“What is a film, after all, without voyeurism?”
—Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess”
(Part 1 will deal exclusively with the artistic highs of this film, while part 2 will explore the very low lows of it.)
What is it about our fascination with gore? What does it say about humanity that we have an entire genre of film and theatre dedicated exclusively to the art (and make no mistake about that term) of displaying gore? I think the more valid question is why have the violence? Why showcase the gore? In order to explore this I can think of no better source text than Eli Roth‘s 2007 94 minute endurance test, Hostel: Part II.
This would arguably be the last time that gorno cinema would witness a release so near to mainstream, a film that took the genre to its artistic zenith at the same time as it sent it crashing into an odious new low. A film that simultaneously brings down the strictures of decency and morality as it tries to establish some measure of understanding on the state of the genre. Nothing is sacred in this film, and yet everything is.
Produced by Academy-Award winning director Quentin Tarantino, the skill of this film’s production allows it to exist paradoxically within the same cinema that it so devilishly subverts. Cinematographer Milan Chadima provides a steady and unwavering eye, lensing both the gory details and the Eastern European setting with an adept flair for local colour (forgive the pun). Chadima composes his frames like they’re postcard snapshots, not like an amateur filming a college film project. His work lends a credibility to the cinema of death and dismemberment that allows the film to exist within the discourse of cinema. Roth’s showing that he’s willing to play by the rules, as it were, offering you to take his film as a quote-unquote serious film. His script meanwhile, if hardly revolutionary, nonetheless offers an unflinching reflection on the genre, hoping to provoke new insights about it.
Take for example the opening scene, which functions as an unsettling metonym for the film as a whole. A man, whose face the camera never sees, casually tosses items into a furnace—first an amateur photograph of a woman on vacation, then a chintzy tourist backpack, the word Rome written in glitter. It becomes excruciatingly clear what’s going on when he tosses in a personal diary—evidence of a murder. With one careless gesture the record of this woman’s life is incinerated, just as her own life was no doubt destroyed. As the pages burn away one by one, Roth presents us with a cinematic memento mori, and makes a potent statement about the fragility of life through the ease of its material destruction. In making this statement, Roth, perhaps ironically, extends the metaphor back to his own art, to suggest that the sadistic actions in the film are not so different from that of any writer or director. Just as his characters treat life as disposable, for whom destroying life is as simple as tossing mementos into a fire, Roth treats their lives as disposable too. The faceless character of the opening scene, whom we never see again, is as disposable for director Eli Roth as the victims are for the sadistic killers in his own movie. The character exists only to fulfill a need, just as the victims do.
The film’s content treats its audience as victims too, held hostage at the whim of a madman, director Eli Roth. Individually we’re disposable, Roth wants only an audience, he doesn’t care about your individual baggage, your unique worldview, or whether you’ll be offended by anything you see. The audience then are nevertheless compelled to submit to these outrageous conditions, driven by an insatiable curiosity, that morbid desire that turns our heads towards car accidents just as our hands reach up the shield our eyes. “This isn’t like going to a whorehouse,” one character warns his friend, “you can’t just back out.” The line acknowledges our complicity as passive spectators—no such thing, as Roth sees it.
An example of this occurs during the bidding war scene. After the odious hostel clerk scans their passport photos and uploads their photos online, a dizzying buying war ensues. Out of context, these people could be just as easily bidding for sex; perhaps they are—the film frequently straddles the line between sexual and sadistic gratification. At one point one of the clients compares a man’s first murder to his first sexual experience. You can sense it on a primal, animalistic level, he argues. This conversation, not surprisingly, takes place right before the uncomfortable and gratuitous bloodbath scene, in which sex and murder are one in the same, reinforced by the way the client tenderly caresses the woman’s skin with the tip of a scythe before slashing it to pieces. The bidding scene is almost like an anaesthetized rape; the women have no complicity in the act. And it’s this perverted lack of control that makes this scene perhaps the most frightening in the movie, more-so than any of the gore Roth tries to spray at us.
Roth amplifies the bidding scene’s intensity through montage. Unable to keep up with the growing crowd of bidders, the screen splits and multiplies as lawyers, doctors, fathers, wives, businessmen, people of all races and ages bid against each other, all of them however projecting the same intensity as one might have bidding on antiques, or perhaps even prized horses. Are we supposed to be caught up in the frenzy ourselves? The montage and tense music suggests the scene is designed to illicit a reaction, but it’s unclear just what Roth wants us to think and feel. Is he asking us to be disgusted? Intrigued? Envious? The answer seems to be all of it. The scene functions as a caricature of modern culture, and asks you to see some familiarity with yourself in the image. The horrifying thing is that given the way Roth has directed the scene, we must.
The function of the female in this film makes for a worthwhile discussion. The film simultaneously retreats to the typical slasher flicks (beginning in the late 70s) that dole out their violence as symbolic punishment for sinful transgression (the virgin survivor trope) while also harkening back to the horror films of the early 70s. These films, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left, are populated by victims whose sole transgression is that they are alive (at the start of the movie at least). The violence perpetrated against them is primal and removed from the strictures of rational logic. The women in this film are not just symbolically punished for their promiscuity or sinfulness, though the movie still makes use of that trope, these women are chosen to die simply because they are available. (That’s not to say that this film can’t also be read along colonial discourse such that Edward Said or Homi Baba might explore, an argument which would run along the line that the girls function as token representatives of Western hegemony and their fates serve as a form of hostile resistance to colonial expansionism, culture clash, etc. However, the film itself, being an unabashed American production—and more importantly, one financed by a Hollywood studio—does not function as a reaction against these forces, nor does the text support this interpretation.)
At one point Roth features a cutaway shot to a puppet show vaguely reminiscent of any European pantomime, this one involving a beast man attacking a pleading woman with an ax while the children in the audience watch on in glee. The shot functions as both chilling foreshadow and as Roth’s not-so-subtle reminder that shock art did not begin and will certainly not end with him. A quick glance through Robert Darnton’s fascinating book The Great Cat Massacre (which I cannot recommend highly enough) proves that even Roth’s most morbid fantasies pale in comparison to the brutal depravity of eighteenth century French folktales. In his book, Darnton suggests these tales merely reflect the state of a culture that would hang cats for laughs and re-enact the events in pantomime for decades after. What does Roth’s grotesque theatre mean for our culture? Moreover, what does the act of watching his folktale say about us?
Unlike the chases and pursuits of the slasher film franchise, the violence in this movie is not mayhem, it’s cold and calculated murder. But then the question becomes, is murder when removed of all morality and law still murder? Or is it simply a way of life? By the end of the movie, murder becomes the sole way of living, and yet the action is diluted through the rhetoric of contract. Even when the female protagonist dispatches her would-be killer, it’s only partly out of spite and still entirely motivated by the need to kill. Part of the need is necessity, she must do it or face death herself, yet another part, the darkest part, is the desire to kill. Luckily for her the law of this society gives her a condoned channel for expressing her desire, and she takes it, much to mutual glee and disgust of the audience. Who can’t help but feel even a glimmer of schadenfreude at the idea of a man who feels emasculated by his wife being literally castrated by the woman he failed to kill after projecting onto her his latent hostility for his emotionally castrating wife. It’s some messy therapy, and it’s admirable that Roth even attempts it. And by making us laugh at the violence just as we’re repulsed by it we become complicit in the moment; we are Roth’s captive and captivated audience. We are the shocked and delighted children of the show, and Roth is our puppeteer.
Roth uses our shock of the violence and the gore directed towards his film in order to project it back upon the audience doing the condemnation. “If it’s so horrible, then why are you looking?” he practically screams at us with each over-the-top shock designed to elicit anger and disgust. In a twisted example of life imitating art, Roth is the anonymous organization just as we are the paying clientele. The only difference is that Roth simply doesn’t bother condemning us for watching. It’s not personal, it’s business. The business of making movies.
Like Passolini’s Salo before it, the Hostel franchise presents a society organized under the principle of mortification and torture. It may be a disgusting, violent, and unpleasant culture, but it’s a culture nonetheless. We see a chilling example of the processes when one of the would-be killers gets cold feet and abandons his half-dead victim. After dealing with the man’s breach of contract, the organization tries to dispose of his leftovers. The film disturbingly glosses over the fact that it’s a dying girl, but then that seems to be the point. It’s not personal, it’s business. Going door to door offering their product at a special discounted price (and going fast!), one of the patrons is played by none other than Ruggero Deodata, director of the 1980 indie shock mock-doc Cannibal Holocaust. Deodata says he’ll consider the offer, thanks them, then returns to his room, the camera following him. Inside is his victim, flayed from the waist down, one leg missing at the knee. In a winking tribute to his oeuvre, Deodata stabs his victim in the leg with a fork, removes a strip of muscle from his thigh, and returns to his dining table to continue his meal. The victim is shivering in agony, and after we’ve recovered from the shock of the violence we recognize the face, it’s that of the man we assumed complicit in the kidnappings. With a macabre little twist, the film upends our expectations. Roth effectively uses the gory visual in service of conveying information. And with that he allows himself, if you’ll forgive the pun, to have his cake and eat it too.
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Read part 2 of my analysis here: