“In her absolutely splendid novel Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson has a character ask whether a given book counts as eastern literature. In reply, Vikram the Vampire says, ‘There is a very simple test. Is it about bored, tired people having sex?’ When the character confirms that the book does, Vikram proclaims it western literature. It’s terribly clever, but omits a key subgenre: bored, tired people being terribly violent.”
— Philip Sandifer
In his 2006 article “Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn,” New York magazine’s David Edelstein coined the term “torture porn” to describe a cycle of ultra-violent, extreme horror films released between 2003-2010 (Eli Roth’s Hostel series, Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, and the Saw films, for starters), which depict scenes of sustained torture and sadistic cruelty for the audience’s enjoyment. In case there was any ambiguity about just how much these films have been enjoyed, a glance at box office profits should clear that right up: To date, the Saw franchise has taken over $976 million worldwide, while the original Hostel, made for $4.8 million, has made $82 million worldwide.
Torture porn takes the violence common to slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s and ratchets it to eleven. Edelstein himself writes, “As a horror maven who long ago made peace 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.”
It is not merely that torture porn features excessive brutality and torture, but that this violence happens to people who are somehow held captive, often in dark and filthy dungeons – and who are often forced to torture other captives, causing another dimension of cruelty. There is a LOT of violence and screaming. The Saw series, for instance, contains 81 murders, many of which involve excruciating pain shown with excruciating detail. The basic premise behind the first eight films revolves around a serial killer who traps his victims in life-threatening situations that he calls “tests” or “games” to test their will to survive through physical or psychological torture. A similarly cheerful franchise, Hostel follows a group of American tourists in Slovakia who are captured by an organization that allows people to torture and kill others, which, of course, you also see in excruciating detail. (If you cannot tell, I am not a fan of torture porn. I do not enjoy this kind of sadism.)
A brief excerpt from Wikipedia’s plot summary of the first Hostel movie (there are three):
Josh wakes up in a dungeon-like room, where the Dutch businessman begins maiming him with a drill, making holes in Josh’s body, slicing his achilles tendons, then slitting his throat. Paxton wakes up in the disco and returns to the hostel, where he learns that he had supposedly checked out. He is greeted by two women who invite him to the spa. Suspicious, he locates Natalya and Svetlana; Natalya takes Paxton to an old factory, where he sees Josh’s mutilated corpse being stitched together by the Dutch businessman. Two men drag Paxton down a hallway, passing by several rooms where other people are being tortured. Paxton is restrained and prepped to be tortured by a German client named Johann.
While cutting off a few of Paxton’s fingers with a chainsaw, Johann unintentionally severs his hand restraints. Johann falls over, accidentally severing his own leg with the chainsaw. Paxton shoots Johann in the head with a gun. He then kills a guard, changes into business clothes, and finds a business card for the Elite Hunting Club, an organization that allows its clientele to pay to kill and mutilate tourists. Paxton also discovers Kana, whose face is being disfigured with a blowtorch by an American client.
(In case you are curious, the plot of Hostel: Part 3 centers on four men attending a bachelor party in Las Vegas. While there, they are enticed by two prostitutes to join them at a private party way off the Strip. Once there, they are horrified to find themselves the subjects of a perverse game of torture, where members of the Elite Hunting Club are hosting the most sadistic show in town. Etc.)
Anyway, torture porn became super trendy in the early twenty-first century. Much like horror movies during the 1970s were fueled by anxieties triggered by Watergate and the Vietnam War, 9/11, the War on Terror, and Abu Ghraib fueled a whole new set of anxieties. Torture, and especially the government-sanctioned kind, seemed ubiquitous, and so of course it would end up on screen.
In a Guardian interview, Hostel and Cabin Fever director Eli Roth explained how horror films related to the political climate: “Horror films have a very direct relationship to the time in which they’re made. The films that really strike a nerve with the public very often reflect something that everyone, consciously or unconsciously feels – atomic age, post 9-11, post Iraq war.”
However, unlike the “good” horror, that allows for catharsis and fun, a “safe” way to be scared, torture porn is generally seen (except by those fans contributing to its millions of dollars in box office profit) as gratuitous and excessive, sadistic and cruel. While it is true that the term “torture porn” can be used derisively to dismiss particularly violent and gory horror films that might have artistic value nonetheless, I’d like to focus on what I see as the core definition – that of a group of people being held prisoner and being subject to cruel and excessive violence that lacks any real message or artistic merit and is seemingly just glitzed up sadism for its own sake.
And I would like to use that definition to articulate what I did not like about The Menu, directed by Mark Mylod and released in 2022.
Ironically, I just watched Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (Rian Johnson, 2022) last night, which, like The Menu, also revels in the gimmick of trapping people on an island. After that accidental double feature, I stand convinced that, unless you are making another adaptation of And Then There Were None (with the exception of the 2017 version of Murder on the Orient Express [Kenneth Branagh, you should be ashamed], I can’t get enough Agatha Christie adaptations), people should stop trying to be clever about islands. In keeping with the torture porn ethos, trapping people on an island is such an easy way to, well, trap them. One might even say that it’s lazy writing.
The premise of the film is, much like Glass Onion, what happens when a group of absurdly privileged people gather on a remote island in order to revel in their privilege (in this specific case, to eat extremely elaborate and expensive cuisine), happy and blissed out about their privilege until people start being killed. And, of course, no one can escape because… island.
If you think about The Menu, which, while clever about its various food gimmicks, is really not about anything more than people trapped on an island being slowly (and then quickly) killed. The most interesting part of the film is when the chef (Ralph Fiennes) asks his “guests” (victims? captives?) why they didn’t try harder to fight back. Except, of course, that this point had been addressed earlier in the film (when some of the guests did discuss fighting back and decided that there was no point since not only were they outnumbered but the kitchen staff had better knife skills). This point might have been more interesting if not for the fact that the guests were on an island, and the one time a group of them do try to run away, they are all found and brought back. So it is unclear what other options the guests might have had.
While the villain in the Saw movies traps his victims in life-threatening situations that he calls “tests” or “games” to test their will to survive through physical or psychological torture, that’s not even happening here. It really is cruelty for cruelty’s sake.
The truly interesting part of the movie is what happens in the kitchen. Why are all the staff behind him not fighting back? Why are they willing to lay their lives on the line for this culinarily-inclined despot? That’s the fascinating question, and one which the movie spends no time at all exploring.
It’s too easy to skewer the rich (food pun intended), to laugh at their foibles — haha, the gazillionaire Miles Bron (Ed Norton) at the heart of Glass Onion has a car in his house because there is nowhere to drive on his island!) — to poke fun at the capitalistic house of cards that made their lifestyles possible. Sure, we would like to see Bernie Madoff put in his place by Chef Slowik, but in lieu of that, we settle for Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) lecturing Bron for being an idiot, or Slowik lecturing Richard (Reed Birney) for not remembering his previous meals at the restaurant.
And settle is the operative word, because that’s what both movies force us to do. The movies don’t provoke. They don’t interrogate why Andi (Janelle Monae), the only Black woman at the heart of Glass Onion, betrayed not only by her friends but by the system, might have deeper issues at stake. The Menu positions itself as a comedy, because it is, after all, poking fun at the rich and the extravagant things they do in order to makes themselves feel special, but other than being an embezzler or a cheat or a critic, there isn’t real interrogation of what these people did to make themselves awful enough that Slowik wants them to die. And there is no interrogation of why Slowik wants them and all his staff and himself to die, other than the limp explanation that he somehow no longer loves what he does.
Slowik, meet adulthood. Adulthood, meet Slowik.
But then you have Slowik’s crew. Anonymous servers, worker bees, toilers. Nameless. Identity-less. Shadowy figures in uniform inexplicably along for the ride.
There is a moment, when Slowik talks with Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) about whether she is a giver or a taker. The takers, obviously, are the entitled rich consuming Slowik’s creations. The ones in the front of the restaurant with the credit cards. The givers are those toiling, the ones making up the bulk of capitalism’s unfair wealth distribution pyramid. The slaves to the machine, if you will. But yet, they are not overthrowing the system. They are not, like Andi’s twin sister, destroying everything in a blaze of glory. Instead, like workers in Metropolis, they are steadily playing their role, passively marching to their death, one task at a time.
But why?! And this is the most interesting question in The Menu. The rich people don’t want to die, but they are trapped because island. The employees want to die…without any explanation. Two characters in the movie take their own lives, seemingly because they are not very good chefs. That’s a stretch (although suicide often defies explanation) but definitely doesn’t fit into the “skewering capitalism” paradigm around which the movie drapes itself. And everyone else willingly marching toward their own final blaze of glory, IN the machine itself that is being destroyed rather than, like Andi’s twin sister (also played by Janelle Monae), who destroys the machine OUTSIDE of her.
Instead, we just get rich people being killed because they are rich, and while I’m all about a critique of capitalism, I’m going to need a little more than that. Otherwise it really is just torture porn (group of trapped white people tortured by a sadist with excessive and unexplained cruelty), and we should have phased that out in 2010.
I understand disrupting the machine. I don’t even need another idiotic gazillionaire to appreciate wanting to break things and set them on fire. But what I do not understand is why, when Chef Slowik tells you to die, you agree. I don’t understand why a film supposedly skewering capitalism leaves the workers (those keeping the machines humming so that the rich get richer) blurred out and in the background. I don’t understand why Chef Slowik has been more broken by the system than the average Walmart employee. I do not understand why his mother is there and why the film can’t give us just a few more minutes of exposition to answer these questions.
Do I need to wait for a sequel?
Or do I just need to rewatch Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) for a proper critique of bullies and greed?