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The ad campaigns for the summer's most anticipated horror films showed different strategies at work. The billboard and poster campaign for Captivity - originally to be released in Canada and the United States in May but postponed due to controversy to today (Friday the 13th, naturally) - showed a woman being treated like a piece of meat. Of the many posters for Hostel: Part II - which came to theatres on June 8 and has since earned a box office take of $18-million (U.S.) - the most memorable displayed an actual piece of meat. While one is definitely more subtle than the other (and more attractive to barbecue enthusiasts), both examples indicate the trend toward more extreme displays of violence and sadism in the contemporary horror film, prompting complex questions about the uses of that imagery in the name of entertainment.

The ads for Captivity were intended to shock. Unfortunately, they did their job too well. A four-panel version of the poster was featured on 30 billboards in the Los Angeles area and 1,400 Big Apple taxicab tops in New York in March. Headlined with the word "Abduction," the first panel shows the face of the movie's Canadian star, Elisha Cuthbert, being covered by a black gloved hand. In the second, "Confinement," her terrified eyes are visible behind one side of a cage. In "Torture," we see a bandaged face with a tube of red liquid running into one nostril. In "Termination," a woman lies apparently dead on a metal table, the top of one breast prominently exposed.

It didn't take long for the complaints to start, especially when parents in Los Angeles noticed a billboard close to their kids' school. The campaign's own termination in late March prompted a round of blame-passing. Lionsgate - Captivity's distributor in the U.S. and the past distributor of Saw and Hostel, the two films most often credited with inspiring the current wave of sadistic horror movies that some have dubbed "torture porn" - claimed not to have approved the marketing campaign that was created and overseen by After Dark Films, its partner on Captivity. The MPAA -- the American movie industry's regulatory association, which had previously rejected After Dark's Captivity campaign - placed harsh sanctions on the film. The most bizarre turn came when Courtney Solomon, After Dark's CEO, described the entire campaign as an "accident," claiming that the wrong files had been sent to the printer.

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All this tumult stoked interest in a movie that otherwise seemed destined for obscurity. The story of a supermodel kidnapped by a serial killer, Captivity was directed by Roland Joffe, a British filmmaker once responsible for the far more prestigious likes of The Mission. There's no way to predict whether the marketing fracas will help or hurt Captivity's fortunes but as one film distributor notes, "Any controversy is generally good for box office."

As the senior vice-president for distribution of Maple Pictures - the company that handles Lionsgate releases in Canada and is releasing Captivity and Hostel: Part II - John Bain has helped oversee the domestic release of many controversial titles, including American Psycho and Death of a President, as well as the Saw franchise and the first Hostel. As he explains, the successful marketing of a horror title requires a particular savvy and a considerable amount of luck.

"It's the hard-core fans you're going for first," says Bain. "They find out about the film first online. Then you expand that beyond to the general horror fan, and then if you get beyond that, your film has a chance of doing a lot of business. That happens once you get outside the entertainment section of the newspaper and into the news section."

Bain notes that happened in early 2006 with the Canadian release of Hostel - the gory tale of American frat-boy tourists in Slovakia who are abducted by a company that offers its clients the chance to kill - after a broadcaster accidentally aired a commercial designated for broadcast after 9 p.m. in the early evening. Curiosity sparked by coverage of the incident prompted a box-office surge in Hostel's second week. Captivity may benefit from the same kind of boost. "I'm sure awareness of the film is much, much higher than it would've been," says Bain.

The follow-up to Hostel might have benefited from a bit of controversy, too. Whereas the original film debuted at No. 1 in its first weekend, the sequel didn't make the Top 5 and has yet to earn even half of its predecessor's box-office take. Director Eli Roth blamed the poor numbers on online piracy. Another turn-off for the horror crowd may have been the film's violence, which - despite the many reviewers who latched onto the torture-porn tag - was actually more restrained and more archly theatrical than that of Hostel. Or maybe it was the picture of that steak.

As for Captivity's controversial campaign, one thing that can be said for certain is that it was tailored to entice viewers who've become accustomed to a more sadistic brand of horror. Images of extreme violence are nothing new in the genre - after all, it's been 33 years since the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre - but even some fans are surprised by how common this kind of graphic, visceral content has become in mainstream, often studio-backed fare.

There's evidently an appetite for it among moviegoers - the three films in the Saw franchise have grossed over $400-million (U.S.) worldwide. Though horror films are typically promoted on the basis of their concepts rather than their casts, more stars are gravitating toward the genre. April saw the release of Vacancy, in which Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale play motel guests threatened by killers who hope to capture their murders on camera. In October, Josh Hartnett headlines an adaptation of 30 Days of Night, a grisly graphic novel about an Alaskan town besieged by vampires.

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"It's not that they're particularly more graphic or violent or meaner than movies from the seventies or eighties were," notes Adam Rockoff, the author of Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, a valuable piece of horror-movie scholarship that spawned an eponymous documentary. "It's just that instead of playing in a rundown little theatre on 42nd Street or Hollywood Boulevard, now these movies are opening in 2,000 or 3,000 theatres. The fact they're opening in the malls and suburbia is making them more visible to the public."

Though the current cycle of torture-porn has parallels with the boom of slasher films in the early eighties, Rockoff sees a key difference in how the new films present violence. "As horrible as the acts could be in the slasher films, you never saw the suffering of the victim," he says. "In movies like Saw and Hostel, it's all about the suffering. The actual act of death may in fact be an afterthought. Despite the fact people were up in arms about the violence in these movies in the eighties -- and the fact that scantily clad women were often the victims -- it was never really as mean, cruel or brutal as it is today. It's almost as if we seek out the wallowing in the pain and the humiliation."

The nature of horror-movie marketing has shifted accordingly. Warren Nightingale is an education specialist for the Media Awareness Network, an Ottawa-based non-profit organization that encourages young people to think critically about the media. "What's really interesting," he notes, "is that when it comes to posters or advertising for horror films, it's traditionally been more about enticement - there wouldn't be much revealed and it would be saved for theatres. Now we're seeing much more intense and graphic imagery that corresponds to it. That's especially the case with Captivity."

One reason the campaign provoked such an outcry was that the sadistic imagery was unleavened by any hint of humour. In that aspect, they're very different from the arguably more repulsive but more laughable posters for Saw II, in which the Roman numerals in the title were represented by a pair of severed fingers, or the poster for Hostel Part II, which appears to be a close-up of a steak. In both cases, Bain sees an element of dark humour that also runs through the movie themselves, an element that makes their more gruesome scenes more palatable.

Bain agrees that horror films today "are far more graphic than they used to be" but expects the pendulum to swing back at some point, much as it did after the slasher boom in the eighties. He points to another new Maple release - Joshua, starring Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga as parents of a very creepy nine-year-old boy - as an example of a more thoughtful variety of thriller. Yet that pattern may have been disrupted by the modern economics of the movie business. With the exception of Universal Studios in the 1930s, the Hollywood studios have historically deemed horror beneath their dignity.

But what used to principally be the domain of low-budget independent filmmakers - like James Wan and Leigh Whannell, the Australian team that scored a major success when Saw was picked up by Lionsgate - is now a key revenue stream for the studios. After all, horror films are way cheaper to make than a Tom Cruise movie and often much more profitable. Last year, Twentieth Century Fox proved just as keen on torture-porn as any competitor when it released the extremely Hostel-like Turistas and a vicious remake of Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes.

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In the recent sequel to The Hills Have Eyes that he co-wrote and produced, Craven intentionally evoked real images of America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. J.T. Petty -- an author and filmmaker whose recent film S&Man uses a fascinating mixture of fiction and documentary in order to investigate the allure of movie violence - feels audiences may use horror movies to help process the horrors they see in the world. "We have to react to real violence and real snuff footage all the time," he says. "News channels show decapitations and bodies dragged in the streets."

He notes that horror movies appeal to adolescents partially because "they want to know what they're capable of seeing. Maybe that's spreading to the culture at large because so many more of us are having to figure out how to react to the sight of burnt bodies. Maybe, on some subconscious level, we're using horror movies as training wheels."

Even so, Rockoff resists the notion that horror movies serve as a cathartic outlet. "I don't necessarily believe that we seek out horror in times of trauma more so than any other time," he says. "I don't think the current climate of these torture films is a reaction to 9/11. But I do think that in the Internet age we've become a more voyeuristic society."

Moreover, advertising that, like those Captivity posters, may be deemed too objectionable for public view can freely proliferate online, much like bona-fide images of death and suffering like Saddam Hussein's execution. While Nightingale points that there's still much debate about the effects of violent imagery on younger viewers, "the one thing we've definitely seen in studies we've come across is that the content itself is becoming more sadistic, more sexualized and more frequent."

What with the imagery becoming so pervasive, he says the emphasis for organizations like the Media Awareness Network must shift onto education. "The goal is to empower the viewers," he says, "and to let them know how to pursue the avenues they have to react to the things that offend them. One way to respond is to not buy it, because at the end of the day, if the product's not making money, they'll change it."

Should Captivity fare as poorly as Hostel: Part II, such change may be inevitable. Besides, with the current wave of torture-porn, it's hard to see how there can be many extremes left to be reached, at least for movies that expect to benefit from a wide theatrical release. The films themselves also leave much to be desired. Generally offering gore for gore's sake - or maybe suffering for suffering's sake - these films may be less transgressive than their makers want you to believe.

"I'm fairly upset about the state of horror in America," says J.T. Petty. "We live in such insanely frightening times that it feels like it's a great opportunity to make horror movies right now. But the way we're responding to what's going on in the world doesn't quite live up to the threats."

Courting controversy

The brouhaha over billboards for the horror film Captivity was hardly the first time a movie's promoters have gone further than the public could tolerate. Here are other examples of

risqué marketing schemes that backfired.

THE WARRIORS

When Walter Hill's 1979 thriller about New York youth gangs was attributed to violent incidents at several movie theatres, Paramount spiked its print advertising for the film, fearing that the posters were too provocative. The original - which showed a massive crowd of menacing youths underneath the phrase "These Are the Armies of the Night" - was replaced by a more restrained version featuring blurbs from approving critics like Pauline Kael.

SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT

The slasher-film boom of the eighties yielded innumerable examples of depravity, luridly recreated in posters and newspaper ads. But turning Santa Claus into an axe murderer was more than many PTA members could bear. This low-budget 1984 title ran into trouble with a swiftly banned poster featuring a bloodthirsty Father Christmas - the movie was pulled from several U.S. cities after screenings were picketed. Sony announced plans for a remake to be released in 2008.

DEATH OF A PRESIDENT AND KARLA

Sometimes just the idea of advertising a controversial movie is abhorrent enough. In the fall of 2006, many American newspapers and television networks refused to accept ads for Death of a President, a fabricated "documentary" that recapitulated the details of President George W. Bush's assassination. What's more, several major U.S. movie chains refused to screen the film itself. Earlier that year, CHUM and Alliance Atlantis pulled ads for Karla from their networks after airing them for several days.

THE BROWN BUNNY

Infamous for an explicit sex scene between Chloë Sevigny and Vincent Gallo, also the film's director, this much-reviled 2003 drama was memorably promoted with a sole billboard that treated drivers on Sunset Boulevard to a glimpse of the stars engaged in oral sex. Nearby residents and business owners complained, but the ever-bashful Gallo called it "the most beautiful billboard I've ever seen in my life." The image was replaced with the much tamer photo above in other advertising.

J.A.

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