October 10, 2018

Redeeming Qualities of Violence?

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The BeginningWhen I finally got around to watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006) in 2008, went into it with some trepidation. In fact, I'd been avoiding it because I figured it would be bad. As a fan of the original, which now has a 40th anniversary edition out, I worried that this could ruin it. It wasn't great, but it did manage to be much better than I was expecting. But this is not a review of the film. I am just using it to pose the following question: Can the depiction of graphic violence for the sake of violence have any real merit?

I'll admit that I found the film entertaining. I probably wouldn't recommend it to others, and I have no burning desire to see it again. Still, it wasn't a terrible way to waste an evening. Is this enough to redeem what was a brutal and nasty film? That is, are films like this okay because people like me find them entertaining?

I suppose I could try to argue for some sort of artistic merit and claim that the film functions as art. I can think of some violent horror films where one could reasonably make this argument, but I would have a hard time doing so in this particular case. I have seen many films which were far more violent and disturbing but that genuinely worked as art. I'm not sure this one was up to the standard where it could be considered art.

Did it have any cathartic value? No, not really. The violence was sufficiently predictable and over-the-top that it didn't really accomplish anything emotional. Or maybe I'm just thoroughly desensitized to content like this by now. With the number of horror films I watch, maybe that was inevitable.

Maybe movies like this do not need to have any social merit or other redeeming qualities. Maybe the fact that someone finds them entertaining is enough. I don't know. I do not mind graphic violence in horror movies when I feel that there is some point to it. It needs to advance the story in some way. I think this is why I do not generally care for the "torture porn" sort of horror films where the entire film seems to exist as an excuse to show the audience people being tortured. When it seems like the scenes of torture are the entire reason for the film to exist, I find that it tends to take me out of it and give me little reason to watch.

Now that I think about it, this may also be the reason I do not usually enjoy horror films that seem to be little more than special-effects showcases. Plot and story take a backseat to special effects, and one gets the sense that the entire point of the film is the construction of elaborate kill scenes. I'd put the Friday the 13th franchise in this category and probably most of the Saw franchise.

I think the entertainment value of film violence is probably enough to justify it, but I enjoy violent films far more when the violence is used to advance a good story and far less when it seems gratuitous. In fact, the more gratuitous or pointless it seems, the more I find myself questioning whether the film is worthwhile. I think it is possible that some films contribute little more than desensitizing their audiences to violence, and I'm not sure this is a good thing.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2008. It was re-written in 2018.