The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Hostel: Part II

Written by James MacDowell.

Photo from the article This Alternate Take does not pretend to be an in-depth, final evaluation of the film. Whilst I believe Hostel Part 2 to be not-especially well-made overall, I will not be spending my time here arguing this point. Whatever my final assessment of the film, I do consider it to be more valuable in particular ways than many critics have suggested it (and many films like it) to be, and it is this particular point that I am interested in making here.

The films belonging to the recent trend of ‘torture-porn’ have been widely criticised for their supposedly excessive violence, for their victimisation of women, and for their lack of traditional horror movie pleasures, such as suspense. As is always the case, it is dangerous to make blanket assumptions about an entire genre, sub-genre or series of films: the truth is always likely to be more complex, and is likely to vary depending on which particular film is under discussion.

A few of the accusations are, for me, easy to dismiss. The assessment of this group of films as lacking more traditional horror elements such as tension, suspense and - bluntly put - fear is, for me, a moot point. Suspense and the building up of tension is only one in which a horror film can be successful - another, for example, is simply unrelenting terrorisation, as found in such films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

Whether these films are frightening at all is another question. Personally, I don't tend to go to horror films to be scared, for the simple reason that they seldom manage to get this reaction from me. Perhaps this simply comes from over-exposure to cinema in general: if one is always aware of the ways in which a film is attempting to elicit a particular feeling, it is all the more difficult to respond 'innocently', particularly with such a primal reaction as fear. Whatever the reason, whilst a small part of me always hopes to be frightened by each new horror film, it is very rare for this to actually happen, meaning that horror is generally relieved from the task of frightening me. While I understand that not everyone shares this point of view, whether or not a horror film scares me does not necessarily form a large part of my assessment of it. It is true that Hostel: Part 2 is not especially tense or frightening, but for me it offers other pleasures, as I shall come to.

Busby Berkley's <i>42nd Street</i> (1933)
Busby Berkley's 42nd Street (1933)
Meanwhile, to call this group of films ‘excessive’ on an artistic level, and to conclude that, because of this, they are therefore immediately artistically devalued, is an aesthetic debate that has as many possible answers as there are people to hold opinions. For myself, I would suggest that films which practise such bloody violence as Hostel: Part 2 are simply attempting their own particular kind of emotive aesthetic experience - one that is not necessarily more excessive in its execution than were, say, the dance sequences of Busby Berkley excessive in their pursuit of their particular musical aesthetic. This is excess as an aesthetic practice, not necessarily an aesthetic failing. While I don’t deny that there may be some particular films that we might justly damn as being artistically excessive, they must indeed be assessed on such a case by case basis, not simply dismissed as a group for the fact that they aim to be excessive.

The critical accusations of excess, however, clearly also have a moral implication in this case. I would argue that it is largely simply a knee-jerk reaction, and one that has been levelled at any kind of (particularly American) film that contains a high level of violence since the collapse of Hollywood’s Production Code in 1968. Comparing the violence in Hostel: Part 2 to that of the 70s exploitation movies of Herschell Gordon Lewis, for example, reveals not a great deal of escalation. Equally, if one looks abroad - say, to Japan, and to the work of Takashi Miike - it is easy to find films that go far beyond the kind of images of torture we see in, say, Saw (2003). I would say that the reason such a furore is being made over this recent spate of horror films is simply that this kind of extreme violence is now making its way from the margins of ‘exploitation’ cinema and into ‘mainstream’ American movies. Presumably the fear is that the greater the number of people who get to see these images, the greater the number of minds that may be corrupted. It is a frankly absurd notion, particularly if we are talking about actual measurable social impact. As critics, our evaluation may depend on a particular moral standpoint that deems such extreme violence morally reprehensible - that is each individual critic’s personal prerogative - but to couch this criticism in terms of the actual moral disintegration that these films might cause is, I think, a falsity.

Nevertheless, morality is bound to - indeed, must - form a part of our opinion of an artwork: it is foolish to suggest that an adequate assessment of, say, a Nazi propaganda film such as The Triumph of the Will (1934) could overlook the film’s moral and political perniciousness. However, as I have said, a blanket condemnation of a group of films on moral grounds is not the way forward: each individual work is bound to vary, meaning we should thus evaluate it on its own terms. One of the criticisms of the ‘torture-porn' sub-genre that I cited above is that it is misogynist because of its victimisation of women - an accusation that has, of course, been brought against horror in general for a very long time. Predictably though, we find - if we actually look at the films individually - that this is sometimes the case, and sometimes not.

The first Hostel (2005) I did indeed find to be morally and politically very dubious. It was xenophobic in its representation of the former eastern bloc as a breeding ground for moral bankruptcy, homophobic in its treatment of the (probably) gay ‘Surgeon’ client of the Hostel, and wildly sexist in its constant leering at naked women, and in its siren/ whore characters who first lure our protagonists to their doom with promises of sex and are then despatched with glee by our vengeful protagonist. I was not convinced by Roth’s claims that the film was essentially a critique of marauding Americans abroad, since its central male American characters were our main points of identification, and the audience was thus certainly asked to root for them and take pleasure in their final acts of revenge. It was, largely, foreigners, gays and women who were seen as dangerous and 'other' by the film.

Whilst still, admittedly, containing some of the troubling ethno-centric overtones of its predecessor, Hostel: Part 2’s use of women as its main characters causes a significant break with the sexual politics of the first film. This choice links the film to a tradition of slasher and exploitation cinema that often reveals some perversely empowering images of gender - a tradition explored brilliantly by the critic Carol Clover in her book, Men, Women and Chain-saws. Clover’s book argues that, whilst so many horror and exploitation films focus on the terrorising of women at the hands of men for much of their running time, an astonishing number of them also conclude with one of these women - a recurring character Clover calls the ‘final girl’ - turning the tables and exacting revenge upon the male aggressor. As such these films are not simply symptomatic of the victimisation of women in our culture, but are rather about that victimisation. (See my Alternate Take on last year’s Hard Candy for more discussion of this).

This, it seems to me, is certainly the case in Hostel: Part 2. The film shows us early on the position of its three main females as sexual targets for men in the ‘normal world’ through the men on the train who attempt to lure them back to their cabin. They are treated well by these men as long as they are likely to given them sex, then immediately attacked as ‘cunts’ when they stand up for themselves as independent humans in their own right. These women then stumble into a situation in which this victimisation is exaggerated to extreme heights, in the Hostel.

One of them is stripped naked and cut up by another naked female character who seems to get some kind of sexual gratification from the process, meaning that the first instance of extended nudity in the film is both uneasily tied to violence and prevented from being in any sense sexually gratifying for the viewer. (Compare this to Hostel, in which beautiful naked women prance around the screen very regularly without any such subversion of voyeurism).

Another one of them is dolled-up (i.e.: put in sexy lingerie) in front of a movie-star-dressing-room mirror, an image that highlights the sexual spectacle of female flesh that the film as a whole points out repeatedly - through the life-drawing model, the woman in the magazine getting her leg stabbed, and the character who is raped by a man who initially came to kill her. Indeed, it is possible to see the whole film as being about the potentially uneasy process of making and screening a film such as Hostel: Part 2: hyper-masculine American males paying their money to see (in the case of the film’s audience) or enact (in the case of the film's characters) the torturing and killing of beautiful women. The fact that we constantly see workers at the Hostel watching and enjoying the fates of these trapped women on CCTV cameras only heightens this sense further.

The fact that the film is about the sexual victimization of women is made clear at the conclusion, when the ‘final girl’ - a financially independent woman who may incidentally, it has been suggested, be gay - buys her way out of her terrible situation and cuts off the penis (essentially the source of all the women’s problems!) of a man who has raped and tortured her. The breaking point for this character - the moment at which she realises she has no regret about treating this man in the way he treated her - comes when her aggressor echoes the word that previously made clear the position of the film’s women as victims, when he calls her, again, a ‘cunt’. It is a moment that is ‘excessive’, certainly, yet its excess is used, I would argue, to make a valid artistic point.

Such films as Hostel: Part 2, then, do not as a whole necessarily carry one unambiguous ‘message’. Whilst there may be sexist examples of the trend, such as the first Hostel, there are also those that may in fact challenge such a moral position (indeed, another ‘torture-horror’ film released at the same time, Captivity, similarly empowers its female protagonist, dealing with issues of voyeurism and sexual spectacle, and even ends in a very similar manner). Sometimes we need to learn old lessons again: to assume that any ‘kind’ of film will always be the same, and always mean the same thing, is almost always wrong.

This Alternate Take was published on July 22, 2007.

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