Steve Jones, ‘Torture Porn’, reviewed by Xavier Aldana Reyes

Posted by Xavier Aldana Reyes on November 25, 2013 in Reviews tagged with , , ,

Steve Jones, Torture Porn: Popular Horror after Saw (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

When I started researching my doctoral thesis, which would include an extensive chapter on the workings of affect in torture porn, there was hardly any secondary material available on this recent horror subgenre. Later, as I started talking to colleagues and friends about my research, I was often asked why I had chosen such a grisly and bleak topic of study. There was even one particular instance where an academic challenged the cultural value of films such as Saw (James Wan, 2004) and asked me to justify their study. A few years later, there is a considerable and growing academic market for torture porn, with articles published in international peer-reviewed journals, and universities such as my own teaching Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005) in their courses on genre film. Although recent work (Middleton 2010, Patton 2013, Wallis and Aston 2013, Allen 2013) has shown the thematic and narrative complexity of individual films, an authoritative examination of this phenomenon as a whole was missing. This is why I was very excited to learn that Steve Jones, whose work on snuff films and horrorporn I had found particularly helpful in the past, was working on this volume. The result is an excellent defence of torture porn that manages to contain all the debates surrounding this umbrella term and still provide a number of interesting, original and influential propositions. Covering forty-five key texts plus many less well-known ones, this book is the first port of call for anyone with a serious interest in torture porn.

Jones’s intention is twofold. Firstly, he aims to problematize and challenge the most common reactions to torture porn, as well as the incredibly subjective and often poorly-argumented reasons for its systematic reviling. As he very accurately notes, the problem is that the term ‘torture porn’ has even become a pejorative adjective to be given to inferior material within horror cinema for fans (p. 50). Secondly, contrary to a number of critics who have argued the relevance of torture porn through connections with its socio-historical context (Kellner 2010, Kattelman 2010, Wetmore 2012), Jones understands it to be fertile ground for the exploration of the limits of torture and the ethical conundrums raised by their survival scenarios. This entails a breakdown of the term itself and the debunking of a number of negative assumptions – the films portray misogyny and are intended for a sadist and non-sophisticated male teenage market – that duplicate the reception of similar material in the 1960s and 1970s (p. 3). Jones addresses these inaccuracies by ‘analysing “torture porn” discourse’ itself as well as ‘the broader contexts implied by referring to horror movies as “extreme” or “pornographic”’ (p. 2). This means that a couple of chapters assess the positioning of torture porn with regard to filmic subgenres such as extreme porn and hardcore horror that have largely escaped the academic eye. The results are insightful: the comparative analysis reveals the abuse of a terminology in serious need of revision.

The book is divided into three parts. The first one ‘“Torture Porn” (Category)’, starts by discussing the pejorative connotations of the label as it is ascribed to a body of texts that often have little in common. This leads Jones to focus on the press discourse that surrounded the release of films such as Hostel: Part II (Eli Roth, 2007) or Captivity (Roland Joffé, 2007) and the fans and directors that have sometimes borrowed the term for similar purposes. Part two, ‘“ Torture” (Morality)’ is perhaps the most eye-opening, as it shows how the positions afforded to the viewer in torture porn films are a lot more organic than has been allowed. Focusing on the connections established between the body of the film and the ‘emotive impact’ (p. 74) that specific choices of mise-en-scène, structure or camerawork encourage, Jones complicates the sadistic position often ascribed to the torture porn viewer. The contextualisation of torture, as well as its appropriation for the purposes of mutilation in these films, highlights the potential appeal of ‘experiencing characters’ moral dilemmas’ (p. 61). The last part, ‘“Porn” (Extremity)’ takes issue with the ‘porn’ metaphor and turns to various examples of extreme porn to probe its limitations. Jones shows the use of ‘porn’ to be an exaggeration to refer to material that received theatrical releases and was, in the case of its most popular texts, a mainstream success appealing to viewers outside the horror market. Taken together, the three parts offer an interesting mosaic of all the notions that comingle when the term ‘torture porn’ is invoked. His conclusions, that torture porn has been rejected due to a sustained refusal to engage with the texts in hand at a conceptual level (p. 190), is crucial in driving forward academic discussions by putting the onus on future critic’s analyses of specific texts.

Torture Porn is a significant achievement and represents a welcome transvaluation in the academic reception of the genre. Jones’s style remains clear, succinct and jargon-free throughout and the book provides a host of eminently quotable passages. His methodology, which includes considerations of press and fan responses, as well as brief case studies of the technical strategies of relevant films that serve to illustrate his points, ensures that the conclusions are reliable and not based on personal opinion. His definition of torture porn as films that ‘(a) were made (roughly) after 2003, (b) centralise abduction, binding, imprisonment, and torture (mental or physical), and (c) broadly belong to the horror genre’ (p. 8 ) promises to become a standard citation for scholars wanting to complicate the one provided by Edelstein in 2006. It is too early to say that Torture Porn is the definitive book on the subject, but it will most definitely stand as a landmark study of this phenomenon. Its conclusions resonate more widely in the field of Horror Studies, as the discussions push the boundaries of what we understand as extreme or indecent. Jones’s positioning of torture porn alongside the slasher and other similarly lambasted subgenres, is useful and begins to offer the type of critical hindsight that is sometimes missing from work in this area.

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