Hostel and Its Surprise Box Office Success Made ‘Torture Porn’ Offiical

In a Jan 26 2006 New York Magazine article, David Edelstein coined a now familiar phrase – ‘Torture Porn‘. Though he was initially commenting on Eli Roth’s Hostel, Edelstein stepped back and identified what he saw as a new horror trend. Following Saw’s unexpected box office success in 2004, a handful of movies released in 2005, including Hostel, crystallized what would become its own subgenre. By the end of the aughts, there were enough horror movies focused on extreme violence and torture to warrant a mention in Wes Craven’s Scream 4. Eventually mainstream horror went in different directions in the 2010s. But occasional indie horror movie still borrows from the subgenre. Without the box office success of Hostel, however, Torture Porn as a genre would have likely fizzled out.

Synopsis.

American backpackers Josh and Paxton, along with new friend Oli, have experienced all that Europe has to offer. But a stranger suggests there’s plenty more to experience in Eastern Europe. And not all of it’s fit to be published in a tourist brochure. So the trio head off for a hostel in a small Slovakian village. But there’s more waiting for them than just the Slovakian women.

Hostel Was The Follow-Up Hit To Saw That Solidified Torture Porn as a Subgenre

Prior to James Wan’s Saw, the roots of ‘Torture Porn’ were planted in 1970s exploitation and splatter flicks. As Hays Code’s restrictions eased in the late 1960s, 70s filmmakers increasingly pushed boundaries. Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, I Spit On Your Grave, George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie are just a sampling of movies that emphasized shock and gore over traditional scares. More amateurish B-horror movies, like I Drink Your Blood, wallowed in gory excesses. And niche subgenres, including the Italian cannibal movie craze, would pop up. Eventually Friday the 13th merged aspects of Giallo and splatter coalescing into what we now recognize as the slasher. Its box office success also triggered a backlash that saw the MPAA get tough on content. By the time Scream kicked off a revival, the neo-slasher looked tame next to the splatter movies of the 70s.

And Hostel was enough of a hit to signal to studios that there was money to be made in torture.

But the early 2000s saw filmmakers who grew up watching those 70s splatter movie starting making their own horror movies. Yes, Saw looked very different to other Hollywood horror movies at the time. Rob Zombie’s House of 1000s Corpses – a colorful homage of sorts to Texas Chainsaw Massacre – proceeded Saw. Early New French Extremity movies, including Baise-Moi and High Tension, were simultaneously transgressing against boundaries. Yet a subgenre needs more than one box office hit and a handful of smaller movies to piece together defining features. And Hostel was enough of a hit to signal to studios that there was money to be made in torture.

Hostel is Really an Old-Fashioned Splatter Flick Dressed Up in a ‘New’ Subgenre

In addition to solidifying the ‘rules’ of Torture Porn, Hostel saw Eli Roth’s filmmaking style come together. Like Cabin Fever, Hostel mixed an irreverently dark sense of humor with shocking violence. Despite its violence and elaborate torture devices, Saw still mined the traditional jump scares found in slashers. There’s a much clearer line between the 70s splatter movie and Roth’s style. What you’ll find in Hostel are extended scenes of uncomfortable torture where the camera focuses on bodily destruction. Less emphasis is placed on the build-up to violence. Rather Roth forces the audience to watch the change inflicted on the body itself. As compared to the Grindhouse era, Roth captures his carnage with much better production values. For all its shock value in 2005, however, Hostel was for all intents and purposes a splatter flick.

What you’ll find in Hostel are extended scenes of uncomfortable torture where the camera focuses on bodily destruction.

But Roth did add some curveballs to Hostel that pre-date the subversive takes on the slasher genre that would follow. Both main characters, Josh and Paxton, conform to most stereotypes associated with the ‘Ugly American’ tourist and young male entitlement. Yet it’s Josh who seemingly checks off the ‘survivor’ box requirement. Instead, Paxton takes center stage as the ‘Final Boy’, which makes for a nice, superficial change of pace. Roth doesn’t offer much else in the way of social commentary opting instead to encourage his audience to revel in Paxton’s eventual revenge. Here, Hostel borrows another old exploitation flick trope – ethnocentrism. If Roth had something interesting to say about American hegemony it’s inevitably lost. Instead, Hostel casts its Eastern European villains in a similar light to the ‘hillbilly’ in rural horror.

Hostel and Its Surprising Box Office Totals Made Torture Porn Official

Worldwide Hostel grossed just shy of $82 million on an approximately $5 million budget. Not bad for a movie about wealthy businessmen paying to torture international tourists. Not surprisingly, a sequel followed that upped the ante but massively underwhelmed. As a result, Hostel III saw a belated straight-to-video release. Though it’s arguably not as impactful (or good) as Saw, Hostel was a fun, gore-filled splatter flick that solidified ‘Torture Porn’ as its own subgenre. Along with Wolf Creek, Turistas, and The Hills Have Eyes remake, Hostel likely assured studios of the financial viability of distributing movies like Would You Rather, The Human Centipede, Captivity, and remakes of I Spit On Your Grave and Last House on the Left.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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