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Rise in torture scenes raises red flags

HOLLYWOOD -- In the first hit film of the year, screaming, helpless young people are brutalized by power tools and blowtorches wielded by gleeful tormentors.

One of TV's most popular cable series ends its third season with the mutilation of a pre-operative transgender woman, and the severing of a plastic surgeon's finger. On the same show, a psychopath treats one of his kidnapped victims to extensive plastic surgery on her face and body -- without anesthesia.

A principal character in a big-screen political thriller has his fingernails ripped out with pliers. The wisecracking hero of another thriller is traumatized by electrodes attached to his genitals.

Increasingly, producers of movies and TV series are bringing the pain to mainstream fare -- highlighting sadism, torture, brutality, and human suffering -- all in the name of entertainment.

The dark thread of torture, employed as a tool of persuasion, a power demonstration, or just for cruel kicks, has surfaced intermittently in pop culture. ''Marathon Man," ''The Silence of the Lambs," ''Lethal Weapon," ''The Deer Hunter," ''Braveheart," and ''Reservoir Dogs" are among the popular and critically acclaimed films in the last few decades that have made audiences cringe with extended scenes of torturers inflicting pain.

''CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," ''Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," and ''Crossing Jordan" often involve investigations of gruesome slayings.

In the last several months, numerous torture scenes have been set pieces on TV dramas, not only in thrill-ride dramas, such as ''24" and ABC's ''Alias," but also in melodramatic or escapist fare such as Fox's ''Prison Break." One key character on ABC's ''Lost" is an Iraqi military officer who tortures a fellow castaway. ''Alias" had an unnamed recurring villain who quietly tortured key characters. FX's ''Nip/Tuck," a hit drama about the psychic turmoil of people who seek and perform cosmetic surgery, recently spotlighted physical turmoil with two simultaneous torture scenes, each set to a tango.

It's unclear -- both to people who create torture-inflected scenarios and those who have taken note of their proliferation -- whether such themes reflect a pop culture recalibration or a blip on the screen. But for now, at least, torture seems inescapable.

It has crept into ''unscripted" series such as NBC's ''Fear Factor," where willing contestants are trapped or doused with insects, and Fox Reality's upcoming ''Solitary," in which isolated contestants are pushed to the physical and psychological brink.

Torture scenes are featured in mainstream movies such as ''Syriana" and ''Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" and play a starring role in recent horror films, as campy boogeymen including hockey-masked Jason Voorhees and knife-fingered Freddy Krueger are replaced with the gnarly madmen of the recently released ''Hostel" and the ''Saw" franchise, who savage their victims so horribly that death might come as a welcome relief.

''Hostel" features young travelers lured to a seemingly pleasant Slovakian hotel, where they wind up in an abandoned dungeon/warehouse and are stripped, shackled to chairs, and offered up to wealthy, bored men paying exorbitant sums for the thrill of maiming and murdering them with blowtorches and power tools.

There are concerns that the torture-for-entertainment wave, while enabling viewers to explore darker material safely, has minimized the true ramifications of perpetuating extreme pain.

''One of the problems is when these depictions don't show the realistic consequences of violence," said Douglas Gentile, psychology professor at Iowa State University and the director of research for the National Institute on Media and the Family, a nonprofit advocacy group monitoring mass media for content that it deems harmful to children and families.

''These scenes gloss over the trauma that is caused," Gentile said. ''There's nothing inherently wrong with watching violence, but what does the viewer learn? One of the problems is when the realistic consequences of violence and torture are not shown. It makes it seem like it's OK to commit these acts in the name of justice. It's a negative for society."

Some creators of torture-tinged projects say there is a message behind the madness, insisting that they are illuminating larger themes and using torture to enrich their storytelling.

''Hostel" writer and director Eli Roth said he chose torture scenes to express his frustration over government and world affairs.

''Right now we're at war, and then you have Hurricane Katrina, where there are people on roofs screaming for help," said Roth. ''I have this feeling that civilization could collapse, and that if you go overseas, you could get killed, that you could be in the middle of nowhere, and that someone could kill you and no one would find you. This film is also about the dark side of human nature. Everyone's life has a price. I want the audience to feel guilty. I want them to feel sick to their stomach, but by the end they're screaming for blood. Everyone has this evil within them."

He scoffed at concerns over the violence in ''Hostel": ''It's not my job to be anyone's parent. Everybody knows it's fake, everybody knows it's pretend. What's scarier is war, real-life violence."

One expert said that the psychological price of such entertainment might be too high. Thomas Doherty, chairman of the film studies program at Brandeis University and author of ''Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II," speculated that the terror trend could lead to desensitization of viewers to the real-life ramifications of violence: ''What we're seeing now is a pornography of violence for creative imaginations."

The people behind these projects maintain that movie ratings and parental advisories on TV tip off viewers to graphic material, and many stress that audiences ultimately set the boundaries for what's portrayed. Networks' and studios' reading of audience reaction has some amping up the torture in their projects, believing that doing so increases effectiveness. Others, for the same reason, plan to dial down the carnage.

Howard Gordon, an executive producer on ''24," acknowledged that torture has been a staple of the series, which operates against the relentless ticking of the clock. Counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) last season tortured his girlfriend's former husband, whom he suspected of being involved with a terrorist plot, with live electric wires while she watched in horror.

But fans will see less of that this season, Gordon said.

''On one hand, it's a thematic thing that's very integral to Jack's tragic character. There is this thesis that with the ticking time bomb backdrop, if someone knows something that will cause a massive catastrophe, torture is justified. But the subtext is that torture is loathsome and awful. Jack doesn't relish it, and his soul is bloodstained by it. We don't pretend to advocate for the ethics of torture. Our aesthetic is that it's justified, but you pay a price."

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