Sunday, June 22, 2008

In Defense of Eli Roth

Having recently watched both Hostel and Hostel: Part II (which were both written & directed by Eli Roth), I found that I did not agree with a lot of the criticism directed at them. While they definitely aren't for everyone, they don't deserve to be attacked like they have been. Here's my defense of the films, so THERE BE SPOILERS!

Between the time that these two films were released, there were a number of imitators that flooded the market, which eventually led to some chap who thought he was particularly creative dubbing them “torture porn.”

So let’s break this label down into its two words. First, there’s “torture.” There’s absolutely no arguing that there is torture aplenty (and quite creative, sick, twisted torture) in the Hostel films. It’s even in the plot summary.

Then there’s “porn.” I’m sure countless people have done thesis papers on what is and isn’t porn, so I can’t be expected to fully explain it here. But I think I can safely say two things about it. One, people that argue against it say it’s exploitative. (That’s more an argument about whether or not porn has that characteristic and not a qualifier as to what does or does not constitute porn.)

But I think all sides can agree that something is pornographic if it has no artistic merit. Of course, whether or not something constitutes art can (and has been) endlessly debated.
I’m more inclined to give something the benefit of the doubt and call it art, even if it’s art that I don’t care for or agree with.

Before I break things down further, I want to address a key issue that the people railing against these kinds of movies seem to take for granted. This specific type of film is signaled out from slasher films or gory zombie films or the like because the argument is that the viewer is watching simply to see people get tortured and killed and not in the hopes that, like that buxom blonde running from the masked guy with the big knife, they will somehow escape their fate.

I don’t think this argument is vocalized often, but if it’s not intrinsic to their case, then the critics' whole rationale makes no sense. If the audience is watching with a hope that the characters will get away, even if that feeling is mixed with a desire to see twisted, graphic violence, then there is at least one other aspect to their viewing experience. The hope is there; it’s the viewer’s choice whether he or she wants to run with it.

We only focus on three tortures in each of the films. In the first film, all three have that hope of escape. So there’s more to these tortures than just the torture. There’s the suspense of whether or not they will escape.

The only fault I find in this system is in the second film when the first victim is presented. It’s early enough that we know she likely won’t escape. Combine that with our knowledge of the structure of the first film and the fact that there are still two other characters left, and we know she’s a goner.

And this torture is focused on a bit too much and is pretty ridiculous, really. And the worst part is that of the three main characters, she was the most likable. Granted, she made a dumb (but still believable) decision that allowed her to be captured.

(On a side note, I’d like to point out that unlike a majority of horror movies out there, I generally think all of the character’s decisions in these films are pretty rational. By the time the potential victims realize something isn’t quite right, they are tied up. In most other horror movies where people aren’t stranded somewhere, you have to wonder why they don’t just leave.)

The next question is: Are the films exploitative? In terms of graphic violence, undoubtedly yes, and I think this hurts the films in a way most people don’t realize. There’s only so much intense depictions of gore that you can take before you start to disregard it. This isn’t to say that it’s comical necessarily (though showing decapitated heads IS comical is probably 9 out of 10 films), but it’s hard to take the film seriously at times, which is a shame because it explores some pretty interesting themes.

So this brings us to the big question: Are these films about more than just torture? And to that, I answer with a resounding YES.

In addition to a plot with suspense and the other general horror movie fare, each film actually explores ideas about humanity and society. The only way to really explain what I mean is to give some brief summaries of the films.

The first follows a couple of guys on vacation in Europe looking for good drinks, good drugs, and good women. (Okay, slutty women.) Not exactly your prototypical heroes, but also nothing deserving of tortuous death. The film spends a surprising long amount of time with these characters before anything horrific happens. And in my opinion it does a far better job of making us like the main characters than other recent films (Cloverfield for example) have done.

This isn’t to say that it’s all happy-go-lucky before the first victim is tortured. In addition to a great ominous opening featuring a man whistling while cleaning one of the torture rooms, there are other ominous moments throughout the film. At times it’s even (I’m going to dare to say it) Hitchcockian.

Our main guys check into a hostel that works for the bad guys. They’re given a room and are disappointed to learn that they have to share with other travelers. But then they enter to find some women undressing. The women don’t bother covering up and are in fact quite comfortable with them being there, inviting them to join them in the hot springs.

As it turns out, this is all a ploy get the boys to a party where they will be kidnapped. But one of the characters avoids this fate by accidentally locking himself in a storage room and passing out.

The next morning he can’t find his friend, so he returns to the hostel and is told that he checked out. When he goes to the room to see, he apologizes upon finding different girls undressing. But they react in the same way as the previous girls. In fact, they say the exact same rehearsed lines that he heard the first time. It’s quite creepy.

Another interesting commentary comes out of the similarity between a sex place the guys visit early in the film (which feature a long hallway and lots of rooms with all sorts of noises coming from them) and the torture facility, which is set up the same way. It’s an interesting look at depravity and what one is willing to pay for. If someone will pay for sex, drugs, and the like, would they pay for the chance to kill?

And ultimately, that is the most interesting topic explored in the films. The killers are exponentially more interesting than the victims.

In the first film, as one of the killers prepares to begin torturing our main character, he speaks to him in unsubtitled German. Thinking him to be an uneducated American (and don’t think it’s just a coincidence that the killers have to pay more for Americans), he can say whatever he wants to this thing to prepare himself for the kill. But to his surprise (and ours), the main character speaks to him in German, also unsubtitled.

Though we never know what’s said, it’s clear what has just happened. The victim has transformed in the killer's eyes, from just a thing to an actual human being, and he almost abandons the torture altogether. It’s not until he retrieves a ball-gag from a guard and cuts off that communication that he’s able to continue. (And this is a moment where I honestly have to admire the way this film is written. Not only is this a powerful scene with a lot of ideas behind it, but the use of the ball-gag actually leads to the main character’s escape. Very well structured.)

While searching for a way out, the main character stumbles upon the “locker room,” where the killers change into their standard attire before entering the rooms. He is just about to leave when another killer enters and, thinking him to be one too, talks to him. This is the scariest, creepiest scene in the entire film. The guy talks about how this is his first time and why he wants to do it and how he plans to do it. And he’s so casual and excited about it. It’s pretty harrowing.

I’m sure Roth realized that this aspect of the film was the most interesting because there’s more of it in part two.

We follow three girls studying abroad and about to take a trip. Once they check into the hostel, their passports are scanned and uploaded to a website. There’s a full-scale AUCTION for the victims now. And we see a variety of seemingly normally people bidding on them. It really gets you thinking.

The winner is a rough and tough looking businessman who then calls his meek buddy to tell him the good news. Apparently they have been planning to do this together for awhile now, but the tough guy is MUCH MORE into it than the other one. It seems the only way he was able to convince his friend was to wait for a girl that resembled the meek man’s wife. (More interesting commentary.)

We follow both the two killers and the girls, and it’s fascinating to watch these two men as they wait for the word that their victims are ready. The tough guy is so ready to kill that you worry about the safety of the meek guy, who seems to be having doubts. And he seems so fragile that you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for him.

They go to separate torture rooms, and when the macho tough guy first inflicts pain (and pretty severe pain, though it doesn’t kill his victim), he makes a complete 180 and realizes what a horrible thing this is. He can’t go through with it. And to watch his realization of what he was going to do and who he is deep inside is a painful endeavor indeed. Since you can’t leave without paying AND killing, he’s killed. (Unfortunately, it's in a somewhat comical way, which kind of ruins some of the impact.)

Meanwhile, the meek guy has a change of heart. After first seeming like he’s going to help his victim escape, she does something to remind him of his wife. So he knocks her out and ties her back up.

She convinces him that she isn’t his wife and sees the strength that she doesn’t see. Basically, she seduces him and then gets advantage, tying him up in the chair. But unlike the first film, we know her escape won’t be so easy because there are now security cameras and remote controlled gates. So we wonder how she’ll get away.

She basically takes the meek guy as hostage, which brings a lot of guards and dogs and the owner of the whole ordeal. He’s fine with letting them both die, but she offers to buy her way out. (It’s been set-up that she inherited all of her mother’s money and is super rich.)

He scoffs, but she’s adamant and says all he has to do is name a price. But there is another part of the contract. She has to kill someone before she leaves.

This could have been interesting and harrowing. Would she be able to do it? Is it still wrong if it's to save her own life AND it's to a guy that was going to kill her? Again, this potential powerful moment is ruined when she kills him without hesitation in such an over-the-top way that it’s impossible to take seriously.

Some would say that the fact that she uses money to escape is a total cop-out. I say it’s sadly very realistic. Not only does it not have her miraculously escaping after showing us how damned near impossible it would be but also it leaves us with the message that money trumps everything, even human life. You can’t argue that, even though you want to.

So in conclusion, I think the “torture porn” label is unfair considering the issues that are explored in these films. The sensational gore prevents them from being taken as seriously as they could have been. And while Eli Roth might have enjoyed coming up with elaborate torture sequences, (as a writer, I have to admit such things can be fun to create) I don’t think he just dreamed them up to get himself off. He put a lot of thought behind it and gave us some commentary that, while extremely dark, is fairly accurate.

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