Fresh off its commercial and critical success and five Oscar nominations, Zero Dark Thirty has sparked debate about its attitudes to torture – does it support or oppose the CIA’s controversial information-retrieving techniques? Opinions are divided, and the subsequent buzz surrounding the film has only served to boost its popularity.
Here, we take a look at some of the different types of torture scenes that have appeared in films, from the gruesome to the comical, to discover the range of emotional responses they evoke from audiences.
The horror genre is laden with the unprovoked, senseless and arbitrary torturing of its main characters; this typical type of depiction is present in some of the most infamous and notorious films, such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hostel and House of 1000 Corpses. In these examples, and many others, protagonists unknowingly and willingly walk into the homes and workplaces of mentally unstable beings who, at first, may simply seem a bit quirky, but are soon revealed to be extremely violent and dangerous monsters. Characters are hung up on meat hooks, sliced, scalped and decapitated, usually over a long period of time and seemingly for the pleasure of their captors.
Audiences are treated to extremely gruesome and graphic depictions of torture, no expense is spared in the special effects and make up departments. But ultimately, the effect these typical torture scenes have on spectators is weak; reactions are evoked from the gore, the sheer presence of blood and guts rather than the act of torture itself. While they do force us to reflect on scenes, and imagine the scenes of hell as reality, the films do not tend to play on our emotions and cause upset.
As the act of torture is among many other scenes of violence and death, and because it is omnipresent in horror films, the lack of an emotional response may be due to the audience’s expectance of such scenes. In addition, we empathise and connect to characters we like and respect, and in such films, the protagonists are usually young and stupid, hell bent on receiving drugs and sex and who subsequently commit a series of mistakes which have us questioning their intelligence. Can the torture of such characters really evoke an emotional response from viewers?
On the opposite end of the scale is the comical depiction of torture, present in dark comedies and cult classics such as Reservoir Dogs. It’s the film’s most famous scene; it frequently makes top 10 lists and is often referenced and talked about. Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) is accompanied by Stealers Wheel’s infamous ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ when he cuts off the ear of a police officer; he talks into it and comically asks whether he can still hear.
This act of torture is committed by a ‘maniac’ cop killer, he is emotionless and ignorant to the man’s pleads for mercy. The officer is innocent, guilty only of doing his job and it has us wishing for his safety; so why does this depiction have us laughing hysterically at Madsen’s performance? A lot of the intelligence and effect of the scene comes from the presence of the song, which Madsen proceeds to dance to; if it were to be omitted, we’re guessing the scene would be harsh and upsetting. Reservoir Dogs is a fine example of how such horrendous acts can come across as humorous with a fine performance and the presence of an upbeat song. Very impressive, Tarantino.
Revenge torture can provoke similar positive emotions; a protagonist has suffered at the hands of a psychopath, and then the monsters themselves are subjected to similar circumstances. In the sequel to House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, the family involved in torturing and killing are caught by a pair of bounty hunters and held in a garage. The torture is both emotional and physical, and the family are left crying and pleading just as their victims did. After witnessing the horrific and monstrous acts they committed, we find ourselves cheering the bounty hunters on; the victims are inhuman and evil, therefore they deserve it.
However, what happens when the audience has not seen the terrible acts committed by a predator? In Hard Candy, a 14 year old girl, played by Ellen Page, emotionally tortures a man who she believes to be a paedophile and murderer. He argues his case convincingly, assuring the audience that he did not kill a teenage girl; and even though she finds child pornography, we find ourselves rooting for him. This clever bit of filmmaking has spectators guessing and debating the morality of the act; even a paedophile deserves a fair trial. This is achieved with the omission of any scenes that directly link the torture victim to crimes, we do not see him harm anyone, and subsequently, his torture at the hands of a teenage girl is upsetting and shocking, and provokes some of the strongest reactions to such acts.
It is clear that there is a thin line between the emotionally accepted scenes of torture and those that haunt and affect spectators. With the addition of music and scenes of violence, reactions to torture are numbed; whereas the omission of violence and insecurity of a characters decision can evoke strong emotions.