If you haven’t read part 1 of my analysis already, you can read it here:
My last post detailed the sublime heights to which Roth took the gorno genre, but the attentive (and just about everyone else) will note that I titled the piece highs and lows. And unfortunately for Roth’s critical perception, the low of this genre provokes far greater ire than say a featherweight romantic comedy (though that is far more harmful to both the art of film and culture in my opinion). So what then is the artistic low of Hostel: Part II? (NOTE: My friend Will had a rather ingenious insight about the potential meaning of this upcoming scene, proving that Roth is perhaps the most under-rated director in any medium. Rather than delete my post, I’m leaving it as fodder for discussion, a counterpoint, and I direct you all to continue to the comments.)
The culprit.. ahem, I mean to say the scene begins compellingly enough with the victim hanging upside down naked from a hook as if she were a still living slab of meat. Next a blowtorch is brought into frame, and Roth lets our imaginations run wild with the disturbing possibilities, only to then with a morbidly humorous turn set about lighting candles. Roth lets the moment play out a bit, dragging on the tension and letting us know he knows he’s tricked us. (Spielberg has a similar exercise in building and releasing dramatic tension with an ominous coat hanger in Raiders of the Ark). It’s an appropriate metaphor for Roth’s cinematic style that these people don’t just light candles with a match, they use a blow torch. Then we have a woman emerge from shadows in a black cloak, like some self-obsessed cult member. She drops the cloak, allowing (key word there for anyone attempting a half-assed feminist critique) the camera to frame her in a full-frontal nude shot before positioning herself under the girl. She grabs a scythe and our terrible imaginations are again called into service, if only for a moment because Roth is going to deliver some heavy helpings of gore.
Dealing with such material is a tight rope act, and the line of high culture is very fine indeed, and there’s no safety net of low culture to break your fall. Slip here and you crash into dangerous territory, “a monster” they’ll call you, “a diseased-mind”, or worse, “a boring self-imitator” as one critic exclaimed—it’s a very long fall. All of the criticisms levied against this film could be ostensibly directed at this one blood-bath sequence.
From a structural standpoint, however, the scene is a brilliantly staged exercise in one-upmanship, with each moment trying to shock and startle us more than the one which preceded it, or perhaps any moment in any film ever. Though the girl is gagged at the beginning, Roth launches the scene into sensory overkill when he has the woman cut the gag free. One almost wonders if that action is meant to be metaphorical since the scene that follows is above and beyond any of the violence witnessed in the first Hostel; this is Roth “ungagged” as it were. The violence may have been more tolerable, as morally depraved as it sounds, had she remained gagged. But after it’s removed the scene becomes too much. Unfortunately, from a structural standpoint he can’t simply end it there. He’s backed himself into a dramatic corner. Cut away there and the whole scene will fall flat. No, he has to finish it. Interestingly, he does so with the same perfunctory note that the killer does, with a simple cut to the jugular, ending it quick, and then it’s on to the next bit. If there is a serial killer in this movie, it’s Roth. No other horror film director has quite understood this concept as well as he has. The director is god, the master in a sadistic playground of his own imagining. It’s an effective strategy, it’s probably the secret of his success. When his name’s on the label rest assured the audience is not afraid of whatever monster may appear in the film, the audience is afraid of the monster behind it.
The scene, however, for all its technical merits, nonetheless goes on well beyond the point of making a point. After slashing the woman several times with a scythe, Roth felt she needed to pick up a sickle to finish the job. The problem with this is that each shot has conveyed some new horror for the audience to gasp at. By the time he’s shown us this latest tool of torture, we have no air left with which to breathe. If the scene hadn’t already gone over the top (albeit a very high top to begin with) it does so now. Let us pause for a moment and take stock: not one but two fully naked women, a bathtub full of blood, multiple lacerations, orgasmic glee, one instrument of torture, and a weapon to finish the job. While there have certainly been more shocking scenes of carnage at the Grand Guignol, including one where—according to a Time magazine article from 1962—a woman was bound, gagged, and whipped (for starters), then had the tips of her breasts clipped off with hedge shears all in time to get her eyes “scooped out with a soupspoon and jackknife”, one has to wonder just what boundary Roth is trying to push that he hasn’t already. Part of the impetus for watching the “dreck” of Grand Guignol (of which Roth’s entire work feels right at home) is the thrill of seeing the technical work done live. Apparently that hedge clipper scene was very convincing, and the management were quite proud, or so we’re told. At this point in film make-up and effects, however, showcasing such technical excellence on that scale is superfluous. We know what film artists are capable of, we certainly know what wunderkind Greg Nicotero can do (anything), we don’t need to be reminded just for the sake of being reminded. What we need is for the flesh to speak, not simply be mutilated. Carve it up all you want, Mr. Roth, but be sure to make a Frankenstein monster with the trimmings when you’re done.
What makes any defense for the inclusion of this scene all the more troublesome is that Roth (wisely) doesn’t feel the need to show every characters death. The second female victim is killed off-screen, and rightly so, because that violence is superfluous to the plot, and also reinforces Roth’s statement that these people are to be considered as disposable objects. So why then have this extended sequence of torture? Was he worried that the audience would be bored? Or upset if he didn’t reach a gore quotient for the first act? Why do we need four minutes of a young girl hanging upside down, completely nude, whimpering in pain, pleading for her life? Why show this scene? What is this scene supposed to accomplish? If it’s simply to provide a visceral thrill, there’s enough of that in this movie already, we don’t need another instance, particularly not one that strains the limits of our good will for these bloody matters. So the problem with this scene is not the gratuitous gore, or its excruciating desire to one-up every moment, the problem is that it serves no singular purpose. Any point I can imagine it making has been made elsewhere, and with more finesse.
The problem with this scene then is that Roth has been too secretive with his message. What are we supposed to get out of it? What are we to make of the Countess Erzebet Barthory type figure—a vampiric horror from Europe’s dark history infamous for bathing in the blood of young virgins? If Roth is trying to make some kind of statement on feminine somatic consumption via cinematic content, it eludes me, dear reader. But then maybe that’s the point, maybe we’re not supposed to “get” the scene, maybe it’s a secret known only to Roth, that sly Ariadne, who’s led us patiently down a mental labyrinth with the scene’s structural techniques just to leave us trapped in the dark with only the horrors of our imagination as our Minotaur companion. It’s just a shame that so much blood had to be spilled to do it.
I’ll give you a counter-example of a scene that uses violence to make a point. After escaping from her would-be captors into the woods, our female protagonist is assaulted by a tribe of nomadic orphans. She’s rescued by a stranger, who has her escorted away before dealing with the children. What follows is an uncomfortably long stretch of a man pointing a gun at children, yet Roth is thankfully restrained (ironic that we should be thankful, as though Roth has us suffering from Stockholm syndrome). Rather than simply making the choice himself, the gunman gives it to the group. He looks at the leader of the group and holds up one finger, the debt to be paid in human life. Without flinching, the leader knocks one of his own to the ground, and what could have been simple murder on film becomes a portrait of tribe warfare according to a particular and peculiar cultural exchange. Unlike in the previous scene of death, here Roth has the good sense not to bother showing it, cutting to a reaction shot of the child leader, who nods his approval to the man. Instead of demonstrating senseless violence, Roth is conveying information: the order is restored. Roth actually uses the violence to mean something, whether it’s worth saying is another matter.
If this film says anything, it’s that violence in film can be used to express something worthwhile, and wholly deserving of serious discussion. The extreme brutality in this film functions as a sort of moral litmus test. The film affirms our morality as it questions it, in the process drawing the contours of our basic humanity into deep focus. Your reaction to the carnage is important, it tells you who you are, and who you are not. And by basing the horrors in an organization of death, which has made torture into a business model, Roth is tackling some rather heavy material about what society is most assuredly capable of. In response to the machine-like efficiency and cold-blooded dehumanization of this organization, Roth stresses that we’re all flesh and blood mortals, every one of us—albeit some more bloody than others. He may not affirm the value of human life (I’d like to see anyone make that case after Roth finishes the film on a group of delinquents using a woman’s severed head as a soccer ball, an ending eerily reminiscent in tone to Tarantino’s own Death Proof released just months after) but then he also doesn’t suggest that there isn’t one.
Now if you’ll excuse me, after all this talk of gore I need to go take a shower—or perhaps an acid bath.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1973)
Cabin Fever (2002)
Will pair perfectly with:
Seriously, you need more? Um, you should probably get some rest after watching this movie. Maybe go sit on a quiet hilltop and relax. Drink tea, preferably green.
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Addendum: If any of you are wondering why I would give this film credence as a work of art, consider that it is nonetheless a product of a singular vision, writer and director Eli Roth. We may not like what he’s saying, and we certainly don’t need to agree with it, but the fact remains that he’s spoken it through the language of cinema, and it would be ignorant to ignore or silence dissenting opinion simply because one is rhetorically or intellectually unequipped to deal with the subject matter. If that’s the case, you don’t get to spout your opinion. It’s not valid. Stay off the internet message boards. You may find what Roth is doing here crass, disgusting, disgraceful, boring even, but that doesn’t change the fact that he has said something. To interpret what has been said is the goal of film criticism, as it should be for any self-respecting film watcher. After toiling away at intellectual pursuit for some time, then, and only then, can you dismiss it through reason and logic. You may come to the conclusion that the film is artistically and intellectual barren, that’s perfectly commendable, so long as that was a conclusion reached through reason and reflection rather than foregone belief. But to simply silence difference if only because the content is below an accepted standard is ignorance, and moreover symptomatic of the atrophication of our culture. You can’t just disagree with something on general principle; you have to consider valid reasons.