With Escape Room 2 and the latest Saw both released this summer, the discussion around ‘torture porn’ had cropped back up.

When James Wan and Leigh Whannell unleashed Saw on the world in 2004, it’s hard to imagine that they’d have known the impact their cheaply-made horror-thriller would have. Produced on a shoestring budget of just $1.2 million, the first-time director Wan and screenwriter Whannell managed to revolutionise the horror genre. Of course, horror cinema is no stranger to controversy – the much-reviled ‘video nasties’ epidemic of the 1980s proves that – but Saw was an entirely different type of beast.

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Rarely had a horror film zeroed in so tightly on the infliction of suffering on others. Gone were the days of cartoonish figures like Freddy and Jason, massacring chauvinistic teens across dozens of sequels – this was a brand of horror renowned for focusing on the grisly bits. Of course, Wan and co. weren’t the first to try out the idea. David Fincher’s Se7en is an undoubted reference point, from the methodical motivations of the serial killer to a gut-punch of a third-act twist. Saw just seemed to take it to a different level, focusing not only on the plucky detectives trying to stop the killer, but devoting scenes upon scenes to their helpless victims.

It’s that crucial caveat that helped Saw, and its subsequent barrage of (far more graphic) sequels, to gain the label of ‘torture porn’. It’s a title often prescribed upon low-budget, splatter-heavy horror B-movies, labelling them as nothing more than puerile examples of cinema at its most exploitative. But it’s one that’s rarely warranted, let alone desired. Wan himself, architect of the original Saw, has expressed his displeasure towards the label. When asked in an interview by IndieWire in 2011 whether he was tired of the term following him and his work, his answer was simple: “let me ask you this… have I made another film like Saw?”

Wan really isn’t wrong, either. His subsequent horror films, like Insidious or Dead Silence, are relatively blood-free, honing in on the supernatural much more than the visceral. It’s also worth remembering, though, that the original Saw really isn’t the gore-fest that people remember it being. Aside from the eponymous hacksaw-based set piece, it’s a remarkably restrained horror flick, with a lot more left to the imagination than its array of sequels.

But if someone like Wan, who supposedly paved the way for the contemporary ‘torture porn’ label, is rejecting it, then why is the term still so frequently ascribed to horror releases?

Of all horror directors currently working, there are two who seem to embrace the ‘torture porn’ category with open arms: Tom Six and Eli Roth.

Six is best known as the brain behind the Human Centipede trilogy, films famed for their excessive violence, offensive imagery, and relentlessly grisly tone. Rather than shying away from the flak his films caught, Six seems to revel in it. In an Entertainment Weekly interview prior to the release of The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence), he said that “filmmaking like this, is so much fun… for me, like comedy”.

Six is, presumably, no sadist, but rather a filmmaker willing to use his medium to its absolute limit; to convey ideas others are simply would rather ignore, and to explore why we don’t want to see them. The same can be said for Roth: the first Hostel film released just a year after Wan’s Saw, and was everything that film isn’t: bloody, puerile, and intentionally, explicitly brutal. If any film deserves the title of torture porn pioneer, it’s Hostel – as unlike Saw, it peered behind the curtain of restraint to show viewers pretty much everything.

That’s why these types of films court so much controversy. Some see them as over-the-top, narcissistic exercises in revolting audiences as much as possible, while directors like Six see them as a chance to push creative boundaries. Both The Human Centipede and Hostel franchises are now defunct, and nothing quite as visceral as them has hit cinemas since – but that isn’t to say that the ‘torture porn’ concept has died down.

Just this year, the Saw franchise was revived with the Chris Rock-starring Spiral: From The Book Of Saw. If anything is proof of torture porn going mainstream, it’s this: Rock and Samuel L Jackson teaming up to defeat a puppet-wielding killer is about as popcorn flick as it gets. Equally, we recently saw Escape Room: Tournament Of Champions, a sequel to 2019’s PG-13 torture porn-lite Escape Room. These films aren’t reviled or censored any more, like Six and Roth faced. Instead, they’re some of the tentpole summer horrors as cinemas gradually return to a state of normality.

This all positions the ‘torture porn’ category in a very confusing, and unstable, place. On one hand, there’s some filmmakers that revel in the controversy around the label, while other horror purists prefer to let their tension do the talking, rather than the gore. On a syntactical level, the term ‘torture porn’ is hugely loaded: implying the intersection of real, physical suffering and illicit pornographic material. None of these films — at least the mainstream, franchise-based entries — court that label at all.

Ultimately, it’s a debate that ought to boil down to the will of the minds behind ‘torture porn’ films. Wan made it clear from day one that Saw was in no way meant to be controversial by nature. His mainstream success since that film’s release, with Fast And Furious and Aquaman movies under his belt, proves that the term isn’t as damning as to entirely derail a filmmaker’s career. However, it’s an undeniably reductive term that attempts to boil the complex process of making a movie into a superficial look at how many litres of blood the film contains.

Luckily, it does seem like Hollywood, and audiences, are taking a step back from the ‘torture porn’ category. Perhaps it better describes a cultural phenomenon in the mid-noughties: the minor moral panic around the content of these films, and whether they cross the boundary of poor taste. That’s something that is ultimately up to the audience, and despite the term losing its cultural currency, these films keep coming out, and landing with audiences. That’s all the proof you need that we shouldn’t label them as ‘torture porn’ – they’re horror films, in the genre where they belong.

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