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Horror Fans Turning to Torture Porn

Why are people churning out gritty, no-frills schlock? It's all in the numbers. Combined, the first two Saw movies were made for a measly $5 million, yet they've grossed more than $200 million worldwide. Likewise, director Eli Roth's Hostel earned close to $50 million (it was created for less than 10 percent of that). Ever heard of Cry Wolf or Wolf Creek? No star power. Not well-reviewed. Still, they became hot commodities. Made for around $1 million each, they earned at least a tenfold return at the box-office. Those figures don't include DVD sales and rentals, which can double a movie's total gross.

"We're never going to outspend the competition in the marketing or production of a movie," said Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films, which pioneered this emerging subgenre. "What we can do as well or better than the studios … is a realistic, gut-level, visceral horror movie that doesn't rely on special effects, and audiences are responding to that."

Unfortunately, a vast number of those eager theatergoers are teens seduced by the hard R rating. In promoting Wolf Creek the Weinstein Co. blatantly marketed to the under-20 crowd. "There were a lot of comedies out in the marketplace, a lot of prestige movies for older audiences," said Bob Weinstein. "We thought this was for younger audiences. We felt there would be an opening in the marketplace that wanted to see something like this at this particular time."

What are these younger audiences yearning to see? According to Roth (a Quentin Tarantino protégé), it's not just grotesque depictions of torture and carnage. In his mind, viewers want a hefty dose of pornography tossed in. "If people are going to have sex and meet horrible deaths, I want to see that," he said. "If I started off in minute one with nonstop gore and violence, that would be way too much. But audiences are kind of numb. They're bored of the same stuff. I want people to leave the theater saying, 'That was really, really violent and [expletive] up. That really disturbed me.'"

Sadly, Roth isn't alone in his warped view of what fans want. From the disturbing rape scene in Wolf Creek to Hostel's unending nudity, sex is once again a staple of horror flicks. "With video games and all the entertainment options, it really takes a lot to impress audiences today," adds Paul Dergarabedian, president of a company that tracks box-office numbers. "Some might say it's a reflection on society, how desensitized we've become to violence. I still believe people know the difference. It's a vicarious thrill. I look at it more as entertainment: You can have that fear but in a safe environment."

It's debatable whether these movies are a symptom of society's declining morals or simply Hollywood cashing in on the latest fixation … or both. But there's no questioning the numbing effect these movies have on teens. At every screening I've attended, they've cackled and ribbed each other during the most disturbing scenes. I've heard young people snicker at a couple having sex, then applaud as the same couple's skulls get crushed by a car. Until filmmakers and studios realize the damage they're doing—and care enough to stop profiting from it—the state of cheap modern horror will continue to be that bad.

Published January 2006