The atrocity exhibition
Hostel Part II and other ‘torture porn’ flicks are not nearly as scary or nihilistic as the grindhouse movies of old.
There’s been quite a bit of fuss recently around a supposed horror sub-genre called ‘torture porn’, or ‘gorn’. While members of the English Evisceration Society may see such marketing buzz as long overdue, some critics have been considerably less impressed. Hostel, the Saw trilogy, Captivity, Wolf Creek, The Devil’s Rejects – the titles may vary, but the lexicon of judgement remains constant. They are ‘sleazy’, ‘nasty’, ‘cynical’, ‘exploitative’ and, most ‘disturbing’ of all, quite popular. In other words, if showing nasty people doing nasty things to other people constitutes entertainment, what on earth does that say about us? In the midst of such concerns, comes Hostel – Part II, the latest offering from gorn auteur, Eli Roth.
Hostel – Part II is much like the first instalment. This time, however, the three boys have been replaced by three American girls. There’s sensible but pretty Beth, bitchy but sexy Lorna, and nice but wet Whitney. And just as in the first film, our three backpacking protagonists are lured to a picturesque Slovakian hostel by a leggy beauty. So far, so YHA. Unfortunately, this hostel doubles up as the wholesalers for Elite Hunting, a company which auctions off young backpackers to the highest bidder. Taking advantage of Elite Hunting’s delightful dungeon hideaway, the victors can then proceed to torture their purchases to death. All of which we get to watch.
The issue many critics have with it is the extent to which the audience’s perspective is that of the torturer, their enjoyment that of the sadist. In one particular scene, for example, the camera, gradually panning away from Whitney’s anguished face, slowly rotates 180 degrees to leave you viewing her shackled body hanging upside down from the ceiling. The relish with which this scene, carefully, slowly, unfolds is compelling: to the extent to which our gaze is identical with the camera’s, moral perspective is suspended. Fear and expectation co-mingle uncomfortably.
Such a displacement of moral perspective is compounded by a significant divergence from the formula of the first Hostel film. That is, we get to know two prospective torturers: Todd, a macho American businessman, and Stuart, his uncertain friend. Neither has killed before. Their introduction allows Roth to replace the nihilism of motiveless killing with something approaching its justification. ‘Do you think we’re sick?’ a reticent Stuart asks, to which Todd responds: ‘Fuck no. You look in the world where there’s no law, whether it’s fuckin’ Chad or New Orleans, and this is the shit people are doing, pal. We’re the normal ones.’
This dreary, adolescent rationale actually serves to slacken what tension there is. Rather than feeling threatened by something beyond our comprehension, something awesome or sublime, such petty philosophising is intended to explain and normalise the violence. In fact, this notion that anyone is not just capable of committing atrocity, but, if such a ‘state of exception’ arises, will actively want to do so, may be shallow, but it does draw upon a particularly contemporary suspicion of other people. Indeed, it is precisely this fear that Alan Johnson, a horror journalist, reckons lends Hostel – Part II its power: ‘[It is] dealing with what people don’t want to address. And that is that the guy who’s standing next to you in the supermarket could be a serial killer. Not just somebody who is obviously evil.’ (1)
In fact, Hostel – Part II goes further. Suspicion of other people is rendered indissociable from self-doubt. Hence we watch as the ever-reluctant Stuart, a seemingly decent man roped into it by the aggressive Todd, wrestles with his conscience. ‘I’m not that guy’, he intones over and over again, before he realises that he is, and sets about his bloody work. Work, of course, in which we, as the audience, are deemed complicit.
Predictably, many critics situate the appeal of such ‘torture porn’ within the ‘war on terror’. One writes: ‘Fear supplants empathy and makes torturers of us all, doesn’t it? Post-9/11, we’ve engaged in a national debate about the morality of torture, fuelled by horrifying pictures of manifestly decent men and women (some of them anyway) enacting brutal scenarios of domination at Abu Ghraib. And a large segment of the population evidently has no problem with this.’ (2) Elsewhere another writes that Roth’s films speak ‘to the lack of empathy in contemporary American culture, as well as other trends – the fragmentation of narrative, the increasingly utilitarian, disposable tenor of human relations’ (3).
But what’s interesting about such gloomy cultural judgement is the extent to which its object is incapable of supporting the burden of proof. For all the fear-laden titillation of Hostel – Part II, there is ultimately no more identification with the torturer than there is with the bored security guards who monitor them. Indeed, by the time we see Stuart going about his business hobby, we can well understand their lassitude, as they ignore the CCTV in favour of flicking through an edition of Motorcycle Magazine.
This clever moment tells us something about ‘torture porn’. Not only is it more irreverent than amoral, it lacks the nihilism of its antecedents, be it the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the grindhouse classic Cannibal Holocaust. Where the former leaves the viewer with ‘leather face’ dementedly swinging his chainsaw, Hostel – Part II closes with the victim gaining revenge. As fractured a moral universe as it is, retribution, at least, is justified. What is clear is that the fears present in the hand-wrung hype around ‘torture porn’ belong less to the films themselves. Rather, as critics’ allusions to the political and social moment indicate, it is a profound sense of moral uncertainty in the West that generates these anxieties. Only in such a context could fears concerning the audience’s identification with the torturer’s mundane motives be sustained. With no moral compass, there is little confidence in the moral bearings of the audience.
The cinema in which I watched Hostel – Part II was not, however, packed full of torture droids, rapt as Todd is disembowelled or Stuart castrated. Rather, there were lots of people, who, like me, shrieked embarrassingly and, when not peaking between their crooked digits, wondered why they’d bought popcorn.
Tim Black is a regular film and TV reviewer for spiked
spiked issue Film
(1) Torture porn films – horror or hype?, BBC News, 28 June 2007
(2) Now playing at your local multiplex: Torture Porn, David Edelstein, New York Magazine
(3) Blood Brother: Director Eli Roth, inventor of “torture porn”, The Independent, 6 July 2007