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The fear factor

Warning: The following story contains graphic and good-taste-defying descriptions of bone snapping, limb hacking, fingernail pulling and body zapping. Read on at your own risk.

January 29, 2006|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

IN the first hit film of the year, screaming, helpless young people are brutalized by power tools and blowtorches wielded by gleeful tormentors.

One of TV's most popular cable series ends its third season with the mutilation of a preoperative transgender woman, and the severing of a plastic surgeon's finger. On the same show, a psychopath treats one of his kidnapped victims to extensive plastic surgery on her face and body -- without anesthesia.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 02, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 92 words Type of Material: Correction
Depictions of torture -- An article in the Sunday Calendar section about torture in movies and television quoted John Landgraf, president of FX Networks, as saying that he felt that Ryan Murphy, creator of its drama "Nip/Tuck" and the writer-director of the third-season finale, which featured two simultaneous scenes of torture, "definitely has his point of view, and I thought that episode was some of the best work he did this year." Landgraf says he actually said that Murphy "believed the sequence represented some of the best work he did this season."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 05, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 90 words Type of Material: Correction
FX president's quote -- An article last Sunday about torture in movies and television quoted John Landgraf, president of FX Networks, as saying that he felt that Ryan Murphy, the creator of its drama "Nip/Tuck" and the writer-director of the third-season finale, which featured two simultaneous scenes of torture, "definitely has his point of view, and I thought that episode was some of the best work he did this year." Landgraf says he actually said that Murphy "believed the sequence represented some of the best work he did this season."

A principal character in a big-screen political thriller has his fingernails ripped out with pliers. The wisecracking hero of another thriller is traumatized by electrodes attached to his genitals.

Increasingly, producers of movies and TV series are bringing the pain to mainstream fare -- highlighting sadism, torture, brutality and human suffering -- all in the name of entertainment.

The dark thread of torture, employed as a tool of persuasion, a power demonstration or just for cruel kicks, has surfaced intermittently in pop culture. "Marathon Man," "The Silence of the Lambs," "Lethal Weapon," "The Deer Hunter," "Braveheart" and "Reservoir Dogs" are among the popular and critically acclaimed films in the last few decades that have also made audiences cringe with extended scenes of torturers inflicting extreme pain.

"CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Crossing Jordan" involve investigations where victims often have met gruesome deaths, though the focus traditionally is on the sleuthing rather than the slayings.

But in the last several months, numerous torture scenes -- many of them graphic and bloody -- have been set pieces on TV dramas, not only in thrill-ride dramas, such as "24" and ABC's "Alias," but also in melodramatic or escapist fare such as Fox's "Prison Break." One key character on ABC's "Lost" is an Iraqi military officer who tortures a fellow castaway. "Alias" had an unnamed recurring villain who quietly tortured key characters. FX's "Nip/Tuck," a hit drama about the psychic turmoil of those who seek and perform cosmetic surgery, recently spotlighted physical turmoil with two simultaneous torture scenes, each set to a tango.

It's unclear -- both to those who create torture-inflected scenarios and those who have taken note of their proliferation -- whether such themes reflect a pop culture recalibration or a blip on the screen. But for now, at least, torture seems inescapable.

It has crept into "unscripted" series shows such as NBC's "Fear Factor," where willing contestants are trapped or doused with insects and small reptiles, and Fox Reality's upcoming "Solitary," in which isolated contestants are pushed to the physical and psychological brink.

Torture scenes are featured in mainstream movies such as "Syriana" and "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" and play a starring role in recent horror films, as campy boogeymen including hockey-masked Jason Voorhees and knife-fingered Freddy Krueger are replaced with the gnarly madmen of the just-released "Hostel" and the "Saw" franchise, who savage their victims so horribly that death might come as a welcome relief.

"Hostel," for instance, features young travelers lured to a seemingly pleasant Slovakian hotel, where they wind up in an abandoned dungeon/warehouse and are stripped, shackled to chairs and offered up to wealthy, bored men paying exorbitant sums for the thrill of maiming and murdering them with blowtorches and power tools. "We're watching films where it's not about the big scary monsters anymore," said Leo Quinones, host of a Saturday night call-in radio show on KLSX-FM (97.1) devoted to comedies, action and horror movies. "Now humans are the worst monsters. It's all pretty riveting."

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Heightened sense fueled by reality

NEW YORK-based psychologist Maria Grace, who has studied the effects of films on audiences, sees parallels between the recent spate of extremist fare and the increased public conversation about actual torture, with investigations into Iraq prison abuses and the recent debate in Washington over the torture of U.S.-held prisoners. "It's become more obvious," Grace said, "and audiences are more aware of these kinds of depictions because of what is currently going on in the news."

Fictional torture sequences and stories "ripped from the headlines" can seem to have uncomfortably similar sensibilities. This month's military trial of Chief Warrant Officer Lewis E. Welshofer Jr., for instance, revealed how interrogators at a western Iraq prison would stuff suspected insurgents face-first into a sleeping bag with a small hole cut in the bottom for air. The Abu Ghraib scandal produced similarly disturbing images.

Some observers of the trend say the blossoming of torture depictions in pop culture is a cyclical reflection of escalating fear and paranoia centered on the Iraq war, terrorism and counterterrorism. Witnessing fictional characters endure and ultimately survive extreme ordeals reinforces viewers' quest for more control, they say.

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