual act... You've gotta write that, this could be your Takashi Miike film!"

Inspired a website link he'd been sent by Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool and bolstered by the frothing support of his filmmaking peers, Roth scraped up the money to make his film.

While he relishes the gory ride he takes audiences on, even Roth admits that his films are about more than just the horror.

"I don't want to like cram morality down anyone's throat, but that's what definitely influenced the story. You just see these guys and the way they talk about hookers and girls.

"I've also noticed a trend in pornography lately, where there are all these humiliation sites... all about tricking out girls.

"And you like know it's fake, but there is still someone at home getting off on humiliating girls. Sex is not enough anymore, and there are like fifteen exploitation websites that have all just popped up, and I think that guys think that about Eastern Europe and that the girls are gonna f**k them just because they are American."

Hostel found the typically split reviews but also the success that had helped Saw. Made for $4.8 million, it ended up with around $80 million and begat Hostel: Part II, which arrived in 2007.

Sadly for Roth, the follow-up, which focused on a group of girls getting suckered and slaughtered in a similar situation, didn't perform nearly as well. Despite a $10 million budget, the film leaked online before release and in any case, no one seemed as enthusiastic about the second run-around.

Hostel: Part II made $35 million on release. The tide was slowly turning against the torture…

Next: The Captivity Controversy And More

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Next: Beyond Hollywood

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Next: Remakes Muscle In

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You talk to a ton of producers who started in horror and then go and become big guys; our aspirations, although we do want to branch out, the branching out is simply because we feel like the stories we've told are starting to feel a little bit repetitive.

"I mean, I'll be in locations and I'll say to Drew, 'Didn't we do this exact shot?' Do you know what I'm saying? You hunger for something new. But when they say that we're just doing this for the money, that drives me insane."

Hell, even the Saw team have seen the opportunity as too good to resist. In the last few weeks, the producers snatched the rights to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre from the Platinum Dunes bods and are planning their own fresh franchise.

And unlike many of its contemporaries, Saw has stayed strong. At least, until now…

Next: Bleeding Dry?

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8. Bleeding Dry?


Horror has always been cyclical (or, if you prefer, sick-lical). One type of terror rises as others fall, the genre has so many iterations that it's easy for one to take over for a while.

And, more often than not, eras spawn their own horror genres - with torture porn born from not only thoughts of torture itself (spotlighted by the controversy of Guantanamo Bay) but also the ever-increasing influence of the 'net.

Hostel was directly inspired by the growth of online shockers and ties directly in to the seemingly endless human need for the next

And, right now, despite the budgets staying relatively low, it appears that torture porn might be on the wane. As mentioned, horror remakes, which channel a lot of the gore-some action into retreads of old slasher films, took over as more successful at the box office.

Plus the latest Saw film - Saw VI - failed to display the usual box office power. For years, the movies have been guaranteed earners for Lions Gate, crushing all comers around Halloween.

This time, however, demonic happenings triumphed over detailed traps as Paramount's micro-budgeted, 'net fandom-powered Paranormal Activity triumphed, despite being released in 1,000 fewer cinemas.

Don't count out the Saw films and their ilk just yet, though. Lions Gate is plunging ahead with Saw VII, which is apparently planning to aim for the 3D trend.

And while the outlay remains low and the rewards still possible, studios will keep sponsoring the likes of Eli Roth and co.

Who knows? Even if torture porn dies in its current incarnation, it can always rise from the grave in a few years or a couple of decades, spurred by a first-time director with a great idea and a whole new twist of the knife…

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