It’s self-evident that torture porn gets a bad rap—otherwise it would be called something other than torture porn. The phrase has become a catch-all dismissal of a certain strain of extreme horror, and an insult to the viewers who are presumed to seek it out for some kind of sick gratification. And it doesn’t help when rank exploitation movies like The Tortured surface and provide only the thinnest justification for putting a body on the slab and going to work on it. The Tortured’s pretenses to moral drama are just that, floating the standard theme about the corrosive effects of revenge without taking it seriously enough to distract from the violent mayhem. There’s an opportunity here for screenwriter Marek Posival and director Robert Lieberman to play up the squeamishness of upper-middle-class torturers who don’t fit the profile, but they’re too busy tending to horror-thriller clichés.
The first act stretches out five or 10 minutes’ worth of information into half an hour. (The Tortured is one of the rare 79-minute movies that doesn’t qualify as “tight.”) Erika Christensen and Jesse Metcalfe play the parents of a 6-year-old boy who is kidnapped from a backyard jungle gym—cue insert shot of abandoned swing swaying—and found murdered shortly thereafter. There’s a Zapruder-like replaying of the scene, with some blame cast on Metcalfe for ducking inside to get the kid some suntan lotion, but the conclusion is a jury trial that gives the perpetrator, played by Bill Moseley, a 25-years-to-life sentence. (Reduced from life without parole because he was so helpful in revealing the location of past victims—a nice tip for future serial killers looking to negotiate.) Deeming this punishment insufficient, Christensen and Metcalfe interrupt a police transport and bring Moseley to an abandoned house in the woods for torture.
Having a pair of clean-cut yuppies run their own private Abu Ghraib sounds as much like the premise for a comedy as it does for a horror movie, but Posival and Lieberman make them surprisingly (and disappointingly) competent nipple-burners. The best they can do is make Christensen, who originated the plan, less eager to torture in reality than the husband she browbeats into doing it. But The Tortured abandons even that lame piece of irony for scenes of pharmaceutically enhanced agony, a battery of cheap scares, and a miserable cheat of a twist that’s intended as a moral reckoning. The torture-porn label would stick if wasn’t so hard to imagine anyone getting much out of it.