Eli Roth described how he as a child used to go to the cinema to watch horror films and become so engrossed and affected by the violence portrayed that he was physically sick. He did this multiple times. He did this so many times that he was officially warned by the theatre management. And one day as Roth knelt in a mixture of his own puke and discarded popcorn kernels, tears stinging his eyes, cries of; “What the fuck is wrong with you?” and “Seriously kid, again?” ringing in his ears, he understood a profound truth and this truth would be the key to his destiny.
“You go to horror films to feel terrible,” Roth told an interviewer for New York Magazine smugly, like he was the fucking Dalai Lama or something and Roth’s films make you feel the most terrible of all for this mewling, puking adolescent was to grow up into the creator of the Hostel franchise, the apex of gruesome, nearly unwatchable horror. Violence is unremitting, there’s no hope, there’s no morality and, it’s like, totally well gross. This is torture porn, a genre characterised by prolonged torture scenes of varying levels of disgustingness, often with a degree of sexualisation in the mutilation of female victims.
The mingling of violence and lust has been a cinematic device since the 1920s but even in its most brutal form, for instance The Last House on the Left, there were terrible and grisly consequences for the perpetrators. Not so in Roth’s film. Contrary to his vomit splattered view of the world, classic horror films are not designed to make you feel terrible. Yes, there can be blood and guts and a sense of dread but equilibrium is always restored at the end. Good always triumphs over evil, or at least, keeps it at bay for a while if the producers think there’s potential for a sequel. You emerge shaken but with the certainty that righteousness will prevail. Perhaps Roth and his delicate tummy never made it to the end of a horror film so he always missed the cathartic pay-off.
Responding to criticism, Roth describes that there is an irony in his creative process. He explains; “Anytime people see women in a horror film all they say is that all these girls are just pieces of meat and literally in Hostel Part 2 they are.” So, you see, it’s actually very clever. You might think that he reduces the women in his film to slabs of dehumanised animal flesh to be carved up upon male whim without consequence, but when you look really closely at it, that’s exactly what he is doing. Perhaps sensing some incredulity, Roth decided to change track and came up with this zinger; “What’s worse? My film or Dick Cheney?” which is just a shameless attempt to change the subject. You can either have a ruthlessly pragmatic imperial warlord or the visual poison of a semi-demented halfwit who doesn’t understand narrative construction? The two are not mutually exclusive. You do not need to make that choice and don’t let Eli Roth convince you that you do.
Nonsensical gibbering aside, there is some clarity in what Roth has to say about his films and their connection to international politics. The world has changed a lot since he was only a nuisance to the cleaners at his local cinema. American hegemony has gone from being securely dominant to irrevocably undermined. Now instead of viewing violence as something that can be resolved by a righteous and powerful force for good, it is instead unremitting, pointless with no potential for a morally satisfying ending. In a sense, Roth’s films can be seen as mirroring back the landscape of violence around him. Perhaps what Roth is driving at is the same point made by Pablo Picasso when visited by a German officer during the Second World War. The officer looked at ‘Guernica’ and, shocked by its chaotic and cartoonish portrayal of the grotesque asked; “Did you do this?” to which Picasso replied; “No, you did this.”
Before we get carried away and declare that people are going to see torture porn because they want to see their emotional deadening as a consequence of the senseless violence that infuses modern international relations reflected on the screen as part of a complex analogy, we should remember that the primary demographic for these films is teenaged boys and their standard review of these films is a mixture of ‘gross’ and ‘awesome’.
For many academics, torture porn emerged from a nation disgraced following the images released from Abu Ghraib prison and the films as allowing adolescent males to understand their new reconfigured place in the world and providing them with coping mechanisms. What are these coping mechanisms? Well, first it’s important to accept that violence is pointless, arbitrary and ubiquitous and that unless you are a perpetrator you are liable to be a victim of savage unrelenting physical callousness which will have no consequences for the perpetrator. But this terrible, capricious cinematic world doesn’t only offer us nihilistic despair. It shows us that it’s important to find beauty wherever you can. Enjoy a woman’s bare breasts before they are sawn off and rammed into her mouth. Develop an aesthetic appreciation for the capacity of the human body to be grotesquely mutilated and the ingenuity of the human mind for coming up with constantly evolving ways to inflict visually striking acts of pain on the bodies of others. Take a chance to smell the roses before you’re randomly abducted and vaginally impaled.
In other news, those anti-depressant pills are very fashionable right now.