The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, January 09, 2006

Hostel (2006)

Hostel (2006)

Do NOT see this movie unless you are bored by lightweight fare such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”  Eli Roth (“Cabin Fever”) has made one of the most genuinely frightening films I have ever, ever, seen in my life, up there with “Night of the Living Dead,” “They Came From Within” and “Last House on the Left.”  The set up is deceptively simple:  Three backpackers traveling across Europe, (two American and one Icelandic) are in Amsterdam for the usual sex and drug fest.  While there, they hear about an incredible hostel (a sort of low-priced bed-and-breakfast for students) in Slavakia where the women go crazy for handsome Americans.  So they travel in search of thrills…

And that’s all I’ll say.  Take my warning seriously.  This is probably the most gruesome film I could ever recommend.  While not merely an all-out torture marathon (and such films actually exist, believe me) it is pretty close to the line. But Hostel ultimately has more on its nasty little mind, and if you’re a fan of the genre, this gets an “A.”  But brothers and sisters, if you aren’t, it is an “F” minus.  Trust me on this one.
     But we are forced here, to address questions such as: why would anyone want to watch something like this?  Not an easy question to answer.  Usually, people pontificating about horror or cinematic violence do so while pointing fingers, or speaking in vague generalities or statistics.  I’m not going to cop out: I love horror, and I like a certain amount of explicit violence: IF the point of the violence is the engendering of specific emotions, and those emotions are used in the process of storytelling.
     Why?  I can’t tell you for certain, but can make guesses, and this is where we can dovetail a movie review with questions of creativity and specifically, writing.
     I have practiced violent sports, watched violent movies, read violent books and so forth for my entire life.  Personally, I doubt more than two or three people have ever even heard me raise my voice, let alone seen me raise my hand in anger to another human being.  Why did I spend so much time exposing myself to such things?  Because I have fear, people.  Lots of it.  As a small boy growing up around large ones, an intellectual growing up around non-intellectuals, a black man in a country that flooded me with images suggesting that my life and dreams were completely disposable…that told me that I would be frustrated at every turn, and if I dared to protest I would be KILLED, well, there was lotsa fear, believe me.  And to face that fear in fictional form helps me deal with it in real life.
     But that doesn’t explain the rest of America, or the world.  Well, many of those fears are universal, not merely part of one ethnic group’s experience.  Men, women, gays, straights, Whites, Asians, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and whatever—we can all claim special reasons for feeling fear.
     It was inevitable that post 9/11, horror films would begin to raise their heads.  First timid “PG-13” stuff, just sticking their toes in the water.  Then, As the fear level was maintained for months and years, the amount of fictional trigger necessary to release the pent-up anxiety became severe.
     We’re about to get a real, no-nonsense deluge of hard-core horror in 2006, from remakes of “The Hills Have Eyes” to new Zombie gore fests from George Romero and company.  And torture is on the menu, children.  Some critics have wondered why this would be, and I wonder if they’ve been reading the news.
     What in the world has been a topic of conversation for the last eighteen months or so?  From Abu Gharib to last season’s “24” to secret CIA prisons and the President’s insistence that we need greater latitude to deal with the subhuman (sic) terrorists, torture has become a subject at the dinner table in a way it never has before in our history.  (And by the way…considering that torture is now being defended on right-wing talk shows and in the White House, doesn’t that cast doubts on the early denials about what was going on at Abu Gharib, and where the orders were coming from?  Why haven’t we heard anything about this?)
     At any rate, we say that this behavior is necessary, or we will die in a nuclear inferno.  Fine.  But we then must ask: what EXACTLY are we talking about?  What exactly goes on in an abattoir?  What is the psychology of people who can DO such things?  What happens to the people to whom it is done?
     I know good, decent people, people who would never allow an animal to suffer, who are now in favor of torture.  Fine.  They believe this is necessary to remain safe.  Perhaps.
     But in their secret hearts, they want to know.  What is it that we are giving approval to?  What are we willing to do to other human beings? What are we asking our children to do?  If you can’t stare at a movie screen, and see fantasy reenactments of such behavior, hear the screams and pleas for mercy, see the dead eyes of the torturers, I doubt you’ve thought through what we are currently debating in our country…and we cannot understand what we are doing to our international reputation.
     If you can look at it, and say, “yes, I am willing to accept responsibility.  I would be willing to do this, to risk my soul for my children's lives.  To risk the INEVITABLE fact that some of the tortured will be innocent…” then I may disagree with you, but that is at least an honorable position.
     If you look at such things and say: “no, I will not engage or approve of engaging in such behaviors.  We must find another way.”  That is also an honorable approach.
     If you look at it and simply enjoy the sensation of stress building and releasing as you watch something you would never ever want to happen to you, that’s pretty much my position.  Honorable? It would be rather self-serving to say that, wouldn’t it.  Then again, I’m one of the mellowest people I’ve ever met, so there must be something there.
     The point is that enough of America fell into one of these categories to make Hostel #1 at the boxoffice last weekend.  #1.  Think about it. 
     And what that means is that if you will dig deep, deep into your personal—or our cultural—emotions, present them honestly (within context) and powerfully and originally, you can find your audience.  Moral?  Immoral?  I don’t know.  I only know that my obligation as an artist is to be honest to my own feelings and perceptions.  Then at least, my reward is knowledge that I have done my best.
     And if your name is Eli Roth, the reward is beating out “Kong” and “Narnia” to earn 20 million in the first three days.
     We’re having some fun now, aren’t we?

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