'Torturing' Terrorists for National Security? Bad. Torturing Teenagers for Entertainment? OK

The networks have been trying to stir up outrage over the so-called “torture memos” recently released by the Obama Administration. But it's a hard sell when Hollywood filmmakers continually unleash depraved violence labeled “entertainment” on movie-goers.

ABC's Jan Crawford Greenburg recounted on April 16 the interrogation methods approved for use by the Bush Justice Department. They included “facial slaps with fingers slightly spread, sleep deprivation for up to 11 days and the waterboard.” In the case of Al-Qaeda operative Abu Zabaydah, who was apparently afraid of insects, “torture” included “confinement in a small, dark box with a bug he believed could sting.” Greenburg also noted “additional harsh techniques on high value detainees … water dousing from pitchers or hoses with water as cold as 41 degrees.”

The news media is exorcised that some of the most evil men in the world had sleep deprivation, slaps to the face, cold water and icky bugs inflicted on them in an attempt to prevent attacks on Americans. Such laughable “tortures” are

horrendous when it comes to national security. Yet when its Americans on the big screen being burned, dismembered, blinded and disemboweled for entertainment, the networks remain largely silent.

Torture as Entertainment


Writer/actor/director Quentin Tarantinto appeared on ABC's “Nightline” prior to the release of his 2007 “Grindhouse,” a celebration of exploitation movies with director Robert Rodriguez and defended the use of graphic violence in film when asked if it “is a good thing for society.”

Tarantino rose to prominence with the critically acclaimed “Reservoir Dogs,” which features a lovingly filmed seven-minute sequence in which a dancing, joking sadist horribly tortures a police officer. So predictably, he told “Nightline” he didn't see anything wrong with that kind of violence on film. “To me, it's aesthetic, not a question of society. There is nothing you can do wrong in a movie.”

And that explains the attitude taken by the directors of the recent crop of horror movies in which they ramped up the gore and created ever-more grisly ways for their characters to die.

An October 30, 2006 TIME article credited the creators of the “Saw” series (gearing up for its sixth installment this fall) for bringing more blood-and-guts to the mainstream.

The first “Saw” hit theaters in 2004. It featured a killer who set his victims in vicious traps, allowing them the choice of performing gruesome deeds to save their lives, or dying as a result of not doing anything. For instance, one victim survived by digging the key to her trap out of the stomach of a living man. Another man ripped himself apart by trying to find his way through a web of barbed-wire.

TIME's Rebecca Winters Keegan wrote,“'Saw' was a huge hit, proving that mainstream audiences have an appetite for sadism – at least if it cleverly conceived.”

Since then, in addition to “Grindhouse,” movie-goers have been treated to such gore fests as Rob Zombie's 2005 “The Devil's Rejects,” in which a family of psychopathic killers run from the law,  2006's “The Descent,” in which a group of women exploring a cave in the Appalachian mountains find themselves at the merciless hands of human-like creatures, a 2006 remake of “The Hills Have Eyes” about mutants terrorizing a family after their vehicle breaks down in the Southwest and a 2007 sequel to “Hills Have Eyes,”

Just last month a remake of horror-master Wes Craven's “Last House on the Left” hit theaters, featuring a brutal rape scene that led Michael Rechtshaffen of The Hollywood Reporter to write, “the extreme brutality here can't help but feel more than a little exploitative, especially where the film's female victims are concerned.”

The 2006 movie “Hostel,” directed by Eli Roth and produced by Tarantino, focused on a pair of American men backpacking through Europe. They find themselves kidnapped and taken to a house of pain in which wealthy men pay for the opportunity to live out their most sadistic fantasies. The men, and some women, are shown tortured in brutal ways, including a scene in which a man burns a woman's eye with a blowtorch.

Even more disturbing than the movie itself was the fact that it made enough money to warrant a sequel. Ramped up with even more gore, the 2007 sequel, “Hostel: Part II,” featured a scene in which a naked woman bathes in the blood of another woman who is suspended above her.

Neither the “Saw” series nor the “Hostel” movies received much critical acclaim, but it appears to be the profit margin that continues to appeal to Hollywood.

As Gina McIntyre of the Los Angeles Times pointed out in a January 25, 2009 article, horror movies “need neither A-list actors nor expensive special effects nor marketing budgets to do well, a plus in these dour economic times.”

The first five “Saw” movies cost approximately $36.6 million to make and made over $342 million in domestic box office sales. Roth's “Hostel” movies cost a combined $15 million to produce and brought in over $65 million.

Apparently that's sufficient for Hollywood to consider horror movies successful enough to keep making them.

Excusing and Explaining it Away

Wes Craven, creator of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series, told Newsweek's Devin Gordon in 2006 that movies like “Saw” and “Hostel” did so well “because we're living in a horror show. The post-9/11 period, all politics aside, has been extremely difficult for the average American. We all know what's floating around out there. That's big stuff, and it comes out in a millions ways, from people drinking a bit more to kids going to hard-core movies.” (At least he didn't come right out and compare Dick Cheney to Michael Meyers).

Roth told NPR on June 9, 2007, that his movies come from “real-life” inspiration. He elaborated, “While we were recording the score for the first 'Hostel,' I turned on  television and Hurricane Katrina was on – bodies floating down the street, reports of people raping and shooting, and the police quit? Look around the world of what happens when you're in a society where no one is looking and no one is paying attention, you can do whatever you want. People revert immediately to the state of killing.”

Movie critics didn't necessarily buy Roth and Craven's lines. Teresa Wiltz of the Washington Post wrote in her January 7, 2006, review of “Hostel,” “You could argue that, by portraying rich yuppies paying to sate their lust for gore, Noth [sic] is sending up American greed and sense of entitlement. Arguing that would be a waste of time. 'Hostel' ain't that deep.”

USA Today's Scott Bowles said in his June 8, 2006 review of “Hostel: Part II,” “Roth has recently said that his movie has a political context, that it's meant to convey how Americans are seen by the rest of the world as crass, vile and boorish. The claim is dubious.”

Other directors don't try to hide their taste for showcasing the worst of human depravity. NPR's Neda Ulaby reported, “[Musician/director Rob] Zombie says in his movies, violence is not gratuitous – it's the point.” Ulaby also noted that Zombie “says extreme horror is simple escapism for some members of an increasingly jaded society.”

The Motion Picture Association of America, the organization that gives movies their ratings, doesn't appear to be doing much to stem the flow of gore that's made its way to mainstream movie theaters.

TIME's Keegan wrote:

The shuddering naked woman strung up in the meat locker was not the problem. Neither was the guy ripping through chains embedded in his flesh to dismantle a ticking bomb in front of him. What worried the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) when the ratings body screened Saw III, the latest installment in the lucrative, torture-based horror franchise, was the disturbing “tonality,” according to the film's director, Darren Lynn Bousman.

In the case of Tarantino and Rodriguez collaboration, “Grindhouse” at first received an NC-17 rating, but it secured an R-rating while still including the following:

    A fake movie trailer that showed Grandma trussed like a Thanksgiving turkey. A grossly obese man chewing on a baby in the trailer for the fake movie “Don't.” Tarantino as a guard with disintegrating genitals set on raping a one-legged go-go dancer. A wooden peg impaling Tarantino through his eye.

Networks try to inspire outrage over the use of sleep deprivation, cold water and non-stinging insects in keeping our nation safe. Yet given the lack of outrage over movie directors portraying the bottom level of human depravity, networks don't have a chance in this fight.

Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.