Sunday, 1 June 2014

Post-Torture Porn: DVD as Neo-Grindhouse Ghetto

Over the last couple of years, trends have emerged among moderate-to-low budget, violent, exploitation-influenced horror: an area previously monopolized by torture porn. Tarantino/Rodriguez’s Grindhouse project (2007) – the double-feature Death Proof and Planet Terror, both of which were dubbed “torture porn” – has spawned a host of neo-grindhouse movies that overtly flag their relationships to their generic forbearers. Machete (2010) and Hobo with a Shotgun (2011), for instance, are feature films based on Grindhouse’s mock film-trailer segments, and follow Grindhouse’s attempt to replicate 1970s/80s exploitation’s formal aesthetics. These films nostalgically replicate formal properties arising accidentally from their forbearers’ limited budgets and cheap film stock. Original grindhouse films were largely rejected as cultural trash. The film reels that contained these artefacts were thus neglected. The cultural status of grindhouse cinema manifested in physical properties such as scratched negatives and missing reels. These physical properties have become synonymous with exploitation films of the 1970s. Physical flaws manifest their cultural denigration, but that derogation equally inspires fan ownership over these neglected texts. Grindhouse co-opts those aesthetics, nostalgically remembering what original grindhouse films signified from an audience perspective. Grindhouse’s ‘missing reel’ sequence – in which the film’s sex sequence is glossed over by a caption reading ‘sorry for the inconvenience: theatre management’ – is one such example. Digital technology is used to purposefully replicate the original films’ faults, despite Grindhouse’s inflated budget ($53 million (IMDB.com)), and digital filmmaking’s propensity to overcome those technical, analogue issues.

Other neo-grindhouse films such as If a Tree Falls (2010), Run, Bitch Run! (2009) and No Moriere Sola (2008) have followed suit. Grainy, yellow-tinged footage and distorted synth music accompany rape-revenge plots. Thematically and aesthetically, these films feel like they have been dredged from a cultural mire. In these cases, and in contrast to Saw’s glossy contemporary look, the films embrace what grindhouse represented in budgetary terms, using nostalgic homage to excuse their own budgetary restrictions. For those of us who have fond memories of video shops rather than seedy Soho cinemas, there is Grindhouse’s direct descendant Hobo with a Shotgun, which is focused on 1980s rather than 1970s exploitation aesthetics. Despite referring to contemporary phenomena such as Bumfights (2002), Hobo with a Shotgun’s exaggerated fashion (the villainous brothers’ sunglasses and jock-jackets) and lighting (saturated, primary-colours) are reminiscent to films such as Savage Streets (1984), for instance. The presence of aging action-star Rutger Hauer, and the film’s end-credit theme – Lisa Loucheed’s “Run with Us”, which was written for the 1985 animated series The Racoons – further illustrate the extent to which 1980s nostalgia pervades Hobo. Although nothing will ever replace the unalloyed joy I feel whenever I see the opening sequence of Friday the 13th VI: Jason Lives (1986) or whenever I encounter the original VHS cover of Spookies (1986), there is something comforting in knowing that Eisner evidently shares some of that fondness.

Neo-grindhouse’s veneration of past exploitation film is not only limited to aesthetic design. For instance, Gutterballs (2008) lifts its poster design from I Spit on Your Grave (1978); Seed’s (2007) genuine animal cruelty is reminiscent of Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Faces of Death (1978); and Chaos (2005) takes its plot from Last House on the Left (1972). Neo-grindhouse couples torture porn’s emphases on human cruelty with a broader cinematic trend for remaking 1970s and 1980s films. Remakes such as Piranha (2010), for example, or the torture porn remakes of I Spit on Your Grave (2010) and Last House on the Left (2009) themselves manifest renewed interest in 1970s/80s exploitation horror. Neo-grindhouse has thus arisen organically at the nexus of several contemporary trends and its generic past. Neo-grindhouse draws together torture porn films (Deaden (2006), Manhunt (2008)) with hardcore horror (Blood and Sex Nightmare (2008), Diary of a Sex Offender (2010), Stockholm Syndrome (2008), The Taint (2010)). The resultant films – such as 100 Tears (2007), Dear God No (2011), Hanger (2009) and Revenge is Her Middle Name (2011) – straddle the boundaries between torture porn, hardcore horror and exploitation pastiche.

Critics have sought to define torture porn by referring to its exploitation ethos: a determination to “push the envelope”, or a desire to depict viscera in as much explicit detail as possible. Neo-grindhouse films resolve critics’ complaints that gory one-upmanship is limited by the counter-need to retain realism by being much more concerned with humorous or ironic representations of violence. Neo-grindhouse’s violence is often exaggerated and unrealistic. In Machete, the eponymous protagonist disembowels one adversary, then uses their intestines as an abseiling rope, for instance. Machete typifies the kind of overt overstatement permitted by the neo-grindhouse mode. Neo-grindhouses’ nostalgic aesthetic embellishments are matched by overtly distancing, hyperbolic violence. Many critics accused torture porn of depicting violence sardonically, yet those critiques are much more aptly allayed at subsequent neo-grindhouse films. However, because neo-grindhouse is primarily a DVD/online movement rather than a multiplex-based subgenre, those same critics have failed to attend these films.

The comparison between torture porn and neo-grindhouse throws the contextual issue into relief, then. Torture porn’s multiplex success marked the subgenre as distinctly different to grindhouse movies, since “grindhouse” refers to a specific locale: independent cinemas specialising in porn and exploitation film exhibition. The grindhouse was eventually replaced by the home-video market. This disparity between the idea of “grindhouse” exploitation and the multiplex success of Tarantino’s films is perhaps one of the reasons Grindhouse flopped at the box-office, and has found greater success on DVD (see Benson-Allott, 2008: 24). Neo-grindhouse befits its DVD ghettoization. The success of neo-grindhouse film on DVD parallels a renewed interest in 1970s and 1980s horror films in the same market. DVD labels such as Arrow and Shameless have recently re-released uncut versions of exploitation films such as Killer Nun (1978) and Night Train Murders (1976) that were previously banned in the UK. Since 2005, Nucleus Films have released three volumes of Grindhouse Trailer Classics and Synapse Films have release six DVD volumes of grindhouse film trailers in their 42nd Street Forever series. 42nd Street refers to a locale in Manhattan famed for being exploitation cinema’s epicenter. The title 42nd Street Forever aptly connotes that DVD has taken over that mantle.

Accordingly, DVD has also provided contemporary horror greater freedoms than offered by high-profile cinematic releasing. In the US, that freedom is exploited by releasing horror films in ‘Unrated’ or ‘Extreme’ versions on DVD, bypassing the MPAA. Hardcore horror is contingent on precisely the same loophole. Most torture porn films were also released unrated on DVD, yet “torture porn” arose primarily in reaction to the subgenre’s R-rated/18-certificated theatrical presence. Critics have paid less attention to neo-grindhouse or hardcore horror films, since, unlike torture porn, they at least “know their place”. DVD ghettoization signals torture porn’s relegation to the fringes of commercial filmmaking. While hardcore horror revels in such marginality and neo-grindhouse is a celebration of exploitation films’ cultural otherness, torture porn’s movement out of the multiplex is more specifically pronounced.

Neo-grindhouse is a significant movement in horror then, inasmuch as it flags something vital about the relations between horror, criticism, and consumption-context. First, critics are primarily focused on what occurs in the cultural centre. Critics commonly anoint themselves guardian of culture. The critic’s punitive role aims to police taste boundaries, especially by pushing genres such as horror and porn away from the mainstream setting. This is precisely what happened with torture porn. Yet without a grasp on what is occurring on the fringes of film-culture, those critics are blinkered. The result is that films such as Hostel (2005) were inappropriately dubbed ‘porn’, and A Serbian Film (2010) was admonished as the “most extreme film ever made” (which it certainly is not). Second, being aware of the commonplace cultural gentrification multiplex torture porn suffered problematizes how we might interpret neo-grindhouse. Given those cultural shifts, the nostalgia fostered by these films is disquieting. Drawing on and validating the grindhouse’s sordid history risks corroborating critics’ complaints that horror belongs on the margins of film-culture. That feeling of nostalgic recognition that Tarantino/Rodriguez’s Grindhouse actively fostered is akin to the snobbery that some fans propagate when they refer to economically successful horror of “selling out” simply because of its mainstream presence. Both mechanisms verify that horror is a culturally disparaged genre. In turn, horror fans – be they film-makers of consumers – risk writing their own cultural vilification.

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