From Torture Porn to Torturous Moron

July 11, 2007 § Leave a comment

By Mike Gillis

The late 1970s and early 1980s were the early and formative moviemaking years for me. But it wasn’t Martin Scorsese or Robert Altman or Woody Allen who first caught my attention. I was drawn to the likes of George Romero and David Cronenberg and a young Sam Raimi. I was also inspired by Tom Savini, who baptized special makeup effects in a well of gore. Those were bloody days, when splatter films littered the cinematic landscape.

I still have a soft spot for the well-crafted horror picture — see “The Descent,” for instance — and can still appreciate a clever effect when I see one. And although my tastes now run with the camp of “what you don’t show is worse than what you do — I can easily stomach the gore.

But as far as horror goes, there is very little that makes the grade these days. That includes the oeuvre of Eli Roth.

I can’t say all of Roth’s films are bad. I haven’t seen “Hostel – Part II.” I’m not interested.

Cabin Fever” was overrated, dull homage. It owes a debt to “The Evil Dead” and a forgiving audience. Is it funny? I guess, but who cares? It’s just a poorly crafted movie. “Hostel” is a bore.

What’s curious about the rise and fall of Eli Roth — and he is falling hard — is that he worked diligently to construct his own moviemaker mythology and people fell for it. Boy can he talk. Hundreds of interviews with Roth are scattered across the web, from the biggest publications to the most minuscule genre offerings. Almost every one of them features Roth talking about how he resurrected the genre, how his film is art, how he has saved horror.

I’ve noticed this: Almost to the critic, those who stand behind Roth gush to mention they have talked to director, sometimes regularly, and he’s a really nice guy. Some critics even choose to defend Roth without having seen his films, because … he’s a nice guy who worked hard.

So, is it cold of me to say, who cares?

I learned some time ago that a film isn’t any better because its director is a nice guy. Isn’t it about whether the movie can stand up on its own? There are very few directors who deserve to take sole credit for a film — a so-and-so film, a film by so-and-so — but so many do, as if the director is the picture.

New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell recently caught up with Roth in Interview Magazine. Mitchell made a point about exploitation’s particular style and characteristics, not without affection. Roth, however, wouldn’t have it. His films are art, he insisted, and the violence is an outlet for a country that fears terrorists are about to lop off the heads of Americans at every corner.


Roth has gone on in subsequent interviews to blame the poor box office receipts for “Hostel 2” on rampant piracy and moronic critics who reviewed a leaked work print. As others have pointed out, he has blamed everyone but himself.

Could it be the movie just isn’t good? Could it also be, as moviegoers seemed to indicate, the appetite for “torture porn” is already satiated? How many “Hostels” and “Saws” can people tolerate? Roth’s plea to fans to flock to the cinema for “Hostel – Part II’s” second week or the film would vanish forever seems to have gone unheeded.

Of course there will always be an audience for Grand Guignol. And fine films will continue to be made that fit squarely and successfully in that genre. The difference, of course, is they will survive on their own, without any prompting from behind the camera.


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