During a notorious incident at the Sundance Film Festival, a viewer leaped to his feet after the premiere of Lucky McKee’s movie The Woman and began to protest: ‘This movie degrades women! This movie degrades men! You are sick! This is not art! You are sick! This is a disgusting movie! Sundance should be ashamed! How dare you show this!’
As security approached, he continued: ‘Anyone else who’d like to talk in a similar mind about the degradation of women like this come outside and we’ll talk …’
A woman yelled in response: ‘Are you a woman?’
Footage on YouTube shows the man arguing his point as he is led from the building. ‘This is not art; this is bullshit! This is degradation of women, in an absolute way.’ The hurt look in his eyes is striking: they rove around as if he is searching for something, trying to make sense of events.
Becoming more strident, he says, ‘This film ought to be confiscated, burned.’
Then he calms a little. ‘I couldn’t take it,’ he reflects. Then he turns on the audience: ‘They cheered, for women being beaten up, abused, raped, boys being taught to rape. They’re cheering for that!’
Like many recent horror movies, The Woman contains extreme violence. Some have called it ‘torture porn’, part of a movement that began with Saw in 2004 and that includes the Hostel series, Wolf Creek and other films distinguished not just by their level of violence but also by their realism. Where in many horror movies violence is trashy and fantastical, in torture porn it aims to be as graphic as possible, with cameras fixed steadily on the victim.
In Hostel, for instance, the young male characters are lured to Slovakia by the promise of sex with beautiful eastern European women. The titular hostel proves an elaborate front for a business in which the rich can buy someone to murder with buzz-saws, drills, razors, knifes, chainsaws, blowtorches and so on. Online reviewer David Poland described Hostel II as containing ‘the most disgusting, degrading, misogynistic, soulless shit I have ever seen in a movie that is going to be released widely in this country’.
Interestingly, contemporary critiques of torture porn repeat arguments made against the ‘splatter’ or ‘knife kill’ films of the 1980s. More often than not, women bore the brunt of that filmic violence: hacked apart by knives, dismembered by chainsaws and generally terrorised with other implements. That was why, for the writer Harlan Ellison, knife kill flicks were ‘blatant reactionary responses to the feminist movement in America’.
Yet, when the man at Sundance made similar arguments, he met with opposition. According to one report, as Lucky McKee took to the stage, a group of women leapt up, fists clenched, to defend him. Reviewer Drew McWeeny, who was present at the premiere, also defended the filmmaker:
Lucky McKee is, without question, a radical feminist horror filmmaker … His sensitivity towards his actresses, and the perspective each of his films takes, is practically political. He returns to themes of power inequality and gender struggle, and he externalizes his subtext.
All of this raises an important question: can extreme filmic violence be progressive, even when it’s directed at women?
Horror has always been a deeply political genre. Reflecting on the genre’s ability to reveal and critique a range of social anxieties, Stephen King writes:
[T]he horror genre has often been able to find national phobic pressure points, and those books and films which have been the most successful almost always seem to play upon and express fears which exist across a wide spectrum of people. Such fears, which are often political, economic, and psychological rather than supernatural, give the best work of horror a pleasing allegorical feel – and it’s the sort of allegory that most filmmakers seem at home with.
Because horror exudes a sense that there is something profoundly wrong with the world, its political unconscious splits the genre into either films of the radical Left or the radical Right. Horror unhinges the notion that everything is all right, which is why it tends to be resolutely anti-liberal. As Terry Eagleton argues:
That things are very bad, by the way, is the kind of simple-minded claim that distinguishes radicals from liberal reformers, though not as it happens from some conservatives. Astonishingly, in a form of social life that is unable to live up even to its own very partial ideals, liberals, pragmatists and modernisers cling to their extraordinarily utopian delusion that there is nothing fundamentally wrong. Conservatives, by contrast, are quite right to see that there is something fundamentally wrong; it is just that they tend to be mistaken about what it is. The most blatantly naïve form of idealism is not socialism, but the belief that, given enough time, capitalism will feed the world. Just how long do you let such a view run before judging it discredited?
By treading on the fault lines of accepted wisdom, horror disrupts what Antonio Gramsci has called ‘common sense’, those elements of ideology that have become ‘self-evident’. A criticism of the banality and emptiness of everyday life, of the notion that the world is fine, is precisely the ground on which the Left and the Right meet. That is why, as Stephen King notes, the popularity of horror ‘almost always seems to coincide with periods of fairly serious economic and/or political strain, and the books and films seem to reflect those free-floating anxieties’.
Disturbance, rather than fear, is the dominant emotion of horror, and one of the key techniques through which horror creates disturbance is violence. For liberalism, violence is not essential to society. The radical Left and the political Right have always had different positions about violence’s place, but both agree that it is part of the social fabric. For a Marxist like Friedrich Engels, the state itself is first and foremost a ‘body of armed men’, just as for conservatives like Thomas Hobbes or Carl Schmitt, a strong state is necessary to forcibly protect us from the repressed war of all against all.
Furthermore, for the fascist Right, violence possesses a distinct mythical quality. Fascism draws upon the Romantic criticism of instrumental rationality and industrial society, as well as the Nietzschean concept of the superman, to present violence as a reclamation of authenticity in a soulless world. When life is bereft of meaning; when everything is attenuated by the grubbiness of commercialisation; when people have simply become cogs in an industrial and bureaucratic machine; with the death of truth and God; with, in other words, the rise of industrial capitalism, violence (and, more broadly, war) becomes, for the radical Right, a way of cleansing both individuals and societies. The authentic ‘man’ (and it is almost always men) must be forged in fire and blood.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the most violent of genres, horror, should swing both to the Left and Right – but very rarely stays in the middle.
In one common conservative narrative, the ‘evil’ is an external threat that intrudes upon a small town or suburbia. This threat must thus be expunged, not by mediation or the calm discourse of liberalism, but by violence. The vampire must be staked, the monster driven out, everyday order restored, the community returned to a world of common sense. The monster, and monstrosity, Stephen King claims, ‘fascinates us because it appeals to the conservative Republican in a three-piece suit who resides within all of us. We live and need the concept of monstrosity because it is a reaffirmation of the order we all crave as human beings.’
In another narrative – as in, say, zombie movies – it is that very small town or suburban life which is itself the ‘evil’. In the 1950s, such internal threats were ambiguous expressions not only of the fear of the other (communism, homosexuality etc.) but also (and sometimes at the same time) representations of the left-wing critiques expressed by C Wright Mills, John Kenneth Galbraith and others who, as Todd Gitlin puts it, ‘agreed that the heroic individual was paying a steep price – in autonomy and meaning – for the security and comfort he was reaping from the managed, bureaucratically organised society.’
Again, that ambiguity. The yearning for individual heroism could be deeply reactionary but, as Richard Pells points out, such theorists also contributed to the left-wing radicalisation of the 1960s:
[T]heir disdain for suburbia and the mentality of the organization man, their disparagement of conformity, and their exasperation with the middle-class hunger for success and respectability encouraged an even greater preoccupation in the 1960s with the psychological consequences of materialism and mechanization, with the boredom and frustrations inherent in modern work, with the failure of capitalism to offer opportunities for emotional gratification and a sense of personal fulfilment.
By the 1970s, in Dawn of the Dead, the main characters find themselves trapped in a huge suburban mall, surrounded by zombies. The critique of commodity society is obvious.
The rise of torture porn reflects a general shift towards darker, more cynical attitudes in film. Speaking about his book The Philosophy of Horror, Thomas Fahy notes that recent remakes of horror movies from the 1980s are ‘a lot darker’:
When you think of Nightmare on Elm Street in the ’80s, that is a scary movie; but the campy, ridiculous humour of it, which is part of the fun of the film, is absent from the remake. It’s similar to the new James Bond films, and if you compare the Batman of the ’80s to the current one, they couldn’t be any more different. In our current cultural moment, that kind of humour is not going to speak to people.
Defenders of torture porn claim that the genre responds to the collapse of notions of progress and security in the face of ongoing wars, state-sanctioned torture, the breakdown of civil liberties and so on: in other words, that the films are not expressions of misogyny, nihilism or degeneracy, but criticisms of them. Such a reading is offered by Jerod Ra’Del Hollyfield:
[Eli] Roth’s Hostel and Hostel: Part II employ the conventions of the horror genre to comment not only on the lingering effects of Cold War-era American nationalism after the fall of the Soviet Union but also on the commodification of the human body in a post-Cold War economy marked by globalized trade … Roth directly addresses America’s power within the framework of the contemporary globalized world: the power of American capitalism’s influence on former Soviet-block countries in the postwar era, the power of the male gaze interacting with the female body both onscreen and in audience reaction, the power of torture imagery in a climate marked by discourse on torture.
But is this true?
I would argue that what’s more significant about torture porn is its drive for an authenticity increasingly unavailable in a society where the market has penetrated all areas of social life. It’s as if the filmmaker were trying to say, ‘Look, this is real, it’s not the sort of fantasy violence you get in fake, manufactured films.’
The obsession with the ‘real’ offers, once again, an implicit critique of everyday capitalism. But it is a deeply reactionary critique, in which violence itself is presented as somehow liberatory.
In this search for ‘real’ authenticity, torture porn – like far-Right politics itself – ultimately fails, for it too is constructed as a commodity, with violence as its ‘unique selling point’. This is why arguments like Hollyfield’s do not convince. Whatever oblique references Hostel makes to Abu Ghraib signify very little, since the violence breaks off from the narrative and becomes an end in itself, with the camera lingering lovingly on the body of the victim as it is cut, hacked and scorched. The Guardian’s Pete Cashmore captures this logic:
Let’s drown a man in liquidised pigs! Let’s make a man’s head explode in a specially rigged microwave oven! Let’s throw a cat on to a hard floor covered entirely in acid! Yeah! Let’s!
Not surprisingly, the drive for authenticity has a tendency towards sexism, to a depiction of what men and women are ‘really’ like. After all, one of the deepest forms of authenticity is to be found in conventional gender roles: the ‘superman’ who is active, virile, at heart a warrior. In some torture porn films, the victims are male, but the killers are always male – and it is the women who usually come in for the worst punishment.
Thus torture porn in its form and subject matter reflects the serious – if repressed – anxieties generated by the neoliberal order. The increasing atomisation brought about by neoliberal marketisation brings about deep uncertainties about who we are: life is reduced to commercial transactions; everything is suffused by money. Great social projects of the past are gone. There is no such thing as society, as Margaret Thatcher once put it.
If, in the 1950s, horror critiqued society ambiguously from both Left and Right simultaneously, and, in the 1960s and 1970s, the genre shifted to the Left, the intensification of capitalist relations in the last twenty years, along with the near defeat of the social movements, has led to an intensification of a far-Right search for authenticity.
‘This is what’s real,’ say most torture porn movies of the violence they present. ‘Come and revel in it.’ And people do.
What then of The Woman?
The Woman tells the story of an American family. During a hunting trip, the father discovers a ‘wild woman’ living in the woods, apparently raised by wolves. He captures and chains her up in the family’s basement. Before long, he introduces her to his family. His cowed wife and troubled teenage daughter look on with horror, while his psychopathic son asks if they can really ‘keep her’. The ensuing events relentlessly examine the power relations of the patriarchal family, with the unquestioned violent men at the top and the broken women – like the wild woman herself – trapped and powerless. The Woman is a film about the all-American family as patriarchal nightmare.
What distinguishes The Woman from torture porn is the way that its violence (largely confined to the latter part of the movie) serves a larger narrative, at every point foregrounding the dangers inherent in the patriarchal family. The Woman’s point of view is, perhaps with the exception of the opening ten minutes, never ambiguous. Again and again, McKee’s film shows us the events through the eyes of the female characters. Indeed, eyes play an important role in the movie (and not in the same way as they do in Hostel, where a young Japanese backpacker ends up with one eyeball dangling on her cheek). McKee focuses relentlessly on the broken eyes of the mother, the forever darting and haunted gaze of the daughter, the unbowed eyes of the resistant wild woman.
Hence, as McKee himself claims, the ‘woman’ herself is a symbol of freedom, a version of what Carol J Clover calls the ‘final girl’, the victim hero with whom the audience, both men and women, eventually identify. But, unlike the slasher movies of the 1980s, the particular structure of The Woman means that the first half of the movie is not given over to celebratory violence against other victims. There is no shift in empathy from the killer to the ‘final girl’. Instead, our empathy is relentlessly focused on the wild woman – and the other women in the movie – from the beginning.
In other ways, the wild woman avoids the gendered responses we have come to expect: she doesn’t respond with fear when trapped, but with resistance. The denouement shows her to be independent and powerful. As McKee has explained, ‘We definitely didn’t want to make an exploitation picture.’
The Woman descends, in other words, from a feminist horror film like The Stepford Wives in which conservative values are the true horror.
One might object politically to The Woman’s too-tight focus: the film concentrates on the family to the virtual exclusion of other social relations, thus conflating women’s oppression solely with men and the family, rather than with the broader society. Still, the violence in the film – and it is not a movie for the fainthearted – rarely enters the realm of self-justification.
The man who leaped up at the premiere failed to make a distinction between a film’s events and the attitude the film takes to them. The lack of a context in which to process the movie – most obviously, the relative weakness of the contemporary feminist movement – seems an important aspect of his overwhelmed response. The film had clearly disturbed him enough for him to consider such things as the patriarchal nature of the family, domestic violence and so on, yet without any interpretative framework he could only understand an exposé as a celebration. Perhaps with the re-emergence of a stronger women’s movement, a film like The Woman, one which asks fundamental questions about gendered oppression, rather than reinforcing it, might not seem such a difficult thing to understand.