Hostel and Feminism

I am currently watching the direct-to-DVD third installment in the “Hostel” franchise. I didn’t even know there was a “Hostel: Part III” and I think of this as a major failing on my part as I am serious advocate of the “Hostel” films (says the girl who spent hours and pages working on a creative-meets-analytical writing exercise on a scene from the first one.)

Now, I am more than certain that plenty of people have plenty of less than favorable things to say about these films. Eli Roth’s “Hostel” redefined horror and peaked on a completely new wave of the genre, made changes that horror will never recover from. And rightly so. Yes, it’s wildly violent, utterly grotesque, filthy, gritty and leaves you feeling sick to your stomach, and not because of the drilling, hacking and gouging but because of the clever, unsettling construction of the film and more so the grim reflection it casts on our own nature.

Many a critic would point to the dismal things this indicates not only about our selves but also the state of the horror industry. I naturally think they are wrong and that “Hostel” (and even it’s low-fi follow-up) is a neat, sharp, troubling bit of cinema and deserves praise, I would also like to point to a little oddity that really pulls this particular franchise from the abyss.

The classic and acknowledged world of horror is one of institutionalized racism, misogyny and searing patriarchy. In horror movies, non-white characters die first and in stupid ways, women who have sex are done for, men who are vain never last, and the invariable survivor is a doe-eyed ‘final girl’. A sweet, virginal thing, with good morals and a good heart – she is the epicenter of Western virtue, and we know only she can beat evil.

Not “Hostel”. Interestingly, the first and third films focus on the capture and torture of men rather than women. (Because “torture porn” is dominated by “Saw” it seems like an equal-opportunity subgenre, but in reality the majority of torture films which are not “Saw” are about watching beautiful women suffer.) I will note that the second “Hostel” film is about women being tortured, but I get the sense this is to pull in audience, and it’s the only thing beyond coming up with new and gruesome ways to use power tools, that changes it from the first film.

The conceit of “Hostel” is that young men seeking sex and deviant good times are captured and subjected to various forms of gross bodily damage to the benefit of paying clients (in the film, and yes, you, paying audience.) What makes this interesting is that these men are lured into these situations by female sex workers. Prostitutes, escorts, strippers – these lascivious ladies of the night are usually the sort of characters who get popped off almost instantly in a horror. But not here, in fact, here, the men who so enthusiastically seek to treat these women like objects, to engage in the institutionalized abuse of women who don’t matter because of their relationships to sex are punished.

Not only are they punished, but the women are not. They are neither compliant or active, they simply have the opportunity to deliver the nice, white bread men into the clutches of evil. It doesn’t seem fair, until one stops and thinks about the way nice, white bread men are allowed to treat strippers, prostitutes and even any other women in film. As the women lure the men in they are beautiful, porn-staresque babes, flowing locks and perfectly glossy pouts, and once the men are in the facility and facing their torturous deaths, we see the women unmade up. Because they are real people, not just agents of destruction.

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Film: The Last Exorcism

I went this weekend to see The Last Exorcism. I was really excited about this for a few reasons, firstly, I like movies about exorcisms, secondly, I have a crush on Eli Roth and will see anything he’s remotely connected to. I was actually really impressed with it, usually I have my reservations about horror films with PG-13 ratings, because I like my movies very bloody.  What I do not like is hand-held camera shooting. I find it irritating and disorienting and it makes me want to punch the character holding the camera. There were some really good examples of why I hate this form in this film. Right, so the person with the camera in the film is a guy named Daniel. Daniel is 1/2 of a film crew making a documentary about how one gifted preacher from Louisana’s whole exorcism routine is a fake. Mostly, I am completely fine with this premise, however, amoungst all this hand-held faux doumentary style there are random scenic establishing shots of the rural Lousiana environment. Now, this, makes me wonder, why, in their moments of terror and difficulty would good old Daniel take time to go and stand in the rain and take creepy establishing shots of the house, the barn, the cars?

The other thing that this film really drew my attention to is Demon Logic. It was not a real flaw of this film, or of any demonic or exorcism based movie, but more of a question as to how we have constructed the manifestations and behaviors of demons and in turn, the demonically possessed. I am not totally sure why any demon, possessing the body of a young girl (because apparently all any self-respecting demon wants is to be inside a young girl…make of that what you will.) would use their time the way they do in these films. Let’s have a look into the demon day planner, shall we?

Sundown: immobilize victim, frighten family – 1 hour.

8pm: Spasms.

8:45pm: Froth at the mouth, roll eyeballs around.

11pm: Go for a creepy walk.

11:10pm: Stand creepily in the garden, possibly with arms outstretched.

11:25pm: Gruesomely slash up some livestock, watch Law and Order.

1am: Contort.

2:34am: Take another creepy walk.

2:40am: Stand creepily in living room.

5am: Withdraw.

I don’t want to  be negative here, but exactly what is the point of all this? Why, if you are a demon, don’t you just, you know, defile some flesh, get a good soul grip and be on your merry demonic way? Why all this standing around, and frothing? It’s not really accomplishing anything. Like for example, I’ve never really understood why that whole pea-soup, upside-down-stair-walk was even happening in The Exorcist. It would make sense if the demon in question was killing people, or livestock or making  brownies, but all this gratutious demonic showmanship seems at best, unrealistic, at worst, a real fault in the demonic behavioral structure. I’m just saying that if I were demon, I wouldn’t spend so much of my time standing around creepily and contorting.

That said, The Last Exorcism is excellent, well produced and suspenseful. It’s suitably graphic, and shocking considering it’s mild rating and does a good job of really using it’s setting. Like many horror films, it benefits from the rural Louisiana countryside and the spirituality smorgasbord that is the deep American South. I was particularly impressed with the possessed, Nell. She straddled the boundary between innocence, malevolence and unnerving sexuality well.

The film also does a good job of bringing the nature and location of evil into question. I think the most effective horror films are the one’s where we don’t know who or how to trust. One’s where it’s difficult to figure out whether the monstrousity we’re looking at is a supernatural, Satanic manifestation or whether it’s an evil emerging from humanity and human nature.

I’m also delighted to see a smaller, less gratutious horror film, like this doing so well at the box office. The promotional work has been excellent and it deserves it’s success. It’s not only a triumph for the filmmakers of this work, but for the genre as a whole.

In mildly related news: I found that I has neglected to ever tell my two best friends about The Human Centipede today. I had forgotten how entertaining it is to recount first sequence. Also, my friend Seana, who is a nurse, seem confounded as to why the Doctor didn’t intravenously feel the centipede segments and give them ostomies from which to defecate, thereby eliminating the risk of infection and starvation – but also compromising the link gastrointestinal system. How differently medical professionals think.