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From horror film to torture porn Add to ...

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.

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.

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