‘Captivity’ hits another low


AND HERE I thought nothing could out-gross the billboards.

They weren’t up for long -- studio reps said they were a “mistake” -- but one look made a lot of folks queasy: four graphic images of a terrified and abused blond for the gore-porn movie “Captivity,” headlined, “Abduction,” “Confinement,” “Torture” and “Termination.”

“Captivity” opens Friday, nearly two months late, in part because the MPAA -- which takes maidenly offense at a cinematic bare nipple but wouldn’t flinch at a severed one -- responded to the hideous billboards by holding off on issuing a rating.

I wonder whether the MPAA approved the “Captivity” promotions I heard this week and looked up on the movie website -- promos as repellent in their own way as the billboards, for a different reason:


Inspired by the fact that over 850,000 are reported missing every year in the United States, many of whom are never seen again.... “

Whoa, whoa, whoa -- 850,000 Americans are reported missing every year? The combined population of San Francisco and Costa Mesa, every 12 months? How have I missed bodies piling up behind Starbucks? The abandoned subdivisions? How have I overlooked hundreds of thousands of “have you seen me?” signs fluttering from every telephone pole?

And “many ... never seen again”? Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Alien abductions!

As it turns out, the 850,000 number is accurate as far as it goes. Last year, in these United States, the feds’ National Crime and Information Center’s missing-persons operation entered records for 836,131 people. But the number alone is too irresistible for generating fear and profit for “Captivity’s” marketers to tell you the whole story. So I will.

“Many of whom are never seen again.” Whoppers don’t get much bigger than this one. The reason you haven’t noticed San Francisco and Costa Mesa’s populations disappearing every year is because they haven’t.

In 2006, the same year the center logged 836,131 missing-persons records, it also cleared its books of 851,940 such records -- meaning that most of the 836,131 people turned up, as did others who went “missing” earlier.

Who gets reported as missing? It doesn’t require a ransom note. It’s people like a dementia patient who wanders away, or someone who can’t be found right after a tornado. Some go absent after romantic squabbles -- they split and stay away until things blow over. Some are children kept too long by non-custodial parents. Some get reported because of simple misunderstandings.

Their names are cleared from the rolls after they return on their own, or the cops find them, or the cops decide the “missing” report was baseless. They are not, except in mercifully rare cases, victims of “abduction, confinement, torture, termination.”

But big claims sell movies, and everything else. When the adjectives run to “spectacular” and “stupendous,” there’s no harm done. But running a numbers game on reality makes “Captivity” -- and all the movie websites parroting its slick patter -- a wholly owned subsidiary of “Fear Inc.,” the business of scaring us all the way to the bank.

There’s plenty of blame; a lot goes to the news media, especially TV, which teases and terrifies with murder stories, even if they’re a continent away.

The Denver Post won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for its reassuring investigation into child abduction, which found the numbers to be wildly exaggerated, sometimes by children’s advocacy groups. But one Samantha Runnion is hideously snatched and killed, and every stranger is a monster again. As sociologists such as USC’s Barry Glassner point out, exotic, irrational horrors eat up the time and energy that should be devoted to mundane, well-founded fears: Flesh-eating bacteria numbs us to traffic accidents and smoking.

The director of “Captivity” is Roland Joffe. Joffe was nominated for an Oscar for “The Killing Fields,” the superb film about the Cambodian genocide. Its Oscar-winning star, Haing S. Ngor, survived the Khmer Rouge’s rampage, only to be murdered outside his L.A. apartment for refusing to hand over a locket with a picture of his dead wife. Ngor’s killers were convicted the same day the world learned that the Khmer’s murderous dictator, Pol Pot, had died. Now there’s a one-in-a-million murder story to turn into a movie.

Instead, we have “Captivity” and its somber declaration that it was “inspired by” all those missing people, as if an exploitation flick were a public service announcement.

Maybe there’s one place where “Captivity” is a PSA, a place where lissome blonds do have a rational fear of being kidnapped, tortured, raped and snuffed -- Hollywood pitch meetings.