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Film: The Point of Torture Porn

Eli Roth's 'Hostel: Part II' raises questions about a genre

By tt stern-enzi · June 13th, 2007 · Movies
  Heather Matarazzo stars as a tortured pawn in director Eli Roth's latest brutal horror movie, Hostel: Part II.
Lion's Gate Films

Heather Matarazzo stars as a tortured pawn in director Eli Roth's latest brutal horror movie, Hostel: Part II.

Almost five years ago, a screener tape of Gasper Noe's Irreversible landed in my year-end review pile. The film was set to play at The Esquire at some undefined point, a decision I found highly unlikely given the critical buzz surfacing about a brutal revenge killing and an extremely graphic depiction of sexual violence.

Thanks in part to the Memento-styled reverse narrative and the presence of stars Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassell, I eagerly anticipated the chance to settle down with such complex subject matter and found myself inserting the VHS tape into my player the night I received it.

In some ways, American audiences are programmed to handle depictions of excessive, cartoonish violence. The unreality of such actions provides an escape from the mundane and opens up the primal urges we work so diligently to mask through civility. Yet, within the first half hour of Irreversible, Noe presents the brutal bludgeoning of a man's face and head with a fire extinguisher in a chaotic and frenzied fight that lacked the clean elegance of Hollywood entertainments. Here, the battle was fierce and slippery, tightly shot to approximate for the viewer the tactile sense of blood on our hands and the pain of each blow thrown and landed.

Even more immediate was the anal rape of Bellucci's character in an abandoned subway stop. Noe uses a static camera set-up for this unwavering nine-minute sequence.

At one point during the attack, the camera catches a pedestrian who wanders down onto the platform. The person, visibly shaken by what is happening, darts back up the stairs and never returns, much as I wanted but was unable to. Noe traps the viewer in this moment and will not allow us to look away.

I turned the tape off at this point. Never before had a film sickened me to this degree, playing on my attraction to an actress and my repulsion for her treatment at the hands of another. The lines between actress and character had been blurred, but on a deeper level, my own sense of self and my complicity in these acts was called into play.

I barely slept, realizing, I suppose, that the only way to be free was to finish watching the film, which I did, most uneasily. It was clear that Noe intended for audiences to grapple with these concerns, and the narrative offered a surprisingly straightforward morality, despite the assertion of the final title card ("Time destroys all things.").

By moving backward through this one day, we are given a happy ending of sorts through the start of a day with all of its potential promise (a happy, loving couple waking together). There is hope in this rewinding.

All of that serves as a contrast to a seemingly new subgenre of films that have sprung up in the years since Irreversible. The Saw franchise, Wolf Creek, the host of horror remakes -- The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre -- Turistas and now Eli Roth's Hostel films all play on the audience's identification with the mixed roles of torturer and victim. In most instances this is done with no underlying perspective for critical, social or cultural discussion of the effects of violence on our collective psyches; hence the coining of the term "torture porn" as a moniker for these exercises.

Roth emerged on the scene with the rather clever viral horror movie Cabin Fever, which married jokey Southern digs with the flesh-eating zombie mold of George Romero. The film was breezy splatter fun.

But with the first Hostel he felt the need to jack up the violence while turning down the narrative conscience. The American frat boys sold to the highest bidders for sadistic pleasure in the thrill-kill dungeons of Eastern Europe might have stirred thoughts of U.S. military treatment of POWs in Abu Ghraib, but that was likely the result of critical reading rather than filmmaker intention.

Now with Hostel: Part II, Roth's inner voice has been silenced completely while his perverse fascination with violent ejaculatory fantasies has been unbridled and allowed to roam freely. American girls, instead of good-old boys, are the subjects opening the door for the double standards that emerge when considerations of the pornographic nature of torture on the human (female) body. A United Nations committee defined "torture" from an official perspective as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or emotional, is intentionally inflicted on a person." The purposes were further explored in the detailed explanation along with the assumption that beyond the official scope, such acts could be inflicted for "the sadistic gratification of the enforcer."

Marry that with porn's "explicit representation of the human body or sexual activity with the goal of sexual arousal and/or sexual relief" (vs. erotica, which "uses sexually arousing imagery mainly for artistic purpose") and you've got a subgenre that presents pain and suffering for the gratification and/or arousal of the audience. To paraphrase The Band, through these images "(we) shall be released."

But are we, and if so, of what are we released? By the end of Hostel: Part II, I personally felt nothing. Not ashamed or offended as I expected from all that I had read prior to walking into the screening.

Does this mean that I (and by association, all of us) have been desensitized to violence post-9/11? I would like to think that low turnout for such films will inspire filmmakers like Roth to realize that the audience for these thoughtless fantasies isn't as large or as willing to indulge themselves in this way.

I'm all for considering violence and its seemingly innate place in our psyches, but we need filmmakers willing to provide the tools for a proper exorcism, not a simple exhortation.©



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