[12 June 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
(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.