Director: Eli Roth
Starring: Eyþór Guðjónsson, Jay Hernandez, Barbara Nedeljáková, Derek Richardson, Jan Vlasak
Runtime: 93 minutes
When referring to horror movies, it seems inevitable to discuss subgenres, and in fact my purpose in this post is more to address the subgenre this film is often forced into—the disparagingly named “torture porn.” Hostel is not a great movie, but it’s not a bad movie either, and my discussion here is more to look at it through the question of whether “torture porn” is an appropriate name.
I saw this movie at the theater when it first came out, having seen his previous film, Cabin Fever, which I thought was quirky and showed promise. So, yeah, Hostel. I don’t think I was clear on what it was about. I think that I thought it was about some young guys traveling abroad who get terrorized at a hostel. That’s close, but if you don’t know, let me clear it up for you: the guests at this hostel are kidnapped and taken to a place where people pay to torture them. One character in the group fights back and struggles to make his escape.
I left the movie feeling strange, not sure how to take what I had just seen. Although there are some graphic scenes of violence, it’s not that or gore that unsettled me most—one of my companions was disappointed in that aspect, and in fact said the movie could have benefited from more of it. I think I was troubled more by the subject matter and the political undertones. Few movies deal with actual torture in such a frank and graphic way—many movies and even TV shows suggest a character is being tortured, but it’s more of a plot device, and we usually just see cuts and bruises, and maybe the character getting slapped or punched. Here you see a lot worse than that.
Also, was the movie some sort of nationalistic, xenophobic portrayal of foreigners? After all, this movie came out shortly after the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal. Even though there are no Middle Eastern men involved—most of the torturers are Eastern European—the connections seem clear. Upon hearing the label “torture porn” bandied about to movies such as this, Saw, Wolf Creek, and even Passion of the Christ, I joined in: sure, I liked horror, but respectable horror, not that “torture porn” crap.
Then I read an article by Adam Lowenstein, “Spectacle Horror and Hostel: Why Torture Porn Does Not Exist.” It made me rethink my evaluation of Hostel and the legitimacy of the “torture porn” label (though I regret to say that it seems an entrenched part of our film lexicon and won’t go away). Lowenstein makes some great observations about imagery and motifs woven into the movie that I hadn’t noticed, but on another viewing were clear. After my reevaluation, I think his points stand, although I question how much the average viewer will actually “get” his reading, or whether my initial reading is the more common one.
Lowenstein links the “spectacle” aspect of torture used with some of the earliest instances of film, such as a reenactment of the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots, an actual execution of an elephant. He also sees the political implications of the film as actually showing American arrogance and complicity with torture. I don’t want to go into all that here, but if you are at all interested, I highly recommend the article. Eli Roth has made statements that seem to confirm Lowenstein’s interpretation. For example, the Slovakian government was offended by the film, saying that it made their country look to be full of crime, corruption, and prostitution. Roth’s response was that he wasn’t tying these things to any specific country, and that he was in fact trying to show Americans in particular as ignorant about the world around them, and just as guilty of the atrocities they claim to fight against in other countries.
Anyway, in my Hostel rewatch, I appreciated the atmospheric quality of the film, and saw that it relied as much on what isn’t show as what is. Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly graphic scenes that are hard to watch, but it does not so much revel in the violence and gore (as the label “torture porn” suggests), using them effectively and selectively. I’m not convinced that the violence in these movies is “pornographic” in the sense that we are supposed to be aroused by it. The pleasure of spectacle, of extreme acts of violence, as Lowenstein shows, is not unique to horror, certainly not just to those few movies that are labeled “torture porn.” There is, of course, the exploitation label—broken down into its own subgenres (blaxploitation, Nazisploitation, etc), but I’m not familiar enough with the label or most of the subgenres to pontificate on it. But from what I know of exploitation films, they do something very different than Hostel, Saw, and the like. These movies, while I don’t think they are at the level of films like The Descent or The Mist, are more aligned with a traditional and atmospheric type of horror than some of the thinner recent horror entries, like Rob Zombie’s movies, which seem to me to rely solely on guts and nudity, and have little or no atmosphere, tension, or complexity to them.