Once again, let us discuss ‘torture porn’. This is the car that I shall always be chasing. This is the hill upon which I have chosen to die.
The term is, of course, an utter nonsense; referring to horror films containing extreme levels of physical violence and gore, usually inflicted on poor innocents in a graphic and even lurid manner. That there is nothing sexually gratifying about such films does not deter its critics from using the term, any more than it deterred American commentator David Edelstein when he coined it out of disgust with Eli Roth’s Hostel, (2005) among others. Alternate, more accurate terms are available – I have personally favoured ‘survival horror’, although both ‘splatter’ and ‘extreme’ films are usually widely used. For me they much more appropriately reflect those films where characters enter a horrifying situation, and their story focuses not upon defeating the antagonist that placed them there but simply surviving the event at all.
Still and all, one cannot entirely blame Edelstein and others for their embrace of the ‘torture porn’ term. Made irresponsibly, and these films can appear particularly odious and lacking in artistic merit. There is a fine line between a confrontational film and an exploitative one, and debate is going to rage endlessly over where that line sits. In all likelihood it is going to sit in different positions based on individual taste. For me, there is a very clear line between the socio-political commentary of an Irreversible (2002) or the ‘grand guignol’ of a Saw (2004), and the distasteful crude violence of a Hostel or a Wolf Creek (2005). That line exists in any genre, if you think about it. It divides Deuce Bigalo: Male Gigalo (1999) from Some Like it Hot (1959), or Gotti (2018) from Goodfellas (1990). Torture porn would seem to be the only specific genre of cinema named after its worst-made examples.
So what does this have to do with The Farm, a 2018 horror feature written and directed by Hans Stjernswärd? It is a crude film, but not a confronting one. It has the sleazy, vicarious cadence of a Hostel or a Wolf Creek, but not the accompanying graphic violence. Here any horrible acts of torture or murder are either soft-balled and sanitised or simply implied instead. The result is a film that purports to play in the same sandpit as extreme cinema, but when push comes to shove is too afraid to showcase the visceral horror off which it wants to leverage a reputation. Effectively it is torture porn for cowards.
Nora and Alec (Nora Yessayan and Alec Gaylord) are a young couple travelling by car through the countryside. They stop off at a local diner for a meal. They refuel their car at a service station. When Alec is tiring and wants to rest for the night, they rent a room at an isolated set of holiday cabins. When they wake, they have been stripped naked and chained inside wire cages by a masked group of farmers who use humans as livestock.
The basic concept of The Farm is sound, and it is suitably horrific. In practice it is one of the weakest horror films that I have sampled in some time. Its failings are extensive and numerous. A laboured first act tracks its leads through a series of stereotypical backwoods encounters through rural America: they meet the creepy service station attendant, the elderly religious zealot, and a diner waitress who presses burgers on them with almost physical force.
It is from the half-hour mark or so that the film properly flounders. Nora wakes up in a cage and is promptly subjected to artificial insemination – it is not graphically presented but is still nauseating. Alex wakes up naked in a born with a group of other male ‘livestock’, each of whom is promptly bludgeoned in the head and sent to be butchered. Very soon, however, the narrative focus shifts from its ostensible leads to the farmers themselves – all but two are obscured with animal masks, and remain essentially anonymous throughout. The remaining pair consist of the ‘landlord’ (Ken Volok), a facially disfigured man who runs the farming operation, and Andrew (Rob Tisdale), a mentally challenged farmhand that abuses captive women like a troubled child tortures animals. That the film uses facial difference and intellectual disability as signifiers of monstrous behaviour is, in itself, grossly inappropriate. That it spends so much of its brief running time on their lives and routine is pointedly bizarre. The Farm essentially fails as survival horror because it demonstrates little interest in its protagonists’ survival.
Very little thought is applied to how such a human farm would actually work, and this leads to glaring moments of absurdity – and not in a knowing way. Entire scenes feel missing from the narrative – characters shift from naked and apparently dead in one moment to entirely clothed and alive in the next. What action there is feels poorly expressed in visual terms, as if Stjernswärd failed to shoot any close-ups or coverage for key sequences. To his credit, Sergei Stern’s haunting and minimalist score works very well – as does Egor Povolotskiy’s grimy and haunted photography. One really cannot blame the actors either; they can only work with the material they are given.
The presence of that same insidious, voyeuristic tone as poorly-made torture-centric horror films, divorced from any visibly confronting extreme violence or gore but including their tendency to bury sympathy for their characters, gave me an epiphany on the debate over the merits of extreme and survival horror. It is a difficult genre in which to succeed. When undertaken successfully it can produce excellent works that – while not necessarily appealing to a mass audience – provide a specific and powerful response in its viewers. The Farm exists in an oddly bowlderised state for its chosen genre and story focus. It lends credence to the idea that when it comes to the torture porn label, it is tone and not content that generates such ill will and makes them such an unlikeable watch.
Perhaps quality survival horror is in a league of its own, and what some call torture porn is simply what the rest of us call bad movies.