Kevin Smith’s movie Tusk (2014), several reviewers note, reimagines the plot line of The Human Centipede (2009). Spoiler alert — for both your film knowledge and your appetite — both of these films are about dismembering, suturing, and fabricating people into monstrous creatures. Which raises the questions: why would we possibly need a monster dismemberment movie twice? And what do we get from having a new version, now?
Tusk shows us a hip podcaster seeking to interview “weirdos” in Canada, who is eventually ensnared by a deranged retired seaman and slowly turned into a walrus complete with tusks on his face fashioned from his own leg bones (if you have to ask about the centipede, you’re in a good place, trust me). In what is perhaps an insertion of his tongue into his cheek, Smith’s human-walrus is taken to an island where he/it takes on all qualities of the animal, flopping about, squawking, and using his tusks as weapon in battle. It’s creepy but it’s supposed to be funny too.
Besides the difference in tone between the ridiculous walrus and the serious centipede (though, let’s face it, the centipede is still the butt of many jokes), there’s an important difference between these movies that marks two distinct cultural moments. The Human Centipede was made during a span of time in the 2000’s when horror movies meant to be shocking for the sake of their own perversity and shock value. Critics label such gratuitously grotesque flics as “torture porn.” Tusk, on the other hand, like several horror movies over the last few years, offers commentary upon that very filmmaking trend. New horror films like Tusk deliver an argument against previous horror films; they make a collective case for allegory and the need to look for deeper meanings. And they do so by installing literal and figurative depth in the movies themselves.
Depth in horror is resurfacing. Take the recent thriller As Above, So Below. Descending into the catacombs beneath Paris is the premise of the film. Alongside other horror films released in just the past few years (most notably The Cabin in the Woods and The Purge saga), these movies, while filled with a surfeit of guts and gore to give us that creepy crawly skin inflicted sensation we’ve come to crave, add depth and levels of complexity, literally, to their stories.
To understand this, we need to read these films against the torture porn they reject: Hostel, The Hills have Eyes, Wolf Creek, Saw. “Torture porn” was labeled as such because it presented audiences with the thinnest of plots in which characters were lost, captured, and subsequently made to endure some of the most hardcore, graphically disturbing, viscerally repulsive sequences ever spliced into sequences of major Hollywood films. No narrative development was necessary, just the juiciest bits of sheer terror to affect the audience. The scene triumphed over the story; blood spilt was money made. Critics debate exactly how and why “torture porn” enjoyed such a box office boom, yet correctly contextualize these movies in terms of their reflection of a political anxiety concerning actual torture during the time of the War on Terror. But I think we can go deeper still.
Affected too deeply by so much on the surface
My question is seemingly a superficial one: why the word “porn?” Rhetorically, the word “porn” carries weight and force as a term of judgment. It’s what critics such as Slavoj Zizek like to call a “discourse of disavowal.”[i] By that, Zizek and others mean to say that we often do not simply dismiss things as unimportant out of a lack of interest. Rather, we might be heavily invested in turning a something into a nothing. Vociferously espousing the depthlessness of a cultural artifact as mere “pornography” belies a hidden secret then, a passionate investment, or in other words, a deep feeling. So, when a movie with graphic torture sequences such as The Passion of the Christ (2004) hits upon the audience’s gaze, it is not simply a lackluster story or off the mark, it is wretched, vile, disturbing, and to be jettisoned as “downright pornographic.”[ii] It can’t be a story; it shouldn’t exist at all. How dare he!… Mel Gibson, that is, not Jesus Christ.
In using the phrase “torture porn” to describe horror films premised on shock value conveyed through little or no plot, I believe one grasps at an intense aversion to violence without context. One expresses a repudiation of meaningless horror. “Pornographic” here means torture for torture’s sake, the indulgence in the signifying image of terror without the sign system that makes it meaningful. Afterall, this is what porn is – only the sign of sex, nothing but the excessive imagery of sex without the story or vehicles of desire that make the sex more “meaningful” (which, dear readers, we can probably agree doesn’t necessarily doom its occasional enjoyment).
Contextualizing horror away from senseless and purposeless acts of violence is the current business of newer horror movies. In a movement against the decontextualized images of violence, “depth” is resurfacing as a kind of ‘return of the repressed.’ Meaningful context is back with a vengeance, and it’s out for blood! Horror flics are now less a pornographic clip show of strewn together spectacles and more a self reflexive set of stories premised on figuring the depth of the horror as an element of the plot itself (but note, this obviously doesn’t make them better movies, just more robust in meaning in that they trend toward meaningfulness itself).
What lies, beneath…
While the blood and terror undoubtedly still serve as major elements of the story (compulsory even, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would attest) there is an overt shift toward narratives that aim to explain why the horror exists in the manner it does. The aberrant and abhorrent personal desire to inflict maniacal and mechanical types of torture in Hostel, Saw, and The Hills have Eyes, has given way to deeper, political, and mythologized spaces that explain the terror internally to the film.
As Above, So Below, for example, gives us a tale of explorers in search of the forever elusive and mythological object, the philosopher’s stone. From the streets of Paris above, they descend into the catacombs below only to find the supposed gateway to hell awaiting them. The Purge saga is premised on the idea that a new ‘contract with America’ has legitimated a temporary social space in which all violence is legal for a twelve hour span once each year. The Purge: Anarchy reveals a secret obstacle course/stage in which wealthy 1%’ers hunt lower middle class captives while other elites watch from behind protective glass.
Most telling, Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods narrativizes the traditional horror script itself, allowing characters to realize that their actions, their story, is being controlled by deeper forces. Their search for the wellspring of secret powers inflicting horror upon them leads directly into the groundwork beneath them – an elevator shaft, then a control bunker, and finally into the realm of the mythological gods for whom they are to be sacrificed.
Whedon’s film is the overt turning point in a cultural metanarrative that reframes how horror tales are spun. He himself lays bare the justification for his film by noting how he was “pissed seeing terror morph into torture porn that drowns the human element in buckets of blood.”[iii] The Cabin in the Woods is a bit of a horcrux for Whedon, his passion for a kind of mythology that might reinvigorate the horror genre deeply embedded in his text as the living spirit responsible for moving the characters themselves. Disavowing torture porn through his Cabin, he reveals his desire for blood spilt at a higher cost and for a grander purpose. He desperately wants movies to change. And for those who refer to his film as a “game changer” it did. There’s still a perverse pleasure in horror here, but a robust, romantically inflected one. Whedon’s Cabin is a love letter to the horror genre but delivered with the blow of an axe. With “torture porn” somewhat eviscerated (still alive but barely, like a zombie, of course), other horror films such as Tusk now seek the depths to which Whedon’s reached.
A little space for a conclusion
Newer horror movies have moved us to consider confined spaces of terror within literal and figurative depths of the plot. These films illuminate the ways in which we think about entrenched spaces of violence, those hidden and behind the scenes, as it were.
We tend to name violence by the space that it’s in. From the documentary Chicagoland to the events of “Ferguson,” violent spaces often come to the rhetorical forefront of the ways in which we talk about and consider violence. Major motion pictures, from The Hunger Games to Divergent to the upcoming Maze Runner, also signify this preoccupation with carved out spaces of violence. What exactly these movies say about spaces of violence is a rich, upcoming question, but one ought at least recognize the call that such films make (one embedded deeply but overtly in the text at the same time) for us to get away from gore and back into allegory.
Niko Poulakos: is a rhetorician but only nominally.
1 Check out writing on the topic of “fetishistic disavowal” for more on this. See Zizek, Slavoz (2000). The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. London and New York: Verso.
2 Richmond, Ray. “’Passion’ – Pornography for the Whole Family?” Hollywood Reporter 2 Mar. 2004.
3 Travers, Peter. “The Cabin in the Woods.” Rolling Stone 12 Apr. 2012.