The Hostel films, Eli Roth's babies, have always seemed repulsive to me, knowing them only as hyped horror films that literally look like simple dungeon torture. Knowing well who Roth is-- IE one twisted (and occasionally hilarious) soul, I have decided to avoid what I assumed would be a somewhat kinky, overly gorey and unflinching franchise. However, my weird mother in a particularly weird moment of hers rented the first Hostel out of curiosity, watched it, and told me about it later. Mother LIKED it, because she liked the moment of bloody revenge at the end. That's my mom, folks. Anyway, of course the torturous parts were not a big hit with her, and torture-horror has never been my thing so I never gravitated in that direction, especially after hearing the concept.
I did watch the original SAW, at my friend's insistance, and thought it was a decent thriller with some B-movie qualities. The contraptions featured in the original were not as abundant nor as celebrated and elborate as they were in the sequels, and I felt, though they were cruel and difficult to look at, they contributed to the punch of the story (like the "punishments" in Se7en, a far superior film). Anyway, the story itself was fine. Not amazing, but pretty good. Then, of course, they had to make the sequels. I only saw about half of the second film, which was wretched, gimicked, gross, and without focus, meandering around and completely wallowing in what made the first film a grabber- the traps. The film reveled in those scenes like any Terry Gilliam movie revels in dysotopian muck, and threw in the audience's face its ultimate purpose: to wallow in the terror of physical torture. With the SEVENTH SAW FILM out this year (that's right, guys. 7 whole SAW movies, meaning that about 14 hours or more of Jigsaw's stupid, bicycling puppet making people cut off their own appendages exists), I can only scratch my head and wonder how many times these audiences- BIG AUDIENCES- are willing to subject themselves to a front-row seat of of 5-8 characters per SAW film enduring a new and shocking horror device and usually coming to a nasty end, or at least a whole lot of cryinging, crying, squirming, screaming pain. Ugh. All this to say, Hostel and Saw really kicked off a new and creepy trend in very mainstream film: the "torture-porn" horror, something akin to dressed-up snuff.
I suppose most horror films are about torture in some sense, if you think about it. It might be Ghostface chasing around his whimpering, pop-culure savvy stabees, or the emotional/mental torture of Deborah Kerr at the hands of her ghosts. Are there people out there that get off on that? No doubt. However, this new genre erases any trace of subtlety, any metaphor for torture is gone, here there simply IS. It is horror in excess, a look at the most almost-ubbelievbly ugly side of the malice in man. No boogeymen in masks (though there is that blasted puppet....) just man punishing man, and despite Jigsaw's fancy footwork, it's always messy. Pure excess.
Now that I've said all that, I should say that I finally sampled the Hostel franchise yesterday, and was surprised to find that it did have some substance. I wasn't aware of the concept in context, and discovered it to be a very interesting exploration of an old idea, one that reminded me specifically of The Most Dangerous Game, about a hunter bored of hunting merely animals, and My Favorite Episode of "The Avengers," Murdersville. Very wealthy people purchase human beings through an organization called "Elite Hunting." Much like sex trafficking, this organization arranges it so that the highest bidder may torture and do away with their purchased person in the dungeon-like fort of EH, which is, of course, in Slovakia. EH mostly preys upon backpackers who are just unlucky enough to fall into their trap.
I opted to skip the original Hostel, and after seeing a short article in Entertainment Weekly praising the sequel, I watched Hostel 2, which tells two converging stories: that of the hunter and the hunted, the former being the most interesting. The first hour of Hostel 2, and much of the movie, is well-made, dark, and almost Hitchcockian in its doom-- as we follow three girls through Slovakia and see the shady connections they make the audience knows it's only a matter of time before they get taken (oh Liam Neeson, where are you when we need you??). Therefore the film is only creepy until about an hour in, in which one of the girls gets slaughtered (by a female, Bathory-inspired client) in a scene that I skipped through, but which I could tell was excessively, almost humorously bloody (IE what Eli Roth does best..). After the girls are finally enslaved an the rich guys show up to do their thing, the movie does get nasty, unfortunately, though thankfully only gross and not incredibly finger-nail rippingly graphic (none of the other scenes were like what I saw from the first girl's death scene). Anyway, all things considered, it's really a shame that the film makes that descent, and I feel that Roth's gross-out tendencies/sense of humor cloud and corrupt what could have been a pretty brilliant film thriller, and what I think is regardless a very interesting story and commentary. If the overtly gleeful boody-gore stuff were excluded (and I'm not saying it's gross because it's realistic-- it's not. it's generic, SAW style oh-look-severed-body-parts and intestines stuff), IE the elements that make this a bona fide horror film, the movie would be genuinely GOOD, or at least comparable to the elegant creepiness of a Hannibal movie.
The commentary that this film is making- or could be making if it weren't ew- is chilling. The very idea of Elite Hunting is terrifying. First, that man can be so premeditatively primal (and that there can be so many of these hunters). Second, the powerful theme of The All-Mighty Dollar being the one and only decision maker (whooo willll goooo and whooo will stayyyy). One of the best parts of the film shows a quick montage of Elite Hunters-- rich men in their typical environments- around the globe checking their messages to find updates on the "new merchandise" and starting their bids. This is a reality not far from sex trafficking, and certainly similar to the snuff film industry (not that I know much about that in its present form, merely the idea that women are tortured and murdered in films marketed as pornography-- the most hardcore and obviously illegal pornography in existence). The most compelling element of H2 (that I'm not sure was in the original) is the question: "Who would do that?" We're shown this variety of psycho rich-men and this derranged woman who wants to bathe in blood, but they're as distant as villains in a comic-book, until we meet the other part of the Hostel story, the two rich men who are taking part in EH for the first time. One, a cold and completely deluded man, is in it for the pure bad-ass-ness of it, the idea that it will make him macho, and the other, far more sympathetic man, seems unstable and uncertain, dragged along by his sick pal. He's obviously feeling as though his masculinity has been trampled, and his macho buddy assures him that this will do the trick. It's their journey, all the way into the torture chamber that is really intriguing. "Are we sick?" the unstable one asks as they get in the car, on their way to play dungeon master. The other one snorts coke while assuring his buddy that they are "the normal ones." The sane ones, just keeping up with a world that is both primal and repressed.
Again, if it weren't for Eli Roth's fondness for the torture porn genre, which gets a good work-out here (what with older men torturing young, pretty girls), this could have been tweaked into something like Silence of the Lambs, something that critics and audiences could discuss with manners, but alas. Roth decides to make his point by almost making the audience the Elite Hunter, paying money to watch (weird) violence against women. Once again, we are (supposed to be) getting kicks out of watching people in deep agony. I guess that's supposed to make us wonder who the monster is, and that's interesting too, but ultimately a dangerous thing to unleash on the unsteady public-- it only continues the pattern of exploitation (torture porn) by marketing itself as a fun, kinda darkly funny thrill. It only promotes the ideas that it might condemn. Shame. There are some great ideas buried in there.