Monday, 13 September 2010

Hostel / Hostel II: What a waste of a premise

It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror... Horror has a face... and you must make a friend of horror.
-Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), Apocalypse Now

What is wrong with horror in American Cinema? In a nutshell, Hollywood has forgotton what “horror” means.

If I was a Hollywood exec, and somebody pitched “Hostel” to me, I'd jump at it. Think of the premise- American Travellers stop off at an Eastern European hotel only to find they are killed for fun by rich businessmen. This kind of thing has happened in reality, in Thailand, according to the DVD's extras. That should make the film quite scary- but it doesn't.

The slow build-up of events- in which backpackers are gradually coerced into the hostel- lacks any suspense. You'll find your fingers tapping, rather than gripping, the chair as they wonder around clubs and brothels, and occasionally argue with each other. It starts out like a road movie. Just a bunch of kids travelling around.

Eventually, blood is spilled. Backpackers are tortured. Woo. Protagonist Paxton (Jay Hernandez) manages to kill his captor and escape. As his friends have all been murdered in a range of deplorable ways, he goes about plotting his vengeance and his escape.

And, hence, the film descends into a typical revenge story. Paxton rescues a a Chinese torture victim who has only one eye left. Minutes later, she commits suicide by jumping under a train. What was the point of her presence in this film? To show the heroism of the protagonist who rescues her? So we think of him as the good guy? An hour ago, we saw him ogling prostitutes in a brothel window. Why should we believe he's so heroic?

In the commentary track, the director gives more information on those opening scenes. The backpackers eventually end up being the whores themselves, in a fashion. That idea should have been played up more, discussed by the characters and made more of a solid theme. I hardly noticed when I first watched the film.

Paxton then hunts down the man who tricked him into going to the hostel. He follows “The Dutch Businessman” into a toilet and stabs him numerous times. Revenge is sweet, and he clearly gets some pleasure from killing. The the fact it's for revenge makes it slightly more justified, but his desire to kill shows that Paxton's character has crucially changed, and he has become like the people he hates. Of course, the film makes no mention of this. It would have been fascinating for the film to have delved into this subject- alas, it ends on this unsatisfactory note.

I watched Hostel II straight after the first one, not expecting anything much different. Again, a long build-up, an unsuccessful attempt at suspense and an eventual downpour of gore. There is even less tension as the protagonists this time are the murderous businessmen, although we also follow the new batch of travellers tortured for their (our?) entertainment.

The set piece of Hostel II involves the dorky, naïve traveller, Lorna (Heather Matarazzo). She is abducted, stripped naked and suspended upside-down from the ceiling. Below her, there's a concave area in the tiled floor. Another woman enters the room, which is designed as some kind of medieval dungeon, and strips naked. She lies in the hollowing and uses a scythe to lacerate Lorna's body, bathing in her blood. Eventually she cuts Lorna's throat open.

Are you familiar with Countess Dracula? This 1971 Hammer Horror starred Ingrid Pitt as the aging countess, who realises she can regain- and retain- her youth, if she bathes in the blood of virgins.

Lorna, being Hostel II's guide-book-weilding nerd, did come across as somewhat virginal- but whether she was a virgin or not is not confirmed in the film. Neither is the question of whether the woman had any connection to vampirism. However, on the DVD's commentary track, director Roth admits that countess Dracula was, indeed, an influence.

The film puts the last nail in the blood-soaked coffin at the end, when almost-victim Beth (Lauren German) claims she can “buy her way out”. At this point, she is holding a pair of scissors above the company manager's penis. She has vast quantities of inheritance money, or something, in certain bank accounts that would satisfy even the sadistic bosses. She'd give this to escape with her life. “Trust me,” she says.

Sorry love, but in a situation like that- when you're holding someone's dick hostage- trust is out the goddamn window. Force is the only element that will free you. Not trust.

To finish, she pointlessly cuts his knob off anyway, and feeds it to a dog. Yum. There's a fair bit of blood in this scene, but there would be a fair bit more in reality. So I've heard.

I wouldn't have classed Hostel or Hostel II as horrors, basically because they aren't scary. Http:dictionarycom, however, describes horror as “an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying or revolting” and “a strong aversion, abhorrence.” It also lists an informal description- “Something that is considered bad or tasteless.” It looks like the Hostel movies are horrors after all.

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