Thursday, December 07, 2006

Movies: Less fun than alligator bobbing.


My first exposure to the famed grindhouse shocker Blood Sucking Freaks (neĆ© House of the Screaming Virgins, a.k.a. The Incredible Torture Show, a.k.a. Sardu, Master of the Screaming Virgins, and so on . . .) was not cinematic. The first time I heard the film referenced was on De La Soul’s classic debut LP Three Feet High and Rising. If you’re unfamiliar with that group or their first album, the Soul was one of the last gasps of mainstream experimentalism in rap before bling-obsessed gangsta-ism became the norm for rap and truly unique artists either went to the backpack underground or roamed the music landscape as professional guest stars (this is how Q-Tip ended up in a Deee-lite song and KRS-One appeared on REMs Out of Time). The outfit consisted of two MCs and a DJ and they brought to their tracks a laid back, quirky, dense, and humorous style that was drenched in retro-60s hippie aesthetics. As a sort of framing device on their first album, the band pretended to be contestants on a game hosted by Tommy Boy producer Prince Paul. Mimicking the typical game show format, there was a short segment of host asking a series of mindless questions to the players in order to introduce them to the audience. One of the contestants announces that he likes to “alligator bob” and that his favorite movie is “Blood Sucking Freaks, just like your mama.” Whether he meant that he, like your mother, enjoyed the film or he meant that your mama was a blood-sucking freak was never clarified.

Now, having finally seen the film, I find it very odd that a group known for their hippie vibe name checked it. The spiritual predecessor of torture porn like Hostel and Touristas, Blood Sucking Freaks is as mean-spirited, shock-driven, and joyless a bit of cinema as your likely to find.

The film opens with two gentlemen, Sardu and some nameless character that never appears again, driving a van through the snow clogged streets of NYC in 1976. Sardu, we quickly learn, is the master of ceremonies of a Grand Guignol-style theater, The Theater of the Macabre, in SoHo. In this dirty and unfinished showplace, hip New Yorkers gather to watch Sardu as he apparently tortures a series of young women to death. What the theater-goers don’t know is that there is no clever slight of hand or stage effects in Sardu’s performances. He and his midget sidekick, Ralphus, are actually torturing and killing women on stage.

After taking viewers through a single performance – in which women are crushed in various torture devices, dismembered, get their eyes scooped out and eaten, and are otherwise definitively discomforted – the “plot” of the film lurches in sight. Among members of this initial audience are a famed critic, a famous football star, and a famous ballet performer. The latter two are a couple. After the show, Sardu and the critic have a confrontation. The critic dismisses Sardu’s show as crap and Sardu vows revenge. He hatches a scheme to prove to the critic that Theater of the Macabre is an artistic triumph. He decides to kidnap the critic and the ballet dancer and use them both in an S & M torture show ballet that, we assume, will the artistic pinnacle of Sardu’s career.

The rest of the movie alternates between four different sorts of scenes: 1) the QB and a sleazy NYPD detective searching for the dancer, 2) Sardu harassing the captive critic, 3) Sardu “convincing” the ballet dancer to perform by making her watch various tortures, and 4) random acts of torture that serve as scene breaks between the three others. Eventually, without much interference from logic or meaning, enough people die that the flick can no longer grind its way onward and the film comes to a sudden halt.

I’m not going to deny that there isn’t something weird compelling about much of Blood Sucking Freaks. Human suffering is, on an animal level, arresting to see. However, once the rubbernecking reflex relaxes, you’re left with a mess of a film. Much like the “plot” of porn flicks, the story here is little more than an excuse to frame scenes in which interchangeable nude females are tortured to death. The pointlessness is compounded by a near complete lack of characterization for everybody except Sardu. And Sardu, sadly, cannot save the film. Sadru minces across the stage either lecturing the audience on the artistic merits of torture or dropping lag-wit jokes that could have been delivered by Dr. Evil only on his most off days. On watching a woman get killed on a rack, Sardu says, “This will go far beyond every stretch of the imagination.” Oh, Sardu! You scandalous card! That’s what passes for clever satire in this film.

Lacking any other effective draw, Blood Sucking Freaks is thrown back upon its gore to deliver whatever cinematic goods the film can offer. The effects, while shocking on a conceptual level, almost always fall below expectations. For example, the blood used for most of the scenes appears to have been candy red house paint. The tortures rapidly become tiresome and the sheer number of hideous acts presented tends to deaden the effect of any one given scene rather than add to the overall horror. Actually, near the end, I found myself fast-forwarding through such scenes simply because they were getting boring. In short, less would have been considerably more.

Simply put, Blood Sucking Freaks is an archetypal example of the torture porn subgenre and it brings the strengths and weakness of that particular horror flick category into stark relief.

The entire subgenre of torture porn rests on a single, universal strength: The appearance of a wounded human body in a suffering state is an inherently a captivating image. Unless one is a sociopath, it is hard not to empathize and, to some degree, suffer along with a victim when one is presented to you (even in a fictionalized context). However, this empathy quickly overwhelms and the punch to the gut one feels fades fast. We get quickly calloused to the suffering of others. This is especially true when, as in the simulated suffering depicted in a film like Blood Sucking Freaks, one can’t do anything but watch or turn away. Helpless to stop the suffering, we thicken our sensibilities against it. And this is the fatal flaw behind all torture porn. It is forced by its own rules to play a game of constantly diminished returns. Every successful shock must be followed by a succession of more horrific shocks to counter the viewers' rising levels of numbness.

There is, however, an out from this spiral. The numbness that I believe creeps over the watcher is a product not just of shock, but of futility in the face of horror. It is a fatalism born out of the meaninglessness of resisting suffering. Consequently, when resistance isn’t futile, I don’t think the audience has the same reaction. The horror stays sharp because there is some hope that it can be defeated or otherwise overcome. When there is a genuine conflict and the end is not clearly already decided, then every shock is registered fresh as part of a moving, changing situation. Even smaller incidents are magnified because they are relevant for the outcome of the scene. Humans pay attention to the meaningful. For this meaningful conflict to happen, the victims need to be protagonists. Furthermore, viewers have to care about their fates. This doesn’t mean they have to be likable or that they have to survive. But it does mean that the viewer has to perceive that something other than the whims of the filmmaker decides whether they live or die.

The problem with torture porn is that, regardless of any tacked on moral justifications (such as Hostel and Touristas, each claiming to be some sort of satire on American mores), a more powerful mechanism of viewer identification is at always at work. And this identification is, before any would-be lesson, the real point of the film. Whether it is intended or not, all torture porn disintegrates into a game of ratcheting up the level or torture to evoke a reaction in the audience. As such, it is predicated on the irrelevance of the victim who, by design, vanishes under the weight of the nearly mathematical operation of the genre. There is an irony that the most common defense found in torture porn flicks is that it is a criticism of the arrogant exploitation of others as the genre requires a simulation of arrogant exploitation. Ultimately, such films are imaginatively on the side of the torturers.

Sick thrills are all good and well. It is a rare human being that doesn’t want to emotionally slum it now and then. Part of power of art is what Keats referred to as negative capability: the ability to imaginatively become somebody or something else for a moment. And there is a value in empathizing with villains as well as with heroes. Even bad art such as torture porn contains its own redemption (though it is rarely in the self-deluding lessons the filmmakers would have us take away) in that we can, without hurting anybody, stand in the shoes of the torturer for a brief moment. This is powerful stuff. These days, when we know our government cavalierly takes on the role of torturer and the court of world opinion tars us all with that brush, it would be odd if nobody explored this dark part of our human potential. However, even done “well” (Pasolini’s Salo stands artistically, if not intellectually, so far ahead of the pack that the producers of Hostel must be thanking their luck stars that Americans don’t watch foreign films) the subgenre seems incapable of producing anything but intellectually dishonest, artistically lazy shock engines. Blood Sucking Freaks is no exception.

I didn’t ever want to do this, but I’m completely breaking out my AM Stations of Tulsa, Oklahoma Movie Ranking System. I know, I know. It is way harsh. But there’s no other system that can handle a movie like this. I’m giving Blood Sucking Freaks, under all of it two thousand titles, a low KRMG 740 rating. It is of historical interest to grindhouse junkies, but otherwise there’s little to recommend it.

13 comments:

Lilla Smutzig said...

But how do you feel about The Wizard of Gore?

http://lillasmutzig.blogspot.com/

CRwM said...

Haven't seen it. Though, weirdly, I'm kind of in love with Lewis's 2,000 Maniacs, and nearly every complaint made here could be leveled against that flick. Perhaps something about the framing device of the magical town and the honesty of the film (no supposed moral to learn, just gore) may appeal.

As an aside, I've got nothing against gore. Gore is cool as far as I'm concerned. My problem is that these sorts of films often have "plots" that have no conflict or suspense. Instead it is just one scene of abuse followed by another until the filmmakers run out of money. I find that really dull, lazy, and pointless.

SpaceJack said...

Have you seen Wolf Creek? I haven't seen any 'torture porn' flicks that I can think of besides Hostel (which, I still think is only marginally so).

I'm not sure if Wolf Creek would fit into this genre or not. On the plus side, I think it's better directed, more efficient with its budget and has amazing cinematograpy, but story-wise seemed a little more pointless in the end.

Heather Santrous said...

I watched this one back when I was still getting the hang of doing reviews. Like you, I got really bored with it as the movie went on. Reworked, maybe it could have been an interesting movie. I'm not all that big into this subgenre but I did enjoy Hostel some. At least it didn't jump right into the torture, it actually made the attempt to set up a plot (not much of one but better than the one for this movie) and let us get to know the guys some. Have you watched Touristas yet? I was going to try and catch it this last weekend but didn't really have the money, maybe I can this weekend. Just wondering if you have yet or planing to?

Heather Santrous said...

spacejack: don't want to step on crwm's shoes here but will tell you what I think. To me Wolf Creek falls more into the slasher genre. I personaly thought that was a great movie. Sorry crwm, I was here posting my last comment so thought I would throw a comment on this one as well.

CRwM said...

Spacejack:

I have not seen Wolf Creek yet. I've been seeing mixed reviews of it, so I guess the only way to decide for sure will be to rent it myself. Consider it queued.

As for others, the Ilsa She-Wolf franchise traffics heavily in this sort of thing. The Saw franchise flirts with the subgenre, but, I think, ultimately rose above it (with the exception of the weak third installment). Men Behind the Sun, which uses Japanese WWII atrocities to justify its wallowing in torture porn, is another. We’ve discussed how I think Hostel counts, but you do not. It might be of interest that the audio-commentary on BSF is by Eli Roth. Notably, a teaser trailer he made for the upcoming Hostel 2 contains an allusion to BSF. On the high-brow end of the spectrum, Salo is an art-house adaptation of Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom by Pasolini, probably the classiest example of the subgenre.

CRwM said...

Heather,

Leave as many comments as you like. I’m just glad folks are talking.

I probably shouldn’t have name-dropped Touristas in the story as I have not seen it yet. (Can’t convince anybody to come along.) Though consensus seems to be it is simply a reworking of Hostel with an anti-colonial spin, which is why it came up. When and if I finally get around to seeing it, I’ll let you know what I think.

CRwM said...

Heather,

Now I'm doing the two comment thing.

RE your comment about reworking it: if the cop/QB subplot actually had some meat to it and the was some tension about whether the ballerina would be saved or not, then perhaps we'd have actual plotting and suspense and the thing would escape the torture porn ghetto. I could see an interesting and good remake of this flick happening.

SpaceJack said...

Oh, one more that might possibly fit the genre would be Hard Candy - another film I thought was expertly directed, doing a lot with a little. But very difficult to discuss without spoiling it.

In any case, I'm really not too interested in watching a movie for torture (which is why I've avoided Saw - my perception, from what friends have told me, is that it's more of a torture flick than Hostel.) Now I don't know what to think.

In a lot of ways, I tend to like horror just because it's often artfully directed without being pretentious, stars relative unknowns (which I find adds to the realism) and gets to play around with ideas in a less-restricted way than more standard genres.

CRwM said...

Mr. S. Jack,

I wrote about the Saw franchise awhile back and, without getting into the long-winded (man, do I ever shut up?) rationale, I think that the Saw movies (when they're at their best) are actually victim-centric. The victims are the protagonists and whether they live or die is directly tied into what they do. I think anything that sympathizes so strongly with the victim escapes the cycle of meaningless shocks that are the telltale signature of torture porn.

But this stuff is hardly a science, ya' know? One man's clever horror flick is another man's poison.

cattleworks said...

Wow.
When I first saw that you added this post, I didn't think it was so long ago since I had previously checked
your site, so man, was I stunned when I saw 10 comments already. Holy Rip van Winkle!
Great post. I think it's great that it becomes less a review of one particular film and more a discussion of a particular sub-genre of horror: torture porn. Particularly using THIS film as a springboard for the topic, with its less state of the art FX versus something like HOSTEL, etc.

And the extension of this sub-genre would probably be the faux "snuff" film, (followed by an actual snuff film, I guess) where there is even less of a story and we're just watching, supposedly, actual footage of people being killed, like Toe tag Pictures' AUGUST UNDERGROUND. I haven't seen either (HOSTEL or AU), but I read a review of the latter in Rue Morgue magazine, and apparently AU is pretty much a laundry-list of atrocities committed to various victims, captured with a video camera by the "killers." But these atrocities are much more mundane than the elaborate set-ups of SAW. Much more straightforward, perhaps with an element of degradation to the victim.
Of course, AU's notoriety is its apparent realism, that the FX are very believable, as if you're watching some discovered videos made by these maniacs.
On one level, it makes sense that to some hardcore horror fans, the scariest thing on film is something believable, something real, so our modern boogeyman has become something that exists, either a serial killer or a family or collection of individuals who have an agenda to kill because they can, instead of an old school monster or phantom.
Or more to the point, the idea that ANYbody you meet can be a homicidal psychopath, that, I guess, is edgy horror.
But then it seems the "appeal" for the viewer breaks down into either 1) the degree of believability/realism of the killer(s) and/or their situation (ie. "This could totally happen!") or
the porn aspect of it, just watching it to watch it, literally getting off on it.
One of my favorite film sequences is the opening credits to Pedro Almodovar's MATADOR, where the lead character, a former matador (now injured so he teaches), is watching TV in an armchair, sitting very close to the screen. On screen is a parade of murder scenes from what appears to be various Mario Bava films, like BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, all instances of women being murdered.
As this plays out on the screen, our matador spends the entire time masturbating.
Totally European in that it doesn't beat around the bush (um, oh, seriously, no pun intended, sorry) in juxtaposing and linking its ideas so clearly: murder and sexual gratification.

So, part of this theoretical discussion, in terms of what constitutes a successful horror film, is a discussion of who the audience is.
Because I'm wondering if, and I just articulated this to myself while typing, if a sub-demographic of the horror fan community likes their horror purely as fetish, so they may have an impatience for story.
Of course, that may be a presumption as well. I suppose some fetishists (if that's the right term in this instance)like more foreplay than others, so perhaps they may be more old school in their requirement for a story and character development.

Maybe this is all implied by simply calling these films torture-porn and I'm just slow.

So, anyways, I wonder if trying to "improve" the film is beside the point. Much like my impulse to "improve" a porno film-- not that I watch them regularly, but... aw, hell, screw being defensive.
Anyways, the lack of plot and character development always drives me crazy in porn films-- that's ALSO a contributing factor to hitting the fast forward button.

Crap. Am I saying anything?
I think... not.

Anyways, this was a great, thoughtful post.
And your rating was very telling of what you thought of the film.

Heather Santrous said...

It was a very good post wasn't it cattleworks? What you said about movies being a fetish to some people reminded me of something. It has nothing to do with the movie in question for this post but the movie I am thinking of sorta falls into this type of movie.

I was reading a magazine one day and came across an article about a movie called "Strangeland". It talked about this being a horror movie and the fact that Linda Cardellini (now of Scooby-Doo fame) could be found in it. I decided to find it. I had never heard of it but sounded interesting enough because Robert Englund and Dee Snider are both also found in the film.

Once I got to college I was surprised to find out that the movie is very popular with a certain crowd of people. Not because this is a horror movie so much but because it has a lot to do with piercing. The people that are really into that are also really into this movie. I don't know how true this part is but I was told they will show this movie durring get togethers that they have.

I don't know if piercing can really be considered a fetish but that is how I take it so what you said rings true a little to me.

cattleworks said...

Mer-woman:
Okay, I had to look up "fetish" in the dictionary.
I guess one definition has the fetish as an object that someone is obsessed with. For example, piercing or body modification, I guess.
Or bands with weird gimmicks.

Or, the idea i was more focused on, an obsession with a subject, in this case, torture porn, but could be someone with bare feet, etc., that triggers the libido. Which could mean the sexual drive which is what i thought) or just a strong emotional response (which makes just as much sense... but sex sells AND is closer to MY obsessions, hence my particualr distinction.
Although, for clarification purposes, my interest in these obsessions is more akin to Chauncey Gardener (Peter Sellers) of BEING THERE's response to things:
"I like to watch."