City Arts film critic Armond White is right about one thing—12 Years a Slave is indeed a horror film, just not in the traditional sense. Like Schindler's List, 12 Years a Slave is scary in how it examines mankind's darkness. There's a reason why Colonel Kurtz's final words in Apocalypse Now are, simply, "The horror... The horror." On a fundamental level, anyone who'd enslave another human being is a monster. No horns, fangs, or reanimated flesh are necessary.
You won't find 12 Years a Slave occupying Netflix's "Horror" section in years to come, since it lacks the genre-specific ingredients that are plain in, say, this weekend's Carrie remake or any supernatural, slasher, or creature feature. Still, it's the most disturbing film of 2013, a devastating portrayal of slavery handled with the in-your-face immediacy and artistic merit we've come to expect from filmmaker Steve McQueen (Hunger, 2008; Shame, 2011). 12 Years a Slave horrifies through its stark, unfettered depiction of a reality that's either been shied away from by Hollywood or played up as a crowd-pleasing cartoon, like in Quentin Tarantino's excellent but intentionally unrealistic Django Unchained.
The craziest of horror directors aren't likely to top the film's most harrowing and tough-to-watch scene this year—the seemingly endless whipping of helpless, innocent slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) at the hands of protagonist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who's being forced to administer the fierce lashings by sadistic plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). The sequence overwhelms with its brutality because, McQueen's willingness to show it all aside, Northup's more than earned our sympathies at that point. By giving the audience no choice but to act as a spectator as his resolve and soul simultaneously get destroyed (unless they decide to walk out, of course), McQueen conveys a powerful kind of emotional horror. Your heart's racing, and breaking.
Armond White, though, doesn't consider 12 Years a Slave that kind of horror film. To him, it's a 19th century Saw, with Edwin Epps as Jigsaw and the whip and noose as whatever elaborate contraption would normally threaten to squash a victim's head unless he or she digs the key out of their eyeball with a butter-knife. As White states in his wildly contrarian review of 12 Years a Slave, which made the rounds yesterday, McQueen's film "belongs to the torture porn genre with Hostel, The Human Centipede, and the Saw franchise." Going a step further he prefaces that sentence with, "Depicting slavery as a horror show, McQueen has made the most unpleasant American movie since William Friedkin's 1973 The Exorcist." Everyone's entitled to his or her own opinions. Armond White, the film critic community's resident button-pusher, is certainly entitled to his typically ludicrous but often entertainingly divisive thoughts. But, respect due to White's veteran status and intelligence, his 12 Years a Slave review far surpasses his usual heights of trolldom.
As a passionate horror movie fan, I'm unable to laugh off his 12 Years a Slave review. It's that whole "torture porn" business, as well as his ridiculous allusions to The Exorcist. But first, let's focus on "torture porn," a term coined by New York Magazine critic David Edelstein in his 2006 analysis of Hostel and popularly used to describe the gluttony of sadism-first, art-last horror films that arose after Hostel and Saw exploded. I've always had an issue with the term "torture porn." The second you label a movie as such, you've made it toxic. It's a wittier way of saying, "Here's a movie so cruel and so morally repugnant that if you somehow enjoy it, you're a reprehensible creep." Imagine telling someone you've just met and hope to spark a romantic connection with, "My favorite kinds of movies are 'torture porn' ones." You'd be ostracized back to the Match.com pool in seconds.
There's no way to justify liking movies of that distinction without triggering an onslaught of red flags. Are wannabe Saw bummers like Captivity (2007) and Train (2008) loathsome? Absolutely, but James Wan's original Saw definitely isn't. Its progressively terrible sequels turned the series into Captivity's lane, but Wan's O.G. work remains crafty and intelligent, Cary Elwes' hilariously awful performance notwithstanding. But as soon as the "torture porn" tag latched onto it, Saw became a badge of poor taste amongst critics like Armond White.
However "torturous" it is to watch a movie like Saw, though, comparing McQueen's handling of violence in 12 Years a Slave to how Wan and his successors aggressively murdered their characters makes little sense. Much to the chagrin of horror fans who appreciate being able to see what's happening, the Saw filmmakers dress up the death scenes' hardcore nature with erratic editing techniques, hard-pumping electronic music, leading to choppy views of terrible carnage. Forget "torture porn"—try "torturous sensory overload." Which is the polar opposite of how Steve McQueen works. He's a director fascinated by long takes, interested in how avoiding interruptions or Saw-like edits achieves something visceral.
In the Saw movies, the filmmakers are cranked up to 11; in 12 Years a Slave, as in his previous films, McQueen's dialed in to about 7 or 8, because he's smart and confident enough to let the naturalness and, in some cases, mundaneness of violence speak for itself. The film's extended sequences are, as a result, tough to shake, namely an extended moment where the noose around Solomon's neck can't quite kill him since his feet are just barely scraping the dirt beneath him. Armond White, however, disagrees. "The very artsiness of 12 Years a Slave is part of its offense," he writes. "The clear, classical imagery embarrasses Quentin Tarantino’s attempt at visual esthetics in Django Unchained yet this 'clarity' (like Hans Zimmer’s effective percussion score) is ultimately depressing. McQueen uses that art staple 'duration' to prolong North’s lynching on tiptoe." A point that, outside of White's views on art-house cinema, directly works against his employment of the "torture porn" descriptor in his review. "Torture porn" movies aren't about duration. Why spend so much time on one over-the-top killing when you can try to top Eli Roth's Hostel bodycount by killing two people in the time it'd take McQueen to nearly kill one?
By using that reductive term to describe 12 Years a Slave, he wants whoever likes McQueen's film (i.e., 96% of the nation's movie critics) to feel bad about it, or at least question their morals. He writes, "The perversion continues among those whites and non-Blacks who need a shock fest like 12 Years a Slave to rouse them from complacency with American racism and American history. But, as with The Exorcist, there is no victory in filmmaking this merciless." And there's that Exorcist takedown again. True to his form, White uses the platform of a review he knows everyone will read to piss people off even more than a simple thrashing of McQueen's film ever could. Why not take out-of-place potshots at one of cinema's all-time classics? Rather than only agitate all of the Oscar bloggers and pundits who've christened 12 Years a Slave as this year's Academy Awards frontrunner, White feels the need to lambast horror lovers once again, just because. How he resisted the urge to pointlessly and undeservedly connect Solomon Northup to Scatman Crothers' Dick Holloran in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, we'll just never know. After all, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) does drive that ax into Dick's chest with the same force Solomon uses to whip Patsey's back. And one would presume that McQueen has seen The Shining.
Though White probably doesn't agree, or even cares enough to, the best horror films shock and awe because of their characters just as much as their visual and sonic thrills. The Exorcist features some of the genre's creepiest and most lasting imagery, sure, but, at its heart, Friedkin's classic still resonates 40 years after its initial release for deeper reasons. Ellen Burstyn's turn as grieving and shell-shocked mother Chris MacNeil is raw and empathetic; as Father Damien Karras, Jason Miller touches nerves through his balance of professional valiance and natural scaredy-cat-ness. Once the demon Pazuzu begins its vomit-spewing, head-spinning mayhem, The Exorcist has built up so much good will via character development and sensitive storytelling that its third-act horror show isn't just startling—it hits with the force you'd feel watching a loved one suffer. Friedkin and screenwriter William Peter Blatty cared enough about both their characters and their viewers to not merely subject them to heartless eyeball attacks.
The same goes for Solomon Northup's waking nightmare in 12 Years a Slave. McQueen and 12 Years writer John Ridley aren't trying to punish modern-day viewers for pushing slavery to the background of sociological conversations—they're tackling harsh and far too often sidestepped realities with their brains intact. They care about Solomon Northup, and Patsey, and they've called upon a stacked group of brilliant actors to make the unfiltered horror stick. Chiwetel Ejiofor, one of Hollywood's best yet least appreciated actors, is a wrecking ball of sympathetic resilience throughout 12 Years a Slave, leaving no scene untapped for its deepest emotional force. Ergo, every terrible thing that happens to Solomon is an assault on the heartstrings, not just the eyes and guts.
In those Saw sequels and other one-note horror movies of their ilk, the characters who suffer and die in heinous ways are blank ciphers. Stock types walking down an assembly line and into the meat grinder. Portrayed by either some no-name and little-talent actor or a barely recognizable C-lister who's just trying to work. You don't care about their well-being, and neither do the filmmakers. The M.O. is to dream up the most outlandish death scenes possible and execute them to maximum close-your-eyes effect. The resulting films are endurance tests designed for "Ooohs!" and "Aaahs!" in crowded multiplexes, followed by boos, applause, or loudly uttered expletives. For White to try and lump a film as beautifully made and meticulously thought out as 12 Years a Slave into that same category is laughable, but also incredibly destructive for McQueen's efforts and White's own credibility. Then again, we are talking about the same transparent rabble-rouser who once compared Zero Dark Thirty and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance by writing, "[Ghost Rider directors] Neveldine-Taylor and Olivier Megaton revealed the post-9/11 zeitgeist in genre tropes, while [Zero Dark Thirty director] Bigelow reduced the zeitgeist to an enigmatic comic strip, a 'mission accomplished' delusion."
He thinks Nicolas Cage's asinine comic book sequel is a more meaningful film than Zero Dark Thirty. He also believes Eddie Murphy's A Thousand Words is superior to Ben Affleck's Argo in how the former "dared the most personal Hollywood critique since Clifford Odets’ The Big Knife." He's all about the critical shock factor, and, for the most part, I've been able to enjoy the sideshow as much as the next guy. But the horror genre and 12 Years a Slave don't deserve this. White concludes his review with, "The story in 12 Years a Slave didn’t need to be filmed this way and I wish I never saw it." To which I say, a review from such an obviously smart but misguided film critic didn't need to be written this way, but, on the contrary, I'm glad I read it. I've been meaning to slam David Edelstein's "torture porn" declaration since I first read it way back in 2006. The fact that a searing drama like 12 Years a Slave proved to be the catalyst is a big surprise.
When I watched McQueen's film in Toronto last month, during the Toronto International Film Festival, I never expected it to eventually make me revisit The Exorcist, and for that, I should thank Armond White. This Halloween, when I sit down to reacquaint myself with Pazuzu, I'll know that I'm not watching the same movie that White recently described as "merciless." As for 12 Years a Slave, the fact that I'm white and much younger than White automatically means that he and I will view Solomon Northup's cinematic ordeal through totally different perspectives. But who knew that one of those differences would revolve around a misunderstanding of the horror genre?
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)