Shocked and awed? Hostel and the SPE T CLE of self-mutilation.
In times of crisis, it is not uncommon for society to prefer amnesia to analysis in its choice of entertainment, and--like the zombies of George Romero's Land of the Dead (2005) who are so easily bemused and befuddled by the bursting of fireworks in the night sky--audiences in recent years seem to have overwhelmingly favored spectacles of cinematic bliss to self-reflection. In this respect, cinemagoers have merely followed the example of Barbara Bush who told viewers of Good Morning America shortly before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, "[W]hy should we hear about body bags and deaths? [...] [I]t's not relevant. So, why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?" (2) Thus, the dismal box office failure of recent "war on terror"-themed message films like In the Valley of Elah (2007), Lions for Lambs (2007), and Rendition (2007) is hardly surprising. As New York Times columnist Frank Rich put it, "Iraq is to moviegoers what garlic is to vampires." (3)
This does not mean, however, that the post-9/11 age has not left its mark on the silver screen. Indeed, even films that do not directly address such issues as imperialist war, international terrorism, or the federal encroachment on civil liberties may still serve a political purpose--that is, the social reality they present can act as an ambrosial reassurance that the dominant social order is indeed the right one. While the subversive force of such iconoclastic films as Brokeback Mountain (2005) and The Wrestler (2008) is not easily ignored, one cannot deny that the primary thrust of recent film has been largely conservative. Whether it's the resurrection of yesterday's action heroes like Indiana Jones, John Rambo, and John McClane, 300's (2006) exploitation of Orientalist fears and extolment of white supremacist values, Spiderman's (2002) fantastic reimagining of the American Dream, or pseudo-liberal films like Charlie Wilson's War (2007) and War, Inc. (2008) which, by critiquing government policies as inexplicable aberrations, serve ultimately to redeem the mythic image of our country as the forever righteous "city upon a hill," a glance across the spectrum of post-9/11 U.S. cinema testifies to the validity of Antonio Gramsci's notion of cultural hegemony--the idea that cultural products perpetuate the dominance of existing power structures. Or, to put it another way, it seems that in the post-9/11 era, Hollywood too has been swayed by an overall atmosphere of domestic shock and awe.
Curiously enough, it is out of the midst of these cinematic outbursts of onanistic patriotism that new life has been breathed into the horror genre, and recent years have given birth to a new, grisly breed of exploitation cinema. There has perhaps been no better announcement of horror's renewed vigor than the box office dethroning of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004) by the gruesome remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), an apparent victory of the profane over the pious in which the horror genre boisterously proclaimed its return to the scene and to the screen with an almost Whitmanesque barbaric yawp.
Thus, our subject is post-9/11 splatter horror. In addition to the Dawn of the Dead remake, a non-exhaustive list of the films making up this cycle might also include Cabin Fever (2002), High Tension (2003), House of 1000 Corpses (2003), Wrong Turn (2003), The Descent (2005), The Devil's Rejects (2005), Wolf Creek (2005), Turistas (2006), 28 Weeks Later (2007), and Captivity (2007), as well as the remakes of 1970s horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Black Christmas (2006), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Halloween (2007), and The Last House on the Left (2009). However, the crowning achievement of early twenty-first century horror has been the creation of two new franchises which have become the cycle's undisputed heavyweights: the Saw and Hostel series.
There has been a prevailing tendency to dismiss horror's resurgence as a passing fad. Many detractors see the films as specimens of cinematic sewage worthy only of loathing and disdain, and some have chosen to assign the genre the disparaging label "torture porn." (4) Horror, perhaps more than any other genre save pornography, is frequently met by critical opposition. Assessments of new forms of horror often reveal a generational divide as older, more established critics seem unable to look beyond a haze of wistful reminiscence regarding the box office screams of yesteryear and are thus incapable of acknowledging that the blood-soaked b-movies of their youth were also once reviled by the would-be guardians of good taste. As Peter Hutchings has pointed out, "[W]hen critics are confronted with a new type of horror that they do not like, they will often refer back nostalgically to earlier forms of horror that in comparison seem altogether safer." (5) Thus, in the words of one studio executive regarding the latest cycle, "It's not the violence that bothers me so much as the tone. A George Romero movie was so political and funny and subversive. [...] To me, these newer movies are purely sadistic." (6)
While it is easy to look back on previous horror films through rose-colored glasses, this is an example of revisionist history at its worst. We cannot forget that today's seemingly widespread appreciation for the films of Romero and his contemporaries was not originally shared by reviewers upon their initial release. Who can forget Roger Ebert's pleading for a stricter film rating system after attending a matinee showing of Night of the Living Dead (1968)? Or the scathing New York Times review of Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left (1972) in which the writer admitted to walking out in disgust in the middle of the film? Or the indignation of a reviewer for Harper's Magazine who derided The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) as a "vile little piece of sick crap"? (7) Thus, it is only after a new brand of horror's cultural worth has been established that its assault on bourgeois taste can be forgiven.
It is perhaps ironic that negative sentiments regarding splatter cinema are also shared by certain figures associated with the exploitation films of previous generations. George Romero, for instance, has confessed, "I don't get the torture porn films. [...] They're lacking metaphor." (8) Moreover, in a recent interview, Robin Wood--the writer who bravely led the charge in the 1970s to rescue such notoriously gruesome films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from critical oblivion--has also given the genre a disapproving finger wag:
I watched the first Saw [(2004)]. I don't think I need go further, into either that or the Hostel series. In the heyday of Romero, [Larry] Cohen, [Brian] DePalma at his occasional best, Sisters [(1973)], the horror film incited rebellion. Today it seems all about punishment, with its helpless characters almost asking to be punished--for what? I'm not interested. (9)
The manner in which Wood projects his dissatisfaction with one single film upon the entire cycle recalls the cool critical reception of horrors in the late 1960s and 1970s--those "neglected nightmares" for which he worked so tirelessly to defend. (10) The question we should be asking is not whether these films are about punishment--clearly they are--but rather, who is being punished and for what crime? By attempting to formulate answers, a picture of the genre will emerge that is far more complicated than has been suggested by many knee-jerk reactions.
My intent is not to give the impression that splatter horror, when taken as a collective whole, represents some great, undiscovered repository of artistic talent and radical subversion. However, as cultural products which have come to occupy a significant space in the American popular imagination at this time, these films are worthy of serious critical attention, interrogation, and scrutiny. We should not let any personal distaste towards one film cause us to flippantly dismiss the entire cycle. Genres hardly represent ideological monoliths, and the splatter horror cycle should be recognized as a collection of individual cinematic texts, each representing different ways of responding to today's various social realities. In this fashion, we can identify a range of ideological positions that distinguish the films from one another.
Genres can provide maverick directors a ready-made disguise with which to camouflage the otherwise unpronounceable, and horror seems particularly adept at fulfilling this function. While reactionary horror films certainly exist, the genre has also served as a site of subversive political articulation, perhaps most infamously in the late 1960s and 1970s when, as Robin Wood has convincingly argued, the various anxieties of an era dominated by headlines about Vietnam and Watergate mingled with the mounting frustrations of the progressive, countercultural movement to produce a ghoulish parade of flesh-eating zombies, chainsaw-wielding maniacs, and inbred cannibals. According to Wood, these monsters symbolize a horrific "return of the repressed," and the evil they represent is part and parcel of our own societal fabric. Thus, the Saturday night drive-in theater became a battleground where radical filmmakers used the gritty medium of grindhouse exploitation to launch a full-frontal assault, not just on the audience's socially conditioned sensibilities, but on the very foundations of American society. (11)
The conservative cultural currents that ushered in the presidency of Ronald Reagan also influenced the cinema. Hollywood at this time underwent a substantial rightward turn which dulled horror's subversive edge--a point that has been made by Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner, as well as the late Andrew Britton. (12) Though drained of the radicalism of their predecessors, however, many of the slasher films of the 1980s have since become known for their nonconventional treatment of gender. As Carol Clover has argued, the surviving female protagonist of these films is presented as a gender-bending "Final Girl" who takes revenge on masculinist power by figuratively castrating the phallic monster. This running theme stands in open contrast to the antifeminist backlash embodied by other contemporaneous forms of U.S. cinema, thus leading Clover to posit that "[i]f Rambo were to wander out of the action genre into a slasher film, he would end up dead." (13) Although Clover exaggerates the importance of a marginal film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) and projects its concluding vision of a triumphant female onto earlier films that do not necessarily share the same pro-woman tone, Clover's assertion that the 1980s slasher subverts dominant notions of gender is nevertheless valid--a point that has since been corroborated by Sarah Trencansky. (14)
It is with horror's potentially subversive pedigree in mind that we can approach the central question of this essay: namely, can horror cinema still serve as a site for counterhegemonic political expression in the post-9/11 era? While I want to steer clear from the pitfall of making unwarranted generalizations regarding the entire cycle, I believe that some of these films possess a potential for political radicalism underneath a surface of blood, bone, and sinew--perhaps none more so than director Eli Roth's Hostel series: Hostel (2005) and Hostel: Part II (2007). While these cinematic texts do not come without their own set of problems, they are much more subversive and condemning of contemporary social structures than has hitherto been generally recognized.
Hostel begins by introducing us to two American college students, Josh (Derek Richardson) and Paxton (Jay Hernandez), who, along with Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), their fun-loving Icelandic sidekick, are prowling the highways and byways of Western Europe, hanging out in clubs and experimenting with marijuana--but most of all, searching for sex. After visiting a brothel in Amsterdam's red-light district, they find themselves locked out of their hostel, having not observed its curfew. Their shouts to be let in result only in angering neighboring residents. Before a fight ensues, the trio duck into the window of a friendly tourist named Alex (Lubomir Bukovy). Sensing their appetite for sex, Alex convinces them that the best girls are in Slovakia. Following his advice, our three heroes wander deep into what appears as a mysterious and foreign civilization in the hopes of fulfilling their sexual fantasies. While they do manage to whet their sexual appetites, they also unwittingly become the victims of a macabre business masquerading as a hostel; it provides high-paying customers the opportunity to torture and kill hapless travelers. By the film's end, Oli and Josh have both been murdered while Paxton, after narrowly evading death at the hands of a German torturer, takes on the role of superman, fleeing from the hostel and ultimately from Slovakia while also taking murderous revenge on all of the film's major antagonists.
A cursory glance at the plot of the first Hostel immediately presents us with several obvious modes of interpretation, each of which has been utilized by the film's detractors. The horror of Hostel has been variously understood as the consequence of wanton sexual desire, homosexuality, or civilizational difference. As the film progresses and the narrative unfolds, however, each of these three hideous specters--the usual suspects of reactionary entertainment--is raised only to be obliterated. Contrary to these trite red herrings, the ideological kernel at the heart of Hostel is highly introspective; rather than presenting audiences with yet another exculpatory vision of reassuring escapism, Hostel instead suggests that the evil depicted on screen is the natural result of the unnatural limits dictated by a culture of repression.
The notion that U.S. society is one distinguished by systematic repression is one at which many pundits--convinced as they are of the moral decadence of the contemporary era--would balk. When I speak of repression, I am referring to the logical outcome of the practices and values that dominate the American experience: more specifically, patriarchal power, white supremacy, and monogamous heterosexuality--all of which are intrinsically entangled in the capitalist economic system. These dominant ideological values are upheld not only by the government, but also through such institutions as the family unit, the church, the education system, and the arts--in short, those areas Louis Althusser once deemed Ideological State Apparatuses. (15)
While certain groups--women, ethnic minorities, gays, and the economically impoverished--are the most immediate victims of the status quo, these ideological limits also have a greatly detrimental effect on the white, heterosexual male, whether through the repression of supposedly deviant sexual energy, the adoption of abusive masculinist traits, or the frustration that comes with failing to achieve the capitalist ideal--a phenomenon memorably portrayed by Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980). That which does not conform to the dominant social order is repressed.
While overt statements of sexism or racism are not as prevalent in mainstream society as they once were, this fact alone should not be taken as evidence for significant progress. The survival of any ruling ideology depends upon its ability to appropriate opposing trends which are, as Herbert Marcuse once put it, "quickly digested by the status quo as part of its healthy diet." (16) In this regard, the counterhegemonic movements of previous decades--feminism, civil rights, gay rights, and the labor movement--have been incorporated into dominant U.S. thought, albeit in a strongly diluted form. Liberal mul-ticulturalist tolerance, while certainly preferable to openly professed bigotry, should not necessarily be mistaken for anything more than a superficial smile concealing a mouthful of gritted teeth. (17) The language may have changed and an outward appearance of political correctness may have become commonplace, but the repressive features of the U.S. landscape are still very much intact. It is precisely to these forms of repression that the Hostel films turn their attention.
A progressive reading of Hostel might first begin with the opening credits; we see an anonymous worker toiling away in the ominous torture chamber, all the while whistling a bright, cheerful melody even as he washes away the scattered debris of torn human flesh all around him. This oxymoronic image, which puts a smooth polishing on top of what is so overtly obscene, is perhaps tantamount to enjoying a performance of Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons in the midst of apocalypse. It is a subtle hint that all is not what it seems, that our capitalist social reality has a dark underside.
Hostel continues to explore this Jekyll and Hyde-like dual nature of reality through a series of mirror images. For instance, when the Dutch businessman (Jan Vlasak) murders Josh, he does so by slicing his throat--an act that we see performed through a reflection in a mirror. It is a shot repeated in the film's final moments when Paxton executes the Dutch businessman in a Vienna restroom, the mirror image thus revealing that even Paxton, student of law and self-proclaimed vegetarian, is capable of savagery. A parallel is also drawn between the Dutch businessman and Oli. That both have young daughters implies that the pressures of family life and fatherhood can lead one to seek an outlet for repressed desires, be it through promiscuous sex or anonymous torture.
The first shot of the film following the opening credits is of a neon-lit hostel sign seen through its mirror image, a reflection in a puddle of water. It is an appropriate introduction to Hostel's foremost metaphor, the hostel itself. Like that iconic, all-American image of brilliant red roses perfectly perched beneath a white picket fence and an impossibly blue sky in the classic opening montage of David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) or like the Swedish-manufactured refrigerator in David Fincher's Fight Club (1999)--an expensive, state-of-the-art status symbol of consumerist affluence, but ultimately empty--the warm and welcoming appearance of the hostel that greets our trio of sordid protagonists is nothing more than a facade concealing a dark and terrible reality of screams, suffering, and death that comes frighteningly close to matching Jack London's bitter description of the sinister underbelly of society quoted at the beginning of this essay, and the two conflicting and yet simultaneously existing faces of the hostel--both the glamorous and the grim--are analogous to the less spoken-of nature of our own social world.
One of the most significant mirror images is the contrast between the Amsterdam brothel and the Bratislava torture house. Roth seems to have purposefully shot these two locations to resemble each other. Both contain a long corridor lined with doors leading to adjacent rooms featuring various attractions--in the former, scenes of sadomasochistic sexual domination; in the latter, mutilation and torture. Both sites are located in the imaginary abroad where paying customers can realize their repressed fantasies. Thus, the point being made is not that casual sex is tantamount to torture. Indeed, Josh, the character who refuses to satisfy the demands of his libido at the brothel, is brutally murdered mid-way through the film. Hostel is not a cinematic morality tale warning against the immorality of intercourse. Instead, the film suggests that both sites--the whorehouse and the gorehouse--are results of a culture of repression. Both exist because the repressive nature of our society demands them.
In this light, another one of the film's mirror images takes on a new meaning. In the climax, an almost wordless Paxton is confronted by a garrulous American killer (Rick Hoffman) preparing for his first murder session. While there are a number of obvious reasons for Paxton's horrified gaze, there is also the possibility that through this chance encounter Paxton realizes something deep and disturbing about himself. Just as Paxton, a son of privilege and college law student, has sought in Europe to assuage his repressed sexual fantasies, the eyes of the killer into which he looks are the eyes of a well-to-do, affluent world-traveler who is also exploiting the people and places of the non-American world to satisfy his dark fantasies and pent-up frustrations, sexual and otherwise. Thus, when Paxton looks at the American killer, he perhaps realizes that the person he is gazing at is really a slightly older and yet still very much repressed version of himself.
Repression also serves as the raison d'etre of the Dutch businessman who murders Josh. We first come into contact with him on the train to Bratislava where, shortly after talking about his daughter, he makes an awkward pass at Josh, grabbing his upper thigh. Thus, on the surface, the Dutch businessman may appear to have it all--money, a good job, and a beautiful family. But these achievements have come at a price: the repression of his homosexual desire, sacrificed upon the altar of society's ideological edifice.
While Hostel does not present any positive gay images, the real abomination, Hostel suggests, is not homosexuality; rather, it is the non-negotiable heterosexist culture that puts all other forms of sexuality in a straitjacket. In this light, we can make sense of the protagonists' repeated use of homophobic slurs; as the film's primary representatives of normality, they embody, through their bigotry, the homophobia endemic to society. Thus, the monster is not homosexuality; it is the social norms that repress homosexual desire. The monster is not those who hide in the closet; it is those social institutions ensuring that the closet door stays shut.
This theme of repression regarding the identity of the torturers is explored at even greater lengths in the sequel. Hostel II begins where its predecessor ends, with the flight of Paxton from the torture dungeon. Back in the United States, Paxton takes refuge in a country house with his girlfriend. His attempts to hide, however, are to no avail, and one morning, his girlfriend finds Paxton's corpse in the kitchen, freshly decapitated by an unknown assailant. In the end, even Paxton could not escape the hostel.
We are then introduced to a new set of protagonists, a trio of female college students attending art classes in Italy. From the outset, Beth (Lauren German) is the apparent ringleader. Her two friends are of the most static variety of stock characters: Lorna the dorky virgin (Heather Matarazzo) and Whitney the veritable slut (Bijou Phillips). While on a train to Prague, Axelle (Vera Jordanova), an alluring agent of the hostel, convinces them to travel to Slovakia where they can get relax in natural spas far away from all the sex-crazed men ("gross guys"). From there, the narrative is predictable; Lorna and Whitney fall prey to the hostel's murderous clientele, and Beth manages to survive.
What is most interesting about Hostel II is its portrayal of the torturers. In this film, Roth sacrifices the element of suspense that so characterized the first film in order to spend more time developing the back-story of the killers. When the girls first arrive at the hostel, we are taken behind the scenes to see the nuts and bolts of its operations. The clerk scans their passports and sends their pictures to potential customers across the globe. In what appears as a dystopian version of eBay, a bidding war ensues in which a procession of affluent businessmen and women conducting meetings, playing golf, leisurely relaxing by the pool, horseback riding in the country, or even enjoying a day at the park with family members compete for their chance to kill. The winner of the appalling auction is Todd (Richard Burgi), a middle-aged American man who shares his atrocious prize with his friend Stuart (Roger Bart). From the outset, Todd is the egotistical alpha male, Stuart his reluctant tagalong. But by the end of the film, the roles have reversed, and whereas Todd eventually recoils from the prospect of committing murder, Stuart allows his festering frustrations to take command as he prepares to slaughter a desperate and manacled Beth.
The reason behind Stuart's murderous wrath could not be any more apparent. As he readies himself to slay Beth, she desperately tries to dissuade him, reminding him about his children and his wife. Stuart's response is quite telling; he explains his actions with a cruel admission: "I'm not allowed to kill my wife." Stuart, it seems, has projected the image of his wife--a figure he loathes--onto Beth.
While Stuart's inner-demons do not penetrate the surface of his rather sheepish exterior until the film's climax, to the observant audience member they are perceptible from the moment he enters the picture. Stuart and his family sit silently around the table eating breakfast and watching television. The calm, sanguine atmosphere, however, is--like everything else in the Hostel series--a superficial mask. When the phone rings, Stuart answers it, and as he speaks to the caller, a school bus arrives and his wife and two children leave coldly without a word and without saying goodbye. They do not even close the door on their way out or clean up their mess on the table, leaving it all for Stuart. It is a glimpse into a monotonous and unappreciated life, and the presence of a framed picture on the wall, a piece of childhood art with the words "Love" and "Family," serves only to highlight the suffocating structure of the domestic American existence. Thus, the pressures of domesticity and family life are at the root of Stuart's deeply entrenched rage.
The murderers of the Hostel series are therefore not deranged psychopaths a la Agnes Lenz, the sick offspring of incest in the atrocious Black Christmas remake. Such a scapegoat, if utilized, would give the audience an easy way out. Instead, Roth turns the camera towards the audience, pointing the blame at the structure of society. Hostel's killers embody normality. In this way, they are the ideological descendants of that famous and seminal figure from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), Norman Bates who, as his name suggests, is actually quite normal. (18) As Todd reassures Stuart, "We're the normal ones."
Thus, the murderers throughout the two films are not the slime of the earth, the aberrant psychopaths or scrofulous shadow-people, but rather, they are members of capitalist society's most prosperous and privileged class. As such, they stand in stark contrast to the impoverished locals who carry out the abattoir's day-to-day operations. Like the immigrants from Dirty Pretty Things (2002), they exist to serve the taboo desires of society's creme de la creme. They alone pose no real threat. Even the gang of adolescent children who occasionally terrorize the protagonists demanding money is quickly subdued with something as simple as bubble gum. Class is not something usually depicted overtly in U.S. cinema. As Michael Parenti has observed, "Class is the colossal reality right before our eyes that we Americans are trained not to see." (19) When Hollywood does make an issue of class difference, it is usually romanticized a la the wealthy businessman-poor prostitute relationship in Pretty Woman (1990). In Hostel, however, the rich are the predators, the impecunious locals their servants.
We can now see that those reactionary specters that initially present themselves to viewers of the film are nothing more than banal charades. The Hostel series is not a Hollywood version of Hammurabi's Code; it condemns neither sexual exploration nor homosexual desire. However, the third possible mode of interpretation--the hobgoblin of civilizational difference--still demands attention. Indeed, the film's setting in Slovakia, a country about which cinemagoers are assumed to know nothing, gives merit to such an interpretation. This fear of the Other, though hardly a new phenomenon, has undergone something of a resurgence in the collective American consciousness in recent years, a phenomenon often echoed in the cinema. (20) Hostel, however, is no such narrative. The torture house may be physically located outside the United States, but the repression that it represents is a firmly entrenched part of the established social order. (21)
Hostel combines with its pulverizing attack on the basic social mores that define the American experience a devastating critique of U.S. imperialism, and a parallel can be drawn between the torture depicted in the film and the exploitative capitalist practices that define U.S. foreign policy. Related to this point is the arrogant attitude asserted by Josh and Paxton in the beginning of the first film. When they are thrown out of an Amsterdam nightclub, they raucously announce their U.S. citizenship and fully expect to take advantage of the privilege that comes with it ("I'm an American! I got rights!" and "Kiss my American ass!"). Their arrogance seem only to encourage that elusive phantom of anti-American hatred, and just like the American killer Paxton later encounters, they are irresponsibly treating the rest of the world as their playground. Hostel thus presents us with a damning indictment of the United States' attitudes towards the non-American abroad.
Hostel's attack on U.S. foreign affairs goes hand-in-hand with its critique of repression, and recognizing both of these elements is crucial to understanding the full force of the film's subversive ideological kernel. In an otherwise insightful essay, Jarod Ra'Del Hollyfield suggests that the horror of Hostel symbolizes not repression but its exact opposite--a lack of repression regarding the unbridled implementation of U.S. imperialism abroad: "Rather than evoke the return of the repressed, Roth's films force his audience to question the acceptance of what American culture fails to repress." (22) While Hollyfield is quite right regarding Hostel's hard-hitting appraisal of U.S. foreign policy, he does not go far enough; that is, he fails to see that repression at home and imperialism abroad are related phenomena, both inextricably bound to the underlying capitalist system. They are two sides of the same coin. As Andrew Britton once argued regarding the Vietnam War, "To say merely that America shouldn't have been there tends to foreclose the recognition that it could scarcely have chosen not to be." (23) Likewise, any discussion of U.S. imperialism must not be divorced from its domestic corollary. To remove one from the picture is to fail to identify the problem in its totality. Hostel condemns both.
Torture occupies an important place in the Hostel series--and, for that matter, the entire splatter horror cycle. Indeed, at certain points, Roth seems to purposefully connect the fictive world of Hostel to the outside social order. For instance, in the first film Josh and Paxton are seen wandering through a torture museum. Filled with real, historical torture devices and instruments of mutilation, this scene serves no immediately discernable function within the context of the overall narrative; its presence indicates the reality that torture is a timeless human practice.
Hostel's discussion of torture comes at a significant time when certain high-level U.S. government officials have sanctioned the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" on foreign detainees. The entertainment industry has been hesitant to address these controversial policies, and those few programs that do, like the television series 24, seem actually to condone the practice. A rare exception has been the recent film Rendition, and for its non-celebratory approach to torture, it was rewarded with dismal box office earnings, scathing critical reviews, and a slap on the wrist from media personality Bill O'Reilly who angrily dismissed it and similar films as "a bunch of anti-American garbage." (24)
While Rendition wears its liberal politics on its sleeve, the radical core of Hostel has gone largely unnoticed. If we juxtapose the two films, however, we find that Roth's gruesome cinematic romp is actually the far more subversive of the two. Although Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), Rendition's wayward protagonist, oversees the torture being carried out in the film, he does not physically participate in its implementation. Significantly, it is the film's ethnic boogeyman--a one-dimensional, Arab brute--who does not flinch at carrying out Uncle Sam's dirty handiwork. Torture is conducted via proxy. In contradistinction to this image is that presented in Hostel. Not only are Americans doing the torturing, but the foul practice is presented as a byproduct of the American Dream. Thus, while Rendition is concerned with the white American hero's eventual salvation, Hostel is dedicated to his evisceration. Not only does Hostel anticipate the now all-too-familiar horrors of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and Bagram, but it correctly diagnoses them as symptoms of the social order and not as inexplicable aberrations. In comparison to Hostel, then, Rendition is actually quite tame. It leaves intact the potential to see the United States as a beacon of shining light. In Rendition, torture is simply a misguided policy that can still be rectified. But in the world of Hostel, the buying and selling of human bodies for torture is capitalist society's heart of darkness.
It would be a grave error to pretend that Hostel is without its flaws, and before continuing, a certain charge must be confronted head on: the series' alleged misogyny. A New York Times review of Hostel charged Roth of creating "one of the most misogynistic films ever made."(25) While this particular review failed on other accounts to critically assess the film, this accusation deserves careful attention. Films, like all other cultural products, are susceptible to the flaws and contradictions of their makers, and it is not uncommon for cinematic texts to contain totally conflicting messages. As bell hooks has observed, "Spike Lee can give us progressive cinematic messages about race but reactionary visions of gender. Oliver Stone can focus on national identity and imperialism but ignore race."(26) Similarly, Janet Staiger has documented how gay rights activists and feminist critics clashed over their differing interpretations of the film The Silence of the Lambs (1991). (27) Thus, while Roth uses the media of horror film to question the repressive nature of society, he fails to articulate a progressive vision in the area of gender.
The first film is completely devoid of any sympathetic female roles. In fact, every major female character is dispatched with a grotesque zeal. A female Japanese backpacker, whose eye is blowtorched, commits suicide by jumping in front of a train after seeing her deformed image in a mirror. Moreover, the two East European beauties (Barbara Nedeljakova and jana Kadereabkova) who treat Paxton and Josh to a night of concupiscent fun are aphrodisiacal actors on the hostel's payroll, luring unsuspecting backpackers with the prospect of sex. Though initially portrayed as attractive and alluring, they appear instead as repulsive jezebels after their ruse is uncovered. Paxton gets his revenge on these femmes fatales during the escape scene in which he runs over both of them with a car. The film's most important female characters are thus treated like garbage; they are used and then thrown away. In true misogynist fashion, Paxton first screws them; then he kills them.
While the male protagonists of Hostel are far from likeable, they are much more interesting than the female trio of the sequel. Indeed, Beth, Whitney, and Lorna are upstaged even by Hostel ll's main villains, Todd and Stuart. This can only be seen as a conceptual failure on the part of writer-director Roth whose apparent inability to envisage multi-dimensional female roles is also evident in his first feature, Cabin Fever. Furthermore, Roth does not seem to notice that the humiliating role he assigns Stuart within the context of his family is and has traditionally been the position demanded of the subservient American housewife. Roth appears only to recognize the injustice of this position when it is experienced by a man. In the end, then, it cannot be denied that the Hostel series is, regrettably, a phallo-centric narrative.
It is curious that a series that so unabashedly caters to the heterosexual male gaze through its predominant focus on the nude female body concludes with the castration of a heterosexual male. As Clover has demonstrated, many slashers end with the castration of the male monster, but these acts are, with rare exception, depicted symbolically with a knife or chainsaw standing in as the phallic signifier. In Hostel II, there are no such substitutes, and it is one of the few mass-marketed U.S. horror films to graphically show the gory act in its full, literal glory as Beth brutally emasculates Stuart and throws his dismembered penis before the mouths of hungry dogs.
This scene brings us face-to-face with one of the primary themes of post-9/11 splatter cinema: self-mutilation as spectacle. In the Hostel series, identification becomes complicated, with both the victim and the victimizer appearing to represent the American audience's own society. Hostel thus presents us with a vision that is as masochistic as it is sadistic. The films feature our suffering as well as our wrath. We are Paxton, but we are also the American torturer. We are Beth, but we are also Stuart. This message, conflicting as it is, can be seen as the cinematic equivalent of watching one's own suicide in the mirror. However, while the spectacle of self-mutilation appears throughout the splatter horror genre, its existence should in no way suggest ideological solidarity. Indeed, splatter horror's political diversity can be demonstrated by briefly comparing the Hostel films with the reactionary message boasted by its chief rival, the Saw series.
Saw, together with its growing plethora of formulaic sequels, (28) involves the activities of a sadistic mastermind called Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) who sets elaborate and grisly traps for his hapless victims. Although the place Jigsaw occupies is part of a long procession of psycho-killer-turned-superhero screen monsters that includes such infamous fiends as Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger, Jigsaw is unique in that he does not actually kill anybody. Jigsaw's hands are, in a sense, clean. His victims die only because they do not atone for their sins and are thus unable to navigate their way through his purgatorial traps. Like Kevin Spacey's sin-obsessed serial killer in Se7en (1995), Jigsaw carefully selects his victims based on their moral failings--most often some form of sexual infidelity, an addiction to drugs, or an abandonment of the patriarchal code. This latter transgression in particular forms a running theme, as the main victims of the first three films are all punished for their failures as fathers. Jigsaw is therefore not the real criminal; his victims are, and the Saw films are nothing less than a puritanical reassertion of traditional values. Thus, while Hostel and Saw share a place at the table of splatter horror, their underlying ideological framework could not be any more disparate. Indeed, Saw actually has more in common ideologically with the controversial religious epic The Passion of the Christ. (29)
Though not all splatter horror films share its subversive politics, Hostel is not a complete anomaly within the genre. At a time when reactionary platitudes are so ubiquitous and the entertainment industry seems to have been shell-shocked by the utter weight of current events, other splatter horror films--like the remake of The Hills Have Eyes and the Australian Wolf Creek--may too offer a much needed glimpse of political radicalism. We cannot dismiss the entire genre as ideologically static. Instead, each film should be examined and judged on its own individual strengths and weaknesses.
The only protagonist to survive the Hostel series is Beth. While Paxton's superhero-like antics only delay his execution, Beth's survival seems more permanent; taking full advantage of the hostel's dog-eat-dog nature, she buys her way out and changes sides, murdering Stuart and getting the tattoo required of all the hostel's paying torturers. This ultimately brings us to Hostel's most fatal flaw. Although Roth is astute enough to recognize the incorrigible nature of the status quo, he unfortunately does not attempt to articulate any alternative to it. Instead, he seems capable only of repeating that old, hackneyed dictum, "If you can't beat them, join them." The end product is a nihilistic vision, one utterly devoid of any hope for the future.
This need not be the case. George Romero long ago used his classic zombie tale Dawn of the Dead (1978) to suggest that any attempt to rescue society must begin with the total reconstruction of its very foundations. The film ends with the alpha male surrendering his rifle--that time-tested symbol of masculine authority--to the oncoming zombie hordes, and the interracial couple escapes, flying off into the vast unknown with the woman in command of the chopper. (30) More recently, a similar sliver of radical optimism appeared in the late Adrienne Shelly's Waitress (2007) in which the lead character, Jenna, who spends the entirety of the film struggling underneath the pressure of her domineering husband and the adulterous passion of her well-meaning lover, finally rejects all male attachments and seeks a better life for herself and her newborn daughter far from the oppressive clutches of any patriarch.
Such cinematic attempts to subvert prevailing systems of domination--to fathom the purportedly unfathomable--should not be dismissed as naive fantasies, idealist hallucinations, or simple-minded Utopian dreams. As Slavoj Zizek has commented, "'Naive' people are not those who think that we can break out of our ordinary reality; 'naive' people are those who presuppose this reality as an ontologically self-sufficient given," (31) and although Roth deserves more praise than he has hitherto received for Hostel's visceral assault on capitalism, domesticity, and U.S. identity in this post-9/11 era of domestic shock and awe, his work ultimately suffers from such a naivety. This is Roth's Achilles' heel, and one can only hope that as he continues to mature as a filmmaker, his work might perhaps evolve in more progressive directions.
(1) Jack London, "What Life Means to Me," in Revolution and Other Essays (Charleston, South Carolina: BiblioBazaar, 2006) 144.
(2) Good Morning America, American Broadcasting Company (ABC), March 18, 2003.
(3) Frank Rich, "The Petraeus-Crocker Show Gets the Hook," New York Times, April 13, 2008.
(4) Gabrielle Murray defends the use of this appellation in "Hostel II: Representations of the Body in Pain and the Cinema Experience in Torture-Porn," Jump Cut 50 (2008). For another example, see Claude Brodesser-Akner, "Why 'Torture Porn' is the Hottest (and Most Hated) Thing in Hollywood," Advertising Age, May 21, 2007.
(5) Peter Hutchings, The Horror Film (Harlow, England: Pearson Longman, 2004) 85.
(6) Bob Berney quoted in Devin Cordon, "Horror Show," Newsweek, April 3, 2006. Ironically, Berney's distaste for sadism does not seem to apply to a film in which he had a hand, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.
(7) Roger Ebert, Review of Night of the Living Dead, Chicago Sun-Times, January 5, 1969; Howard Thompson, Review of Last House on the Left, New York Times, December 22, 1972; Stephen Koch quoted in Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton: Princeton University, 1992) 22.
(8) Quoted in Katrina Onstad, "Horror Auteur is Unfinished with the Undead," New York Times, February 10, 2008.
(9) Quoted in Chelse McKee, "Film Critic Legend Robin Wood Retires from York," The Manitoban, August 6, 2008. My purpose in quoting Wood here is not to ridicule him. Though I am at odds with him regarding today's horror films, I still hold a great appreciation for Wood and his insightful writings which, truth be told, served as my introduction to film studies. I hope the reader will find that my critical discussion of Wood has been conducted with the utmost respect.
(10) Robin Wood, "Neglected Nightmares," Film Comment 16/2 (1980): 24-31.
(11) Robin Wood, "An Introduction to the American Horror Film," in The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film eds. Robin Wood and Richard Lippe (Toronto: Festival of Festivals, 1979) 7-28.
(12) Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner, Camera Politico: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1988); Andrew Britton, "Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment (1986)," in Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton ed. Barry Keith Grant (Detroit: Wayne State University, 2009) 97-154.
(13) Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws, 99.
(14) Sarah Trencansky, "Final Girls and Terrible Youth: Transgression in the 1980s Slasher Horror," journal of Popular Film and Television 29/2 (2001): 63-73.
(15) Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review, 2001), 95-126.
(16) Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (London: Routledge, 2002 ) 16.
(17) On this point, see Slavoj Zizek, "Tolerance as an Ideological Category," Critical Inquiry 34/4 (2008) 660-82.
(18) This point is well-demonstrated by the multiple parallels Hitchcock draws between Norman and his central victim, Marion Crane. See Robin Wood's invaluable analysis in his Hitchcock's Films Revisited, revised edition (New York: Columbia University, 2002) 142-51; and Christopher Sharrett, "The Myth of Apocalypse and the Horror Film: The Primacy of Psycho and The Birds," Hitchcock Annual 4 (1995-1996): 42-9.
(19) Michael Parenti, Make-Believe Media: The Politics of Entertainment (New York: St. Martin's, 1992) 91.
(20) See the forthcoming article, Gregory A. Burris, "Barbarians at the Box Office: 300 and Signs as Huntingtonian Narratives," Quarterly Review of Film and Video 28/1 (2011).
(21) It is unfortunate that, in crafting his tale, Roth vilified the country of Slovakia, which in reality bears no resemblance to the hellhole depicted in the film. Roth seems to have attempted to amend this error in the sequel, which includes a sympathetic local who tries to warn Beth of the danger she is in, but perhaps Roth would have done better to have simply left the torture house's host-country anonymous.
(22) Jerod Ra'Del Hollyfield, "Torture Porn and Bodies Politic: Post-Cold War American Perspectives in Eli Roth's Hostel and Hostel: Part II," CineAction 78 (2009) 30.
(23) Andrew Britton, "Sideshows: Hollywood in Vietnam (1981)," in Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton ed. Barry Keith Grant (Detroit: Wayne State University, 2009) 79.
(24) The O'Reilly Factor, Fox News Channel, April 3, 2008.
(25) Nathan Lee, "We Hope You Enjoy Your Stay. Gore is Served in the Cellar," New York Times, January 6, 2006.
(26) bell hooks, Reel to Real: Race, Class and Sex at the Movies (New York: Routledge, 1996) 35.
(27) Janet Staiger, Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception (New York: New York University, 2000) 161-78.
(28) As of this writing, there have been five sequels released: Saw II (2005), Saw III (2006), Saw IV (2007), Saw V (2008), and Saw VI (2009). A seventh installment, Saw VII, is slated for release in late 2010.
(29) Both Saw and Gibson's potent retelling of the Gospel narrative represent forceful sermons preaching the message that any deviation from the moral code can only be redeemed through torture and suffering--in one case the macabre puzzles of Jigsaw and in the other the crucifixion of Jesus. In both films, then, the road to redemption drips of blood. In fact the only real difference between Saw and The Passion of Christ is that the reception of the latter was prepared by some two millennia of church history. Otherwise, the two films are ideological doppelgangers, both serving as gruesome lessons on the wages of sin, and the Christian parents who protested the "R" rating of Gibson's film might as well have also purchased tickets for their young children to see Saw upon its Halloween weekend release in 2004, for it too is a cinematic morality tale, a feature-length infomercial for Sunday school.
(30) See Robin Wood's treatment of this film in "Apocalypse Now: Notes on the Living Dead," in The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film eds. Robin Wood and Richard Lippe (Toronto: Festival of Festivals, 1979) 91-7.
(31) Slavoj Zizek, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the (Mis)Use of a Notion (New York: Verso, 2002) 174.
Gregory A. Burris is an English instructor at Istanbul Bilgi University in Turkey. His articles have appeared on Internet newsletters like CounterPunch and in such publications as journal of Popular Film and Television, Middle Eastern Studies, and Quarterly Review of Film and Video (forthcoming). He wishes to thank his friend Mark Hain for showing him that horror film is worth taking seriously.
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|Author:||Burris, Gregory A.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2010|
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