At what point can we all agree that horror movies with the singular premise of torturing women are not enjoyable? This particular sub-genre of horror, often described as exploitation or torture porn, dedicates its entire plotline to watching women suffer in various grisly and lurid ways. Some may call it tasteless, others downright offensive. Either way, it does not make for an impressive or successful horror, as The Ringmaster impeccably demonstrates.
The film is adapted from the bestselling Nordic noir Finale, by Steen Langstrup. It opens on two young gas station attendants, Agnes and Belinda, working the night shift in rural Denmark. Agnes (Anne Bergfeld), the more demure of the two, is working her final shift before moving to Germany with her boyfriend, Benjamin. Belinda (Karin Michelsen), on the other hand, is stuck in a dead-end relationship with her layabout boyfriend, Kenny.
As the night shift wears on, the two girls encounter a series of extraordinarily suspicious male customers, all of whom make it hard to believe that the police have not been called sooner. Director Soren Juul Peterson takes every opportunity in this early section to beat the viewer over the head with the impending threat of the girls’ abduction. By the time it arrives, you can’t help but feel relieved that the film must at least be half way over.
When the girls wake up, they find themselves trapped in a sadistic, circus-like show, led by the titular Ringmaster (Damon Younger). The disappointingly bland Ringmaster tortures the girls in various grisly ways for a live audience of rich psychopaths, and broadcasts the whole ordeal on the dark web for good measure.
In terms of plot, that is essentially it. Two women get kidnapped, tortured and are forced to fight for their lives. It is exhaustingly superficial and depressingly derivative. Juul Peterson forgoes any story development, social commentary or even anything as simple as a character arc. Instead, we are given pure torture porn in all its tasteless and gratuitous glory. It is fatuous.
Cinema has evolved beyond the need for films like this, or at least, I hoped it had. That is not to say that women can never be victimised in horror. In fact, some of the greatest horror films in recent decades feature interesting and complex female victims at the centre of their storylines. But when the entire premise of a film is just two women being mutilated on camera, with nothing by the way of story or social relevance, it feels crass.
There is some stylish cinematography on show and the non-linear narrative is mildly interesting. But neither of those can detract from the needless level of misogyny that is on display here. In one particularly grim scene, Belinda is forced to pierce Agnes’ bare nipple with the needle from her nametag. This would have been a great time for someone on the production team to ask: “have we maybe gone too far here? Should we at least give these girls some kind of story arc before we relentlessly abuse them on camera for 45 minutes?”. But Juul Peterson presses on with more breast-related violence and pushes the film further into the depths of depravity.
It is worth acknowledging that violent films do not have to be gratuitous. Some of the most iconic films in cinematic history are known for their violence. But what they have, and what The Ringmaster sorely lacks, is an intellectual plot driving the film forward.
Here, however, Juul Peterson stitches together a flimsy premise, decorates it with worn-out character tropes and then proceeds to hurl gore at the viewer until the film reaches its exhausting finale. It is exploitative, pointless and lurid. Luckily, Agnes and Belinda’s ordeal is over, as was mine when the credits rolled.
The Ringmaster is available now on demand.