British Board of Film Classification

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Tough to Watch - Torture Porn

How the BBFC is dealing with a new brand of horror.

Date 20/08/2007

The term ‘Torture Porn’ first appeared in the title of a feature in New York Magazine on 6 February 2006 entitled ‘Now Playing At Your Multiplex: Torture Porn’. It refers to the current horror film subgenre that depicts strong violence, gory images, torture, mutilation, sadism and nudity whilst subjecting the normally female victims to prolonged and intense ordeals.

One of the major differences between these and earlier horror trends like the generally low-budget ‘Stalk and Slash’ films of the 1980s is that these films are more often mainstream Hollywood productions. This means that they are frequently higher budget films with larger print and advertising budgets and consequently receive wide cinema releases through multiplexes rather than playing off on double-bills or in the less salubrious venues afforded their 1980s counterparts.

Although the New York Magazine article and the films themselves – which include Saw, Saw II, Saw III, Hostel, Hostel Part II, Captivity, Wolf Creek, The Devil’s Rejects and Paradise Lost (formerly known as Turistas) – have spawned several articles and discussions throughout the print and visual media, the term ‘Torture Porn’ is not one the BBFC uses when assessing such works.

Instead, the BBFC categorises these films as strong horror works as the disparaging term ‘Torture Porn’ more accurately describes an extreme subgenre of explicit sex works that are not usually submitted for UK classification.

The ‘Main Issues’ in the BBFC’s Guidelines state that ‘The Board recognises that audiences pay to see horror films because they like being frightened. The Board does not cut films simply because they alarm or shock. Instead, it classifies them to ensure that the young and vulnerable are protected from too intense an experience’.

The BBFC’s Guidelines also state that ‘The acceptability of a theme depends significantly on its treatment, ie the context and sensitivity of its presentation’.

Strong horror films, such as those noted above, will often feature violence that dwells on the infliction of pain and injury and the strongest gory images that more appropriately place them at 18 rather than 15. Further indicators that tend to place these works at the higher category may include horror being rooted in the real world with few or no fantastical elements; the narrative played straight with little or no irony; a strong sadistic edge to human-on-human violence which may not contain particularly strong detail; sexual terrorisation of women; a potent conflation of sexual and horror images; strong realistic violence and a strong sense of genuine threat.

The current cycle of strong horror films generally contain one or more of the above indicators and – given the context in which they feature – are therefore classified 18 unless there are strong counterbalancing factors which mitigate against this (eg comedy or fantasy elements featuring non-human characters or dated, unconvincing or risible effects).

BBFC Guidelines at 18 state that ‘In line with the consistent findings of the BBFC’s public consultations, at 18 the BBFC’s guideline concerns will not normally override the wish that adults should be free to choose their own entertainment within the law.’ Exceptions to this are works that appear to the BBFC to ‘risk harm to individuals or, through their behaviour, to society.’

The violence and horror featured in these strong horror films is often brutal and sadistic but continues a trend set by a long line of horror films which employ familiar and similar conventions to thrill fans of the genre.

The themes and treatments in these films generally seem primarily designed to shock and appal rather than to encourage sadistic attitudes in the viewer. Even though the killers or torturers in these films clearly derive gratification, which in some cases may be sexual (eg Hostel Part II) and that this may convey a charge relating to the humiliation, sadism and non-consensual control, there are often significant counterbalancing factors.

The violent or murderous attacks in these films are rarely directed towards the victims’ breasts or genitals and often lack detail as the violence is frequently masked from view by the camera placement or may occur off-screen. When assessing acceptability at 18, the BBFC must be satisfied that the activity is contextually justified within the narrative. Generally, the aggressors are presented as deviant or disturbed individuals so that the audience is not invited to identify with them. This intention and effect is likely to evoke a strong sense of repulsion towards the assailants and their actions and this further reduces the potential of these films to arouse, or appeal to, sadistic impulses and, in turn, reduces the likelihood that the film is promoting the activity. 

Such strong horror films are also, to a great extent, known quantities to their likely audiences who are paying to be scared, shocked or horrified. The BBFC distinguishes between the quality of violence and sexual violence in these films and that which features in The New York Ripper and House On The Edge Of The Park. In those case, the detailed sexual violence in scenes showing naked women being mutilated necessitated intervention on likely harm grounds at 18 on video.

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