Friday, June 29, 2007

Hostel Part Two: A Thoroughly Enjoyable Revolting Horror Film

In The American Nightmare, I think it’s Carol J. Clover who makes the cleverly memorable comment that horror films are “boot camps for the soul,” in which, through surviving a process of ordeals, we emerge strengthened. In his Hostel films – in which the very rich pay for the right to murder young backpackers rounded up by an evil Slovakian hostel –Eli Roth seems to have found inspiration in this concept of horror: in both movies, initially decent, innocent characters with whom we identify are toughened up - even made sadistic – by the course of events, having learned a trick or two from their captors. When Paxton performs the final murder in the original Hostel – killing a victimizer, of course, since he’s the “good guy” – he is not the same horny, affable, ugly American youth we meet at the beginning of the film; he even tortures his tormenter in much the way he was tortured, cutting off two of his fingers. This all riffs, of course, off the transformation the film makes in its viewers; by suffering along with Paxton and his less fortunate comrades, we too are (ahem) “empowered” to use the violence that has been used on us – sorta like the scrawny kid who, bullied in grade two, becomes a bully in grade four. So much for taking down the master’s house with the master’s tools.

I didn’t like the first Hostel much. An equal mix of tits and carnage, it seemed fundamentally reactionary, and suggested – at a time of tensions between the US and Europe over support for US actions in Iraq, including the torture of prisoners – that Americans were currently victims of torture, not perpetrators, unfairly singled out by Europeans, who were the real sadists. A bizarre transference of guilt, really – ridiculous bullshit. It made for an amusing spin on American self-importance (and provided an accurate reflection of the level of anti-Americanism in the world at that time) that the right to kill Americans at the murder resort fetched a premium, but given that the ending of the film has Americans fighting back, using violence to counter that anti-Americanism – well, I couldn’t get behind it much. Blood-spattered and troubled flag-waving is still flag waving, even if you have to dig a bit to get at it.

To my surprise, I like the second Hostel film very, very much. It vastly expands on the simple plot of the original, telling the story both from the point of view of the intended victims – in this case, a trio of girls – and from the would-be victimizers (two brothers from America, who fly out because the older one of the two wants to help his emasculated sibling and because he thinks he’ll acquire an edge in corporate meetings, if he’s killed someone; nice that Americans are the evildoers here, and that the hostel simply services them). We also get to meet the Hannibal Lecter-esque founder of the resort and to spend a little time getting to know its employees, who seem distressingly like people “just doing their job” everywhere in the world (bored and semi-competent). Such fleshings-out make the film a tad more believable than the first, and the various brilliant little details that we’re treated with keep us wholly engaged with the film on the level of craft. When a severed head in a box is brought as a gift to one of the evil, powerful people at the upper end of Hostel’s food chain, we see the box being delivered as reflected in the man’s sunglasses. When, in a grotesque run-up to one of the torture scenes, a young and very vain woman, about to be tortured, is “prepared” for the client in a makeup room, Roth sets her in front of a Hollywood makeup mirror rimmed with lightbulbs, as a, shall we say, cutting commentary on the culture of glamour. Even the opening sequences, where the diary, photos, and postcards acquired from one past victim are thrown into a furnace to dispose of any evidence of her passing, have a creepy brilliance to them – showing us the burning away of sentimentality and innocence, as part of the transformation Roth’s cinema proposes to engineer in us. There’s also a perversely brilliant and all-too-real auction scene, where you get to watch a variety of unwholesome rich assholes bidding via palm-pilot for the right to murder our three heroines; bizarrely, you may find yourself rooting for certain characters to win, as if our own masochistic vanity requires a suitably attractive murderer. None of this makes the film brilliant, but it does make it very watchable, a well-crafted and creepy experience.

The most interesting aspects of the film cannot be delved into at length without spoiling the story, though. It is NOT reducible to a defence of American violence, however; it barely touches on the US-versus-the-rest-of-the-world paranoia that made the first film so objectionable, focusing instead on the current state of affairs between men and women (and men and men – it contains some very interesting peeks into the darker corners of the male psyche). It's even more interesting for doing this while provoking interesting meditations on class hierarchy and privilege. Europe IS figured as the source of our hierarchical value-system which allows the rich to exploit others, and there's a costumed bacchanalia that suggests that there has always been a dark underside to our traditions and cultures, which horror movies - or murder resorts - partake in -- but neither of these things serve to displace US guilt; rather, we are reminded that our cultural roots ARE European, even if Americans are more "businesslike" in their figuring of hierarchy, and, by virtue of forgetting their history and ancestry, can pretend to greater innocence... The squeamish can rest assured that there is only one scene that is nearly impossible to sit through comfortably, a very literal bloodbath that conclusively lays to rest any claims to innocence that the audience might make. In a time when mainstream fare seldom addresses issues of class and shies well clear of feminism, Hostel 2 is provocative and pleasing to see – a nicely liberal corrective for the prior film, in many ways, even if, once again, we emerged hardened. Toughening us up to fight critics of America is very different matter from toughening us up to not be victimized by the rich and privileged.

Spoiler alert – that’s the best goddamn castration scene I’ve ever seen, too; it makes even I Spit on Your Grave look pretty tame by comparison. I absolutely love that the dog handler tries to stop his dog from... well, anyhow...

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