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Tuesday, Jun 12, 2007


(Part One of this two part piece can be found HERE)


It’s clear that Eli Roth’s Hostel series is designed to push buttons. It uses easily recognizable elements - young people alone, international naiveté, the unknown evils of the former Iron Curtain – as components for a combination slice and dice splatter film and sly social commentary. But some have sensed that Roth is more misguided than masterful in creating his corrupt fright fests. While the complaints about the original film focused solely on the gore and brutality, gender has been added to the Part II prototype. As a result, the rabid reaction from critics and commoners has positioned this sequel as the worst cinematic example of violence against females ever attempted. Sadly, such a conclusion is not educated, but instead based purely on personal preference and perception.


It all starts in Hostel: Part II’s second act. Reminiscent of the famous legend surrounding the Blood Countess Elizabeth Báthory, the death of our dour, sensitive wallflower Lorna is what has most detractors of Roth up in arms. Up front, they are disturbed by the pseudo-sexual nature of the crime. Hung upside down and naked, actress Heather Matarazzo is featured topless and terrified. As preparations are being made for the soon to arrive ‘customer’, the young actress puts on a clinic of stifled sobs and desperate cries. Suddenly, her killer arrives – a middle aged woman with more than a little experience exposed in her aged appearance. Obviously buying into the whole mythical “rejuvenation” aspects of the Báthory story, she sits stark naked under the crying Lorna, and proceeds to tease her with an oversized scythe. Eventually, she stabs (unseen) and carves (seen) into the helpless girl’s body. As the craven claret covers her middle aged torso, our matron massages it into her flesh. It’s a horrific sequence, one made even more impactful by the performance from Matarazzo and the directorial flourish shown by Roth.


Because of its snuff film strategies, the combination of real and blood lust, and the overall viciousness of the attack, many in the media have decided that such a scene demands condemnation. In fact, many are convinced it’s the most awful atrocity committed against women onscreen in the history of the motion picture. The outright ludicrousness of such a statement aside, these self-professed experts are just plain wrong. Here, as a refresher, are a collection of titles that are far worse in their treatment of females, as well as the use of violence against women as a means of making movie macabre (the following is by no means all inclusive):


Psycho, Scrapbook, Blood Feast, Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, Suspiria, Frenzy, Peeping Tom, Last House on the Left, Make Them Die Slowly (Cannibal Ferox), Cannibal Holocaust, Gates of Hell, I Spit on Your Grave, The Virgin Spring, Maniac, Tenebrae, Don’t Go In the House, Bloodsucking Freaks, The Gore-Gore Girls, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Opera, The Hills Have Eyes (both original and update), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, The Ilsa Movies, The Olga Movies, The Flesh Trilogy, The Friday the 13th Franchise, The Stendhal Syndrome, Se7en, Straw Dogs, The Death Wish Series, Jackson County Jail.


Clearly, Roth is not the first male filmmaker to use gender as a measure of cinematic vileness. In fact, the first Hostel is based clearly on the notion of twisting archetypes for the sake of invention. But it also belies an interesting conceit. In that first film, two young Slavic sluts are rundown by a car, one body so badly mangled it gets stuck under another vehicle’s frame. Yet these deaths are not lamented by haters of Roth’s ideas. Why? Because from all we learn about these evil mercenary whores, they deserve to die. They’ve set up our heroes (and hundreds of others like them) for the sake of a few dollars and some much needed drugs. They aren’t innocent and naïve. Unlike Lorna, who goes off with a fat foreign Romeo because he treats you like a goddess instead of a clod, they’re perverted and evil. Lorna’s only flaw is being too trusting, and her reward is getting garroted for the sake of some rich witch’s baneful beauty regiment. Right?


Wrong. There is nothing decidedly different in Lorna’s death vs. Josh’s in the original Hostel. All allusions to historical context aside, both she and he are mangled and murdered for no good reason. Yet somehow, when some viewers see Lorna die, their internal parenting protocol comes raging to the fore. Don’t call it a concern for humanity – a boy’s death is no different than a girl’s (and why, oh WHY does no one mention what happens to a grade school age CHILD during the course of Hostel: Part II’s narrative?). No, the old ridiculous psychosexual roles come immediately back into play, and Lorna is viewed as helpless, while Josh is merely reckless. People can point to the supposed erotic undercurrent, but that’s reading a great deal into a scene that is clearly presented for its splatter value. Besides, what does it say about the thinker when they argue that adolescent males will “get off” on such a sickening sequence?


In addition, only Whitney suffers a similar fate. Her face is cut with a buzzsaw, and she loses a patch of hair (and scalp) when it gets tangled in the mechanics (yes, it is noxious). But that’s it. Her eventually death occurs off camera, as part of a joke at the expense of the Elite Hunting Club’s surveillance team. Compared to what happens to Paxton (stabbed multiple times with a gardening tool, fingers sheered off by an errant chainsaw), she gets off metaphysically easy. In direct comparison to its predecessor, Hostel: Part II’s killings are succinct and to the point. Beth endures the most psychologically damaging situation as she has to play cat and mouse games with Stuart to save her life. She’s beaten, almost raped, and confronted by Sacha’s men before her undeniable wealth saves her. Told she must also take a life to be freed, she makes an immediate beeline for her capture’s manhood.


Which brings up an interesting dichotomy. In 2002, French filmmaker Gaspar Noé caused an international sensation when his film Irreversible featured a nine minute realistic rape scene that had many audience members running for the exits. While its artistic merits were bandied about, the outcry for his incontrovertible crime against women was never as loud as that for Roth. The reason why is obvious – first, Hostel: Part II is part of the most easily marginalized and dismissed genre in all of motion pictures: the horror film. It’s a long standing scholarly bias, one that argues for the categories disposability as a credible form of cinematic expression. Almost always reconsidered in retrospect (imagine the reaction of critics who climbed all over Tobe Hooper’s Chainsaw to see it heralded today), the fright film is, to most, incapable of creative vitality. So anything it offers is pragmatically pointless.


And let’s not forget the snooty arthouse factor. Irreversible was indeed viewed as confrontational and repugnant, but because it represented an experimental effort, highly improvised and shot in an unusual manner, the repugnance of the rape was contextually compromised. In essence, if Roth was any other homemade horror addict, creating his craven delights in the basement of his parent’s home with a group of friends, the uproar would be limited by logistics. But because he is making a mainstream scarefest as part of the Summer Movie season, he’s open to outright attack. True, the images and elements at play in Hostel: Part II are not natural and do not represent the best that the medium of film has to offer. But if there is room for inexcusable violence against women in award winning dramas (The Accused) or foreign films, then horror should be able to do the same without facing increased scrutiny.


Again, there are far worse examples of what Roth is being condemned for. Take the aforementioned Texas Chainsaw film. Actress Marilyn Burns spends the final act of the film tied to a chair and abused both emotionally and physically by the diabolical Sawyer clan. She is beaten repeatedly in the head with a sledgehammer, cut severely with a straight razor, and eventually chased, bloody and insane, by a crazy man wielding the title power tool. Or how about David Lynch’s sickening send-off to his famous Twin Peaks series. Aside from the obvious sexual/incestual undercurrent, the infamous auteur languishes on Laura Palmer’s death in Fire Walk With Me, her bruised and battered face full of fear as her dad crushes her skull with a bolder. Throughout Wes Craven’s early career, his female leads are typically raped and murdered in particularly graphic fashion. Even the exploitation realm which started the entire taboo-busting side of cinema had Olga, Ilsa and Michael Findlay’s foul slasher start-up, the Flesh Trilogy to violate all kinds of interchangeable victims.


Of course, for every supposed outrage, there’s someone out there ready to complain about it. When Lynch presented a completely naked Isabella Rosalinni, scarred and scared, at the doorstep of Kyle McLaughlin in Blue Velvet, Roger Ebert was so appalled he accused it’s creator of being a soulless monster. Similarly, when I Spit on Your Grave took the entire rape/revenge element to new, nauseating heights, the well respected reviewer, along with his then partner in prostylitizing, Gene Siskel, decided to focus an entire show on women as the centerpiece of the scary movie slaughter ideal. Pointing to the overabundance of female deaths in the derivative slasher films, they made it sound like they had discovered something completely novel in the new post-modern movie dynamic. Sadly, as far back as one goes, gender has helped define the terms of terror. Even the early Universal monster movies used the so-called “weaker sex” as the object of evil’s unhinged desire.


If those who are complaining about Hostel: Part II are only up in arms because its girls, not guys, getting torn apart for the sake of shock value, then their “humanitarian” argument is hypocritical. Imagine the Lorna scene with a ‘Larry’ substituting for the victim and a middle aged MAN as the scythe wielding reprobate and see what kind of response you’d get. It’s the dirty little secret of this entire debate that gender determines reaction in a way that is antithetical to the overall concept. If you hate pointless brutality against any individual, sex doesn’t matter – not in perception, not in presentation. Death is death, and the reproductive organs of those being butchered are unimportant. Besides, looking back over the murders in both movies, one would dare say that the original Hostel is far more gruesome than the smattering of gore given in the sequel.


Still, there will be those who question all of Eli Roth’s intensions. To them, both movies are simply the same notes being hit on different masculine/feminine beats, and the entire girl angle of the series smacks of reprehensible personal depravity. Like most of the horror genre, it will be easily dismissed as the playground for perverts and those who get some manner of sick kicks out of the terrifying and torture of human beings. Like hardcore pornography, it is given over to a select group of weirdoes who can’t see the forest for all the blood and guts soaked trees. Unfortunately, such criticism is as narrow-minded and biased as any other position of intolerance. Hostel: Part II is not a mindless rip-off of its original narrative, nor is it the most violent movie concerning women ever created. Both ideas are simply shorthand for avoiding the whole horror as entertainment discussion. Until said situation can be settled once and for all, it will be motives, not the movies themselves, that will be constantly chastised and challenged.


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Monday, Jun 11, 2007


June is typically touted – both in song and maxim - as busting out all over, but when it comes to digital product headed to your local brick and mortar, this month is shaping up to be simply a bust. The release pattern appears to consist of one or two name titles per week, followed by dozens of unknown efforts and unnecessary double dips. Take this upcoming Tuesday. We get an intriguing thriller, a wannabe popcorn blockbuster, and a bunch of lesser offerings. That’s it. In fact, if it weren’t for the independent distributors and outsider creations, we’d have a real dearth of DVDs on the market. And it’s not getting better anytime soon. The next 20 days will see some intriguing titles from Criterion, and another few mainstream hits, but that’s about it. So mark your calendars well – every release date will be very similar to 12 June. Here’s hoping July turns the tide:


Breach


Flying in under the radar this past February (just in time for 300 to steal all the box office fire) this intriguing real life story of international intrigue and Cold War espionage deserved better. Featuring fine performances from Ryan Phillippe and Laura Linney, as well as an award worthy turn by Chris Cooper as the rogue FBI agent selling secrets to the Russians, what should have been a sleeper hit was unceremoniously dumped into cinema’s supposed dead zone – a.k.a. the spring. There, it languished, receiving excellent reviews and good word of mouth. Yet for some reason, it failed to become a substantive hit. Now, thanks to a rapid turnaround on DVD, fans of tense, taut thrillers can enjoy this intriguing effort from screenwriter (Flightplan, Suspect Zero) and director (Shattered Glass) Billy Ray. His is a career behind the camera worth following.

Other Titles of Interest


Charly’s Aunt


Successful radio (and then TV) talent Jack Benny never seemed to get a handle on big screen stardom. In this, the sixth adaptation of Brandon Thomas’s celebrated cross dressing stage play, the comedian plays the title character, a student in drag helping out his buddies in the chaperon department. Naturally, hilarious hi-jinx ensure in what ends up being one of Benny’s most well known and triumphant cinematic jaunts.

52 Pick Up


It’s based on an Elmore Leonard novel. It was directed by the always intriguing John Frankenheimer. It stars Roy Scheider and Ann-Margaret in some of their best work ever. So why isn’t this film heralded as a mid ‘80s classic? Well, for one thing, the era was too high concept for such an old fashioned noir. Second, the lack of a legitimate DVD release limited its appreciation – until now.

Ghost Rider: Extended Edition


While not the worst comic book hero movie ever made, this take on the Devil’s diabolical bounty hunter is highly reminiscent of the recent string of studio-hindering hackwork that the genre has become known for. Star Nicholas Cage and writer/director Mark Steven Johnson obviously wanted to impart some quirk into the character, but the suits needed to satisfy the bean counters. Thus we have this amazing looking movie that’s lacking a serious superhero soul.

Primeval


It was promoted as a serial killer flick. Turned out, the title terror was a rogue crocodile eating people in South Africa. What a gyp! Anyway, critics weren’t confused by what they saw unfold onscreen. Many called it a below average ‘when animals attack’ effort with too little story and too much blood. That seems to sum it up quite well. For lovers of the creature feature end of the genre only.

Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girl


Continuing his commercial cottage industry sans his amazing Medea character, raconteur Tyler Perry delivers this interesting take on single parenthood and cultural class standing. Without the whacked out mother figure at the center of the story, the humor is more subtle and based around the interaction with children. Some will find its heart in the right place. Others will lament the lack of a delirious drag dimension.



And Now for Something Completely Different
Sex Hex


While horror is constantly harangued for offering nothing but the same old thing, it’s actually the softcore sex romp that deserves said detrimental delineation. While the fright flick tries to use the genre basics to deliver differing fear factors, it’s nothing but nudity and naughtiness in these fake fornication fests. Sex Hex hopes to shake things up by adding Airplane! style spoofing to the mix, as well as keeping all the gratuity strictly girl/girl. When an erotic succubus strikes a California company, Carl the Cable Guy turns into a fearless vampire hunter to catch her. The result is a very silly, very Sapphic slice of pseudo-porn. While the actresses are a little on the plastic fantastic side of attractiveness, they sure do enjoy their lesbian loving. The result is a DVD bound to tickle much more than just your funny bone.

 


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Sunday, Jun 10, 2007


I’m sure he expected vitriol. Maybe he even welcomed a little of it. Controversy sure spins the turnstiles. But nothing could have prepared Eli Roth for the advanced word on his recently released sequel to the successful horror film Hostel. One critic questioned his humanity, even going so far as to state publicly that, upon finally meeting the man, he would refuse the offer to shake his hand. Ouch! Then there are the neo-con calls for boycotts and censorship, arguing that “trash” like this only glorifies the death and defilement of young women. Granted, it’s a shortsighted argument, but a very effective one in our touchy feely mindset. You see, it’s all about the chicks, man. That’s what’s got everyone in an uproar. Stick a bunch of horny teen boys in a slice and dice slasher flick centering around an Eastern European hostel from Hell and no one screams. But change the gender dynamic, and it’s the latest example of filmmaking excess.


For many Hostel: Part II is a non-issue. It’s a horror film, fulfilling the questionable thrill seeking needs of a particularly narrow dynamic. To them, the genre itself has very little going for it artistically, and those rare films that break out of the categories mold of mediocrity to become certified cinematic classics – the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, etc. – are the anomalies in a field overflowing with filmic offal. As a result, most mainstream critics avoid it, while the marketing makes it clear that the adolescent teen demo is the target for such shock value. All in all, it is easy to dismiss, the typical carnival barking of an otherwise pointless motion picture ideal. But there is another facet to this film’s outright rejection – and it has very little to do with its effectiveness as a shocker, a splatter fest, or a social commentary. No, this aspect of the argument goes to the very heart of how people interact with their entertainment media of choice.


Looking over the isolated discussions of Roth’s return to his previous success, two main complaints arise. The first is also the most ridiculous – that all he offers in Hostel: Part II is more of the same. Anyone with half a brain and a real knowledge of what this filmmaker did in his original film would instantly deride such a preposterous suggestion. Still, by viewing both efforts back to back, we will see how incredibly sloppy such a suggestion is. The second disparagement is equally ludicrous, but goes to an issue much more culturally complex. To listen to the pundits and self-described purveyors of taste, Roth has offered up the most misogynistic film ever. He degrades women in ways that few, if any, have done before, and mixes the sexual with the sickening to further his gangrenous goals of sensationalism. Sadly, such a view ignores 50 years of moviemaking and illustrates that, in many cases, these objections are based on the source’s own desire for glory, not a realistic grasp of motion picture reality.


Let’s take the first point, shall we - that Roth is merely repeating himself. Again, that’s a completely bogus attack. The first Hostel centered on a group of teenage
boys backpacking across Europe looking for sex, drugs…and more sex. They find themselves in Amsterdam partaking of cheap booze and readily available marijuana. When the female element fails them, a Slovakian student suggests they head to an inn in his homeland. There, he says, there are hundreds of willing women, and, as Americans, they can do pretty much anything they want to them. The lure of easy companionship sends the boys to the Eastern Bloc. There, they check into the youth accommodations, meet some incredibly hot to trot honeys, and begin their descent into debauchery. Now, for those who have not seen the film, and may be eager to do so some time in the future, a SPOILER ALERT is now offered. From this point on, we will be dealing with major plot points and scare reveals.


Our three men are separated one night, with two (Josh and Paxton) waking up to wonder where their friend has gone. Turns out, he has become the first victim of something called The Elite Hunting Club. A rich person’s permutation of The Most Dangerous Game, it’s an organization that allows the wealthy to spend obscene amounts of cash in pursuit of the ultimate taboo – the taking of another human life. The factory facilities that house this horror show offer the clientele any number of death dealing options – power tools, surgical equipment, firearms, old fashioned torture devices. All the paying customer has to do is choose his personal ‘poison’ and start the slaying. Soon, Josh is kidnapped and killed, his body used by a wannabe doctor as a kind of fresh cut cadaver. Paxton investigates his pal’s disappearance, and it’s not long before he’s being sliced up by a nervous German with a chainsaw. Managing to escape, he saves an Asian girl, gets out of Slovakia, and even manages some revenge on the deviant who vivisected his friend.


Arguing the merits over the movie is one thing (this critic happens to believe it’s an important horror classic), but to say that Hostel: Part II is exactly the same is pure and utter crap. The differences are so painfully obvious that you have to believe Eli Roth sat down with his original script and decided to fashion a completely contradictory take. Sure, this time around we focus on three girls instead of three boys, but this is not where the differences end. No, this movie is purposefully out to fill in the gaps left by the original narrative, plus provide some incredibly novel twists on the whole women in peril dynamic (more on this later). Our Hostel: Part II leads are not really looking for sex and pharmaceutical thrills – they’re students studying abroad. Looking for a little relaxation outside their Rome routine, they take the advice of an attractive artist’s model named Axelle and head to a Slovakian spa. Naturally, their accommodations are the title tenement. 


Our trio is like sketches out of an archetypal coed guidebook. Beth is rich, so much so that she keeps her Dad on an allowance. Whitney is an international skank, but she also seems centered and sensitive to her raucous reputation. Lorna is the Sylvia Plath of the bunch, lost in her own world of wounded self-doubt, but capable of bursting out of her carefully crafted cocoon now and again. That we know more about these ladies is one of Roth’s new conceits. In the first film, our heroes are differentiated by size (tall, medium, muscular) and appearance (light, medium, and dark). We learn very little about their lives save for Paxton’s discussion of a young girl’s drowning and Josh’s mending of his recently broken heart. The guys have goals (lawyer and writer) but we don’t get much more meat than this. Before long, they’re ‘under the knife’, so to speak.


Similarly, before the girls are served up for their sickening purpose, we are introduced to the behind the scenes situations of the Elite Hunting Club. We learn of Sacha, the principle organizer and his connections to the corporate world. When our heroines check in, their image is immediately flashed across PDAs, cellphones and laptops worldwide. Rich individuals with a decidedly depraved outlook start a manic bidding frenzy, using the lives of these young girls like so much highly prized commodities. The winners are beyond excited. The losers are downcast and depressed. Unlike the original Hostel, which showed this killer’s club as a kind of underground den of unspeakable inequity, Roth revamps the idea, turning it into the ultimate escape for the overworked, overstressed CEO.


In this regard, we are also introduced to Stuart and Ben. The former is a slightly sheepish man with family issues. The latter is a pumped up powerbroker who believes that murder makes a man more threatening – even if only ephemerally. They have won two of the gals in our story, and are traveling to Slovakia to meet their manifest destiny. All of this material is new to the Hostel mythology. The original movie had the psychotic surgeon in training and nothing else. We learned a little about him (his love of things tactile, as well as his daughter) but there is not as big a backstory. No, Stuart and Ben come to represent two very intriguing concepts in Hostel: Part II. Without giving it all away, it boils down to what makes a man, and what eventually emasculates him.


This all leads to the most talked about element in Hostel: Part II – the death of our leads. Again, to avoid ruining the movie for those still interested, here’s another SPOILER WARNING. Unlike the first film, which offered at least a dozen on screen kills (some in very gruesome and graphic detail), this time around Roth gives us only three. Granted, another four (or five) occur, but they happen mostly off screen, without so much as a simple special effect to illustrate their dread. Only Lorna, Stuart and Axelle are shown being horrifically tortured and killed, and even then, only the first two have particularly nauseating deaths. In the case of our snooty model, she’s beheaded in a last act in-joke. Stuart has his gender literally removed when his penis is cut off. Lorna, on the other hand, becomes our first female victim, and it’s her disturbing death that’s causing all the clamor.


Quite clearly, these two movies are not “exactly” alike. They both take different routes to reach similar ends, and both are derivative of their creator’s desire to explore the premise he perfected in the first film. Indeed, the notion of a 180 degree reimagining of the original Hostel is so obvious as to be more than crystal clear. In the first, male machismo leads to hormonally charged happenstance – and death. In the sequel, female intuition constantly wins, but only as far as the dominating male Id will allow it. In the end of the original Hostel, brawn and bravery triumph. At the conclusion of the revisit, sensitivity and female cunning allow the tables to be turned. When meshed together, both Hostels become a complete whole, a look at both sides of the sexism coin and how it affects dread. If it weren’t for all the false bravado and public policy kvetching from the wannabe watchdogs, these films would be celebrated as such. In the future, perhaps they will be.


In Part Two, (scheduled for Wednesday, 13 June) we will discuss the death of Lorna, the entire “violence against women” angle, and how complaints about its blatant brutality fail to take into consideration the entire history of horror – or the other half of gender humanity.


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Saturday, Jun 9, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This week: A pair of low rent exposés try to out shock everyone’s favorite suburban sleaze fiend, the amazing Joe Sarno.

The ‘60s were a literal godsend for the exploitation business. Thanks to a liberated libido, and a social acceptability to explore same, the demographic that kept the grindhouse going was sampling the twisted taboos that the genre was designed to explore. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the growing swingers scene that seemed to define the era. Beginning as part of the white flight colonization of the suburbs, the notion of bored marrieds trading spouses for the sake of forbidden pleasures had all the makings of considered cosmopolitan cool. It was a sign of sophistication as much as sexual revolt, and the overriding mantra of “if it feels good, do it” became a carnal clarion call for an entire meat and martini generation.


Perhaps the best cinematic explorer of this ribald realm was, and remains, Joe Sarno. Before moving on to softcore pseudo-porn (where he made his biggest impact), the king of conservative kink made several outstanding films, naughty narratives providing as much social commentary as abundant bared flesh. With titles like Sin in the Suburbs, The Swap and How They Make It, Passion in Hot Hollows and Flesh and Lace Sarno’s efforts saw everyday people exploring the outer regions of erotic acceptability for the thrill of something new and nasty. In addition, his distinctive style, filled with static tableaus, evocative dialogue, and languid scenes of inferred desire, became a benchmark for those hoping to match his highly charged efforts. Sadly, few could follow in his footsteps, not only because they lacked Sarno’s talent. In fact, the problem was much more complicated than mere mediocrity.


Case in point – the Something Weird Video release for June 2006. A dandy double feature, both Unholy Matrimony (1966) and My Third Wife, George (1968) want to blow the lid off the entire multi-partner paradigm of those successful explorers of the arousing. Matrimony actually uses the swinger underworld as the basis for its investigative journalism storyline, while George is merely a comedy of couplings. All digital context aside – and here we get wonderful archival and educational shorts, a collection of terrific trailers, even a sneak peek at the Florida film industry of the time – these films generally fail to fully explore the potential sizzle of the scenes they are reflecting. But what they lack in wanton wickedness they more than make up for in delightfully dated diversions.


Unholy Matrimony

After getting his behind handed to him by a hired goon, magazine editor Jim Bremmer decides that there must be more to the whole ‘wife swapping’ idea than meets the eye. He determines that there’s blackmail involved, and where there’s extortion, the ‘syndicate’ can’t be too far behind. He convinces his ace reporter Al Gentry to take on the story (with the help of a healthy $5K bonus). Bremmer wants the dirt on the couples who let boredom beget even stranger bedfellows. Of course, he’ll need a gal to go along with the ruse and, ever the gentleman, Al offers up his apparently willing paramour Janice. Things start out fine as the newly named ‘swingers’ pose for provocative photos (with Bremmer acting as position coach!), but when the first couple they contact takes things a little too far, Jan wants out! It takes a weekend at the beach before she’s willing to move on to the next perverted pair. Eventually, all risqué roads lead to an overweight Texan who uses his various inside sources to prove that your typical husband
and wife are involved in some very Unholy Matrimony.


Taking itself more seriously as a story than a skin flick, Unholy Matrimony is like a late comer to an orgy already well past its date stamp. It acts shocked at risqué antics that have long been explored (voyeurism, group gropes) and feels the need to justify its actions in the name of journalistic integrity and the people’s right to know. Granted, the blackmail angle is something rather original – more of an outgrowth of the entire notion of sex as a secret shame than actual reality - but once Al and Janice hit the road as our carnal couple, each set up is like a limp low rent rationale. Besides, there has to be a better way to flush out the criminal element in a nationwide muscle racket than getting an oily middle aged reporter and his bosomy babe to play sleaze seekers. Remember – all of this was supposed to seem novel, perhaps even disturbing, to the regular raincoat crowd. Unfortunately, like those long ago talks about the birds and the bees with your parents, the patrons probably knew a Helluva lot more than the players on the screen.


Then there’s the issue of the performances. Allan Delay, who essays our intrepid newshound, is like a bottle of vodka-laced Vitalis come to life. Hair slicked in a strange cake frosting coiffure and face apparently carved out of near-beer cheese, his smile resembles an eel’s slimy surface. More times than not, he looks more perverted than the people he’s investigating. On the other hand, the actress playing Janice is given a one note performance pattern – complain while playing extremely hard to get. At first, we figure she’s going to be a nice nubile edition to the story. Pendulous in all the right ways, the minute she drops blou we’re in mammary heaven. But she then starts the uncomfortable whining, and it’s not long before we never want to see her topless again. Besides, she signed up for a job playing swinger with a man she regularly rogers. What part of the set-up didn’t she understand? In the hands of unknown auteur Arthur John, there’s a freakish flatness to the entire proceedings. The only inventive element is a series of underwater shots during a nude poolside cavalcade. It helps to mask the mostly mediocre dialogue. As a look at elicit loving between consenting couples, Unholy Matrimony has its moments. As a pure proto-porn extravaganza, it’s missing some important bawdy beats.


My Third Wife, George

Ralph Higbee is a real sexual mess. Repressed by his domineering mother until his mid-‘40s, he’s a novice in the ways of guy/girl groovin’. When his wealthy mater finally passes, leaving him her massive estate and Florida mansion, Ralph decides to make up for all his non-erotic indiscretions. But things just haven’t turned out right. Sitting at a bar late one night, drowning his obvious sorrows, Ralph tells a couple of interested listeners about his sexual woes. First, while desperate to wet his wick, he ended up the main course in an all girl hippy pot/pill party. It really blew his mind – among other things. Then, in a stab at respectability, he married his former maid, Josephine. The only problem – she’d rather play around with her swimming instructor, and some dude dressed up like a gorilla. After her ‘accidental’ death, Ralph hitched up with his second spouse. But she was so sure he was having an affair that she hired a private eye to catch him in the act. Now on his third significant other, Ralph is miserable. His latest live-in lover is a green eyed monster. And if he’s not careful, our hero is convinced he’ll truly suffer at the hands of his Third Wife, George(?).


A real staple of the exploitation scene, William Kerwin (who plays the horny, henpecked Ralph) was a unique presence in the ‘50s and ’60s. Balancing a career as a legitimate actor with his gratuitous grindhouse efforts, he could play straight (Blood Feast) or seedy (the nudist romp Sweet Bird of Aquarius) with ease. Working frequently with the legendary Herschell Gordon Lewis, he remains the perfect illustration of the leering, longing Establishment male. Even when he tried to act cool or overly sophisticated, he came across like a cartoon cocktail napkin come to life. So his presence here is a perfect panacea for what is, in essence, rather half-baked bawdiness. Helping out his brother Harry (and, from the credits, what appears to be the entire Kerwin clan), wild Willy gives the kind of bug-eyed goofball performance that’s more vaudeville than viable. Indeed, we are witness to one sloppy slapstick sequence after another. If Ralph isn’t getting hit in this hinder with a saber (during his daily fencing lesson), he’s running around like an idiot trying to capture his companions in compromising positions. In between, there’s lot of double entendres, suggestive repartee, and outright carnal come-ons. Indeed, the script could be studied for ways of suggesting sex without actually calling it same.


Too bad the rest of the movie is so routine. The minute Ralph steps into the hippie chicks den, we know we’re in for one overlong bout of fake fornication – no matter if its one girl or three. Apparently recorded without sound, we are left with Kerwin’s incessant narration to drain all the sizzle out of the sequence. There’s plenty of perky pulchritude on display, but everything in My Third Wife, George is played for laughs, not lewdness. Similarly, the sections with Josephine are all tease and very little sleaze. Actress Erika Von Zaros is capable, but the filmmaking foils her at every erotic avenue. By the time we get to the title twist, we’ve decided that it really doesn’t matter. We’d prefer to see more of slick private dick Brad Grinter (the notorious mastermind behind the killer turkey treasure Blood Freak) relaxing at the bar with an everpresent Kool in his mitts. As a comedy, My Third Wife, George is occasionally funny, but it’s diddling is far from definitive. Indeed, as with its companion piece in double feature presentation, there is more excitement in the premise than in the eventual follow through. Perhaps in the hands of big bad Joe Sarno, these movies would moan as good as they groan. But for the most part Unholy Matrimony/My Third Wife, George are second tier pseudo-smut at best.


 


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Friday, Jun 8, 2007


What do you do when the sensation of sex no longer satisfies? What are your options when the adrenaline rush and power of money (and making same) no longer fill the void? Do you simply sit back and wait for the inevitable heart attack, stress striking all viable organs until your Type-A lifestyle eventually kills you? Or do your take matters of life and death into your own hands and use all that pent up aggression as an excuse for dabbling in the darker side of life? If you’re the super-successful business types prowling around the edges of international legality and human morality in Eli Roth’s amazing Hostel Part II, you join an exclusive social club that caters in human flesh as the way to fulfill those fiendish fetishes. And Heaven help the young people being bid on as the murderous means of such psycho-erotic release. 


Roth’s original Hostel, a vision of Europe as one big urban legend and Americans as the ugly within it, continues to stand as one of the most important horror films of the last ten years. Brutal in its vision while equally effective in its subtext, it woke up a waning genre and proved that gore could be both viable and visceral. It even created its own categorical catchphrase – “violence porn” – that has come to define any film where innocents are horrifically used and abused for their value as medical commodities (Turistas) or entertainment (Live Feed). Now mutated into all manner of sensationalized labels – ‘smut snuff’, ‘gorno’ – the inherent worth of Roth’s film has been superseded by media and public perception of a young, cocky filmmaker flaunting the mainstream to make his own craven, cruel statements.


Well thank GOD for that. It’s one thing to play nice in order to keep the PC thugs in check. It’s another to offer up nonstop brutality merely for the sake of shock. The original Hostel did neither, and the new film is even better at tempting taste while staying safely in the realm of reasonable dread dynamics. You’ll be hearing a lot of outcry over the next few weeks about this so-called cinematic abomination. There will be pundits and persons directly linked to the business of show who will argue for Roth’s lack of humanity and inner childishness, but those voices will be self-serving and self-congratulating. When it comes down to it, Hostel Part II is the near perfect sequel, a money mandated continuation that actually works as a companion piece to the original effort.


After wrapping up the last loose end from the previous picture, we are introduced to three young coeds studying abroad – rich girl Beth, spoiled skank Whitney, and depressed loner Lorna. Lured to a Slovakian spa by visiting artist’s model Axelle, the girls soon travel to the far ends of the Easter block, check in to the infamous title inn, and prepare to party and relax. Of course, the audience knows much, much better, and it’s not long before the gals are being bid on like sick corporeal commodities. Two participants in such depravity are Todd and his sheepish buddy Stuart. Traveling the world looking for the ultimate kicks, the pals have shared many deplorable experiences. But this one may be the icing on their desperately distorted cake. Todd sees committing murder as a way of improving your potential business acumen and ‘aura of danger’. Stuart has a far more suspect reason for this descent into murderous madness.


Still as shocking as ever, but more polished and perceptive this time around, Hostel Part II does a rather remarkable thing. Saddled with creating a follow-up to his first film, Roth avoids an actual redo. Instead, he obviously sat down with his original script and decided to fashion a 180 degree opposite take on the subject matter. Gone are the madcap moments of sex, drugs and gore-drenched debauchery. In their place are moments of real tension, suspense amplified by a better knowledge of the sinister circumstances, and killings that are quick, aggressive and highly disturbing. While the female angle is the most obvious twist (more on this in a moment), the real revelation is the creation of the Elite Hunting Club and its collection of corrupt membership. In Hostel, we got a fleeting glimpse of the creepy clientele, most notably an American with more moxie than manners. Here, we are introduced to a network of fiends, and head honcho Sacha who can easily be bought and sold, as long as the price is right.


Even better, Roth delves much deeper into the motives of his victims. Granted, he presents the trio as supersized stereotypes from the Big Book of Female Archetypes, but our wealthy woman isn’t some mean spirited snob, nor is our happy go lucky whore completely without moral fortitude. No, it’s Lorna (essayed by Welcome to the Dollhouse’s Heather Matarazzo) who lamentably plays the role of needy loner to its typically fatalistic ends, and it is here where Hostel Part II makes its first significant statement. In an attempt to keep the spoilers to a minimum, the infamous legend of ‘Countess Dracula’ (the Hungarian “blood queen” Elizabeth Báthory) gets the kind of horrifying update that will keep tongues wagging for weeks. Combining the worst elements of male fantasy and fright film referencing (there’s a noticeable nod to Angel Heart as well) this first major murder scene is destined to go down in movie macabre as the one of the most notorious – and to some, the most noxious.


Of course, said repulsed reaction is only coming from one place, and it’s not as well meaning and high minded as the critics would have you believe. Far worse things happened to the characters in the initial Hostel, and the outcry was not this intense or outrageous. In essence, the notion of gender equity doesn’t exist in the realm of cinematic reality. Kill a beer-swilling dude with his passion in his penis and you’ll get a minor murmur. Cut the throat of a sad, depressed female adult and everyone’s inner parent comes crying. It’s a concept inherent in Roth’s redesign of the film franchise, and you know he has to love all the hand wringing and kvetching. Back in the ‘80s, girls were the notorious targets of all manner of slice and dice serial killer, and except for Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, everyone took it as a gratuitous given. Now, with decades of deconstruction and pro-PC protocols, you just can’t torture and kill young women without accepting some kind of sociological payback.


Roth is way ahead of the game, giving us only one major drawn out damsel in distress sequence. The rest of the time, events happen off screen, or within a unique twist on the aggressor/victim paradigm. Indeed, all of Hostel Part II is about bucking trends. Don’t listen to the messageboards that lament that this is more of the same thing. It’s not. The gore is limited and hardly as excessive as the first time around. The terror isn’t tied to the torture scenes themselves, but what happens in and around them. The characters are more clearly drawn, developed far beyond their archetypal façade. And Roth’s direction has improved by leaps and bounds. Where once he seemed like a homemade movie maven lucky to get his basic b-movie ideas up on the big screen, he now comes across like the beaming bastard son of a dozen equally diabolical cinematic stalwarts.


Still, it will be hard to hear your own thoughts over the media din about to accompany this film. Grassroots campaigns will start, backlash will begin, and Roth will be labeled everything from a slick charlatan trading arterial spray for actual talent to a chauvinist shilling his perverted perspective to a desperately under-educated fanbase. Of course, none of this is true. If do-gooders want a collection of movies to grumble over, this critic could give them a laundry list – Scrapbook, Murder-Set-Pieces, I Spit on Your Grave, Last House on the Left, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, plus many, many more – of deplorable efforts. While it’s true that in our current mainstream perspective, violence against women is a rightfully taboo subject, in the context of a FICTIONAL horror storyline, it’s desperately old hat. Leave it to Eli Roth to make the ancient seem appalling once again. It’s just one of Hostel Part II’s many unconventional conventions. It’s the reason why this sequel is as successful as its precursor.


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