Caution: contains basically complete spoilers of both Hostel and Part II.
Hostel opened to $20 mil, but both good and shocked word of mouth circulated rapidly, and it gained steam to wind up with a healthy take of $47 million, ten times budget. Hostel Part II opens to poor box office - only $8.2 mil with a second-week drop to $3m - and executives scratch their heads and wonder why only $8 mil worth of people want to watch Heather Matarazzo get flayed, having thought they understood the current marketability of graphic, torturous violence. Despite what was at the time huge enthusiasm, Hostel's IMDb rating has dropped over time to 5.8, with 11% of voters giving it a 10 and 14% of voters giving it a 1. Roth enjoys (and he does enjoy: "Well, when someone throws up while watching one of your movies, it's like a standing ovation") both a strong following and a rabid anti-fan base. His stuff does polarize, and it's not without reason. If it were only gorehounds going to watch the films, and Puritans staying home, it would make sense. Some decryers simply aren't up for the ride: in a recent Joe Carnahan blog, the director of Narc (R for strong brutal violence, drug content and pervasive language) and Smokin' Aces (R for strong bloody violence, pervasive language, some nudity and drug use) bemoans the state of the industry even while admitting he hasn't watched the films in question. But seasoned blood fans as well as Friday-evening teens are coming away with complaints.
It's not the torture, and it's not the porn. Roth's movies are widely regarded as ultra-violent, but a second viewing of either film will reveal significantly less actual blood than one thought the first time through. They're more violent than most, but less violent than some, so it's not a matter of sfx-and-prostheses extremity. They've got a healthy quantity of nudity, but the word 'porn' is thrown around pretty liberally (even in a non-"torture porn" usage) for a movie with less explicit sexual content than Scary Movie 2.
To find out what it is we're not getting from the film, we need to ask what we're looking for. If it's an exercise in sadism, who goes to see this movie in the first place? This kind of backlash means people are expecting something and getting something else, and the marketing and discussion of Hostel is very clear about what to expect. Audience members come in looking for sadism and torture. Aren't they finding it?
The issue must be in the reading of the film. Hostel looks not unlike certain types of film: a teens-in-peril, a hunting-humans, a wrong-turn thriller, and a slasher, and the conventions of these films serve with some accuracy to guide the viewer along. With the extended first act, Roth allows plenty of time to consider the sexual aspect. The sex/horror dichotomy seems to follow the slasher premise, leading to the obvious questions: is Roth saying the sex sets us up? That we follow sex so blindly? Minutes into the movie, our lead Amerikaner pushes open a brothel door to make sure a prostitute isn't being beaten, though of course we know it's just gonna be some kind of BDSM deal: indeed, the woman is hitting the man. It may hint that the woman preys on the man, as we find out later to be true, but the first, and easiest, explanation, is to look at Hostel as an updated slasher: you go after sex, particularly out of your own domain, you get killed.
Josh was anti-prostitution, anti-meat, anti-unwillingness, as he defends the prostitutes' position of being in a situation they don't enjoy but having it thrust upon them by, say, the demands of the economy, a position that seems a likely similarity to the townsfolk, who act out of economic interest and not moral weakness. His argument isn't that prostitution is immoral, but rather that the action takes place without the desire of the victim. This should save him: standard horror thought is that as the one who understands the opposite reasoning, he is the one who will make it through.
But Hostel isn't a slasher: the suspicious guy isn't the last living. Neither is the sensitive guy. Virginity doesn't save you. More importantly, Hostel doesn't have the slasher film's reliance on sexual dysfunction. Slasher killers are sexually warped; The Dutch Businessman is a Dutch businessman. It's the revelation that Oli has a 6-year-old daughter that makes Paxton question how well they really know him. Maybe he's closer to the civilized Dutch businessman; they both carry pictures of their kid. Stuart has a wife and kids. The German Surgeon may derive some (possibly sexual) excitement from his victim's fear, but he calls to mind much more readily an ineffectual milquetoast with a sadistic streak than a formidable slasher. Stuart may be in this to take out his sexual frustrations, but they're within the realm of average sexual complaint, placing the sexual aspect as simply one inescapable part of the overall human frustration that led all of the torturers here. When Todd asks Stuart if he remembers the first guy in high school to get laid, he hints at the futility and boredom of sex; the "next level" status sex brings was achieved and subsequently forgotten a couple of decades ago. It's reaffirmed when he pushes a woman out of bed in favor of his Elite Hunting beeper - he clearly receives no joy from her attentions. The American Client already can't remember the sex he had two days ago. Death in the slasher is a replacement for sex, but here it is simply the next step.
WHAT'S MY MOTIVATION HERE?
Watching Hostel for the first time, things are going fine. The movie is two thirds through, getting tense, and it's hard not to groan when Rick Hoffman shows up as The American Client. As an actor, Hoffman tends to fulfill a certain purpose (let's just say I'll give heavy odds he doesn't make it to the end of The Condemned), and that purpose is to annoy. It's not a knock on the actor; that's just what he does, and it's not quite clear why Roth wants to take this opportunity to irk rather than intimidate. Hostel Part II expands on this from the first moments Todd (Richard Burgi) appears onscreen. We dislike him immediately, and continue to do so for most of his screen time. We don't fear him, exactly - he may be tall and muscular, but he doesn't speak softly enough. He's too familiarly arrogant, too much like the guy running a four-way stop in a Benz or yelling at a grocery clerk. Roth takes pains to clarify that these killers aren't far-fetched: they aren't bad-asses, just asses, the kind of men whose braggadocio is developed enough that only a small amount of mania is needed to push them over the top.
Upon seeing The American Client, we finally give up trying to work out the offenders' motivations. He's unhinged but functional, and what's more, he's just an annoying guy we instantly hate. We don't need an explanation from The Japanese Businessman, but just assume he's a rich man seeking the unusual. We don't even need explanation from the Dutch Businessman. He offers us obligatory-to-narrative bits - he likes to have a connection to things that die for him, he wants to hold life in his hands, he was rejected by the medical board - but this is all character detail, never needing to coalesce into anything resembling a cause. As huge Slovak men drag Paxton down a hallway and we see room after room of people torturing their victims, we assume some things about them. These hallway beaters are just people who have the weight of the world on their shoulders (real or imagined) and want to let off some steam by beating those weaker than they are. Some may be a little more gruesome, some may be a little kinkier, but in a remarkable display of complicity, we uncuriously grant that they have their reasons. The audience needs to be invested in the torture-desire, and the reasons (in the case of the Dutch Businessman) or the complete lack of reasons (every open hallway door) let us guess, or more precisely, realize we don't need to guess. It's pretty easy to think of a few dozen reasons, whether good ones or not: want to hold life in hands, already conquered world of business, emasculation at hands of wife. For all the initial discussion of Hostel upon its release, nobody ever asked how come the killers want to kill.
It's surprising, this quick acceptance. The American Client, like Todd in Part II, has been around the world. Tired of sex and drugs, in need of a new rush. The boredom theory of those who have used up every other high, which underscores that our killers are overly bored and absurdly rich, making them an unlikely batch to identify with - but then again, we wouldn't want to pry. We need room: though we have no interest in plot-based reasons, we need a subconscious space to ask why these characters want to torture in order to ask ourselves why we want to see torture, and we need blank space and anonymity to consider that.
Hostel Part II has a Main Bad Guy introduced very quickly, and this immediately seems like a very bad idea. The reason we don't want a Main Bad Guy is the same as the reason the motives for torture are so generic. Slashers and serial killers are rooted in specificity, and if their threat is somehow universal, little kids watching Nightmare on Elm Street don't end up afraid of child molesters or Oedipal complices; they end up afraid of Freddy. So it seems troublesome that Hostel Part II offers up a chief baddy in very expensive shoes with very expensive dogs. Sooner or later we will have our backstory, and with it, our chance to shed our torture-desires onto a vaguely ominous, conveniently bland Slovak.
Thankfully, he never gets that bad. When Beth asks Axelle what her father does, she replies simply, "He does auctions." This should be creepy, but it's not. It's matter-of-fact. He isn't a sadist or a killer; he just does auctions. He didn't create the product, just saw the demand and arranged the supply. Sasha is an entrepreneur, interested in the contract. He may be complicit but his villainy is red herring, and by the time we understand his purpose, we bear him no enmity. Of course, this means that neither can we shift our guilt to him.
"It's no problem," says Alexei, early in the first film, "not everyone want to kill Americans," which is untrue, since Americans come at a premium. Obviously everyone very badly wants to kill Americans. "You can pay to do anything," says the Dutch Businessman on the train, which is true. The hint is that a destabilized region reverts to a very basic cash-based economy, and that the locals will welcome them warmly, hoping the American dollar will rescue Slovakia. Economic decrepitude leads to moral decrepitude: the fewer amenities, the less morality, is the idea. Already they have paid for sex and drugs, and so they are quick to believe, though it's hard to imagine they have any further ideas than the same sex and the same drugs. The idea of absolute hedonism, of the "anything" they can buy, appeals to them, but they don't really know what that is (and when they find out, they don't want it).
Alexei claims that because of the war, all the Slovakian guys are gone. In Part II, Axelle points out that Slovakia hasn't been at war in decades. Did someone point it out to Eli Roth? Or is he in fact clarifying a point from the first film: that as far as Paxton and Josh know, Slovakia is interchangeable with Bosnia and Herzegovina or Kosovo or Slovenia? Maybe if Americans were better at geography...
RUS $5G, EUR $10G, AMER $25G
Why are Russians cheap? Easily procured due to location, or because there's so little demand? Who wants to kill a Russian anyway?
Some simply want to kill foreignness; the German Surgeon is shaken when confronted with German. Paxton, who should know, tells the German he'll be plagued by nightmares, and the German is given pause - but not by Paxton's warning. He doesn't change his mind; he just doesn't want to hear German. The eight unsubtitled foreign languages in Hostel tell us not only that there is much going on to which we are not privy, but also that Americans speaking English are not the center of the universe. The conceit that Americans are the priciest seems right, the trailer for Hostel Part II playing on this: "But if you want an American girl...that will cost you," it intones, moving through seven languages line by line to tell us that the entire world understands the value of taking it out on an American.
The idea is first that American tourist-invaders are plundering, raping and killing the indigenous life (and sure enough we are likely to be pretty annoyed by our supposed protagonists' arms-raised WHOOOEE upon seeing a lovely, quaint Eastern European village. That first half hour is basically encapsulated in the first line of dialogue: "Amsterdam, motherfucker!" But by the time the tourists have toured Slovakia, we realize that we Americans aren't plundering them, they're plundering us, whether in payback for probably having caused the economic turmoil, for backpacking across to use their national daughters, or for that well-displayed ugliness and arrogance.
But easily forgotten is the fact that this is a tourist trade. We meet the Japanese Businessman, we meet the American Client. We meet the Dutch Businessman, and we meet the German Surgeon. This is a prestige project for the rich, sure, but it's also distinctly one for outsiders and tourists. The locals are working for the money, not shelling out $5G to whack a Russian. Slovakia is destitute, and with no influx of money from souvenir sales, the local tourist trade is simply procurement instead. The locality is nearly irrelevant. It could be anywhere; it just needs to be remote, and broke enough to have the whole town in on it. Bratislava isn't a widely enough traveled destination for Americans that the locals should have a special personal resentment for them, or Alexei wouldn't have had to talk them into it all the way from Amsterdam. If Americans only traveled Slovakia a little more frequently, there might be enough money not to have to rely on the abattoir game.
This is another part of why the film sits poorly with viewers. For all of their annoyance, the Americans don't deserve what they get, and audience sympathies are with them. At the same time, if the film is conceptualized in the minds of its would-be viewers as a torture showpiece, there is also an equation of viewer to torturer. Somewhere in that equation lies the transition that causes the audience such discomfort.
TWO HALVES = NUMEROUS HOLES
Roth takes great care to equate the halves of the film. The characters that come to plunder will be plundered, those who see women as meat will be seen as meat in turn, those who wish to purchase the use of a body will have their bodies purchased for use. It is explicit in matching Josh's trip down the hallway of the brothel to Paxton's trip down the hallway of the abattoir.
Between those mirror images comes the tonal change. The film's fade to black after the sex scene signals the first phase of the film giving way. Oli is gone, the color fades out, and things begin to go wrong. Paxton and Josh are no longer tourists. The extensive first phase led some bloodthirsty fans to cry boredom; the nudity led some to cry sleaze. Both are necessary. The boys are lulled, drawn in, and seduced, and for this to have any meaning, we must share in their actions and be preyed upon similarly. We get the same treatment: we gawk (which Roth makes sure we do), and as soon as we get drawn in, we get an eyeful of blowtorch. This is why we don't get two minutes of sex, we get twenty-five. We have to commit to this space.
The fellows' turning point comes with that fadeout, but we get our own. The film signals its turn on the audience when they (we) visit the museum of torture. Standing in for us, they have come to safely view horrors, but when an exhibit puts a hand on Josh's shoulder, they are commuted from the viewers (indeed, since we are pointedly shown them buying tickets, the purchasers) of the horror to the victims. In a moment, their orange-jacketed friend will turn to them and they will see for the second time that he is not the person they thought he was.
It is also a reminder of what happens to those who purchase the actual torture. Things go wrong in the execution room with shocking regularity. In the Elite Hunting world, this is a system that works, but when we are afforded a peek inside, we are stymied more often than not. Extension cords don't reach, victims choke on vomit, torturers slip in blood. As matter-of-factly, men will find themselves lacking. Sometimes this will come in handy, as when we wish certain characters well. Sometimes it will not, leading to the frustration of the torturers, and we must consider whether we really attend a torture movie to see torture escaped from. Our torture-desires are less easily attained than the trailer promised us - "There is a place where all your darkest sickest fantasies are possible," it offered, distinctly in the second person, "where you can experience anything you desire."
Overtly at the ticket office, covertly in the dark theater, we purchase torture, and part and parcel is the answering of it, our resolution of guilt at wanting to see American tackiness (or militarism, or nationalism, or Abu Ghraib, if one prefers that unnecessary but certainly workable angle) punished. Roth makes us want comeuppance for our young objectifiers, but scolds us for it, going so far as to make us feel the most sympathy for the least likeable of our leads. We can have the torture we bought, but we will pay in discomfort and guilt.
The Dutch Businessman purchases torture and will have it returned to him, but tellingly, not the one he chose for his victim. He is given instead Paxton's finger-removal, indicating that, as we knew, the individual identity of the torturer is irrelevant. The Businessman is part of the greater whole, as equally complicit in the German or American torturer's actions as each viewer in a dark theater to his seatmate, and Paxton's revenge on him is decidedly not avenging his friend's death, but specifically answering his own pain and loss.
The intended aggressor status is consistently turned back upon the perpetrator: first the guys in the museum (and symbolically the viewer), then the German surgeon, Alexei, Natalya, Svetlana, the Dutch Businessman. In Hostel Part II, Stuart looks to avenge his emasculation, the removal of his sexual autonomy. He doubts it can be done, but realizes it's possible through transference, removing the sexual autonomy of another. Since the rules of the first film are still in play, it will be visited back upon him, and his emasculation will once again be confirmed. Todd will have his overconfidence returned in the inverse. It is a warning to us as well as horror-purchasers; this is what happens to us in Part II when Roth willfully withholds every proffered pleasure. Are we in it for the promised male-to-female violence on which the film is predicated? There is virtually none. The lesbian content teased from Axelle's first appearance? Nudity from the frankly-not-that-discriminating Bijou Phillips? Roth sets up everything we expect, down to our surest knowledge, that of Todd's nastiness, and removes all of it. As in the sexual chapter of Hostel, he holds out enough for us to invest, and then cuts it off. Speaking of which, the guy's dad is a psychoanalyst. When he works his way up the castration-symbolism ladder - he attacks first hands, then eyes, and finally genitals - he seeks to make us more and more uneasy, punishing us for our investment. Both films end with revenge. If we sought torture we will reap that revenge upon ourselves as well.
The old-school decadence, the 1970s Euro-gothic horror film influence of the bathtub scene plays as an answer to Captivity and Saw and the torture porn debate, as does Ruggero Deodato, whose presence is a fun in-joke, but a more telling one than Takashi Miike's scene in Hostel. It might be enough for Roth to point out (by inclusion) that Deodato's filmography is just as violent, just as effective at blurring the lines between viewership and voyeurism, that Cannibal Holocaust is Hostel's equal at incriminating the watcher, both in-story ("I wonder who the real cannibals are") and by making sure you know you are watching actual death, removing your ability to condemn. It also might be enough to point out that any number of gialli boasted scenes with the combination of beautiful framing, classy art direction, and stomach-clenching unpleasantness of the set piece. Roth, though, is not entirely content with this. For all his claims of envelope-pushing and ground-breaking, he mounts a surprisingly classical defense: the stories of Elizabeth Bathory's baths in blood, dating back about four hundred years and still actively portrayed in film and fiction, make it tough to level accusations of any kind at Roth's portrayal. Bathory lived in Royal Hungary, now known as Slovakia.
To round out the historical defense, castration is hardly news in film and fiction, and even the great, sick joke closing the film has roots in schoolyard discussion of an ancient proto-soccer game played with a human head, which has its roots in 16th century Mayan legend. Roth may be overstating somewhat wildly when he hypes Hostel Part II as possessing the most shocking ending in horror history, but critics seem eager both to decry his egotism and condemn his violence. Nobody seems eager to denounce the 500-year-old Popol Vuh for its severed-head routines.
SPEAKING OF SET PIECES
Eli Roth might accidentally be a great filmmaker. He sells the wrong aspects of his movies (note the claims of groundbreaking with Hostel Part II), and commentary tracks for Hostel and Cabin Fever occasionally reveal that a moment translating as lofty was improvised, accidental, or Tarantino-suggested (having a psychoanalyst father might tend to suffuse one's work with certain unintended readings as well), but he's enthused enough with his subject matter that he seems to have a natural skill at presenting it. Roth has an uncanny knack of knowing when to give the audience what they want and when not to. He stretches Kana’s eye scene in Hostel well past necessary, holding it just a few seconds longer than you're comfortable. Why are you comfortable with this scene at all? It's disgusting. But Roth leaves you not with the feeling that you shouldn't have seen it at all, but that you saw it for just a bit too long.
When Paxton's car comes upon the conspiratorial team, there's nobody in the audience that doesn't surge forward a little at the thought of what's coming - but this is a murder too. When Paxton follows The Dutch Businessman into the bathroom, we fear Roth is going to stretch it out, to risk further dangers, to indicate that Paxton may be caught, and he mercifully makes it quick, not letting Paxton dawdle, and we realize we have rooted not only for this somehow-legitimized torture - even though it's misleading to allow ourselves to think of either it as Paxton's revenge on his torturer, or the avenging of his friend - but for him to get away with it. The revelation of Beth at the end of Hostel Part II doesn't leave us in horror, but in triumph, and maybe we should feel a little bad about that[, and maybe we shouldn't].