There’s an unrealistic expectation around film criticism that critics should approach every film from an objective perspective, regardless of its genre or subject matter. No doubt there are critics out there who love every kind of film equally, but most of us have some kind of bias. That’s only really a problem if reviewers are dishonest about their preferences; I mean, I’m generally anti-musicals, but I do my best to be upfront about it!
So it always frustrates me when I see critics who clearly not enamoured of horror – particularly its trashier, gorier offshoots – dismissing the genre out of hand. Such critics tend to fall back to a resonant insult: “torture porn.” The title has a very particular connotation, suggesting audiences drawing sadistic pleasure from the gruesome plights of its victims. The mental image formed when you hear torture porn is that of a camera lingering on protracted, gory suffering. And perhaps there are films out there that deserve the descriptor – Martyrs comes to mind, as does a mid-film scene in Wrong Turn 4: Bloody Beginnings – but the linchpin of this imagined sub-genre is undeniably Eli Roth’s Hostel series, which inspired David Edelstein to coin the term in New York magazine.
I’m not here to defend Hostel as a masterpiece (though I’d argue Hostel: Part II comes closer than it has any right to, but we’ll get to that). But it’s not the film its detractors imagine it to be. It demonstrates restraint and a hint of artistry – well, as much restraint as you can expect from a film including a shot of a melted eyeball dangling from a single bloody filament.