By Clark Collis
January 28, 2020 at 07:45 PM EST
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In the aughts, horror movie characters were brutalized like never before as filmmakers broke taboos with grotesque death traps, hellish Slovakian dungeons, and, yes, human centipedes. With Chris Rock unleashing a new Saw movie later this year, EW looks back at the disturbing history of big-screen torture porn.

2004

In October, Lionsgate releases Saw. Directed by James Wan and written by Leigh Whannell, the film stars Cary Elwes as a kidnapped oncologist who is told he must murder a fellow abductee (played by Whannell) or the doctor’s wife and daughter will be killed. Elwes’ character eventually hacks off his own foot in an attempt to escape.

Though the film plays at both the Sundance and Toronto film festivals, the movie is savaged by many critics. “Saw has art-house pretensions, but it’s nothing but a glorified snuff film,” Richard Roeper says on Ebert & Roeper. “I despised this movie.” In Entertainment Weekly, critic Owen Gleiberman writes that “the back-shelf-of-the-video-store horror geek in me was intermittently entertained” by the movie, but that Wan’s film is “also derivative and messy and too nonsensical for its own good.”

Wan and Whannell’s fictional nightmare strikes a chord with a country still reeling from the 9/11 attacks and dealing with a new conflict in Iraq, which began the previous year. The low-budget film grosses more than $100 million worldwide and will spawn a half-dozen sequels in the following six years, making the film’s primary villain, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), a bona fide horror icon.

The first Saw movie will come to be regarded as the granddaddy of the “torture porn” subgenre, although the movie itself is comparatively light on gore. “It’s a thriller,” screenwriter Whannell says of the movie in 2014, during an interview with Collider to mark the film’s 10th anniversary. “It’s two guys desperate to get out of this room and every now and then we cut outside the room to show you what this bad guy is up to… I think the film got that label from the sequels as they got more and more gory.”

2005

The year sees the release of director Eli Roth’s Hostel, about people who pay to torture and kill strangers, and Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, which concerns the murderous adventures of three serial killers. Australian filmmaker Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek is another brutal serial killer tale, about an outback-based murderer played by John Jarratt.

2006

In January, New York magazine’s David Edelstein publishes an article titled “Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn.” The piece name-checks and critiques Hostel, The Devil’s Rejects, Saw, Wolf Creek, and even Mel Gibson’s religious blockbuster The Passion of the Christ. “Explicit scenes of torture and mutilation were once confined to the old 42nd Street, the Deuce, in gutbucket Italian cannibal pictures like Make Them Die Slowly, whereas now they have terrific production values and a place of honor in your local multiplex,” Edelstein writes. “As a horror maven who long ago made peace, for better and worse, with the genre’s inherent sadism, I’m baffled by how far this new stuff goes — and by why America seems so nuts these days about torture.”

In addition to the annual Saw sequel, 2006 sees the release of the Josh Duhamel-starring Turistas, about backpackers in Brazil who are captured by organ harvesters.

2007

Yet more extreme horror hits cinemas, including the French movies Inside and Frontier(s) and the Roth-directed Hostel II. In June 2007, Ain’t It Cool News publishes an interview with Roth in which the filmmaker takes issue with the term “torture porn,” or at least the idea that movies such as Hostel are solely about providing immediate gratification to fans of extreme horror. “I think that I understand what David Edelstein said when he said audiences were getting off on the violence,” Roth says. “What that does though is it immediately discredits the film. You know, when you watch pornography, you watch it, you get off, and that’s it. I think it’s more reflective of the critic than the film. It shows a lack of understanding and ability to understand and appreciate a horror film as something more than just a horror film. The gore blinds them to any intelligence that goes into making the film. And I think that the term ‘torture porn’ genuinely says more about the critic’s limited understanding of what horror movies can do than about the film itself.”

The summer’s releases include the poorly reviewed Captivity, starring Elisha Cuthbert as a model who is kidnapped and psychologically tortured. The movie is, somewhat inexplicably, directed by Roland Joffé, whose credits include The Killing Fields and The Mission. “Captivity is another one of those ‘torture porn’ thrillers you’ve been hearing about,” writes Roger Moore in The Baltimore Sun. “Some character or other is taken prisoner by some often faceless, often-motiveless villain. And tortured. Videotaped, too. Think Saw. These are its spawn.” Austin Chronicle critic Marc Savlov is equally dismissive. “Captivity is the kind of film that gives torture porn a bad name,” he writes. “It’s disturbing in the most unpleasant ways possible outside of Abu Ghraib or battlefield snuff films, and the fact that it was directed by Oscar-nominated director Joffé (The Killing Fields) and co-written by Larry Cohen (Phone Booth, Cellular) renders the whole production all the more unpalatable. As the only other audience member at the screening I attended cackled midway through, ‘This is some f—ed-up s—, dude!’ Hell yeah it is, and not in a good way, either.”

The film is not a huge hit but still manages to take in more than $10 million around the world.

2008

Director Pascal Laugier’s instantly notorious Martyrs is released in theaters May 1. The movie concerns a secret organization that flays women alive in the hope that the victims can gain knowledge about the afterlife. “Torture is not the point of Martyrs,” Laugier tells ShockTillYouDrop writer Ryan Turek. “The film deals with human pain, the meaning of it, which is something completely different. The expression ‘torture porn’ is a very recent one. And it’s almost already gone. It means nothing to me, which doesn’t prevent me from liking Hostel as a fan but my film is just different.”

2009

Dutch filmmaker Tom Six’s The Human Centipede gives the torture porn scene a kick in the butt — an apt metaphor given that his film centers on a mad scientist who stitches people together mouth-to-anus. How did Six get the idea for the film? “I saw a child molester on television and I said, ‘They should stitch this guy with his mouth to the a— of a very fat truck driver. It would be a really good punishment for him,’” the director tells EW. “Then I thought, ‘That’s a cool idea for a film.’”

Six describes his film as “100 percent medically accurate.”

“I wanted a real operation report,” he says. “So I went to a Dutch surgeon. He said, ‘No, no, that’s against my medical oath.’ But he’s a movie lover, so after a while he made a very detailed operation report. A surgeon could actually make in a hospital a human centipede. That’s what fascinates me. And makes audiences feel more horrified by the idea.”

The same year sees the release of Saw VI and Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, in which a character played by Charlotte Gainsbourg cuts off her own clitoris with a pair of scissors. “Von Trier throws in many devices (symbolic falling acorns, half-butchered talking animals), but the one real dramatic trick he has up his sleeve is pain,” Gleiberman writes in EW. “As in torture. As in… mutilation as marital catharsis. The trouble is, it’s all too exhibitionistic to ring true. The impotent folly of Antichrist is that von Trier has made it his mission to shock the bourgeoisie in an era when they can no longer be shocked.”

2010

A new high — or low — is achieved in the torture porn arena with the release of purported political allegory A Serbian Film. Directed and co-written by Srđan Spasojević, the movie depicts the rape of a newborn baby. In the U.K., the British Board of Film Classification demands 49 cuts be made to the film. “The film-makers have stated that A Serbian Film is intended as an allegory about Serbia itself,” says a BBFC spokeswoman. “The board recognises that the images are intended to shock, but the sexual and sexualised violence goes beyond what is acceptable under current BBFC guidelines [for an 18-certificate].”

The seventh Saw movie, Saw 3D, opens at No. 1 in North America, but its box office is dwarfed by that of Paranormal Activity 2, suggesting audiences are tiring of brutality in the horror genre. The Saw franchise is put on ice until 2017’s Jigsaw.

2011

Further evidence that the taste of cinemagoers is changing comes when Wan and Whannell recombine and score a hit with the ghost tale Insidious, released April 1.

The same month, The Human Centipede is parodied in the season premiere of South Park. In the episode, titled “Human CentiPad,” Kyle is kidnapped and becomes the middle segment of a human centipede after agreeing to an iTunes user agreement. “It gets attention because it’s so horrible,” Tom Six tells EW about this and other parodies of his film. “You can make comedy about it, because a lot of people make toilet humor. I do that myself. I like that very much. This is like an angle nobody thought of yet, so I think that’s the thing that appeals around the world. You’re scared of it, and at the same time, it’s very funny.”

On June 6, the British Board of Film Classification refuses to issue a certificate allowing the DVD release of Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence). “Unlike the first film, the sequel presents graphic images of sexual violence, forced defecation, and mutilation, and the viewer is invited to witness events from the perspective of the protagonist,” the BBFC says in a statement. “Whereas in the first film the ‘centipede’ idea is presented as a revolting medical experiment, with the focus on whether the victims will be able to escape, this sequel presents the ‘centipede’ idea as the object of the protagonist’s depraved sexual fantasy.”

In EW, Gleiberman gives the film two thumbs up. “Far more grotesque than the first Human Centipede — in fact, The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) could be the sickest B movie ever made,” he writes. “But that’s why you may feel gripped by the horror of what you’re seeing and the terror of what’s coming.”

Regardless of such support, the death knell of the torture porn age is officially rung when Hostel: Part III goes straight to DVD.

Related content:

Hostel

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