The ‘torture porn’ label has always been a somewhat contentious epithet, used to describe that particularly misanthropic strand of modern horror that is primarily concerned with narratives which tend to foreground the abduction, confinement and (of course) torture of groups of helpless, isolated protagonists. Originally coined as a term of disparagement in the heading of an article written by critic David Edelstein for New Yorker Magazine, it’s a tag which implicitly suggests such films somehow intend to titillate audiences with images of degradation and anatomically precise depictions of the multifarious abuses to which the human form can be made subject -- although it’s worth remembering (as Kim Newman points out in the new edition of his compendious genre overview “Nightmare Movies”) that one of the films Edelstein originally singled out for censure, alongside such obvious examples as “Wold Creek” and “The Devil’s Rejects”, was Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”!
What did seem new at the time of the original article, was that such ‘viciously nihilistic’ films were now being consumed as part of mainstream culture, often made by big studios and playing multiplexes rather than just the low-rent grindhouse circuit of old. It was hardly a massive step from that acute observation towards seeing an overt connection being forged with the-then newly minted war on terror: the normalisation of images of torture and the political ramifications of that fact seen in the fact of the existence of Guantanamo Bay, which then turned especially sour with the later uncovering of the abuses at Abu Ghraib, made such films feel like a cultural linchpin in a nexus of hysterical anti-human rights propaganda to some observers.
These days, the horror fan must inevitably have a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards any use of the term; it has unquestionably caught on as a sub-genre identifier, which we all now tend to use unthinkingly, ever since the initial on-rush of what has since become a seemingly ceaseless flow of movies taking up the baton originally laid down by Eli Roth’s “Hostel” and “Hostel II”. But it should be pointed out still, that the best films in the genre (and there are some) usually have a deeper motivation than just the provision of voyeuristic thrills for the supposed sadists among their audiences, and the whole notion that they function in anything like the way pornography functions is a dubious contention to put it mildly. Eli Roth’s two Hostel films in particular, are actually smart, savvy and sardonic deconstructions of the remorselessly cruel logic that governs market capitalism in the modern world, rather than just a string of scenes of mindless, gory depravity informed by no social context whatsoever. Nevertheless, ‘torture porn’ is rapidly becoming a dismissive rather than an abusive label: so ubiquitous are movies involving abductions (usually of young pretty women) and domination, which then culminate in prolonged torture set-pieces, that the genre has had to move into the realm of the outlandishly grotesque -- represented by the like of Tom Six’s “The Human Centipede” or “Srđan Spasojević’s “A Serbian Film” -- just to even stand a chance of registering any impression at all lest they get lost amid the Infernoesque maelstrom of films being released nowadays with exactly the same look, style and approach.
The French born writer-director Olivier Abbou’s debut “Territories” is perhaps the most interesting film to emerge out of the genre since Roth’s Hostel films, in 2005 and 2007 respectively. Shot in Québec, Canada this compelling, strange little drama, with its remote woodlands setting perched on the edge of a bleak stretch of road near the Canadian/US border, implicitly back-references the political charge that the earthy backwoods thrillers of the ‘70s such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Last House on the Left” once commanded when they first emerged, at what was also then a time of great social turmoil, in a decade when the horrors of the real world had started to seem infinitely greater than anything mere fantasy could conjure up. This is no nostalgic trip into cute ‘70s retro-horror though; “Territories” is upfront in bringing recent events uncomfortably centre stage; the antagonists doing the confining and torturing here, aren’t the usual bunch of toothless backwoods freaks and hillbilly yokels of old, but neither are they the shadowy cabal of the west’s business elite who were made the perpetrators in the Hostel films. Not only are these torturers much more believable, but their methods are all too uncomfortably recognisable from recent headlines. Abbou’s film has other surprises in store for us as well, not least a radically uncompromising structure that seems willing to risk losing a section of its audience when it reaches the third act and suddenly appears to transform itself into a completely different movie altogether.
The decision to open with the now near-ubiquitous Death in Vegas track ‘Dirge’ could well be an oblique reference to the current studio trend which finds the backwoods-cum-torture genre re-imagining those old disreputable drive-in classics of the 1970s in a slick, cynical, modern makeover style; for the same piece of music also played out the recent high-profile remake of “The Last House on the Left”. The opening act of “Territories” does indeed mimic countless other films in the genre, establishing the lonely, isolated night-time setting (a deserted road cutting through wintery Canadian forest on the way to the US border) and five good-looking young American twenty-somethings, heading back from a wedding reception when they are pulled over at a customs checkpoint by two border policemen after the officals notice the vehicle’s broken headlamp.
Or so they think …
Agent Samuel (Roc LaFortune) and his pal Walter (Sean Devine), at first seem simply to be your usual over-officious, rigidly authoritarian and right-leaning border patrolmen intent on sniffing out drugs when they realise the young age of the vehicle’s inhabitants, and generally throwing their weight around and behaving in an intimidating manner. They make insinuations about driver Jalil El-Haddad’s (Michael Mando) patriotism: with a name like that he must be up to no good or otherwise intent on doing harm to the United States, surely? Then, sure enough, Walter finds some dope hidden in teenager Tom’s (Alexandre Weiner) backpack and in a split second the unfortunate situation escalates into a major incident, with all five ordered out of the car and forced to strip naked at the side of the road! Law Major Leslie (Nicole Leroux) tries to assert her legal rights and demands that her asthmatic, mute brother be allowed to take his medication – but she instead ends up being forced to submit to an invasive cavity search in front of everyone. Then Samuel tells Walter to finish off Gabriel’s (Tim Rozon) pet terrier which is still inside the car and starting to make a lot of noise. When the disbelieving dog owner protests too vociferously Samuel shoots him dead on the spot! It’s clear these two take their job way too seriously!
The middle section of the film plunges us into a version of the by-now all too familiar captivity and torture scenario, but made somewhat more uncomfortable by the fact that the two perpetrators appear to be assiduously following a set of procedures that have produced some even more familiar images taken directly from the news: Jalil, Leslie, Tom and the remaining survivor of the trip, Michelle (Cristina Rosato), are manacled together wearing those familiar bright orange jumpsuits while sacks are fastened tightly around their heads, and then frogmarched to a damp, lonely spot in the middle of the leaf-littered forest where they are forced into tiny cages and left for hours without food or water. Their ordeal is to be prolonged and becomes increasingly hopeless as Samuel and Walter continue to follow their own faux militaristic detention procedures involving cattle branding each of the four unfortunates on the neck with an identification number! The four are regularly stripped, confined in a sweatbox shed their captors have constructed deep in the interior of their forest dwelling, and subjected to ear-splitting Death Metal for hours on end whilst being fried beneath glaring, blinding arc lights. This regime is augmented by lengthy interrogation sessions, as Samuel in particular focuses on Jalil and tries to get the desk clerk to confess to membership of Al-Qaeda -- even pointing out figures from blurry videos of Middle Eastern desert training camps and attempting to get him to agree that they are depictions of him!
Abbou never goes in for the extreme images of mutilation, invasive operating procedures and disfigurement that comprises the content of a great many films in the genre, but instead builds up a bleak, hopeless atmosphere of desperation which owes more to “Salo” than it does to “Saw”, as the four are gradually worn down, humiliated, belittled and deprived of all dignity. The one sequence that involves a torture porn staple – a tooth being yanked out with a pair of pliers – is actually an act of brutal, painful mercy, which is allowed when Michelle, suffering from an infected tooth which has caused the right side of her face swell to twice its usual size (a truly disconcertingly horrid special effect!) is finally broken and ‘confesses’ to having seen and heard Jalil taking part in plots against the United States. It is Jalil who is made to perform the ensuing impromptu dental procedure.
The cinematography of Karim Hussain during this segment is made up of the kind of austere, excessively muted palette of subdued colours which has become de rigour in the sub-genre, augmented with grainy video-cam footage as Samuel and Walter obsessively catalogue their procedures. Perhaps one of the most daring thing about the film, though, is that during all this, Abbou is willing to switch the emphasise of the action from the victims to the perpetrators and allows us a look into the lives of Sam and Walter that, while not making them particular sympathetic as such, certainly adds a great deal more depth to the relationship between the two men than one would usually expect from such material. LaFortune in particular stands out in his portrayal of Samuel as a scary, unpredictable but ultimately damaged individual, largely dependent on the seemingly submissive Walter in order just to be able to survive the day to day business of existing in the world. The horrific conclusion one reaches is that the ordeal the four captives are being put through is actually a kind of therapy for the two men who have made them prisoners. A lengthy scene in their run-down shack establishes the duo as former Gulf War veterans – an embellishment that could potentially have been used in extremely poor taste and seen as insulting to many, but which is actually handled with a surprising degree of sensitivity and which instead gives the film a wider sense of a whole society losing its moral compass: this is torture porn as George A. Romero-style political allegory. The big risk “Territories” takes comes with the final half-hour: not many films choose to build up such a suspenseful situation after spending so much time with a small group of characters, and then decide to completely forget about them and go off on another tangent completely, but that’s exactly what “Territories” does. Not only do we switch to tracking the follow-up investigations of Stephen Shellen’s quietly-spoken PI, but the film radically switches style and becomes a Twin Peaks-like foray into Lynchian forest visions, clues obtained from hallucinogenic heroin revelries, and haunting spectral allusions to an un-explicated backstory involving Shellen’s character’s little daughter, who is heard on constantly replayed voice phone messages.
What is going on here? Many other reviewers have seen this strange left turn as a structural deficiency in the storytelling, but it is possible that the strategy is deliberate on the part of Abbou, and meant to allude to the fact that people can indeed be forgotten about and suspended in a legal limbo as a result of just these kinds of practices being carried out in the name of homeland security. Whether this reading works for you or not, the film definitely attains an extra air of mysteriousness and unpredictability from this unexpected final act, which sees the film become its own mini-sequel in the supernatural mystery genre, and building to an ambiguous and affecting climax in which Clément Tery’s incidental score really gets to kick into high gear.
Arrow Films release “Territories” on DVD in a no-frills UK release with a 2.0 stereo English audio track, that doesn’t even sport a trailer, leaving the essential mystery behind the intent of this by turns, disturbing and deeply strange film intact.