Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

Confronting Mortality: “The New French Extremity”, the Hostel Films and Outdated Terminology (Part 1 of 3)

In Film, Film Theory on June 6, 2011 at 8:51 pm

By Matt Smith

I spend a lot of my time thinking about my body – the ways in which it is constantly changing, its total ability to just end my existence without a moment’s notice, the strange fear I have of something that I am most intimate and familiar with, yet which remains totally unfamiliar and is, in some instances, even hostile to my very existence. In many ways horror films offer me a bit of comfort, no matter how uncomfortable they make me in watching certain sections of the nastier bits. I’ve never been one to shy away from gore, and the films which most disturb me I often find most disturbing because of psychological or emotional concepts and not purely physical ones. Why, then, am I fascinated and repulsed and compulsively drawn to look at the films coming out of France, the United States (chiefly the Saw series and the far superior Hostel franchise, overseen by Tarantino horror-protege Eli Roth), and the bloodbaths that have been coming out of Japan since the mid 1970s?

I believe the answer lies somewhere in my desire to see every bodily taboo broken on screen, all while finding the idea of this very physicality somewhat repulsing. Such is the art of these films, though, when it does exist (and I believe it really is there in even the most banal of these exercises, though usually hidden figuratively and literally under hundreds of layers of bodily evacuation), in their ability to give us a cinema determined “to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement.” (James Quandt, “Flesh & blood: sex and violence in recent French cinema”, ArtForum, February, 2004). It is important for me to be confronted with these images personally to further my understanding of myself as a human being; that very bag of flesh that can cease to exist at any moment.

One of my favorite directors, David Cronenberg, engages the viewer with similar fears in his early films, particularly Videodrome and Rabid, which find their protagonists’ bodies changing in disturbing ways via external and internal forces, and such is Cronenberg’s genius that he sets these films in almost total first-person identification. When James Woods’ stomach opens up and he places a video cassette inside himself, having fallen victim to the obsessive viewing of transgressive imagery as well as the desire and fear to know death intimately. We, as viewers, share his horror as his body transforms and know that, epistemologically, we are encountering the unknowable in very real and concrete knowable ways.

But Cronenberg’s cinema of confrontation is very different from this new wave of horror film, which has also been described with the epithet “torture porn”: a term that tells us nothing about what it is meant to describe and even less about what the hell it means by itself. Yes, there is torture in these films, just as there are in any number of horror films and even serious dramas. Rape and torture are covered as a major bridge between genre cinema and so-called mainstream films quite thoroughly in Carol J. Clover’s seminal work on the horror genre, Men Women and Chainsaws, and are certainly guilty of depicting the same types of torture visited upon their characters as any other type of film made which features violence, no matter how sanitized and decidedly un-sanguinary they may be.

No, this new crop of horror is something altogether entirely different, concerned as much with gender identity as it is with the sheer taboo-breaking of the screen images of bodies. The New French Extremity in particular is a wide-ranging set of films, encompassing art-house darlings like Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat (a filmmaker much more interested in sex than violence, or rather sex as violence) as well as those who might be deemed schlockmeisters by their detractors like Xavier Gens and Alexandre Aja.

In the United States the focus is much narrower, and is often presented with moralistic overtones. But unlike the abysmal attempts by the Saw films to provide us with meaningful humanity and true glimpses down the dark rabbit hole of inherent and natural sadism, or the striking and genuinely shocking one-trick-pony of The Human Centipede, the Hostel films offer morally complex mixed messages on the images we are confronted with. Part II in particular is interesting because of the shifting moralities every character has when given the opportunity to swindle their way into surviving their ordeal.

Part I: Hostel: Part II and Shifting Moralities

“This is not like going to a fucking whorehouse. You can’t just back out!” – Todd, pumping up his friend Stuart before their sessions in the warehouse.

Such is the world of Hostel, where the super rich pay a lot of money to kill the super kidnapped. It is a world without escape, no matter which end of the spectrum you inhabit. Both films present a similar story: three friends are backpacking in Europe and meet some shady characters who lure them to a supposedly cool and hip village (and the titular hostel) somewhere around Bratislava, Slovakia. They are abducted by an organization called Elite Hunting, which provides fresh young things for whatever-you-please for their clientele, with the single requirement for the service being that you pay, and that you finish your kill. Plot simplicity aside (what horror film doesn’t have a simple plot at heart?), what these films offer is a look at the underbelly of humanity, and on both sides of the coin. We share the same urges with both the victims and the killers in Hostel, to kill and to survive, and that is why I find the films so effective and disturbing.

The first Hostel is largely a standard horror exercise, male-centric and featuring females only as objects of sexual desire, backstabbing manipulative bitches, or both. There may be a case to be made for the two Japanese girls who end up killed in the Slovakian warehouse as different signifiers, but we only really get to know one, and not very well. No, this is masculinity all the way, with males playing the roles of victim/killer. After the first half of the film almost exclusively features friends Paxton (Jay Hernandez), Josh (Derek Richardson), and Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) smoking and screwing their way across Europe, we finally end up at the hostel and eventually the warehouse, where each man, though not necessarily by the end of this film, will meet his true end. They are lured there by two token hot women, Svetlana and Natalya, and are tortured and killed by men who have paid for the privilege to do so.

As is to be expected, we are subjected to all manner of evisceration, gushing, oozing and puncturing in the name of thrills and chills – and several of the effects, namely when Josh is set free only to find he can’t walk because his Achilles tendon has been cut, are very near vomit-inducing status. What is most interesting about the film, however, is not the viscera and bloodshed, but the character that meets the boys on their train ride to Slovakia, an odd Dutch businessman who will later be the man who kills Josh. This single character gives me the creeps in ways that are difficult to describe, a feeling that is only built upon by the dual narrative structure of the second film in which we actually get to know two of the members of the Elite Hunting group leading up to their experiences with the victims. Maybe it’s the toying with his prey as he confronts them on the train car, grossing them out and simply getting them to react, knowing full well what pure hell awaits them after they make it to town. And this is built upon very effectively in Part II.

The aforementioned dual narrative of Hostel: Part II sees a similar trio of teens traveling across Europe lured into Slovakia and systematically abducted and killed in increasingly gruesome ways, most likely due to an increased budget from the first film. The girls are more fully fleshed out characters than the boys in the first film, and during our travels on the train, their interactions (even when talking about boys and sex and other things that would never pass “feminist” muster when considering the film in such a way) are more genuine and tell us more about their relationships and personalities. Beth (Lauren German), the main character and leader of the group, is given a lot of little clues that make her feel more familiar to us as an identifiable cypher for our experiences, fears, fascination, and so on.

Girls aside, though, we are given another twist on the conventionality of the first film when we are introduced very early on to Stuart (Roger Bart) and Todd (Richard Burgi), two American businessmen who are making their first trip to the headquarters of Elite Hunting to gain the ultimate charisma boost. Todd is gung-ho about the prospect of making his kill, but Stuart is apprehensive, afraid of how it may change him. This is an interesting dynamic that Roth plays around with in unexpected ways, using Todd’s taunting and Stuart’s timidity to toy around with Beth at a party in Bratislava in much the same way as the Dutch businessman from the first film. At the party, Stuart gets to know Beth as a person, even though he knows she is his prey. They have a good time, chat, get drinks, and she thinks he’s just a sweet guy.

And then she’s abducted and we cut to the prep work that comes before her presentation to the clients: her cuts are covered up, she is dressed, given make-up treatment, and turned into a pristine specimen for the person who has just paid thousands of dollars for the privilege of torturing and then murdering her. This is one of the creepiest parts of the film because it creates an inverse of the mortician dynamic – preparing the corpse before the person has actually passed (though they really are already dead for all other purposes.) This is just one of the many moments of pitch black humor that Roth infuses the film with, and it works perfectly.

Before long, Stuart is revealed as her captor, the hunter who has paid money for the pleasure of killing her – a pleasure with which Roth titillates and frustrates the audience, sickening us while giving us exactly what was promised with admission. Stuart at first feels sympathy for Beth, but eventually his resentment toward his wife, kids and life in general comes out and all the potentially human parts are wiped clean, leaving behind only a stone cold killer, out for blood, vengeance for being wronged by the universe, and the perverse pleasures of being empowered over another person’s life. And it’s Todd, who formerly was all about killing another human being, who chickens out after ripping a large hole in the scalp of his girl, Whitney (Bijou Philips) and is subsequently ripped to shreds by guard dogs as he tries to leave without completion of his contract.

The real turn for Stuart comes when he sees his friend dead on a meat cart being taken to the furnaces deep in the bowels of the warehouse. Already turning on Beth, this drives him over the edge, and he snaps at the chance to kill Whitney and does so quickly, coming back to torment Beth with what he has done to her friend. We have seen, in a matter of minutes, Stuart’s meek demeanor turn into full-on, hot-blooded vengeful rage. The dynamic between the two friends has changed, and it further shows that, just like the surgeon in the first film, and undoubtedly most of the purchasers of the victims, that it is often the quiet ones who you need to look out for, which of course has been a long-held tradition in genre fiction. And when Stuart gets his due, it’s a warning to the quiet types that their turn will come, too, and that they should be fully aware of the ramifications of their actions.

The climax of the film, which sees Beth, like all Final Girls, overcome and turn the tables on her attackers, also plays with genre convention. Unlike a simply miraculous escape, we are left with Beth, who we know is filthy rich, dealing her way out of her captivity, paying the head of Elite Hunting to let her go, and she follows the conditions of membership, including killing someone before being allowed to leave – in this case the poor hapless Stuart who really should have just tried to help her escape.

Here we are introduced to the true horror: money. This organization exists because anyone and anything can be bought or sold. As horrific and creepy and disturbing as the actual murderers are, these guys behind the curtain are the ultimate evil, and they are only driven by the almighty dollar. This is a common theme in all of the documentary “horror” films released this past decade, too, from Michael Moore’s Sicko and Capitalism: A Love Story, to other money-rooted horrorshows like Super Size Me and Inside Job, we are inundated with the fact that money holds all the power in the world, even the power over life and death.

But back to the task at hand – why is this film important to the project of understanding our own fears? Why do I personally find it so profound and scarily poetic? Somewhere under all the bloodletting (and there’s much more to be found in the French cinema, which I’ll get to next time), there is a real human voice and a real consideration of the horror of death that we all must share on some level, whether we meet violent ends or not. And despite the gore, the film is actually quite considerate of how much is shown and not shown. The worst bits, even Lorna’s (Heather Matarazzo) particularly gruesome end as the bathwater for some rich bitch who considers herself some kind of heir to the perversity of Elizabeth of Bathory, is much more implied than visualized. Not to say this approach isn’t slightly problematic, especially given the perverse pleasures and humor injected from scene to scene much to the audience’s delight, but Roth is essentially giving us a non-violent message wrapped up in a very soggy body bag.

With Hostel: Part II we are given an uptick in the quality of the sub-genre mislabeled “torture porn”. There is, like any truthful depiction of death on film, plenty of meat and blood and bits and pieces, but there is also a humanist streak that runs throughout the entire work. It’s like Jean Renoir by way of Tobe Hooper. Human behavior may be inexplicable, and it may often lead to violence as a total non-answer to our problems (what will killing Beth do to solve Stuart’s problems with his family life, for example?), but there is always the chance, like with Todd, to grow a conscience and realize that we are all the same and that that is terrifying. Beth may turn the tables, but at what cost? Does she become something less than human when she flips to the tactics of the organization that captured her in order to save her own flesh? Finally, what does it say about us as an audience that we seek the same vengeance for the girls as they seek for themselves while also delighting in the scenes of their torture and demise?

We may never know the answers, but at least we are given the chance to think about them. We can confront not only our mortality, but our morality, something which Eli Roth seems to be intent that we do. And this is something that mere “torture porn” could never achieve. We may as well turn to the Faces of Death series, or at best the latter half of the Saw franchise if we don’t care to consider such things. But it’s actually important for us as viewers to see and think, not just passively watch, but engage. And this is something the French in particular have injected into their genre cinema to disturbing ends in the past decade.

Continued in Part 2 of 3

  1. I agree with everything that you said and i find it very interesting! but i don’t understand why you would refer to woman as “bitches”. for someone who shows a high level of understanding about profound subjects (i.e the hostel movies) you really should reconsider the way to describe and treat woman in the essay (and most likely in life, though i cannot say that because i do no know you).

    • Thanks for the comment – I think for the most part I’m trying to convey what role they are set to play in the film and how they are meant to make us feel about them while watching, not necessarily my personal feelings toward women at all. I refer to exactly two women as “bitches” in this essay, one in reference specifically to how the film sets them up in regard to the male protagonists of the first Hostel film, and the second in how I feel we are meant to think about the Elizabeth of Bathory scene. Both of these instances are, of course, handled in somewhat misogynist manners in the films, and I was wanting merely to convey that with language that is reflective of such misogynist tones found therein.

  2. Ok then you reached your point via language. and sorry for the comment stating that you dont respect woman. that was very dumb on my part.

    • No problem; always willing to discuss language, film, history or any other subject that may come up. In fact, that’s one of the reasons my friend Eric and I started the site – to discuss films and culture with a wide variety of people and with a variety of views. Thanks for reading and please keep coming back to check us out!


  3. will do i liked what you said! ill be coming back! and checking your older stuff!

  4. Matt, it is so awesome to see someone dissecting horror films and pulling out what they are really trying to say. I would say that the general consensus of the audience walked away with nothing more than a few gross out moments, which is sad. From one well versed horror fan to the other, thank you for putting these great and somewhat underrated films into a better perspective. I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the French’s wave of stellar films, most notably Martyrs. (which may be my favorite of the bunch)

  5. Eli Roth tweeted this link!

    • Yes, and it was very nice of him to do so! I’m glad he liked what I said enough to recommend it. We’ve certainly had a boost in readership in the past 24 hours ;).

      Thank you everyone who checked this out. Hope you’ll come back in another week or so when I post Part II and discuss French horror films…


  6. […] Curious, I deliberately searched out more references and was drawn to Matt Smith’s post “Confronting Morality,” on his blog The Split Screen. In it, Smith describes the development of the new wave horror of […]

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