4×4 (2021)

I love a good high-concept gimmick. Any premise that feels like it was pitched as scribbles on a bar napkin calls out to me like an irresistible Siren song – whether it’s “haunted Zoom call“, “killer cocktail dress“, or “cannibal mermaid musical“. As a result, the bar-napkin premise for the new Argentine cheapie 4×4 was too good to pass up. 4×4 is a single-location, confined-space thriller about a petty thief who gets trapped in a high-tech “bait car”, then tormented for days by his victim-turned-captor. Basically, “bait car torture porn.” It mostly delivers on that gimmick for its first hour too (even if the concept feels a decade stale). We are trapped in the bait-car torture chamber with our unlucky-thief protagonist for a miserable, laughable stretch of high-concept cruelty, making for some highly entertaining modern exploitation trash. Then, 4×4 commits a major sin; it abandons its gimmick for a stubbornly traditional, moralistic conclusion outside the car-prison, ruining its trashy appeal for a last-minute attempt at respectability. Bummer.

After an opening-credits montage of security cameras, locked gates, and barbed-wire fences spotted on the streets of Buenos Aires, we jump right into the central action of the story. A thief in soccer hooligan drag breaks into a parked SUV and removes the car’s radio, then pisses on the backseat as a childish prank. He immediately regrets that prank, though, as he ends up spending the next few days of his life soaking in his own piss. The car doors are locked; the windows are polarized & bulletproofed; he’s an isolated prisoner, made to spend endless days in solitary confinement as his rich-asshole captor taunts him over the would-be stolen radio. Most of the torture is the confinement itself; outside of the car’s AC system being weaponized for bursts of extreme cold & extreme heat, the thief is mostly just left to stew in his own repugnant juices & stench. His only water source is the condensation he licks off the car windows in the morning hours. His only escapes are the delirious dreams he has while starved & dehydrated. His only company is the villainous voice on the radio that holds him captive . . . until that villain ruins the movie by insisting on facing his victim in person, outside of the car.

The ideal version of 4×4 would stick to the confines of its commanding gimmick. It starts off on the right foot with the weaponized AC unit & bullets ricocheting off the unbreakable windows, but the booby traps should have exponentially escalated from there. Transforming an ordinary SUV into a mechanized torture chamber leaves plenty of room for over-the-top gimmickry. Unfortunately, the movie shies away from its true destiny as a inane high-concept thriller to instead stage a spirited communal debate about the morality of vigilante justice. Instead of sawblade steering wheels, trash-compactor seating, or tentacled seatbelts, we get a sober, both-sidesing conversation about street crime & wealth-disparity that asks empty rhetorical questions like “What is happening to us as a society?” What a letdown. No one’s going to seek this movie out for its philosophical insights on the morality of petty theft or vigilante justice. Even if that were the case, it ultimately doesn’t have much to say on the topic. The audience is only on the hook for the bar-napkin promise of killer-SUV hijinks, and the movie’s outright cruel to drive away without satisfying that vehicular bloodlust.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #83 of The Swampflix Podcast: Pledge (2019) & Good Torture Porn

Welcome to Episode #83 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our eighty-third episode, we ask the age-old question “Is there such a thing as good torture porn?” Brandon makes James watch the crowdfunded 2019 horror Pledge for the first time, then they discuss two artsy European films that offer an interesting take on the genre: Goodnight Mommy (2015) & Inside (2007). Enjoy!

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-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

Pledge (2019)

I typically despise torture porn as a genre, as I’m sure most people do by now. You’d think that even the “torture porn” label itself would inherently be read as an insult, but there is certainly still an audience out there somewhere for the early-aughts onslaught of grimy, macho sadism with poorly aged nu-metal soundtracks, fluorescent lighting, and pitch-black emotional cruelty. The major thing that always kept me from joining those heartless gore hounds in their appreciation for the genre myself (besides its usual sickly-green color correction) is the way it treats its characters before they’re tortured. Most torture porn premises involve watching archetypes you’re goaded to hate as soon as they’re introduced get their comeuppance at the hands of a cruel sadist with a vaguely defined moral code the victims have supposedly violated. This dynamic is especially grotesque when the victims are scantily clad women with beautiful supermodel physiques (as they often are), adding a bonus layer of misogyny to what was already a grotesque affair. The recent Kickstarter-funded horror cheapie Pledge is a shockingly successful subversion of all these glaring faults in the traditional torture porn dynamic. Not only does the film sidestep the genre’s usual misogynist tendencies by making its basic themes about toxic masculinity; it also takes the time to make its central torture porn victims relatable, pitiable nerds you actually have an affection for before turning around to torture them for a solid hour of gore-splattered mayhem. As a result, its prolonged, grisly deaths are genuinely unnerving, if not outright heartbreaking. On a more superficial level, Pledge also arrives as a welcome subversion of the torture porn genre by ditching the sickly green fluorescent aesthetic of the early aughts in favor of a more muted, realistic color palette. The result is much easier to look at & ingest than the genre’s typical fare, which only makes the cruelty on display more lingeringly effective.

Conceptually, there’s nothing especially fresh or novel about Pledge’s college campus rush-week-from-Hell premise. If anything, the film feels a few years late to the table, as the fraternity-rush torture porn gimmick was already tapped in higher profile arthouse projects like GOAT & Burning Sands. What makes the film exceptional is the extremity & specificity of its execution, not so much its themes or setting. Three hopeless, virginal nerds fail to gain acceptance into any of their college’s fraternities, as the gatekeeping bros therein instantly clock them as weirdo outsiders. Admittedly, the boys are sexually overeager & immature in a way that’s off-putting, even if true to life. They’re still not your typical torture porn victims, though, as (besides not being horned-up, half-naked women) they’re actually kind of charming in their ineffectual nerdiness. That’s why it’s tough to observe them being lured by women & liquor to apply as rushes to a creepy, isolated frat house with severe Society undertones. Once the pretense of the fraternity being legitimate is dropped, the film loses a lot of its more distinct character development touches in favor of increasingly cruel gore gags. By the time it slips into that full-blown torture marathon, however, we’re already attached to the poor little worms. It’s genuinely heartbreaking to see them still express reluctance to quit pledging to the “frat” after they’re forcibly branded, fed rancid roadkill, whipped, and disfigured by rats, as if it’s all worthwhile for their only shot at a healthy social life. The movie makes broad gestures to characterize their tormenters as part of a larger, cultish conspiracy network of the well-connected elite, but what’s more important is those villains’ basic features as handsome, all-American bros. With quaffed bangs and names like Maxwell Peterson III, the villains of Pledge are wealthy trust fund brats with a sadistic streak and an infinitely wide safety net backing up their brutish behavior. The purpose of their cruelty isn’t nearly as important as the perversely gleeful ways they express it and how easily they get away with it.

Last year, the killer clown slasher Terrifier was a frustrating reminder of just how flawed yet interesting the torture porn template can be. That film represented the pros & cons of the genre in irreconcilable extremes: fantastic practical effects gore artistry & pointlessly cruel misogynist violence. Pledge fixed my problems with that film, keeping the impressive low-budget gore effects but finding a purposeful use for the violence with far less icky gender politics. Pledge isn’t perfect, of course. Its opening sequence unnecessarily hints at the upcoming violence in a way that lessens the surprise of its extremity; the back half gradually drops the fraternity hazing gimmick to become more of a generic slasher; the conspiracy network paranoia feels disappointingly undercooked; etc. For a crowdfunded horror cheapie in a genre I usually have no energy for, however, it’s a shockingly successful, impressively upsetting watch. I can’t say that it will change your mind on the torture porn genre if you’ve always found the prospect of it entirely meritless, but I do think it’s an exceptional example of its ilk – a nasty little picture that overcame my own genre biases to wrench out my admiration & disgust in equal measure.

-Brandon Ledet

Terrifier (2018)

When reviewing modern, cheap-o horror films, it’s easy to wax nostalgic about the practical effects of yesteryear and how much has been lost since the genre has slipped into excessive reliance on CGI. Every now & then a film like The Predator or The Void will remind me that practical gore effects wizardry is not all that’s required to pull off an entertaining horror movie, that those foundational techniques must be deployed in service of a worthwhile creative project. This year’s clown-themed microbudget gore fest Terrifier was my latest nostalgia check in this regard, and perhaps the most significant one of my lifetime. The film’s director, Damien Leone, is an exceptionally talented practical effects nerd who knows how to make the gore makeup trickery of horror past sing beautifully on the screen. Unfortunately, his gross-out gore effects wizardry is wasted on a creatively, morally defunct project unworthy of his artistry. Early in Terrifier I was delighted by the reminder of just how far practical effects craftsmanship can carry even the cheapest, flimsiest of genre fare. However, another reminder crept up in its interminable 80min runtime: the oft-repeated epiphany that the virtue of gore & sinew has its own limitations, that my nostalgia for this artistry should be kept in check.

Terrifier doesn’t have much of a plot to speak of, nor does it even really have a premise. The film is mostly built around a character—a murderous antagonist, Art the Clown. Unlike other recent, superior killer clown movies like Clown or IT, the film’s setting & themes do very little legwork to justify why its killer is dressed as a clown; he just does so because clowns are creepy. That justification is initially more than enough, as Art the Clown’s basic design, fashion, and demeanor are so absurdly horrific that the film more than earns the indulgence. His old-timey black & white mime drag makes him feel like an ancient, supernatural Evil. His mugging, toothy smile reveals blood-gushing gum rot. He carries around a black plastic garbage bag of torture instruments like a dumpster-dwelling magician – tools he uses to pull of such clownish pranks as sawing women in half, converting severed heads into bloody jack-o-lanterns, and writing his own name in shit. Art the Clown is a wonderfully terrifying creation that is almost so deeply horrifying that he inspires laughter instead of screams, just in admiration for the audacity. The visual artistry of that character is so on point that the microbudget, amateurly rendered world he invades functions only to accentuate the achievement; he obviously belongs in a better movie, something that only becomes more apparent as he selects & dismembers his victims.

Where Terrifer loses me is in its gleefully cruel indulgence in misogyny, which often manifests as an open mockery of women. It’s a gradual ramping-up of gendered condescension that starts subtly enough with digs against the vanity of social media selfies, the vapidity of “sexy” Halloween costumes, and the archetypal characterization of college-age women as drunken, reckless flirts. Along with the exponential trajectory of the gore, these misogynist touches only worsen as the film goes along, until Art the Clown is mutilating women’s genitals at length in torture porn excess and, arguably worse, wearing their body parts as costumes to mince around in mockery of his victims’ femme demeanor. These are despicable acts perpetrated by a serial killer clown, so they might be justifiable in a depiction-does-not-equal-endorsement argument, but the movie lays no foundational support to offer context or meaning to the cruelty. Since there is no thematic texture to Terrifier beyond “Killer clown tortures hot naked women on Halloween night,” the torture & mockery of women becomes the entire substance of the text. Horror has already seen more than enough condescension, objectification, and destruction of women for this continuation to serve any purpose beyond meaningless cruelty, and it’s a shame that’s the effect all the film’s phenomenal practical-gore craftsmanship was sunk into.

Terrifier is an excellent gore & makeup effects showcase, but ultimately too dumb & too empty to get away with being this cruel. I’d totally be down for this microbudget backyard gore fest aesthetic if it were either fun or purposeful, but at some point the torture-porn wallowing & open mockery of women crossed a line for me and it just became miserable to sit through. This is a great business card for Damien Leone as a makeup effects artist, but as a film it’s a total disappointment. It’s only useful for its illustration of the limitation of practical effects craftsmanship, which can only get you so far without a sense of purpose to guide it.

-Brandon Ledet

Jigsaw (2017)

I never had much interest in the Saw franchise or the general torture porn subgenre it helped pioneer, even though I should have been in its exact demographic during its nu-metal heyday. The only early installment I can remember seeing is Saw 2, a mind-numbing theatrical experience due both to its for-its-own-sake gore & its entirely unjustified last second plot twist. Still, I had hope that the most recent sequel, simply titled Jigsaw, might be able to reshape the franchise into something fresh & newly interesting. Produced over a decade after its most recent predecessor & directed by the Spierig sibling duo behind the weirdo genre entries Predestination & Daybreakers, Jigsaw stood a good chance of finding a new, exciting angle on a previously unpleasant, aggressively empty franchise. Instead, it merely repeated the pattern laid out by previous Saw films: shock value torture scenarios striving to top themselves in violence & absurdity without narrative purpose, followed by a last second twist meant to fool you into thinking the previous 90min were less vapid than they first appeared to be. Jigsaw is, oddly, more of the same from a franchise that’s been laying dormant since 2006. It’s not an especially pleasant or exciting experience thanks to that trajectory, but it does offer insight into how the horror landscape has evolved (for the better) over the last eleven years.

Plot is probably an entirely irrelevant component at this point in the Saw series, except to say that Jigsaw is at it again! After being thought dead for a decade, the Rube Goldberg-inspired serial killer is apparently up to his old games, trapping seemingly ordinary, unrelated people in unnecessarily complex death traps as punishment for their moral shortcomings. In order to escape death by boobytraps, Jigsaw’s victims must mutilate themselves & confess to the world the many ways they’ve failed as human beings. Most of these scenarios are tied to guilt over selfishness & self-preservation, but none register as anything more than excuses for gore & screaming, incoherent mayhem. Meanwhile, a parallel police investigation tries to make sense of the newly surfaced “game” & its subsequent, torn-apart dead bodies. Will they discover the apparently resurrected Jigsaw (or his astute copycat) before all of the players in the latest game are killed? Will a last second twist completely undermine whether the game or Jigsaw’s current state ever really mattered? Even if you can stay awake long enough to find out, it’s doubtful you’ll leave the experience sated, unless all you really turned up for was a few stray moments of cruelty & gore.

Truly, the only reason to seek out Jigsaw is to admire how much better the horror landscape is now than it was a decade ago. The depth & range of horror titles being produced by boutique labels like Blumhouse & A24 in the modern era is an embarrassment of riches. Jigsaw returns us to a time when Lionsgate had the run of the place, torture porn was the rule of the land, and every horror movie was required to look like it was filmed in Rob Zombie’s dorm room. What’s even more interesting, though, is the way the Saw franchise’s influence has been dispersed through pop culture at large. Much like how runway fashion innovation eventually trickles down to Wal-Mart bargain racks, Saw is now a part of everyday, pedestrian #content. Jigsaw‘s morgue examinations of destroyed bodies are barely more gruesome than anything you’d see on CSI-type police procedurals. Its backstory flashback structure that adds puddle-shallow context one victim at a time to its archetype game-players recalls the storytelling format of Orange is the New Black. Even the “games” themselves have become wholesome weekend entertainment for the whole family, thanks to Escape Rooms & the like. Saw & its grimy torture porn ilk are not only creatively anemic in comparison to indie horror in the 2010s; their blades have also been dulled & diluted by pop culture at large to the point of being completely harmless.

If the Spierig brothers add anything new to the Saw franchise, it’s in Jigsaw‘s last minute shift from serial killer horror to superhero origin story. Even that territory has been thoroughly covered before in the long-deceased television series Dexter, though. It also occurs too late into the story to forgive the well-behaved franchise carbon copy that eats up the majority of the runtime anyway. The only value this film holds, then, is a reminder of how wonderful it is that this kind of bland, pointless cruelty is no longer the norm in horror circles. Jigsaw is enlightening & worth examination if you look at it as a point of contrast for how much the horror landscape has changed since the last entry in the franchise, but I doubt I’ll accept any future invitations to “play a game” all the same.

-Brandon Ledet