Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

If 'torture porn' loosely comprises a body of films dealing in psychological and physical torment, it has also become an umbrella term for near everything - apart from the parasitism of remakes - that is perceived to be wrong with contemporary horror, as well as a convenient shorthand for all the genre's most squirm-inducingly sadistic, sensational and misogynistic aspects, appealing only to viewers' ugliest instincts.

The problem, however, with this characterisation is its over-generalising one-sidedness. Pain and suffering are hardly novel themes in the horror genre, and while certainly the bludgeoning repetition of endless Saw sequels may offer the diminishing returns of cynical cash-ins, that is a bit like judging all comedy by the later days of the Police Academy franchise. Films such as Salo Or The 120 Days of Sodom, Funny Games, Audition, Hard Candy, Deadgirl, WAZ, Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door, Martyrs and Antichrist demonstrate that so-called torture porn need not lack quality or probing intelligence – and denying that these titles are torture porn at all is just begging the question of what torture porn is, or should be.

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Take Simon Hynd's Senseless, a film that embraces its torture porn credentials even as it interrogates both our understanding of the subgenre, and our place as consumers of it. Given that its protagonist Eliott Gast (Jason Behr) is kidnapped, imprisoned, and subjected to a series of horrifically unorthodox and unnecessary surgical procedures (often without anaesthetic) over the course of several weeks, it seems unlikely that the film will escape being tarred with the torture porn brush – yet at the same time, the maleness of the victim precludes any accusation of misogyny, while the gradual stripping away of his senses, with a corresponding reduction in the film's use of image and sound, presents a literal counterargument to any charge of sensationalism. Here, the film's title contains a double-meaning. "You are a man of the senses," the abducted American businessman (Jason Behr) is told by his chief tormentor, nicknamed Blackbeard (Joe Ferrara). "So we are eliminating them. By this method, we can leave you throughly changed. With your example, we can change thousands."

Blackbeard loves to talk – to lecture, to tease, to taunt – but then he is playing to an audience. For he and his masked cronies hope to draw attention to their anti-American, anti-imperialist message, and to raise funds for their cause, by broadcasting their 'over-the-top' actions online, and inviting users to help decide – for a price - what happens next to their captive example and scapegoat. "No one is amused by the suffering of others," objects Gast (German for 'guest', ironically enough) – but the very existence of this film, and of the horror genre as a whole, would suggest otherwise, leading Blackbeard to correct him: "People are always fascinated by pain and suffering – as long as it's not their own."

It is a comment as much on our vicarious reception of Senseless itself as on Gast's fictive online followers. As Gast's past secrets come to light in a series of flashbacks, we are all being invited to sit in judgment of him, and to locate a sophisticated sort of complicity in his abject predicament – or, as he says direct to camera, and therefore to us, "You're a collaborator. You're giving them an audience. If you quit watching it will stop."

As the days pass, Gast does change, both physically and in other ways, too – and something similar happens to Blackbeard, whose punishments of his prisoner drift from the 'purely' political to the viciously personal, even as the sadistic showman becomes increasingly addicted to his own dubious fame. Seemingly Gast's only ally is his nurse (Emma Catherwood), who is torn between her ideological commitments and her growing sympathy for her patient – but her dilemma will not be resolved quite as expected.

Accordingly Hynd's feature debut is a difficult, confronting film, exploring everything from the mask-wearing anonymity afforded by the internet, to the dissociative cruelty elicited by reality television, the neo-colonialist skulduggery of globalised economics, the difference between individual and collective guilt, the shifting nature of terrorism in the digital age, the distortions created by our celebrity culture, the thorny issue of what makes us who we are (and what in turn stops us being who we are), and the complicated entertainments offered by torture porn itself.

Senseless is a well-crafted, relatively restrained affair, boasting rock solid performances, believable characters (in extremis), highly effective sound design, and a clinically claustrophobic Big Brother-style set that is gradually destroyed along with the protagonist's body and sanity. While certainly not for everyone, it is too intelligent and too self-critical to be dismissed out of hand – and like a Michael Haneke film, it appeals to our sense of guilt, both as viewers and members of the Western world. Provocative and stimulating stuff, indeed, but hardly porn – and in our kingdom of the blind, it is, perhaps, best watched with only one eye open.

Reviewed on: 21 Jul 2010
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Senseless packshot
A businessman is abducted and deprived of his senses one by one as his torment is broadcast live over the internet.
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Director: Simon Hynd

Writer: Simon Hynd, based on the book by Stona Fitch

Starring: Jason Behr, Emma Catherwood, Joe Ferrara, Lucy Liemann, Tam Dean Burn, Toby Marlow, Sean O'Kane, Jasper Marlow, Rusekero Mhango

Year: 2008

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: UK


Raindance 2008

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