"Torture porn" exists because of Eli Roth. It was Roth's 2005 Hostel that inspired critic David Edelstein to coin the term when writing about how the Americans-being-dismembered-abroad feature and contemporaries like Wolf Creek and The Devil's Rejects upped their gore factor to unprecedented levels for multiplex movies.
The phrase has more tsk-tsk to it than the article itself, in which Edelstein, a self-described "horror maven," doesn't moralize so much as confess to just feeling confounded by this wave of nihilism. He's befuddled not only by the intensity of the bloodshed, but by the way these movies ignore rules so codified that Scream listed them. Their characters never seemed to earn their hideous fates — they were fleshed out and given backstories and then slaughtered anyway, and the films muddled sympathies between the victims and the inflicters of horrendous violence.
Roth made an even more sadistic sequel centered on a set of female travelers in 2007. It flopped. Once you've made people into meat, what else is there to say? Later releases like The Human Centipede trilogy and A Serbian Film staked out reputations as being even more extreme with mutilation, coprophagia, and an honest-to-god death by skullfucking. But by now, the torture porn genre has either faded out or we've just up the ante on what's shocking — the elegantly photographed, nightmarishly creative carnage on Hannibal, after all, ran on network television.
Roth turned his attention to producing (The Last Exorcism, Aftershock) and occasional acting (Inglourious Basterds) for a while, but now he's back in theaters with two new movies he directed, Knock Knock and The Green Inferno, an unintentional double feature caused by a delay in the latter's release. The Green Inferno, which is about college activists who have a run-in with cannibals, aims to be horrifying. Knock Knock, which is about two women wreaking havoc on a married man, aspires to be titillating. But more than anything, both persistently, persuasively angle to make you angry. They're bad faith arguments expanded to feature length and served up with a you mad, bro? smirk. Roth, having reached the limits of splatter as a way to provoke, seems to have settled on something new: trolling.
Here's the premise of Knock Knock: Evan Webber, an architect and family man played by Keanu Reeves, is home alone for the weekend working while his wife and children are at the beach. Two young women knock on the door of the family's luxe suburban home late at night, dressed skimpily and shivering in the rain. Genesis (Lorenza Izzo, Roth's wife) and Bel (Ana de Armas) claim to have gotten lost on the way to a party, and Evan enjoys playing the gallant and preening under the attention of the pretty, flirtatious duo until, oops, the three end up in bed together. The next morning, Evan's eager to pretend the sex never happened, but the ladies are not. They start taunting him about his infidelity, their goading escalating into holding Evan hostage as part of what turns out to be a well-rehearsed, perverse game.
Knock Knock is, in theory, a movie about how even a man who thinks of himself as a good person and a devoted husband cheats when offered easy, seemingly consequence-free sex. But in practice it's about crazy bitches who ruin a guy's life. The film's reveal about Evan isn't really a reveal unless the news that even suburban dads are capable of ugliness and rage is a surprise. Evan lets trouble into his life, but the response is deliberately, absurdly disproportionate — Fatal Attraction with questionable consent, Funny Games as ranted out by a men's rights activist.
The seduction scene is staged to load sympathy on its protagonist's side, with Evan pulling away and saying no repeatedly until the women actually grab him. Deed done, Genesis and Bel reveal they're underage, tell Evan he's a pedophile, rape him, torture him, and suggest this is all revenge for their childhood molestation. Some — possibly all — of the attackers' claims are revealed to be untrue. "I think it’s very much a feminist film," Roth said of Knock Knock, but that's true only if feminism is considered interchangeable with misandry, infidelity is equated to sexual abuse, and victimization is treated as a weapon. "Not all men," Reeves might as well be weeping as he's tied to a chair.
The college kids in The Green Inferno blunder into danger too, though their sin is ignorance — they're Columbia students who travel to Peru with aims to protect an area of the rain forest and the ancient tribe living in it from loggers. Izzo once again stars as Justine, who in true freshman fashion experiences a sudden, self-righteous political awakening after taking a class about female genital mutilation and getting a lecture from handsome fellow student Alejandro (Ariel Levy). She signs on to the protest his group has organized, only to find out that they only wanted her to come because her father is in the U.N. Never mind — an accident leaves them captives of the tribe they came to protect, a tribe that immediately and gruesomely butchers one of the students alive. Oops. Again.
There's meant to be irony there, but Roth also wanted to make a movie in the tradition of 1970s Italian cannibal exploitation movies — so his tribe is this invented, lurid caricature of skulls on sticks and red body paint, its members popping eyeballs out of heads and right into their mouths. Roth sees the film as targeting "social justice warriors," which he describes as people more interested in the vanity of being seen as activists than in whom they're helping. But his characters aren't actually hiding behind hashtags — they go to Peru and chain themselves to bulldozers and manage to at least temporarily stop a logging company. The legal process he says they're trying to take a shortcut around is often inadequate or corrupt, something the movie essentially admits.
Anyway, any sense that the kids die because they never bothered to research the tribe they were trying to save is undermined by the movie's treatment of the natives as just as abstract. The village isn't functional — its inhabitants appear to have nothing going on outside of waiting around for the latest corpse to finish cooking. How many American do-gooders wander through on the average day, that they can sustain a whole community on human flesh? And when the locals figure out Justine is a virgin, they prepare her for circumcision — not because it makes any sense to do so for someone they still look likely to eat, but because the movie finds the images of a crone-like mystic crouched between a young woman's legs ready to cut her up exciting. You found this practice monstrous? Well, now they're going to do it to you! Shows you for condescending so far as to think you could help!
Roth is a canny filmmaker when it comes to playing on an audience's emotions, but there's never a sense of control in these movies, or at least the meanings he claims they have don't match the content. It only makes it feel trollier when he blithely insists feminists will love Knock Knock or that The Green Inferno is obviously on the side of the villagers, when both seem, if not obviously untrue, then hardly a given. He admits to a compulsive need to provoke in each of his films: "It’s not gonna please everyone, but 10 years from now, you could still show it to a group of friends and it’s gonna get a reaction, one way or the other."
The result is that they're never boring, his movies, but both The Green Inferno and Knock Knock leave a bad taste in the mouth — they're even more cynical than the splatterfests of Cabin Fever and the Hostel movies. Their goading feels unpleasantly familiar, because it recalls internet griping about "SJWs" and women lying about sexual assault. Whatever Roth claims, these movies sure feel like they're catering to the grimmest parts of 4chan and Reddit, and that's more nauseating to see onscreen than the most graphic of violence.