Thursday, December 07, 2006
Movies: Less fun than alligator bobbing.
My first exposure to the famed grindhouse shocker Blood Sucking Freaks (neé 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.