Horror. What is it, exactly? Does it lie within a premise that lurks in your brain after you go to bed at night? Or is it all about gore, which can occasionally lead to a visceral experience?
I watched a movie that really brought this main question to the forefront, reintroducing my big “horror is not gore” philosophy. But when the flick ended, I was left wondering if that’s necessarily true anymore—at least in the case of this flick and those of its nature.
The movie was HOSTEL, the sophomore effort by Eli Roth (CABIN FEVER). And if you’re going to see the movie on DVD, tune out of this blog right now, because I’m going to throw out a ton of SPOILAGE, okay? Last warning…..
As you already know, I can sit through just about anything when it comes to blood and guts, and there’ve been only a couple of movies that made me truly ill: IRREVERSIBLE was one. AUDITION was another. LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was in a category all its own because I felt as if I was watching something that was actually unfolding in grainy, sickening reality—I didn’t even make it all the way through that movie, to be honest. HOSTEL is almost on that list due to its scenes of graphic torture, but that’s not what got to me about this flick. It was the deeper issues.
First, there’s the general premise, the shock of which has been spoiled by HOSTEL’s ad campaign. Bummer, because not knowing what the first thirty minutes was leading up to would’ve been pretty dreadful (in a good, horror way). Basically, three male backpackers are taking a post-college European trip, determined to experience every kind of debauchery youth and enthusiasm could ever offer. Naturally, they’re in Amsterdam at the moment, with its legal Red Light District (which is, in real life, so depressing it makes you want to cry) and its open-arm policy regarding drug use. Two out of three guys are the epitome of Ugly Americans who at first seem to value partying above morality, but their friend from Iceland tops them, believe it or not. When they’re all told about this almost-mythical hostel in Slovakia—a refuge stuffed with gorgeous and horny women—the guys head straight for it. But the premise is only revving up at that point. The hostel is actually a lure to attract victims for rich, sadistic businessmen to act out their darkest homicidal fantasies. In other words, the backpackers are Hansel and Gretel while the hostel is the candyhouse with the witch inside.
Now this is a damn terrifying idea, because human nature allows this possibility to seem very realistic. The clients who pay to kill the backpackers are the friendly neighborhood dentists who “accidentally” hit a nerve in your teeth every once in a while and apologize for the slip; they are the Wall Street whizzes who got rich too quickly and don’t know how to fill up the empty holes of numbness inside of them; they are the young computer millionaires who were raised on violent video games and have become immune to blood and screaming. Believing this premise isn’t a stretch, especially when you realize that this movie is “based on true events.” (On the commentary track, Roth and Harry Knowles from http://www.aintitcoolnews.com/ talk about a Web site Knowles stumbled upon; it offered “killing vacations” and human hunting for a big price.) Hence, when the torture scenes commence, it’s not so much about gratuitous gore—the atrocities tie into a societal sickness. Woven together, the grisly scenes work on more than just a slasher level because every cut and thrust blades itself below the surface of your skin to get deeper than I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER ever could.
In the end, there are many, many issues I could talk about with HOSTEL, including the fact that there’s an audience for this type of movie. A big audience. It’s just one more act in the gladiator arena of our times and you could offer a college course about the subject. But this isn’t my intention today, even though it’s fascinating to think about the Nietzschian consequences of gazing for too long into an abyss....