(Nearly) Prime Time Torture Porn?

Showtime has pushed the envelope so many times with its programming choices lately — with everything from Masters of Horror to Dexter — it’s only a matter of time before it experiences a rather nasty paper cut. An American Crime, which premiered on that cable channel in the US May 10, certainly could count as a digital laceration.

The 2007 film, based pretty closely on real-life events, stars media darling Ellen Page of Juno fame as 16-year-old Sylvia Likens, a young girl who is tortured and murdered by the woman who looks after her and her sister while her parents are on the road. The woman’s children and some of the neighborhood young ‘uns join in the abuse for good measure. Has torture porn finally landed on television?

“Hold it, I’ve heard all this before,” you say, and good on you for remembering it. Yes, this is the same plot of The Girl Next Door, last year’s (very nearly) straight-to-video adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s novel based on the short life of the real Sylvia Likens.

As I write The New Horror Handbook (coming to you October 31, hint, hint, hint), I’m finding that one of the most difficult distinctions to make is a) what exactly is “torture porn,” and b) how do you distinguish torture porn from horror films that boast extended scenes of torture that further the plot?

It becomes a type of word-association party game:

Hostel? Not TP (“Missed it by THAT much”).

Murder Set Pieces? Definitely TP. (Works on a couple of different levels, come to think of it.)

Unless the mass paroxysms of puppy love expressed by the media for Juno warped you into a despiser of all things Ellen Page, you probably have no burning desire to see the doe-eyed actress treated like a dog’s chew toy. Still, the fact that every belting, cigarette burn and worse in An American Crime comes straight from the court transcripts of this unpleasant episode in U.S. history gives it a merit beyond the mere display of child abuse for its own sake — a whisker’s worth, to be sure.

If we’re honest about it, the story of An American Crime is nearly identical to that of hundreds of made-for-TV and Lifetime original movies. Replace the terrible dialog, wooden acting and other sources of unintentional humor of the latter two with a strong central performance and a camera that refuses to flinch, and you’ve got this movie. If it’s torture porn, then can these other films be let off that hook simply because they lack the production values to pull it off?


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