Same Old, Same Old: The “New” Horror
By Michael Koresky
Hostel Part Two
Dir. Eli Roth, U.S., Lions Gate
The flurry of recent press both praising and decrying a new movement in horror filmmaking, dubbed, with tongue planted firmly in butt-cheek, the “Splat-Pack,” shows a determination to justify a cultural black hole. The need to align epochs of genres, especially horror, with sociopolitical realities has always made for neatly encapsulated criticism and terrific sound bites, but this sort of assessment works better in retrospect. Those who make up this contingent of new filmmakers are from such disparate backgrounds and sensibilities, nationally and otherwise, that to group them together as some kind of coalition comes across as desperate at best, disingenuous at worst. The truth is that the need to place instantaneous social readings on this new wave of horror willfully ignores the pathetic opportunism behind some of the films, as well as the savvy genre reclamation of others. Those influential Seventies horror films, from the dingy cult basement specials of Wes Craven to the multiplex delights of John Carpenter, were for the most part recouped decades later as trenchant post-Vietnam meditations on social disillusionment as a way of putting a neat bow atop a tumultuous past.
This is not to propose that there is no commentary or merit in any of these recent horror films, or that political metaphor isn’t detectable. The problem is that these filmmakers justify their lack of imagination on philosophical grounds. The grotesquely self-mythologizing Eli Roth has evidently bought into the hype for some time now, as he’s been digging a grave for himself with his own words since the 2006 release of Hostel, which so titillated mainstream audiences with its cut-and-dry scenarios of young people tied up and mutilated for sport that it brought the term “torture porn” into the public discourse. Now with the release of Hostel Part Two, one must ask: was the reputation of this effortless self-promoter (he’s a Tarantino without the intimidating sense of editing or composition) really based on one well timed—read: politically opportunistic—slasher flick and his two-minute Grindhouse gag reel? (Certainly his debut, the jokey Evil Dead riff Cabin Fever, wasn’t received as particularly auspicious.) Yet Roth, vaunted last month in New York Times and Village Voice think pieces, and chosen to open New York’s Museum of the Moving Image’s five-week film series “It's Only a Movie: Horror Films from the 1970s to Today” with a special advance screening of Hostel Part Two, has crawled out on top as the leader of the (splat) pack. To understand how this has happened one need only look at the feebleness of others who’ve been haphazardly tagged as members of the club: Alexandre Aja, Marcus Nispel, James Wan? You’re forgiven if you need a quick imdb refresher on their slight oeuvres, dotted as they are with remakes (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes) and sequels (Saw 2, 3), and in some cases sequels of remakes (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning).
Certainly horror was never a moribund genre as far as Hollywood is concerned, and the studios crank out sequels with more regularity than ever; so trying to recoup all this as a legitimate movement therefore can only leave one grasping at straws. What we have then seems more based on (gasp!) good old-fashioned marketing and mini-studio bids for the big time (undoubtedly Lions Gate’s primary motivating factor for Hostel Part Two and the endless Saw franchise, whose box office helps pay for smaller acquisitions like Away from Her) than a valid reflection of, as it’s so often invoked, fears in the post-9/11 age. Even United 93, not a horror film per se but a pretty classically constructed suspense thriller all the same, ultimately seemed more a timeless genre piece, outfitted with 24-cribbed verité style and real-life heroics, and borne more out of machine-tooled narrative functionality than “a need to heal.” So then this wholly opportunistic new mini-genre, under which labels such as “torture porn” and “gorno” have been stuck, needed a mascot: who better than Roth to assume the position? “I'd love to see us get to a point where you can make a movie and not worry about the limits of the violence,” Roth has stated. “Then I think they'd get so violent that people would get bored of it."
Roth’s tactic isn’t really to scare viewers, to create new frissons in movie watching, or even to gross them out necessarily, but to play ever escalating games of one-upmanship. In other words, he asks how he can top what he and other genre directors have previously done; filmmaking becomes a pissing contest, a frattish clique in which the biggest castrated cock wins. Too bad that Roth’s need for approval is even bigger than our tolerance for his gore. Believing his own press, Roth evidently thinks he’s creating something that transcends genre: “It's interesting that the critics in Europe saw [Hostel] with such different eyes. Le Monde, in France, named it as the best American film of the year. [In] their top ten, there were only three American movies—Hostel was the number two film of all, the best American film, ahead of The Departed and The New World, the only other American films on the list,” he rapturously praised his own work in an interview with Film Freak Central. “They saw it as the smartest comment on American imperialism and capitalism gone too far…” But does this alleged political commentary really go hand in hand with his priorly stated utopian dream in which we need not “worry about the limits of violence”? These are the muddled statements of a not very sophisticated thinker, trying on one hand to justify his own empty provocations as ways of waking viewers up to the violence of imperialism, while on the other hand wanting to get to a place where violence on-screen becomes desensitizing. Roth’s need to trot out defenses of his films even before they’re released betrays his attempted cool, a desperate move that shows, much like his contradictory statements on his films’ ideological worth, that, deep down, he knows he’s wrong.
Many critics think the savviest, least self-identifying way of dealing with Roth’s work is to shrug it off—as boring, repetitive, not attuned to the classical tenets of horror, with its disavowal of tension and release, or just plain wimpy. The implicit being, “I’ve seen Fulci, I’ve seen Miike. Now that’s extreeeme cinema.” All the easier to not get down in the muck with Roth and actually take a closer look at his work. In the months leading up to its release, Roth was quoted as boasting about the distaff qualities of his sequel to Hostel: As opposed to the original, in which three backpacking American everydudes en route to getting laid in Slovakia, are unwittingly bought and butchered in an internationally conspiratorial meat market, in Hostel Part Two it’s a trio of young women who are rounded up, strapped down, and tortured and mutilated for sport. Roth seems to think that to enact such horrors as death by attenuated bloodletting or mutilation by buzz saw to the face upon the opposite sex in some way portrays a provocative rebuke to the horror genre. Despite the hilarity inherent in interpreting the torture of women as somehow subversive or anomalous to horror films (which have been turning women into imperiled victims since way before even Janet Leigh got into the shower), this approach proves that Roth has no interest in his characters in any way more meaningful than their sex organs. If Roth means to draw parallels between sex and torture, pain, and degradation with his two Hostel films, then in many ways, the original film is the more daring, serving up athletic young boys for the delectation of frustrated middle-aged men, the slaughterhouse doubling as the forbidden bordello: it would have been a neat inversion of horror roles if Roth had shown anything but contempt for every character onscreen.
Instead, here we have a climactic castration, Roth’s nod toward I Spit on Your Grave and his assumed image of self-protection against accusations of misogyny. No matter that this comes long after Heather Matarazzo’s been strung up upside down, naked, and sliced slowly to death with a scythe while a nude woman sits below her, rubbing her breasts and crotch with her pouring blood. “If people say that they think the films are misogynistic, well, you see Hostel Part Two and that will clear all of that up,” Roth haughtily promises. He goes further: “If you see Hostel Part Two, you'll see these are great roles, and it's actually very much more of a feminist film than anything.” For argument’s sake, let’s say that the essential rape-revenge strategy of Hostel Part Two (and yes, I consider the chaining up and mutilating of women for the masturbatory purposes of its audience to be rape) picks up on some pop version of feminism (honed in Craven’s not very good Virgin Spring knockoff The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, and cheekily dissected in Tarantino’s more genre meditative Death Proof earlier this year); even accepting this, it must be noted that Roth obviously has no interest in wrestling with the images he’s providing—lingering on Matarazzo’s skin as the blades run across it teasingly, as she pleads and cries for help, her body caressed by sensual candlelight. If then we are to believe Roth’s line that kids today, raised around the horrors of September 11 and the subsequent images of terror on the nightly news, “need something harder to scare them,” why do these images seem perfectly rote? Do we really need to call up the omnipresent catchall of 9/11 to psychologically excuse more images of women tortured in dank cellars? Roth’s brazenness is almost comical, as is his lack of interpretation of feminism as anything more than castration, and his understanding of cinema as anything more than a momentary jolt.
It must be asked: where are the women in this splat pack boys’ club? Horror hasn’t historically been a woman’s medium, true (neither has film, sadly), but judging by the ferocity with which this new generation has demolished any pretense at political correctness (Aja’s High Tension featured a chainsaw-wielding butch lesbian, out to kill her object of desire, while his Hills Have Eyes redo featured rape-a-plenty and baby-snatching; Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects didn’t have qualms about pointing a loaded gun down the front of a fiftysomething woman’s skimpy panties) you’d think they were reacting to something. Yet women remain as powerless over the horror image as ever. Roth time and again creates the visual correlation between torture and sex, keeping his viewers (read: straight males) in states of arousal throughout his films, even in Part Two showing one character tossing a woman off of him in mid-blowjob in order to answer a call from the hostel folks. Roth shows Bijou Phillips chained to a chair in a make-up room, as a dandyish dresser prepares to “make her pretty for the client.” It’s a pretty clear equation of porn with torture, yet Roth is unwilling to further investigate this, deflecting actual identification with his female characters by manufacturing two male protagonists to follow: wealthy American businessmen Stuart (Roger Bart) and Todd (Richard Burgi), who are already neutered by their nerdlinger names. Aside from their mewling screams, we aren’t aligned with the women in Hostel Part Two; instead Roth is more interested in getting into the minds of the conflicted male torturers, who are followed from their initial bids on their prey to their final reckonings in the chambers. Their apparent moral ambivalence is ludicrous (anyone who would take their murderous fantasies this far would hardly be struggling with crises of conscience), yet Roth still would rather toy with your sympathies regarding Stuart and Todd than view his women as anything but lambs to the slaughter.
Eli Roth paints viewers into a corner: criticize his films for being too violent and you’re a PC square who just can’t take the gore, man; accuse him of being overly cynical, he’s ready with a swift rebuke about our “increasingly violent, volatile world.” It’s bully cinema; if you don’t get it, it’s your fault. The closest approximation to Roth’s point of view lies in the ridiculous dialogue uttered by Stuart and Todd. “We’re the normal ones!” insists Todd, who has taken Stuart with him to Slovakia to initiate him into the world of torturing PYTs. And it’s doubtful that Roth would disagree much, as the Hostel films are based on the precarious notion that we are all capable of such acts—both end on the dubious “shock” of role reversal, in which victim (Jay Hernandez in the first, Lauren German in the second) becomes retaliatory killer, thus satiating the audience’s thirst for revenge, and throwing our cravings back in our faces. It’s Roth’s only trick, and it’s a cheap one (not to mention simplistic enough to make Gaspar Noé seem like Dostoyevsky by comparison).
“I will make a thousand arguments as to why Hostel Part Two is an art film, and has artistic merit,” promises Roth. “But somehow, because it's entertaining, because there are kills in it and really violent scenes, people are like, ‘No, it's exploitation.’” It’s amusing how terrified Roth is of that term, even though the filmmakers he’s emulating come from a far more unapologetically generic background. Certainly, Rob Zombie, the “Splat Pack”’s saving grace, by sheer virtue of craftsmanship and his admirable lack of editorializing, would never prop up his superior Devil’s Rejects as anything more than an exercise in genre extremism, suffused with gutter nostalgia. One expertly timed freeze frame or dazzlingly gritty composition from Zombie puts to shame Roth’s grungy point-and-shoot non-aesthetic. Lacking both the palpable earthy grime of Craven’s early films (and that’s an artistic low) and the overly lit gloss of the recent Chainsaw remakes, the Hostel films function in a lukewarm middle ground, mere vessels for copious blood-draining and flesh pulverizing. If Roth proved even for a moment that he was remotely interested in the ethics of horror representation, then maybe all of his howling about his films’ artistic merit would be bearable; yet in Hostel Part Two, not only does he present the death of a young child by gunshot to the head, he draws out the suspense preceding the kid's murder for an interminable length, forcing his audiences to get off on the thrill of tension.
The thirtysomething-year-old films so often cited as those that influenced this new generation were a mixed bunch themselves, and certainly no sweeping general statement could be made about their quality. Yet there’s no denying the ferocious purity of Tobe Hooper’s social satire in Texas Chainsaw, the stripped-down technical and atmospheric elegance of John Carpenter’s Halloween or The Fog, the streetwise grit and anxiety of Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To. When held up to those films, Roth’s single-minded gore-chasing and Aja’s smug proficiency seem downright useless, and even barely entertaining (at least Zombie’s perversity is genuinely inventive). The self-protecting stance that these films are political is as silly and lead-footed as the notion of the “rage virus” metaphor that supposedly politicized Danny Boyle’s zombie update 28 Days Later. The films from the Vietnam period didn’t necessarily engage directly with the times as much as reflect a pervasive disenfrachisement, and those instances of definitive proselytizing, such as Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Bob Clark’s zombie-as-Vietnam-veteran one-off Deathdream (more effective than Joe Dante’s recent, overrated Homecoming, which presented Iraq war soldiers returning from the dead, only to vote Bush out of office), were wrought with anger and melancholy. Hostel Part Two actually ends with a lame joke involving a severed head being used as a football by a pack of marauding kids, their play set to an up-tempo Eastern European tune. There’s nary a whiff of sadness or genuine outrage in Hostel or its sequel, despite their reveling in putrescence. No wonder you forget them the second they’re over.
Question for those who would care to bestow political credence on the Splat Pack: how come the greatest, most zeitgeist-rattling horror film of the past decade was released two-and-a-half years before 9/11? In the summer of 1999, The Blair Witch Project blew horror conventions wide open, testing what audiences would accept and withstand with nary a gutting or decapitation. Blair Witch’s shattering experiment in subjectivity and environmental, existential terror redefined horror and excavated fears most viewers might not even know they had, both primal and social: of nature in a deceptively modern age, of powerlessness in the face of the unknown, the possibility for betrayal of others and ourselves. The true elemental terror of Blair Witch (which surveyed modern narcissism, buttressed up against nature and folklore) is worlds away from the hackish opportunism of Hostel. Like the Hostel films, Blair Witch follows a downward trajectory that climaxes in a disorienting, dark, echoing basement; yet it’s the merciless question mark of its final image (what is happening in that corner?) that etches it on our memories. Roth has no need for such ambiguity, instead purporting to provide catharsis for our contemporary traumas, simply splashing more blood across the floor and asking us to lick it up. Roth said in a recent issue of Interview magazine, when asked about where this new strain of torture films come from: “I think it’s definitely influenced by the feeling in America—that there are terrorists everywhere who could abduct you and cut your head off. And I think it’s a result of the fact that on the internet you can see images of people like Daniel Pearl being decapitated. I think that anxiety has to go somewhere.” For someone who shies away from the term “exploitation,” Roth is pretty clear about his desire to exploit our anxieties.