Sunday, March 29, 2009

Movies: Shoot. Bungle. Oversell. Regret.

If one is going to grant the existence of a "torture porn moment," then I would propose that it started in 2004, with the release of the first Saw flick, and ended in 2007, with the crash and burn release of Captivity, the film that carries the odd burden of being the movie that killed torture porn.

With a script by cult horror legend Larry Cohen and double Oscar nominated director Roland Joffé behind the cameras, it's hard to believe that Captivity is, first, a torture porn flick and, second, such a bomb. But the backstory to this curious little flick is considerably more tortured than any of the characters in it. Penned by Cohen as a psychological thriller about modern celebrity culture, the film was shot as a joint US/Russian production and was first released in Europe.

The American co-producers, After Dark Films, had originally tossed in money on the assumption that Captivity would be part of their "8 Films to Die For" film series. Seeing that they had some solid product from a notable director (though, it is easy to overstate the talent of Joffé: he did shoot The Killing Fields and Vatel, but he is also responsible for the Super Mario Bros. movie and the infamous 1995 "happy ending" film version of the Scarlet Letter - the only film, to my knowledge, that has an IMDB comment threat titled "anal masturbation?") they decided to go full theatrical with it. However, they also decided that the flick, if it was going to compete in the US market place, would need to be torture porned up. For the American theatrical release, new scenes were shot involving the torture of characters the viewers never even get names for, some scenes involving the "torture" of our main character (supermodel Jennifer Tree played by Elisha Cuthbert), and a series of scenes in which the baddies knock Jen out via gas, the last of these meant to cover up the lack of transitions between the new scenes and the original film. Not content to make a chopped-up hash of the flick, After Dark then got themselves embroiled in a controversy over advertising the flick. Famously, their posters for the film, which erroneously suggested the flick followed the plot of the Hostel films, outraged Los Angeles citizens groups and nearly launched a Seduction of the Innocents-style Congressional hearing about the state of horror films.

Bruised by the dust up, but no wiser, ADF decided to re-brand the film as some sort of point zero torture porn – the flick so extreme and out there that even its adverts had to be suppressed. As news of the flick's Frankensteinian nature started to circulate through the Interwebs and a fan backlash – both from contemporary horror fans who thought the half-assed jerry-rig job was ill conceived and from the graying mainstream fandom who relished the chance to take down anything remotely tarred with the torture porn brush – began for form, After Dark began a campaign of Kool Aid consumption that rivaled the absurdities of the Silicon Alley bubble. Trying to hype up the film's taboo shattering rep, ADF head Courtney Solomon spread far and wide the news that he planned to throw a premiere party designed to piss people off. Even the NY Times took note:

Having already provoked parents, women’s groups and the ratings board with explicit ads for the coming torture movie “Captivity,” Mr. Solomon and his After Dark Films now intend to introduce the film, set for release July 13, with a party that may set a new standard for the politically incorrect.

For starters, Mr. Solomon has ordered up what he calls the three “most outlandish” SuicideGirls available from the punk porn service, even if they’re as frisky as the ones he is told once set a Portland, Ore., restaurant on fire. Some lucky fans will get to take the women as dates for party night, July 10, on two conditions: “People take the date at their own risk, and everybody on the Internet gets to watch.”

Cage fighting too is likely. Mr. Solomon’s planners are angling for Kimbo Slice, the bare-knuckle bruiser whose vicious backyard brawls are a Web favorite and who made his Mixed Martial Arts debut on Saturday.

But the warren of live torture rooms is a must. As Mr. Solomon envisions it, individuals in torture gear will wander through the West Hollywood club Privilege grabbing partygoers. All of which is a prelude to an undisclosed main event that, he warned last week over slices of pizza a few doors from his company’s new offices on the Sunset Strip, is “probably not legal.”

“The women’s groups definitely will love it,” Mr. Solomon hinted. “I call it my personal little tribute to them.”

After such ostentatious levels of douchebaggery on display, is it any wonder that everybody – from media pundits to the average fan – wanted this film DOA?

Curiously, the "women's group" icon that decided to make the death of Captivity their personal mission was Joss "I Heart Grrrls" Whedon, who not only likened the trailer to CNN footage of the public stoning death of a Kurdish woman, but formed a campaign to strip Captivity of its MPAA rating. Lest the comparison of the trailer to genuine news-snuff seem extreme, the Times actually referenced the infamous Hustler cover of a woman's legs sticking out the top of a meat grinder in its review of the film. Actual women's groups seem to have taken no particular notice of the flick.

The end of this whole sad and silly tale is that the flick died in theaters. The public was convinced that it was some knuckle dragging exercise in woman torture and horror fans had suffered about all the grandly asshole-ish behavior from ADF's they were going to take. The Bloody Disgusting site gave Captivity the less-than-coveted title of "Worst Film of the Year" (though this means they ignored considerably more qualified "classics" as Incubus, The Reaping, the second effort at an Aliens vs. Predator flick, Grizzly Rage, Motorcross Zombies from Hell, and Welcome to the Jungle).

Perhaps most notably, in a stunningly unaware moment, Solomon claimed that the death of the film was due to the audience's exhaustion with torture porn. Solomon told CNN, "It's overkill. I think audiences have said, 'I've had enough.' It's as simple as that." Not that the film didn't have its defenders. Viewing it counter-programming to the latest installment of Harry Potter franchise, some thought that the death of Captivity marked the death knell for horror in general. But, for the most part, fandom welcomed the demise of the flick and held it to be the last gasp of torture porn.

All this makes watching the Captivity, several years after the brouhaha over torture horror and the marketing controversy have settled into the forgetful oblivion of the horror fandom's selective memory, a curious thing. You kind of want the film, a movie that, in its own weird way, is one of the most influential flicks in rise and fall of one of horror's most controversial subgenre, to be either an utter disaster or a hidden masterpiece. Sadly, it's neither. A neatly agoraphobic curiosity marred by the clumsy inclusion of invasive and nonsensical torture scenes, the shaggy and uneven nature of the finished product takes what might have ended up a nice little cult hit and drags it down into pointlessness.

The plot has and almost Endgame-ish charm. A supermodel named Jennifer and a garage worker named Gary wake up in an underground dungeon, held captive by an unknown person or persons. Together they theorize about their fate, plot their eventual escape, and develop the sort of erotic bond that Hollywood assumes all men and women under duress develop.

This mole-like existence is semi-randomly punctuated by the intervention of an outsized, masked, and rubber-gloved prison keeper who, when the spirit moves him, knocks out one his prisoners and tortures them. The tortures, while clearly meant to be Saw-ish, seem oddly lazy, as if the torturer was totally going to make some giant Rube Goldberg terror-device, but, like, totally ran out of time, so we're totally just going to, like, use these thing we've got scattered around the basement. The tortures also are, unintentionally I think, oddly comedic in their pointlessness. In one situation, Jenny must "choose" between shot-gunning her yappy lap dog or getting a shotgun blast in her own face. The strain this scene makes to achieve emotional effect – Gee whiz: her or the annoying teacup fuzzball, how to ever choose? – is typical of the contrived drama of all the tacked on torture scenes. The most infamous of which involves the torturer, whose name turns out to be Ben, making a human-parts smoothie which Jen is forced to consume through a beer bong. Or, human-smoothie bong, rather. This alludes visually to an earlier scene in which, during happier days, Jen made a smoothie. But, one may ask, why the allusion? Was making a smoothie a bad thing to do? Does the killer hate smoothies? Is this revenge for drinking smoothies? It is a pointless parallel.

On a couple of occasions, a random and unnamed character, seemingly unknown to Jen and Gary, and certainly unknown to the viewer, gets smashed, melted, or otherwise discomforted with extreme prejudice. Why? Because, really, torture porn requires some sort of body count to make the threat palpable to the viewers. IRL, torture, even non-fatal varieties, tends to leave the victim physically and mental broken. It's inherently harmful. In horror cinema, however, where the emotional and psychological impact of violence is almost always downplayed (a move necessitated by factors as diverse as reliance on second tier actors, the fact that physical damage is more camera-friendly than mental scars, and, of course, the fact that most horror fans want their carnage served without any messy issues of consequences dragging down their fun), communicating the danger of torture requires some bodies hit the floor. These throw away "characters" exist solely to be processed quickly into corpses.

The end result of all this is a plot that feels exactly like what it is: a slightly absurdist one act (Joffé worked with Stoppard before his career degenerated to this level) that is padded out by patched-on scenes of ludicrous violence. The stitched-on torture scenes try the patience and end up creating a grating number of continuity errors, undermining what might have otherwise been a pleasingly tight, if not groundbreaking, hour show.

Visually, Joffé dials back the look most associated with torture porn. The film avoids the color-washed steampunkish noir of the Saw franchise or the hyper-squalor of the Hostel flicks. Instead, the scenes Joffé shot have a strange tidiness to them, a clean-lined, exposed-materials, efficiently lit functionalism to them that suggests dungeon planned by Ochs Design. The dungeon master's home, when we finally reach the surface, is a crisp modernized take on a Victorian look that wouldn't be entirely out of place in a Scott Jordan catalogue. Notably, the add-on scenes lapse into the grunge and grime that is the semi-official look of torture porn, suggesting that the unit behind those scenes either didn't see or didn't care about the flick they were creating footage for. The acting is adequate to the needs of the film. Oddly, it is more difficult to buy Ms. Cuthbert as a supermodel than as a woman trapped in an insane dungeon by a madman. I'm not really familiar with her work on 24, but I suspect it prepped her better for the latter than the former. Ben is a nicely handled character – strangely cuddly and effeminate, with the petulance one finds in young boys that think they're smarter and more worldly than they really are – though he's under used.

Captivity is, at best, a middling film. At worst, it gets awfully tedious. That said, its rep as one of the worst films horror flicks ever is, I think, highly overstated. If you haven't seen dozens of far worse horror flicks, then you're probably just don't watch many horror films. That said, there's almost no reason whatsoever to recommend Captivity on its own merits. Rather, it stands as an interesting case study in how even middling flicks with virtually no audience can, in an odd way, shift the course of the genre. That context alone is the only thing that makes the flick stand out.


Here's the complete text of Whedon's opening shot at Captivity. I post it here because I don't think my previous description quite captured the tone of Mr. Buffy's indignation. Plus, I like how he signs his screeds.

From: Joss Whedon
Sent: Thursday, March 22, 2007 10:17 PM
To: Advertising

To the MPAA,
There's a message I'm supposed to cut and paste but I imagine you've read it. So just let me say that the ad campaign for "Captivity" is not only a literal sign of the collapse of humanity, it's an assault. I've watched plenty of horror - in fact I've made my share. But the advent of torture-porn and the total dehumanizing not just of women (though they always come first) but of all human beings has made horror a largely unpalatable genre. This ad campaign is part of something dangerous and repulsive, and that act of aggression has to be answered.

As a believer not only in the First Amendment but of the necessity of horror stories, I've always been against acts of censorship. I distrust anyone who wants to ban something 'for the good of the public'. But this ad is part of a cycle of violence and misogyny that takes something away from the people who have to see it. It's like being mugged (and I have been). These people flouted the basic rules of human decency. God knows the culture led them there, but we have to find our way back and we have to make them know that people will not stand for this. And the only language they speak is money. (A devastating piece in the New Yorker - not gonna do it.) So talk money. Remove the rating, and let them see how far over the edge they really are.

Thanks for reading this, if anyone did.
Sincerely, Joss Whedon.
Creator, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"


The Igloo Keeper... said...

Outstanding. You're about the only horror blogger I'm in awe off.

wiec? said...

have to echo The Igloo Keeper here. truly great post.

is the "regret" in the title of your post your regret though?

CRwM said...


Nice of you to stop by. I have to share credit for this post with Stone "Old Guardian" Barley Wine Style Ale, under whose benevolent influence it was typed.

CRwM said...


Oh, a botched joke. It was meant to reflect the infamous ad campaign, which showed 4 photos of the lead - Ms. Cuthbert - with the captions Abduction, Confinement, Torture, Termination. I was trying to summarize the entire history of the film using the same gimmick. I don't regret seeing it. I'm kind of fascinated by the hole torture subgenre, so I had to see this sooner or later.

Zacery Nova said...

I liked this movie, but your review was interesting to read. I always find I like films that have some kind of interesting story 'about' them. Don't misinterpret me, the story of the film was rubbish, but it's production story is fascinating.

- Zacery, Stupid Horror Movies

Ryne said...

"That said, its rep as one of the worst films horror flicks ever is, I think, highly overstated. If you haven't seen dozens of far worse horror flicks, then you're probably just don't watch many horror films."

Perfect statement. For example, Sorority House Vampires from Hell.

Funny, the CAPTCHA word is "retch."

Sasquatchan said...

So can one get the EU cut of the film ? Or was that version/cut only in the studio ?

Shon Richards said...

If I remember correctly, The movie posters were never approved by the MRPAA, which was done so that whether people complained or not, the posters would be taken down and banned. I remember reading that and thinking that the movie must really stink to resort to faking controversy.

But you know, my biggest problem was from the trailers, I just assume Ben is in on it. I mean, Supermodel and Normal Guy are locked up together. Why get a supermodel and then a schmuck? I just assumed Ben made himself a prisoner so the supermodel would love him. I liked this plot so much, I had no interest in seeing a movie where I was wrong.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Shon,

You pretty much nailed the plot (though you've conflated two characters – Ben and Gary).

I don't think the MPAA controversy was "planned" by ADF.

According to the MPAA rules, movies that use unapproved adverts MIGHT lose their right to be rated; but the rules are not so strict that any use of unapproved ads automatically leads to being unrated.

Even after the Whedon fueled campaign, the MPAA declined to leave the film unrated. They only punitively stalled the rating process, endangering the flick's release date.

Really, the controversy was a product of sloppiness at ADF, unclear rules at the MPAA, and would-be protectors of Western Culture™. I don't think it is fair to say they courted the controversy.

Admittedly, once the controversy started, ADF tried to, at once, play the innocent and the bad boy, a losing strategy that just made them look like jerks.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

As far as I know, only the US version is available.