Saturday, October 22, 2011
I suppose there’s some virtue in showing revolting acts as revolting, and if nothing else, Eli Roth nails that segment of his tragically overreaching statement on globalization, the Hostel diptych. As Roth depicts it, torture is dehumanizing and sadistic, as well it should be. What’s more, his crassness keeps him from taking the easy way out, really challenging—insofar as such a film can—notions of deserved violence. Because the entitled hero-victims of Hostel are the ugliest Americans (and one Icelander) imaginable, laughing off any cultural experience and even throwing their weight around at a club—“I’m an American, I have rights!”—Roth gives us decidedly unsympathetic protagonists and then tortures them. The position is clear. Even these guys don’t deserve what’s coming (not that they’re warlords or something, either). There’s a parallel in Hostel: Part II where the torturer is trying to extract information from her victim. It shouldn’t work, as studies show, but it does, and not out of irresponsibility. It works to show the extreme: even if torture were efficacious, is it worth it?
There’s been some discussion lately about challenging yourself to sit through certain films like Salo or Irreversible. It seems to me that lately the horror supergenre has been held rapt not by terror of what’s to come or horror of what just happened but revulsion. Torture-porn, a term that fits the subgenre like an overly starched hand-me-down suit jacket it wouldn’t be caught dead wearing, isn’t about scaring you but revolting you, which is its own kind of endurance test but one that, for me, lacks the fun of anticipating a good scare. Incidentally, the other horror vogue, splatter, works a similar emotional angle. Like the B-movies I rail against, it’s mired in self-seriousness with nothing to counterbalance. It’s 100-proof melancholy. Hostel always struck me as something that would mostly have my stomach in knots for a couple hours, so when I say I finally watched them, I mean I rented the DVD for Hostel in the full sunlight of noon and watched Hostel: Part II sanitized for my protection on Syfy. It’s not much different from covering your eyes through the grossest parts and having your parents cover your eyes during the full frontal. Personally, I’ll take it. When are they airing Wolf Creek?
The grand guignol style weakens whatever topicality Roth is going for, because the obvious response is “CIA torture would look nothing like that.” But as horror, the Hostel films cleverly refute the afterschool morality of Halloween or the ‘80s slasher flicks. Innocence is no shield; only street smarts and a lot of luck can save you here, in—forgive me—a post-9/11 world. But there is hope, if only barely, and that’s a crucial distinction from the films of Michael Haneke or The Last House on the Left. The problem is what that hope represents. Because as near as I can tell, the primary point of Hostel isn’t to let a bunch of gorehounds dream up creative ways to autopsy living humans. The Hostel films are revenge fantasies. Whatever nonsense Roth says about blowback for America’s foreign misadventures, Hostel gives our protagonist every comical opportunity to get even with his tormentors, and by that point, who isn’t cheering him on? Run over those prostitutes or they’ll just lure more unsuspecting kids into the torture factory! Slit that guy’s throat or he’ll strike again! Catharsis doesn’t come from surviving. It comes from killing the bad guys. Are we still talking about geopolitics, Eli?
Demonlover has a few years and tons of style on the Hostel films, successfully navigating this labyrinthine (how long until I can use Assayasesque?) multinational corporate infrastructure that treats human beings like toys all through the haze of a good drug trip. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found Hostel: Part II much stronger than its predecessor, even with Derek Richardson’s wrenching performance, though both are tonally flat, blunt exaggerations whose cinematic style seems to rely entirely on drawing parallels, for instance, between an Amsterdam brothel and the torture factory (and a train, so . . . who knows what Eli Roth was trying to say with that). Part II follows in Demonlover’s footsteps, fleshing out the inhumanity of its capitalist enterprise and illustrating the impossibility of toppling such a powerful organization. A bunch of rich white guys bid on victims, a scene with all the rhythm and release of masturbation, not really caring that all this money they’re spending eviscerates—literally—actual human lives. The message is that everything is a game to the superwealthy, not least the running of the world, because they will always be insulated from real life as the rest of us experience it. Both Demonlover and Hostel: Part II are vertically integrated, but Assayas intellectualizes while Roth physicalizes. There’s a bold image at the end of the first Hostel of blood splattering across a crowd of bystanders. Provocation is Hostel’s greatest success, but the series’ impact is achieved with concision in a single frame: the grisly photo of Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi that greeted so many of us when we woke up Thursday morning.