The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Eli Roth’s ‘Death Wish’ cements his status as the premier maker of ‘Dad Horror’

Bruce Willis stars as Paul Kersey in director Eli Roth’s “Death Wish.” (Takashi Seida/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)

Eli Roth is probably best known for his role in the torture-porn boom of the mid-aughts. The director of “Hostel” and “Hostel: Part II” outraged scolds and aesthetes alike with the naked brutality of those films. But over the past few years — in “The Green Inferno,” “Knock Knock” and “Death Wish” — he’s altered course somewhat, trafficking in a genre of film I like to think of as “Dad Horror.”

At first glance, “The Green Inferno” is firmly in the mold of “Hostel.” It’s about a group of college-aged students who head off to South America to save hidden clans in the rainforest. On the way home following a modest bit of eco-terrorism, their plane crashes and a tribe untouched by modernity captures the kids. Said tribe members, naturally, are cannibals. And what follows is a rather harrowing bit of ultraviolence — dismemberment, disemboweling, that sort of thing — leavened with some occasionally corny humor (the tribe members get the munchies at one point after eating a college kid whose body has been stuffed with pot).

The blood and guts aren’t the most terrifying part of the film, however. Far scarier is the way Justine (Lorenza Izzo) falls prey to the lures of college activism. She tells her father, a lawyer for the United Nations, that she wants to make a difference in the world before falling under the spell of the charismatic Alejandro (Ariel Levy). After returning home — and following the massacre of her friends by the tribe as well as her own penetration by a witch-doctor looking for a virgin to sacrifice — Justine lies to her father about the tribe.

She says they were peaceful, that they gave her aid and succor, that she was the only survivor of the crash. She does not want them harmed despite the fact that they harmed her and her friends. She watches with silence as Alejandro — who tried to have her killed earlier in the film and spent most of the movie being an all-around-awful person — becomes a martyr, his face emblazoned on t-shirts as a Che-style hero for the youths.

“The Green Inferno” is, perhaps, best understood as a manifestation of the fear faced by every father that his kids will go to school and lose all sense of right and wrong, that they will be brainwashed by their peers and professors into letting trendy notions of oppression and privilege blind them to far simpler truths, like “eating people is bad.”

“Knock Knock,” meanwhile, revolves around confusion over the sexual revolution and the ever-present fear that one misstep will cost a father his family. Evan (Keanu Reeves, channeling late-stage Nic Cage) has the perfect life: a well-paying and intellectually satisfying job as an architect; kids who love him; an attractive wife who also happens to be an amazing artist; a nice, big home somewhere on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Roth takes us on a tour of the home in a series of lengthy shots, lingering on the photos in the hall. Love and happiness practically radiate off of them.

And those walls are defaced — figuratively and literally — by intruders Genesis (Lorenza Izzo, again) and Bell (Ana de Armas). They show up at Evan’s doorstep sopping wet, claiming to have been dropped off by a cab in the wrong neighborhood. He invites them in, offers them warm clothes and a cup of tea, and they repay his kindness with flirtation. It’s casual at first, with mutterings about the unnaturally restrictive nature of monogamy. They get more aggressive as the night goes along, until finally he succumbs to their charms.

And then the horror begins: they won’t leave, they destroy his wife’s art, they take him hostage and torture him, they threaten to reveal the preceding evening’s activities to his wife and, claiming to be underage, to the police. Finally, Evan snaps: after claiming to be a good person and being informed he’s still going to die for his transgressions, he vituperatively screams “You came to my house! You came to me! … What was I supposed to do?! … It was free pizza! It was free [expletive]ing pizza!” The coup de grace comes when, restrained in various ways, Evan tries to delete a Facebook video of the three of them en flagrante; he fat-fingers the phone and accidentally likes the post instead, sending up a mad howl to the heavens as he does so.

It is every man’s fear all wrapped up into one sweat-inducing package, a worry over weakness and an inability to maintain self control in the face of unfair temptation combined with a healthy hatred of technology’s potential to betray us. As the film’s tagline put it, “One night can cost you everything.”

And, of course, “Death Wish” is more or less the apotheosis of the Dad Horror subgenre. Bruce Willis stars as Paul Kersey, a doctor living in the Chicago suburbs; his wife is murdered and daughter put in a coma during a home invasion. Frustrated by his inability to safeguard his family and stymied by a justice system either unable or unwilling to do what it takes to keep safe him and those like him, Kersey grabs a gun, takes to the streets and protects the preyed-upon. Having failed his closest kin, Kersey becomes a father figure of sorts for everyone who needs defending: he intercedes when men aggressively catcall a woman; he stops a random carjacking; he takes out a dealer who shoots children that refuse to distribute drugs.

Horror often has a reactionary streak, one that exists in delightful tension with the transgressive nature of the onscreen imagery. Roth’s recent run vividly brings to life the concerns of those who worry society has spun wholly out of control, people who believe that the crazies have taken over college campuses, people who believe the sexual revolution has rendered the world confusing or unfair, people who believe we don’t do enough to allow people to defend themselves from harm.

In other words: Dads.

And while it would be a mistake to take Eli Roth’s variety of Dad Horror as a straightforward reflection of society as it exists, it’s strangely comforting to have someone as frightening and funny as Roth suggesting that, at the very least, others out there share our fears.