Are we sick of being scared, or just scared of being sick?
That’s the question posed by the mild box office returns for “Hostel: Part II,” which may be the most repellent horror film ever to sneak into the marketplace with an R rating. No need to weep for the financial future of its writer-director, Eli Roth: His modestly budgeted $10 million film, revisiting the Slovakian torture chamber featured in the first “Hostel,” is guaranteed to make a healthy profit after foreign markets and DVD rentals and sales.
Lauren German, Roger Bart, Heather Matarazzo, Bijou Phillips, Richard Burgi, Vera Jordanova, Jay Hernandez
(Lionsgate; US theatrical: 8 Jun 2007 (General release); 2007)
Yet the early “Hostel: Part II” numbers suggest that we may be on the cusp of a new cycle in the contemporary horror genre, something with a little more fright and a little less lingering sadism.
“It’s too early to tell, but there probably is a glut of horror films right now,” says David Schwartz, chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, N.Y., where a retrospective of 1970s horror and contemporary blood feasts ranging from “I Spit On Your Grave” to “The Host” continues through July 22.
Schwartz points out that the new generation of so-called Splat Pack horror directors draws inspiration from the best of the `70s horror practitioners, among them David Cronenberg, Wes Craven, John Carpenter and the Italian master Dario Argento. “The new films,” he says, “are very much inspired by the old ones.”
Yet there is a difference, and not just in the hairstyles. “Hostel: Part II” is a distant psycho cousin at best to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” one of the most profitable of the American independents of the `70s as well as one of the most interesting. Director Tobe Hooper’s film holds up unnervingly well. It’s a cackling nightmare, less explicit in its cruelties than the title suggests but compelling to the end, when Leatherface dances his “Seventh Seal” dance of death.
They had faces then. Every sequel and remake and riff on the 1974 original has amped up the gore without coming close to re-creating the gut punch of Hooper’s grunge classic.
The best of the 1970s horror pictures, like the best of the new century’s crop planted in `70s soil, remind us that horror is nothing without risk and transgression. Even before film itself, gore has provided a chief ingredient in the horror tradition. The 16th and 17th century tragedies of the English stage explored cannibalism (Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus”) and came up with some real lulus in the killing and maiming department. Cyril Tourneur’s “The Atheist’s Tragedy” (1611) contains the following stage direction for the character of the executioner, on the verge of a beheading: “As he raises up the axe (he) strikes out his owne braines, (and then) staggers off the scaffold.”
The play is seldom revived. Similarly, no one revives the short, sharp shocks staged by Le Theatre du Grand Guignol, founded in 1894 and offering Paris audiences a variety of strangulation and blinding and impromptu brain surgery until 1962. The theater’s last artistic director claimed that real-life horrors rendered the Grand Guignol irrelevant. Before the Holocaust, he said, “everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible.”
Building on the 1970s horror boom, the contemporary horror genre is richer and more varied than a lot of filmgoers realize. Nonetheless two franchises in particular, “Saw” (No. 4 coming soon) and “Hostel” (No. 2, and you can take that any way you like, currently in theaters), have made their hay on mutilation and an increasingly soulless focus on torture, giving rise to phrases such as “torture porn” and “gorno” (gore porn).
Last year, 23 horror pictures played movie screens nationwide. In 2007 that number will nearly double, and already the law of diminishing returns has eaten away at the profitability of most of them. Some horror films this spring have been terrific - “28 Weeks Later,” an extraordinarily bloody zombie thriller done with real panache, comes to mind - and some have been ridiculous and overbudgeted and un-scary, such as the Hilary Swank vehicle “The Reaping.” But a weariness has settled over the entrails-splattered multiplex screens.
Many horror fans of a certain age feel increasingly out of touch with the “Saw” and “Hostel” crowd. Last year’s U.S. release of the British film “The Descent,” a gripping thriller about cavers and mutant flesh-eating cave-dwelling monsters, fared only moderately well, as did the equally sharp Korean monster movie “The Host.” As did “28 Weeks Later,” the sequel to “28 Days Later.”
Part of the appeal of “Saw” and “Hostel” is their so-called reality: No monsters here, just inhuman nastiness for fun and profit. These films are marked by a monomaniacal focus on the job at hand: the “kills,” as “Hostel” writer-director Roth calls them. The audience demands kills. “You have to satisfy that,” he told 411mania.com. “If you don’t, people are going to feel ripped off.”
Maybe so. It may be that Roth, like the `70s directors he admires, will develop into a grown-up filmmaker someday. For now he’s stuck in a depressing game of one-upmanship with the “Saw” boys. They’re torturing each other with the cinematic equivalent of practical jokes. Yet the sight of Heather Matarazzo, weeping in agony as she dies a slow death bleeding all over an orgasmic tormentor in “Hostel: Part II,” doesn’t work as Grand Guignol or “serious” fright or anything. It’s insidious and empty.
Even Schwartz of the Museum of the Moving Image sounds ambivalent about Roth. While crediting the filmmaker with being “able to make smart movies that `deliver,’” he acknowledges that he has “a lot of mixed feelings when watching `Hostel: Part II.’ ... It’s not exactly clear what Eli Roth is saying. I don’t know exactly what he’s saying.”
“The genre of horror is so primal,” Schwartz says. “It gets at what watching and making films is all about. There’s a fascination at seeing the forbidden and watching things we’re not supposed to see, and the best horror has always punished and rewarded the audience at the same time.”
“Captivity” opens July 13. Imdb.com describes it this way: “A man and a woman awaken to find themselves captured in a cellar. As their kidnapper drives them psychologically mad, the truth about their horrific abduction is revealed.”
In August, we’ll be on the receiving end of Rob Zombie’s “extreme” remake of “Halloween.” These are but two horror offerings. We’ll see how the punishment-to-reward ratio in a crowded, self-cannibalizing horror market is holding up by the end of summer.