It was a crazy time, 2005. Saw had taken movie audiences by storm and a little film titled Hostel was just released. In response, the movie critic intelligentsia christened a new sub-genre, torture porn. As dismissive and passive aggressive as that term was, it was accurate. These horror films were less interested in actual scares than dwelling on the exaggerated gore that made us all squirm. Torture porn expanded from there until it found its place within the popular lexicon, seeming to be the future of horror. But as with everything, its reign had its limits, giving way to the horror movies where footage kept getting found. Torture porn is rare at the multiplex these days, but it hasn’t been forgotten. But just in case, the makers of The Tortured, director Robert Lieberman and writer Marek Posival, want to make sure you remember torture porn and remember it well.
The set-up for The Tortured is pretty straightforward, a couple live through the nightmare of having their young child kidnapped, tortured, and eventually murdered. They then decide to kidnap and torture their child’s killer. Eye for an eye and all that. From there, the movie spends its time playing with basic questions of morality and ethics, all while zooming in on the associated blood and gore. If that idea appeals to you, you will probably enjoy this film. For me, though, it felt like an intro to ethics course that was heavy on prosthetic gore and light on actual content.
It’s not that the questions that The Tortured raises aren’t interesting, it’s just that the filmmakers don’t seem too intent on actually exploring those questions. The question of what makes evil evil and, transversely, what differentiates evil from retribution is an interesting question. Can torture be both evil and justified? The Tortured will never tell, because the film is happy to quickly introduce those ideas and then let them slip away just as rapidly. Intent, instead, to focus on the actual deed of torture.
Another aggravation is the technical manipulation of emotion instead of investing time into the relationship of the characters. The devastation of losing a child is rushed forward with Lifetime Movie of the Week style montages and flash backs. It’s trying for emotional attachment and maybe even a tear or two through cinematic technique alone. They never let us spend time with the grieving parents beyond the time they need them to proclaim plot points. The result is no real emotion, just a string of sloppy intercuts that makes the audience feel manipulated and pandered to.
Perhaps the greatest failing of The Tortured, though, is the waste of the disturbing portrayal of John Kozlowski, played here by the legendary Bill Moseley. Unlike a lot of his more flamboyant characters of late, Moseley’s character in The Tortured fits more into the real life serial killer mold, more BTK than Chop Top. This leads to an unnerving portrayal of what real evil would look like. Unfortunately, John Kozlowski is left by the wayside as the filmmakers rush to the torture part of their torture porn movie.
The Tortured should be given credit for trying to raise the ethical questions it does. Not every horror movie concerns itself with the problematic nature of human malevolence. The trouble is that the film acknowledges those themes but never bothers to really address them. What could have been a truly disturbing move falls into a procedural torture fest. It really does try to be smart, but it spends a lot of time burning nipples. You can’t have your cake and eat it too gentlemen.