As a horror fan, it is tempting to defend what has come to be called ‘Torture Porn’ if only because the sub-genre has dominated the horror market for the last six years, and also because the genre has its genesis in Saw (2004), a genuinely commendable film that pioneered a new kind of horror, forcing us to confront unrelenting pain and suffering in graphic and toe-curling detail, and managing to do so without descending into the laughably camp.
More importantly, Saw had an engaging plot that was perhaps more akin to a thriller than a straight horror movie, and the scenes of extreme torture, while repulsive and genuinely frightening, were designed to serve the narrative and did so extremely well. It is a shame that later offerings, such as the abysmal Hostel: Part II (2007) and Saw’s own sequels (which will likely continue to dwindle in quality into a seventh instalment later this year) have tarnished a genre that had so much promise with an unshakable bad reputation for combining softcore sexual imagery with scenes of extreme torture, while sorely lacking in plot, themes and meaning. In short, they have become gradually more concerned with finding something resembling a plot to fit between scenes of torture, rather than fitting scenes of torture into a plot. The Collector, the new addition to the sub-genre from the makers of Saw IV, V and VI, is sadly just another one of those movies.
The film starts well, and the first act is vaguely engaging as we’re thrown into the life of an ex-convict trying to get by, forced to do one more job for reasons beyond his control. For a while, The Collector seems like it might be something akin to Saw; a horror film that plays out as much like a thriller as a horror movie. Even the film’s second act manages to be genuinely quite suspenseful, as The Collector interrupts Arkin’s robbery, and the two play a silent, tense game of cat and mouse. But once Arkin has discovered Michael (Michael Reilly Burke) and Victoria Chase (Andrea Roth) in the basement during a brief pause in their intense torture, the film quickly plummets downhill.
Before even discussing the frankly shameful torture sequences and a horrifically misplaced sex scene, The Collector’s third act is filled with plot holes. Firstly, when Arkin enters no traps have been set; by the end or the second act there is no wall or window not guarded by razors or fishing hooks. Somehow elaborate traps have been planted in a matter of minutes, or Arkin has simply not noticed them; either explanation is utterly unbelievable. Even more ludicrous is an attempt by Arkin to electrocute The Collector, when we have quite clearly been shown the house’s power has been cut. If suspension of disbelief could lead us far enough to accept these glaring mistakes, which is highly debatable, the ending will be the final straw for many.
Even if you can ignore plot holes a mile wide, it is frankly insulting to find that most of the torture scenes are not in the least original or even affecting; perhaps the only wince-worthy moment involves a tongue being severed. A completely unneeded and frankly ludicrous sex scene occurs when Michael and Victoria’s eldest daughter Jill (Madeline Zima) returns home with a boyfriend; we are shown most of this from The Collector’s point of view, as if we are to take the same sick enjoyment from it as he. Never has the term ‘Torture Porn’ been more apt. Perhaps worst of all,
The Collector shamelessly steals the ‘teeth and chisel’ scene from Wes Craven’s horror masterpiece Last House on the Left (1972) and carries it through to its conclusion, to absolutely no affect. The Collector almost manages to offset its appalling third act by endangering the couple’s youngest child, Hannah (Karley Scott Collins), but it is hard not to imagine the glint in the writers’ eyes when they thought they had stumbled upon the one taboo ‘Torture Porn’ had yet to break in the hope of forcing emotional involvement from an audience.
The old mantra dictates that the best horror is psychological; that doesn’t necessarily mean that explicitly showing an audience graphic images isn’t horrifying, but some things have to be left to the imagination to prevent audiences from being numbed to scenes of violence by constant exposure. Once you’ve seen one toe, head or tongue severed, burned or maimed, you’ve seen them all. Visceral and graphic horror can work; the best body-horror movies of the eighties, such as The Thing (1982) and The Fly (1986), should be proof enough of this. Even ‘Torture Porn’ has worked to an extent; Saw was a genuinely engaging if flawed film and even Eli Roth’s original Hostel (2005) had a number of redeeming features. But something else is needed to make grisly horror such as this work: meaning. To quote horror master George A. Romero, the vast majority of ‘Torture Porn’ movies are “lacking metaphor,” and if the few champions of the sub-genre are to be vindicated, the makers of such films are going to have to try a lot harder than The Collector.