The Story Behind Torture Porn

Saw & more, just in time for Halloween…

As autumn's dark nights close upon us, our thoughts turn to the perfect scary movie to amp up the chills.

For the past few years, the Saw films have become a Hollywood Halloween tradition, pumping out sequel after sequel, with low budgets equaling big profits.

We thought we'd take a look back into both the recent and distant history of a genre that has become known as "torture porn."

With the most recent entry into the Saw series being soundly beaten at the box office by the torture-free Paranormal Activity, is the genre on its last legs?

Let's start at the very beginning...

 

WARNING! Blood and guts lurk beyond!



1. The Ancestry Of Agony

Torture Porn films as we know them today share a common ancestor in the splatter/slasher genre, one that has its roots in such mists-of-time shock horror as French Grand Guignol theatre, which delighted in realistic scenes of blood and murder

Here in the UK, we were a little more buttoned down, so when the tradition made the leap across the Channel in 1908, British audiences were treated to more of a gothic tone with the gore played down so as to avoid shocking sensitive types.

In the cinema, meanwhile, the early inklings of what would become the bloodiest genre can be traced to DW Griffith, who included violent touches in 1916's Intolerance, with two beheadings and a spear slowly driven into a soldier's abdomen. Ouch…

Soon after, however, the Production Code - which regulated what could be shown on screen in the interests of decency - largely censored the gore from Hollywood's output.

But the blood came welling back in the 1950s and '60s, as Alfred Hitchcock brought murder back to the mainstream with Psycho and Hammer Films ramped up the horror aspects.

Across the world, audiences were rediscovering the fear, with Nobuo Nakagawa's 1960 horror Jigoku, which took a trip to the Buddhist underworld for scenes of flaying and dismemberment and films such as 1959's Eyes Without A Face (thanks, France) and 1960's Black Sunday (cheers, Italy).

What would become known as splatter films took off around the same time, with low-budget horror huckster Herschell Gordon Lewis responding to Hollywood's muscling in on his nudity niche with explicit gore. 1963 saw him make Blood Feast (above), widely considered the first true splatter release. Made for $24,500, it has since gone on to take in an estimated $7 million.

George A Romero aimed to take things even further mainstream with Night Of The Living Dead in 1968, and followed it up with Dawn Of The Dead, which became even more popular.

The scythe swung back the other way in the 1980s as the US ratings board and the UK's Video Recordings Act began to clamp down on "video nasties" such as I Spit On Your Grave and The Evil Dead. And 1980's Cannibal Holocaust led the way for mockumentary-style horror blended with the gore-tastic side.

But early in the '00s, a whole new sub-genre was born. And while it wouldn't earn its actual name until a couple of films later, it can be traced back to a little project called Saw…

Next: A Saw Point

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2. A Saw Point

Ironically, though it certainly has its bloody moments, the first Saw is not quite the gore-fest you might assume.

"I guess if we wanted to make a blood-soaked film, we could have made a zombie film but actually because of what we decided to do, we were trying to come up with something a little bit smart," says co-writer (and co-star) Leigh Whannell. "I don't know if we succeeded but that's what we tried."

Whannell and fellow Australian film student James Wan were best mates with a seemingly typical desire - make a film that would get seen and help launch their careers. Wan leaned towards directing, while Whannell had acting ambitions.

With few opportunities presenting themselves, they decided to do it themselves.

"Basically, James and I finished university, as you do, and we wanted to make a film and had zero money, absolutely none," says Whannell.

"We were very atypical students: Poor but ambitious. So for many years we toiled around: I worked at the ABC and various jobs and James worked in advertising agencies and blah, blah, but always we would meet up and talk about this film we were going to one day make and we'd come up with these script ideas and in some cases we'd even start writing a script, always way above our means.

"So finally, maturity started kicking in and we realised that if we wanted to make a film we'd have to pay for it ourselves and what we wanted that film to do was provide James an opportunity to direct, and me an opportunity to act, because I'd always been interested in acting, so in a way, the script was almost a means to an end.

"I love writing but really, I wrote the script so that we could make a film that would showcase him as a director and me as an actor."

Their original concept boasted much more Australian themes (no, we don't mean kangaroos hopping in the background), but after a frustrating time trying to sell the concept and script in their native land, a lucky break brought them to Los Angeles.

"It was an accident that our manager, when we were at the end of our rope, and totally depressed,  said that she knew a literary agent over in America.

"She says, 'there's a lit agency in America who's read the script and liked it, so why don't we go for broke? I know that America's a big long shot, a billion-to-one chance but you know, let's just do it' and so we did and it was just an accident.

"Best way to summarise it is that we never aimed for the film to be made in America; America came to us."

The killer pitch they'd dreamed up - based on a short film the two made in 2003 (above) -  focused on two men who wake up to find themselves in captivity, forced to participate in a dangerous round of tasks that involve horrific moments - such as digging a key out of a corpse - and real danger.

"We had this short that we had made which was one scene from the script that we'd shot and we'd shown it around to various people and when the producers who ended up shooting the film met with us, actually already knew from our agent what the deal was.

"They knew if they wanted to get involved, James had to direct and I had to play the lead. It's like that old expression, shooting for the best. You shoot for the best first, and if nothing comes back, you go down a level.

"We shot for the best first and these guys actually bid. They actually said OK, and the most outrageous thing we could offer, they said yes to, which was I needed to play the role of Adam.

"Other companies weren't so generous. Other companies were saying maybe James can direct but Leigh definitely can't do the lead. We want Orlando someone. Maybe we'll buy the script but James can't direct. But this particular company Evolution agreed to all of our terms, which was incredible."

With around $1 million in funding and their roles as director and actor secured, the pair recruited Cary Elwes and Danny Glover as a fellow victim and a cop trying to track the evil mastermind behind it all - a mysterious figure named Jigsaw.

"The film is essentially the story of two victims," explains Whannell. "I think the film kind of, to some people, obviously from reading people's reactions, looks and smells like a serial killer film but it's really not in two respects.

"In one respect, the villain, we don't think, is not a serial killer. His aim is actually for people to live. He wants people to go through these little games but he wants them to come out the other side alive but also the other thing is that the primary story focuses on these two guys in the room, which is what the whole story is.

"A lot of the time in these kinds of films, the victims are sort of relegated to the side and you see them for one scene and then they're dead, and you're always following the police or the bad guys.

"In this film, it's all about the two guys in this room and their psychology and I think to me that separates it a lot of other films that made me look and smell like this film does."

Shot in 18 days, the movie was originally rated NC-17 by the MPAA, but after some judicious editing, escaped with an R. Shown at Sundance in 2004, it was picked up for distribution by US company Lions Gate.

And while it launched to mixed reviews, its success  was undeniable - it took in more than $55 million in the US alone and $102 million worldwide. Not a bad return for a $1 million investment.

A franchise was born…

Next: Saw Sequels

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3. Saw Sequels


Eager to capitalise on the early success of Saw, Lions Gate quickly pushed for a follow-up.

James Wan stepped aside as director and co-writer, with soon-to-be Saw stalwart Darren Lynn Bousman taking over behind the camera and scripting alongside Whannell.

Despite a small budget boost - $4 million this time, the pair still worked quickly and shot the movie largely in one building across 25 days.

As the sequel opens, "Jigsaw Killer" John Kramer (Tobin Bell) has been arrested, but traps the arresting officer in one of his games.

The new film was even more tricky than the first, with extremely elaborate traps and games, plus a chance to get a peek into Kramer's back story and his reasons for all the schemes.

To maintain the surprises, the crew kept a strict policy of silence, even as the script changed. "Yeah. They were constantly re-writing the movie while we were shooting," recalls co-star Shawnee Smith.  "And any re-writes we got, we had to turn in our old pages or we would be disposed of by a shooting squad."

By the time Saw III rolled around (the next year), Bousman realised they needed a different direction.

"Saw III is a much different film. I think it's a much stronger film when we wrote the characters.

"It's funny, I watched all three for the first time two days ago in its whole entirety with the print master, which is when the audio and visuals are married. It was amazing, because you actually care for these characters.

"We're not focusing on eight people running around a house screaming. The primary focus on Jigsaw and Amanda and the two new characters we've introduced and you get attached to them a lot quicker.

"Saw III is by far the most violent of them all. Saw II was my first movie and I was trying to make sure it was successful in grossing people out. I think this grosses people out a lot more, but that wasn't the focus of the movie.

"This year it was about the story and the characters. When you're going into a third movie, you have everything against you because you're the third movie into a franchise."

On to Saw IV, and by then,  the challenge to make the films different was really beginning to bite.

"I think the Saw films have become kind of known for their twists and 'did we get you?' This entire movie is a lead up to 'did we get you?'", says Bousman.

"I think that was the hardest thing this year, because this is my last Saw film and knowing that I had to do a big 'did we get you?' And the whole movie was kind of conceived around what we were going to do in the last 20 minutes. As well as thinking about future, what the future leaves.

"In Saw III, I thought it was my final one and I said, 'Kill everybody! Kill them all!' and I went in and I killed Tobin and I did everything, and now I'm like, 'Alright, I'm back. Everyone's dead, what am I gonna do?'

"And so, we had to think ahead this time. Kind of turning the franchise over to David Hackl, he had to go somewhere with it. So we had to think about these characters we're introducing, where will they be, where will they go to.

"So not only thinking about the future, but thinking about the past as well. I think that was the hardest thing about doing Saw IV. Every film has its own message and theme.

"I think, where I kind of approached it, it sounds screwed up, but as a love story between Jigsaw and Amanda, and a lot of people kind of looked down on it, saying it was the most violent and whatever, and that you just did gore for gore's sake, where we really approached the whole thing as a story between Jigsaw and Amanda in this kind of protege-mentor love relationship they had."

For Saw V, the first film's production designer (and second unit shooter for the other three) David Hackl was handed the reigns, with new writers taking over the story.

"Mainly the thing I wanted to do was to play on the relationships, certainly with Hoffman and Jigsaw, you can see more of that in there," says Hackl.

"Personally I get drawn into a film more by the dramatic moments. I don’t think any of us are that drawn into a movie, sucked into the suspension of disbelief more because of just a car chase.

"It’s the relationships. We get drawn into more of that car chase because of the people and the relationships. That’s why we’re drawn into a movie because of the human relationships.

"I wanted to do more of that and I also wanted to give the fans more back story of how this all happened. So even with myself, working on all of these movies for all of these years, I had questions myself.

"How does one develop and perpetrate these traps? You know, I wanted to answer that for myself just as much as anybody. I am probably one of the biggest fans of the franchise, I don’t know if that will help…"

It seemed to - the Saw franchise continued to be profitable and benefited from fast turnarounds that meant one could arrive every year around Halloween, becoming something of a tradition, not to mention a box office champ.

With the release of Saw V, the series looked on track to become the highest-grossing horror franchise of all time.

But it wasn't until a certain filmmaker named Eli Roth launched Hostel in 2005 that the genre truly got its title…

Next: A Genre Defined: Hostel

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4. A Genre Defined: Hostel


Saw might have launched torture porn on to the world, but it was Eli Roth's 2005 film Hostel that inspired New York Magazine writer David Edelstein to famously coin the monicker. He based it on the fact that in hacker/slasher films and the likes of Hostel, squirts of blood are treated with the same fetishism as the money shot in porn.

And Roth's film certainly combined sex and death, with Hostel focused on a group of horny American tourists lured to what turns out to be a terrifying abattoir where people are tortured by those who pay for the, er, pleasure.

For Roth, the opportunity presented itself once he'd proved himself with Cabin Fever. "After that, I found myself in this great position where a lot of doors that had previously been closed opened. It's like you are on the outside, then all of the sudden, all the studios want to make movies with you.

"I started taking meetings and a lot of projects got sent to me to see if I wanted to direct them. They were just so bad, that you couldn't believe someone was actually going to go ahead and make the film…"

"So when the film came out, a lot of the do it yourself directors like Peter Jackson, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino who did it own their own were all so supportive and kept saying, just do another one.

"And I thought.... do I really want to follow a low budget horror film with another low budget horror film? Then I saw Saw and thought, why the f**k not? What, seven hundred or nine hundred grand in eighteen days?

"It was a f*****g fun movie, and here I am waiting for these studio movies, so I just said f**k it, I'm tired of this....I'm tired of waiting.

"I wasn't sure what to do so I asked Guillermo Del Toro, and he said whatever gives you the biggest boner man, 'cause you can't work without a boner man, you gotta  wake up with a rager.... you have got to have such a boner! And that's when I said, he's right! It's as simple as that.

"Then I asked Quentin Tarantino. I said I'm not sure what to do next. I mean, I could do this $35 million film or this $10 million film and he was like, what are the ideas, what are you thinking about?

"I pitched the idea and he said that is the scariest f*****g idea I have ever heard! That is so disturbing that someone would want to go into a room and kill somebody for the thrill of it! Like it was a sexual act... You've gotta write that, this could be your Takashi Miike film!"

Inspired a website link he'd been sent by Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool and bolstered by the frothing support of his filmmaking peers, Roth scraped up the money to make his film.

While he relishes the gory ride he takes audiences on, even Roth admits that his films are about more than just the horror.

"I don't want to like cram morality down anyone's throat, but that's what definitely influenced the story. You just see these guys and the way they talk about hookers and girls.

"I've also noticed a trend in pornography lately, where there are all these humiliation sites... all about tricking out girls.

"And you like know it's fake, but there is still someone at home getting off on humiliating girls. Sex is not enough anymore, and there are like fifteen exploitation websites that have all just popped up, and I think that guys think that about Eastern Europe and that the girls are gonna f**k them just because they are American."

Hostel found the typically split reviews but also the success that had helped Saw. Made for $4.8 million, it ended up with around $80 million and begat Hostel: Part II, which arrived in 2007.

Sadly for Roth, the follow-up, which focused on a group of girls getting suckered and slaughtered in a similar situation, didn't perform nearly as well. Despite a $10 million budget, the film leaked online before release and in any case, no one seemed as enthusiastic about the second run-around. 

Hostel: Part II made $35 million on release. The tide was slowly turning against the torture…

Next: The Captivity Controversy And More

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5. The Captivity Controversy And More


Given the blood-soaked nature of the movies, which delighted in agony and suffering, it was only natural that criticism would follow in their claret-tinged wake.

One of the biggest controversies swirled around the posters for a dodgy Eliza Cuthbert-starring film, Captivity, which attempted to leap aboard the bandwagon in 2007.

Directed by what-the-hell-happened-to-his-career Roland Joffe, the film was advertised with a series of posters showing the former 24 starlet in a series of horrific situations, including being buried alive and tortured.

No lesser spokesman than Buffy creator Joss Whedon - an outspoken advocate for women - led the criticism, calling  the imagery "not only a literal sign of the collapse of humanity, But a part of a cycle of violence and misogyny that takes something away from the people who have seen it. It's like being mugged."

Suffice to say, the giant billboards and bus shelter adverts were hastily taken down amongst much buck-passing and finger pointing. Producer Courtney Solomon, whose After Dark Films spearheaded the movie, tried to say that he didn't know who was responsible.

Lions Gate, which was distributing, knew where to look. "This film was done in association with After Dark Films. The nature of the association allows After Dark autonomy over their marketing materials, and therefore we neither saw nor approved this billboard before it was posted," said Lions Gate's Peter Wilkes.

"Once aware of the materials and the reaction to them, we immediately asked After Dark to remove the billboards, to which they immediately and cooperatively responded." After plenty of free publicity, of course.

Still, even the controversy couldn't stop the flop - it made just $10 million. Worldwide.

The other big problem for the genre? Overkill (ba-doom tish! Thank you very much, we'll be here all week, try the buffet and tip your waitress).

"There became a glut of so many horror movies, and I think the audience is oversaturated," Dimension's Bob Weinstein, told The LA Times.

"Sometimes the industry has the habit of making the same movies over and over again."

"There's nothing you can do to a human being on screen that is taboo anymore," blabbed Oscar-winning writer-producer Akiva Goldsman. "Over and over again, people are breaking the boundaries of the body, hurting people, chopping people up, ravaging people…"

And what was once shocking has become increasingly standard, with TV shows focused on murders and the forensic detail that solves them.

The genre still has its defenders, notably Roth. "I've heard myself referred to as a gore-teur or gore-nography.

"I think that I understand what David Edelstein said when he said audiences were getting off on the violence. What that does though is it immediately discredits the film.

"You know, when you watch pornography, you watch it, you get off, and that's it. I think it's more reflective of the critic than the film. It shows a lack of understanding and ability to understand and appreciate a horror film as something more than just a horror film.

"The gore blinds them to any intelligence that goes into making the film. And I think that the term "torture porn" genuinely says more about the critic's limited understanding of what horror movies can do than about the film itself."

Plus, there was still clearly a market for the sub-genre, even after the relative failure of Hostel: Part II and the crash of Captivity.

It continues to inspire filmmakers around the world…

Next: Beyond Hollywood

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6. Beyond Hollywood

It's ironic that torture porn has become so strongly associated with Hollywood, especially since it had its most recent rebirth at the hands of two Australian filmmakers who had planned to shoot it in their native land.

But while many of the biggest examples have come out of America, it's long been a horror staple around the world.

Here in the UK we got WΔZ in 2008, which sees detectives Stellan Skarsgard and Melissa George trying to solve a complicated crime involving equations and rituals.

"It's about altruism in nature and about whether you'd kill someone you love in order to survive yourself. It's a very cool film," says George.

"In nature, there are some animals who will put themselves on the front line to be killed in order to save their kingdom, because they are the same gene pool.

"They don't care. They just want to survive. One monkey will go out in front of another and get killed in order to save 300 of them behind him.

"Whereas, humans, we're a separate gene pool. So we are exploring the idea that if someone said to you 'I will stop doing this to you if you kill your lover…'

"How much pain would you take, before you kill somebody that you love? It's very awesome. It's got a genius storyline."

Australia's Dying Breed channelled the charnel horror of cannibals for a tale of hikers looking for a tiger who end up discovering man-eating men searching for new breeding stock.

With Saw's Leigh Whannell among its cast, it scored controversy points thanks to a quickly-banned poster that featured a human eye and other bits baked into a pie. Charming!

More recently, Lars von Trier's Antichrist, which arrives loaded with mutilation and blood, can easily be fitted into the genre, even if the filmmaker's ambitions and symbolic inspiration were a little loftier.

And there's also Martyrs (above), the French horror which arrived in March of this year, whose director aimed to change things up a little.

The idea from the beginning was always to bring something original, something fresh and trying to do an unexpected film," says Pascal Laugier.

"So, yeah, I consciously played with the archetypes of the horror genre. Trying to bring something new.

"As a general fan - I don't want to sound arrogant - but I was honestly a little bit tired about how things were becoming. Sometimes I had the feeling that a lot of the directors were doing horror films just to show the audience that they shared the same collection of DVDs.

"I wrote the film on a very emotional level, trying to be as sincere and as honest as possible. I certainly didn't want to do a tongue in cheek movie."

Martyrs follows - spoiler alert if you haven't seen it -  a group who are trying to discover the secrets of the afterlife through - you guessed it - torturing young women. We follow one of their former victims as she aims for a little vengeance, but the movie twists and turns around the idea.

It'll come as no surprise that Martyrs is being considered for a US remake.

And talking of remakes…

Next: Remakes Muscle In

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7. Remakes Muscle In

Nothing lasts forever, and torture porn has seen its box office throne rocked by a different - if related - type of horror slowly taking over.

While studios were happy to keep making direct torture porn pics because they were cost-effective, the rise of the remake has been inexorable across all genres.

With the mega-corporations behind most of the big Hollywood powerhouses concerned about the bottom line, the remake trend has grown and grown.

After all, why go searching through several unsuccessful films when you can dig up an old title, give it a spit and polish, hand it to a cheap director and writers and wait for the money to roll in?

So it has been with the likes of Hostel and Captivity, which have seen their box office takings dip and other movies winning out.

In the last few years alone, the likes of The Amityville Horror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday The 13th and even the classic Halloween have all been given the retread treatment.

Not all are successful, but most would not have been made had not a few carved out some serious box office success.

But there's a similar risk that audiences will get sick of seeing classic horror movies thrown into the remake abattoir.

"It just sounds like horribly cynical marketing, economic decision more than anyone saying, 'I just have to make that film,' and 'I have to find a way to get it made,'" says director Douglas Buck, who nevertheless made his own stab at the genre with a new take on 1973's Sisters.

It sounds more like a producer going, 'Ah! Let's remake Dawn of the Dead! Now let's find a writer, now lets find a director, and let's do it!' you know? Which isn't the best way to make great movies.

"But with the Sisters remake, as soon as I heard about it, something in my mind went, 'Oh yeah. That makes sense for me.'

"So I think there's room for these films. I just wish that it didn't feel so cynical, you know, just didn't feel so economic and so cynical like it does overall."
 
Not that producers such as Andrew Form and Brad Fuller of Platinum Dunes would ever say they're in it for the money… "With our track record, we could go out and make bigger movies where there's a better return for our company," says Fuller.

"We make horror movies primarily because we love them. That's what our company does, and that's the choice that we made.

You talk to a ton of producers who started in horror and then go and become big guys; our aspirations, although we do want to branch out, the branching out is simply because we feel like the stories we've told are starting to feel a little bit repetitive.

"I mean, I'll be in locations and I'll say to Drew, 'Didn't we do this exact shot?' Do you know what I'm saying? You hunger for something new. But when they say that we're just doing this for the money, that drives me insane."

Hell, even the Saw team have seen the opportunity as too good to resist. In the last few weeks, the producers snatched the rights to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre from the Platinum Dunes bods and are planning their own fresh franchise.

And unlike many of its contemporaries, Saw has stayed strong. At least, until now…

Next: Bleeding Dry?

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8. Bleeding Dry?


Horror has always been cyclical (or, if you prefer, sick-lical). One type of terror rises as others fall, the genre has so many iterations that it's easy for one to take over for a while.

And, more often than not, eras spawn their own horror genres - with torture porn born from not only thoughts of torture itself (spotlighted by the controversy of Guantanamo Bay) but also the ever-increasing influence of the 'net.

Hostel was directly inspired by the growth of online shockers and ties directly in to the seemingly endless human need for the next

And, right now, despite the budgets staying relatively low, it appears that torture porn might be on the wane. As mentioned, horror remakes, which channel a lot of the gore-some action into retreads of old slasher films, took over as more successful at the box office.

Plus the latest Saw film - Saw VI - failed to display the usual box office power. For years, the movies have been guaranteed earners for Lions Gate, crushing all comers around Halloween.

This time, however, demonic happenings triumphed over detailed traps as Paramount's micro-budgeted, 'net fandom-powered Paranormal Activity triumphed, despite being released in 1,000 fewer cinemas.

Don't count out the Saw films and their ilk just yet, though. Lions Gate is plunging ahead with Saw VII, which is apparently planning to aim for the 3D trend.

And while the outlay remains low and the rewards still possible, studios will keep sponsoring the likes of Eli Roth and co.

Who knows? Even if torture porn dies in its current incarnation, it can always rise from the grave in a few years or a couple of decades, spurred by a first-time director with a great idea and a whole new twist of the knife…

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Comments

    • JPDisco

      Oct 30th 2009, 11:40

      Hostel - "where people are tortured for the delectation of online viewers." Not in the version I saw....

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    • veers

      Nov 2nd 2009, 22:05

      Yeah, that's the plot to My Little Eye (2002).

      Alert a moderator

    • veers

      Nov 2nd 2009, 22:24

      (In case the Greek capital letter delta does not display correctly after I press "Post Comment", I mention it's intended use here beforehand.) BTW, congrats to Total Film for almost getting the title correct: "WΔZ". I guess it's better than "WAZ", which is the most frequent misspelling because someone couldn't be bothered to type a Greek capital letter delta. But the *correct* title (as seen in the film's credits), is actually wΔz. Some may think I'm being anal here, but since the symbols are part of a *real* mathematical equation, it *does* matter what symbol is what and what is capital and what is not - in mathematics, physics and chemistry a capital letter may have a different meaning from a small letter. See that famous Internet encyclopedia about the wΔz equation.

      Alert a moderator

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