Thursday, July 23, 2009

In defense of torture porn

tor' - ture porn - A genre of horror film in which significant portions of the film are devoted to depicting the torture of an individual or individuals, usually in graphic detail.

This is a sub-genre of horror that's come into being over the last five or six years. One of the earliest movies that was categorized as torture porn was Saw. What usually happens in a torture porn flick is someone is captured by the bad guy, and then brutally killed, usually slowly, and with no punches pulled in terms of showing things on screen or showers of blood. After one or two characters are slaughtered, it usually switches to the "hero" character escaping the bad guy after being captured too.

Now here's the thing about torture porn: it's not new. Really, it's not. It's been around for a long time. You can go back to things as early as the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I Spit on you Grave, and others that are usually categorized as slasher or suspense flicks and find definite elements of torture porn in them. That's because really, at its core, torture porn is a blend of the slasher flick and the standard abduction suspense flick.

At its heart, torture porn is really all about suspense, and that's where the real guts of its horror elements come from. Of course, while the torture scenes happen, the audience gets a gut sense of "ewwww", but that type of scare is and always has been fleeting. Where the real horror elements of the genre happen are when the hero character starts making his/her escape. Why do these suspense elements work differently than your basic suspense flick? Because we've seen, in detail, exactly what will happen to the main character if he fails to escape from the killer.

That vital difference is what sets the genre apart from the rest of the horror genre. In most suspense flicks, the hero has to escape the villian because the villian will kill him in undefined bad ways, and the mechanics are left to the audience's imagination. Frankly, most people don't bother thinking in detail about what those bad things are, so the sense of danger is fairly non-specific. By showing you that the hero will, for example, be fastened to a table with screws, have their eyelids cut off, then their entrails extracted one by one and shown to them, you feel much more strongly about the hero's escaping.

So how is that any different than slasher flicks, you say? Tone. Most slashers, especially in the later years of the genre's prominence, played things for laughs. The whole thing was about tongue in cheek, formulaic violence. You were never rooting for the characters, you were rooting for the killers, and cheering as they took out the victims in more and more ridiculous ways. Moreover, few of the kills were given a lot of screen time. Yes, Jason just impaled a couple with a harpoon, but the whole thing happened in less than 30 seconds. Your average torture porn killer is utterly unsympathetic, and the killings can take many minutes. These kills are not intended to be funny, and because of that, you automatically sympathize with the victims.

Another vital difference is that it's way more common for torture porns to have bleak endings. Slasher flicks almost always have the last girl emerge victorious (or at least not dead). In tortuer porn flicks, the "hero" has at best a 50/50 chance. Because of that, you can't ever really relax into "well, I know she's going to live".

The problem that the torture sub-genre has is that it's very difficult to make a good one. It's extremely easy to fall off into just showing tons of blood and violence, and ignoring the vital elements of suspense. A perfect example of this is Hostel 2. The first Hostel was a shining example of how the genre can be extremely effective. In the second, the director opted to keep piling more and more bodies up on the screen, and worse, actually tried to make the killers sympathietic. Unfortunately, he lost sight of what made his first film so good, and wound up making absolute dreck.

So what are some examples of good torture porn? The first Hostel is an excellent example, as is the first Saw. The subsequent movies in the series have actually done an admirable job of not sucking, though they're getting too bogged down in their own mythology to really qualify for this list. The first Texas Chainsaw Massacre fits here, though it's almost completely bloodless. Some of the best examples of the genre actually come from France, with High Tension and Inside being amazing.

Now, this genre is absolutely not for everyone. They're incredibly graphically violent, and the good ones have an intensity that simply doesn't let up for the entire movie, which is what makes them so good. You don't so much watch these things as you experience and survive them. You really have to get past the ultra-violence to appreciate them as something other than gore for gore's sake. Even for horror film fans, these things can easily get written off as pure gore. But if you've got the stomach for them, and are willing to stop and consider what the film's actually doing, the genre has a surprising amount of depth. If anyone's interested in a screening, let me know.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Coming soon to Rock Band: your band

This falls completely into the category of shameless self-promotion that you probably won't care about (though Jay may find it interesting), but here it is anyway:

For those who don't want to read the article, here's the gist. We're releasing our song authoring tools to the general public so you can author your band's songs for Rock Band. You need to have the rights to the songs, so what you won't be seeing is five hundred versions of Stairway to Heaven. But basically, you'll use the full set of authoring tools that our audio department uses to make tracks for the game, author the song on the computer (using your master recordings), and then upload them to the community for peer review. If your song doesn't break copyright, and passes muster for playability and content (swears are bad, kids), then it gets uploaded to Xbox Live, and you can set a price for the song. Anyone with Rock Band can buy it, and you get 30% of all the sales.

Why is this awesome? Because it allows a ton of small, unsigned, indie, etc bands access to the platform. They can take it upon themselves to use it as a marketing tool, or just use it to get a bunch of free exposure to a huge audience.

Basically, it's a really cool opportunity for a lot of smaller artists to get involved and get their music out into the world. And it's way better than MySpace.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Did you know that I watch TV shows? Holy hell, it's true! Did you also know that I'm a giant geek? No, the full-size replica of Sting (the sword, not the singer/actor/addonis) hanging on my wall isn't for home defense. So it follows that I probably like sci-fi (not SyFy, as certain networks have been forced to call it) shows.

Why then has nobody told me before now how incredibly awesome Babylon 5 is?

What TV does far, far better than movies is long form narrative. If you have a two hour movie, you can only tell so much story. Even if you have three three-hour films, you're still limited in scope. However, if you have multiple 13 or 22 hour-long episode seasons, you can tell a crap ton of story. I like story, so I like TV that tells long stories.

Of course, most shows don't. If you sit down in front of an hour of Law and Order from season 8, then watch and episode from season 3, it probably won't matter. They'll probably also be the same episode. Good TV will tell a story over the course of the season. Things change in meaningful ways between the first and last episodes.

Great TV tells stories that have implications across multiple seasons, but not always in the same way. Think of a story as an arch. Most TV (think Law and Order) has an arch that stretches over a single episode. That's fine, but those kinds of shows are like popcorn, and ultimately, they're forgettable. Even excellent shows like The Simpsons do this.

Shows that tell a season-long story still have the short, episode arches, but each of those small arches also goes into a bigger, season-long arch. Buffy and 24 are examples of this. You really can't watch those shows out of order, or you start to miss things.

Which brings us to Babylon 5. This show was on for 5 seasons. One guy wrote them. The amazing part? He knew how the series was going to end before he wrote the first episode.

Think about that. This guy must have had a massive pair of brass balls. I can't imagine walking into a network exec's office and saying "I have an idea for a sci-fi show that's not Star Trek that will last for five seasons, and tell one complete story in that time." It would never happen in today's landscape. It's a minor miracle that it happened back in 1994. But someone gave him a tiny budget and Bruce Boxlietner, and let him have at.

It's brilliant. This show is essentially one large story arch that extends from season 1 to season 5. At first blush, a lot of episodes in the first season come across as one-offs that don't tie in. Then, two seasons later, something that happened in the first season suddenly turns out to be a pivotal moment. Because he planned everything out, he's able to do actual, honest to God foreshadowing in ways that are just never seen in TV. It's like reading a well-constructed novel over the course of five years.

Of course, it's not perfect. The show was done in 1994 on a budget of $5 and baling twine (they couldn't afford shoe strings). The acting is sometimes iffy (though often brilliant), and the special effect are...well...quaint. But once you get past all that, it's one of the best TV shows I've ever seen. Just thought you should know.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Apocalypse groceries

I'm a big fan of post-apocalypse fiction. For some reason, seeing what happens after the world ends is really interesting to me. I've read books and comics, and watched movies dealing with the end of the world by way of:

-nuclear war

In most of them, the survivors wind up scavenging food from the remnants of human society, usually in the form of canned goods. Seems that produce and freeze pops don't keep well.

It occurred to me this morning, that not a single one of the apocalypse scenarios I've ever seen has had its characters resort to eating one particular item: pet food.

Now, given how many pets there are out there, and how much of their food is canned, there should be tons of the stuff hanging around. It's mostly meat, so should be very edible. Furthermore, it's not generally seen as "people food", so it would be one of the last items scavenged, and thus one of the more likely items for scavengers to find. Even better, being reduced to eating dog food would be a great illustration of how desperate the characters are.

Yet, I can't think of a single time that I've seen a character scarf down a can of Fancy Feast or Alpo. Very weird, and something that's lacking in apocalypse fiction.

Of course, you also never see anyone find any Twinkies, which would obviously survive the apocalypse. Maybe the whole genre is just screwy.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

From flying to first downs

For the first time this year, I'm giving up on a game. That's sad, but I'm kind of glad that it's taken me six months to have that happen.

The casualty is Prototype. On the surface, karate kicking helicopters is awesome, as is elbow dropping tanks. But after around 10 hours, which is about halfway through, I realized that I spent most of the previous five hours of playing being very frustrated. I think that right now, I want something a little slower paced than Prototype's balls-to-the-wall karate kicking choppers and hacking dudes in half. Hopefully I'll be coming back to it in a few months.

What's usurping it? Blood Bowl. What is Blood Bowl? It's what geeks play instead of Madden.

The short version is that Blood Bowl is what you get if you take a really violent fantasy universe and have them play football. If the old Genesis game Mutant League Football rings a bell, well, that was a ripoff of Blood Bowl. It's very similar to football, except that there's no downs, killing players is a valid strategy, and having the play by play announcer say something like "The goblin looney Grimnak just pulled out his chainsaw, and is chasing the elf across the field and...OH! The crowd just threw a huge rock at Grimnak, knocking him unconscious! Now the rest of the fans are charging the field! They're going to have some trouble with that tree man!"

Of course, the whole thing plays out in turn-based format, because the video game is a faithful translation of the original board game. The real meat of it is playing in leagues, where your players can earn extra skills (or in the case of some teams, extra heads and limbs), injuries can knock players out for several games, and the road to the playoffs is paved with the bodies of your opponents.

So basically, it's just like rugby.