The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



The problems with horror’s new subgenre

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, October 25, 2006

There’s a disturbing new trend in horror films, punctuated by recent pictures like the “Saw” movies, “Hostel” and, most recently, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” These movies represent the torture film, a fledgling subgenre of horror that depends on watching men and women as they are brutally tortured by various assailants.

The original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was reactionary, but at least it had reason to be. Released in 1974, its horrific violence and inversion of American values was a grotesque response to the social upheaval of the previous decade; a response to Watergate, to Vietnam, to the Summer of Love. “The Beginning” pays lip service to those issues but the façade of its topical awareness quickly falls to the wayside once the bloodletting begins.

It’s been argued to me that these films are, in a way, cathartic. That in the age of the encompassing media, of the internet, of 24/7 news coverage, of constant depiction of violence both fictional and real, of watching reporters being beheaded, that we’ve become numb; the only way that we as a society can react to such violence is to see it in gory detail, sympathize with the characters, then walk out of the theater in catharsis, having seen and survived the visual and auditory onslaught being presented.

I don’t believe this argument; or perhaps more accurately, I don’t want to believe it. The torture subgenre is almost pornographic in its visceral intensity – what kind of pleasures are audiences expected to derive from watching realistic pain inflicted on other humans? Are audiences even supposed to derive pleasure from it? If not, then what’s the point? These films aren’t really any kind of effective commentary on anything and the plots are window dressings for the torture, which is the real draw.

“Texas Chainsaw: The Beginning” tries to build on the foundation of its mythology, but no insight is given into anything. We don’t learn more about Leatherface. We aren’t given motivation for why these people kill. We just watch and wait for unsuspecting teens to stumble into their trap.

The violence in a film like “Jaws” is effective precisely because it is so unexpected and so brief, and the violence in a film like Luis Bunuel’s 1928 surrealist masterpiece “Un Chien Andalou” is effectively because it is so imaginative. Seeing a woman’s eye cut with a razor was shocking in 1928 precisely because it was irrational, it was indecipherable, it was repulsive. But those very qualities were somehow alluring in the artistic hands of Bunuel and Dali – the sequences have some kind of meaning, even if that meaning is obscure or incomprehensible. In short, Spielberg and Bunuel trust their audience. They trust them to understand the violence and the meaning of the violence without necessarily seeing it in gory detail. The greatest impact from these films comes not from what is seen, but from what is not seen – the imagination takes care of the rest.

The horror genre has endured because it appeals to our darkest nature, our most fearful beliefs; it cuts to the core of our deepest instincts, to the point that we are electrified, terrified and, most importantly, galvanized. The problem with the modern horror film, the modern torture film, is that our primary reaction is not fear or terror, but disgust. The torture subgenre leaves little to the audience’s imagination, which actually makes them less scary and less effective. Nowhere is this more evident than in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning,” which pales in comparison to the classic 1974 original. The feeling is different. Now we are too sick to look, whereas once we were too scared to look away.