Of all the ways mainstream critics have attempted to demote and denigrate horror films, none has been more successful than the creation of the term ‘torture porn.’ It’s an ugly phrase, but one that is being used with alarming frequency. According to critics like David Edelstein – the term’s creator – ‘torture porn’ movies like Hostel and its imitators not only promote sexualised violence, but they actively encourage feelings of vicarious pleasure in its audiences.
In essence: not only are the filmmakers sick, but so are we, the audience, for watching their films.
The term isn’t just an insulting and dismissive one, it also indicates just how little mainstream critics understand horror. Hostel is a satire, and an alarmingly effective one at that. It’s one of the few American movies brave enough to gaze deep into the machinations of capitalism, globalisation, and the darkness behind our desires, and in that way, it should have been applauded as one of the finest horror films of recent memory.
In all seriousness: perhaps Hostel was too subtle for its critics. For all of the movie’s confrontational violence and shock, there is an understated nature to the way it develops its themes and characters.
Eli Roth is a master of making the audience complicit. His films are seductions. And this is the aspect of his work that critics most frequently misunderstand. Roth does encourage us to bask in the images of nudity that dominate the first half of the film, acting as though he were supporting the hedonistic world view of his characters. But he exaggerates our male-centric, sex obsessed culture to the point where it becomes a parody of itself and quite quickly the titillation of the film’s first half becomes the sadistic violence of the second.
In the world of Hostel, beautiful women appear to be charmed by men who draw faces on their behinds. Roth presents us with a fantasy pushed to unbelievable limits, not only to visualize and satirise our desires for hedonistic pleasure, but also to set us up for a dark fall. We are meant to be suckered in, just as our main characters have been – so that by the film’s midpoint, Roth can neatly turn around and bite us firmly in our sharpie covered butts. He wants us to accept, consciously or otherwise, the ramifications of our desires.
In essence, he wants us the audience to be seduced, and then he wants to hurt us. He is the heir apparent to Takashi Miike, in this way; a steely, caustic manipulator, with a gleefully perverse moral code and an incredible knack for storytelling to boot. He is, in short, a genius, and Hostel might well be his masterpiece.