Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Roth's shocker shows he has the tools to take on a literary giant like Brett Easton Ellis, who ain't no amoral madman
Hostel got a lot of reactions out of me, most intentional, a few unintentional. It's about 90 minutes long, with 60 of boredom, followed by a great final third. Eli Roth is trying to claim the title of master of naturalistic horror from Tobe Hooper, who has held it in perpetuity since the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but who might never have deserved it. I've never been able to tell if the snuff movie aesthetic of the original Texas Chainsaw was intentional, or just the product of a beginning, incompetent director who didn't know how to make his movie not look shitty.
Not that I've ever seen a snuff movie.
No, Hooper's Texas Chainsaw simply feels like a documentary, with none of the flashy trappings of the 70s film school masters that surrounded him. Violent kills that would warrant a dozen mini-edits and blood-gushing inserts these days are handled in long, largely bloodless master shots. Leatherface's first kill still freaks me out when I think about it:
One of the kids (it doesn't matter) ventures into the creepy, Bumblefuck, Texas, house. At the end of a long foyer, he encounters a large door. Leatherface appears from nowhere. Keep in mind this is all in a long shot. Leatherface smashes the kid in the head or face with a blunt thing, probably a hammer. The kid hits the floor and convulses. Leatherface hits the kid again, and his convulsing stops. Leatherface slides and slams shut a giant steel door set into the wall, closing himself and the corpse away from us, and leaving the audience with only a view of steel.
The dying kid's convulsing makes me think Hooper knew what he was doing with this movie's look. It's such a biologically, medically and neurologically proper detail; I can't help but think that he had snuff in mind all along.
And let me stress that even though we see murders and deaths in movies and TV all the time, Hooper's movie deserves, if not praise, at least special mention for its bare-bones (heh heh) look.
But Roth's Hostel has none of the qualities that distinguish Hooper's classic. Hostel looks as well-conceived, well-designed, well-shot and well-acted as anything coming out of Hollywood today — so why do I mention it in the same breath as Texas Chainsaw?
Because the supernatural has dominated our horror cinema lately, and Roth is trying to make it real again. Don't get me wrong; I fucking love zombies, werewolves, vampires, ghosts and all the rest of the ghoulies that great flicks like The Sixth Sense, The Mothman Prophecies, The Amityville Horror remake and the Dawn of the Dead remake have thrown at us. I love all those movies, and I'll always enjoy getting spooked in spite of my better judgment. It's part of the fun of being a geek.
That said, though, naturalistic horror has the damnedest way of spooking me, because, of course, I can really imagine this crazy shit happening. And that makes it all the more disturbing for me (and a lot of us, I think), because it carries with it that semen-in-the-clam-chowder, blood-Tabasco zing of snuff. Naturalistic horror fills your head with that sweet, crazy, screaming shine you felt when you watched Faces of Death for the first time in your best friend's basement TV room as a kid. Hell, the aura of snuff was all that carried The Blair Witch Project to its unlikely success. Once I found out for sure that the movie wasn't actual footage of three hapless kids getting whacked by copycat-killing hillbillies, all that was left was an amateurish hodge-podge of meaningless imagery and phenomenally shitty acting.
Roth understands the demented appeal of naturalistic horror, and even though it takes him two-thirds of his movie to get to it, he gives us the most haunting violence since Hooper's classic.
But Roth does even better than that. He delivers a far more satisfying final third by lightly dipping into the classical tradition of the revenge tragedy, and by showing us the amoral materialism of his killers. By doing this, Roth makes me wish that he, and not Mary Harron, had directed the film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho.
Hostel and American Psycho (the novel) already have a lot in common. Both follow around amoral rich kids as they have a lot of sex and do a lot of drugs. Both involve extreme violence, but where Harron's movie largely omitted the greatest excesses of Ellis' violent book, Roth packs the final third of Hostel with imagery that would make Ellis proud:
• A sliced Achilles tendon rupturing (closeup).
• The removal of an eye hanging from a live human head.
• A shot of an autopsy done on a live human.
• Lots of vomiting through ball gags.
• A chainsaw cutting off fingers.
• A chainsaw cutting off a leg (the movie's clearest nod to Texas Chainsaw).
• A girl getting smashed to bits by a speeding train.
• Bystanders getting splashed with gore from the train-smashed girl.
• A scalpel cutting off more fingers (closeup).
• Rocks smashing in skulls.
• A car crushing a girl lying in the street.
I may have missed a few of the greatest hits, but you get the idea. The final third of this movie is unrelenting brutality done with all the graphic realism that the original Texas Chainsaw avoids.
But it's not all this violence that makes Hostel so unsettling. The violence just makes it gross. No, Roth earns his Tobe Hooper stripes with his story engine and one great scene:
First, the story engine: Evil eastern European mobsters kidnap people and charge the super-rich for the privilege to torture them to death.
This idea links Roth's movie directly to Ellis' work. Ellis has received a lot of criticism for his works being amoral, disaffected and misogynistic; to say nothing of how he glorifies the rampant and wanton use of drugs and alcohol.
These criticisms completely miss the point of Ellis' books.
Ellis' novels are not amoral, disaffected or misogynistic, and he does not glorify drugs and alcohol. I don't want anyone to misconstrue my praise or defense of Ellis' deep, old-fashioned morality as a statement that Roth supports the same kind of morals in his movie. Hostel has a certain amount of righteousness, but it's far more direct and classical. Again, Roth draws on the old revenge tragedy formula, which makes his movie far more about entertainment and satisfaction than the moralizing that Ellis pursues.
Ellis' moralizing is simple, especially in American Psycho. I'll put it like this: In his novel, Ellis describes two things in equal detail:
And I'm being kind to the Reagan-rich of the 80s by saying that Ellis only describes their clothes in such detail. Yes, he goes into great detail talking about the technology and toys that all the rich assholes have, but he mostly savages them by taking paragraph upon paragraph to describe their outfits, from the shoes on up.
But here's the key: immediately before or after he does this, Ellis writes a scene where Patrick Bateman serial murders someone. Ellis juxtaposes violence and materialistic excess so he can use the former to infect and condemn the latter. He either puts an impossibly well-dressed yuppie in your mind before he makes you want to puke at the image of a guy with a severed head impaled on his erect cock, or he turns your stomach with the image of a swanky apartment doused with drying, hair-clotted blood before he shows you an upscale party you'd never be invited to. And he does it for the entire fucking book.
Far from being a galloping misogynist or amoral materialist, Ellis points directly at Patrick Bateman and says, "This is evil. If you're so much as a blip on this thing's cultural radar, you're Ted Bundy."
So naturally, my one complaint about Mary Harron's otherwise stellar film of American Psycho is that it's not violent enough. Harron may very well have the deranged edge needed to put such violence on film, and before CC2k staff member Lance Carmichael calls me on it, I must concede that Harron might simply have been constrained by her studio to leave a lot of the serious slaughter out of her movie.
Best moment in Harron's film: When Bateman returns to the scene of one of his kills to clean up, he finds it to be an empty, for-sale apartment. A small, overweight saleslady (no physical match for Bateman), senses something is amiss by the cleaning mask in his hand and asks him if he saw the ad for the apartment in the Times.
"Yeah," Bateman lies.
The saleslady says, "There was no ad in the Times."
And suddenly Bateman, heretofore the unstoppable monster in this story, stands unmanned, his shoulders slumped, his cleaning mask dangling from his fingers like a string of stale semen. The saleslady takes a step back into shadow and tells Bateman to leave, as secure as a Joss Whedon nun facing down a vampire in church.
This is a good, but not pivotal, scene in Ellis' novel, and Harron turns it into perhaps the most memorable moment in her film by playing it as pure Pinter. The only scene that rivals it is the loony high comedy of the business card scene, with Bateman's crushing disappointment in the face of his coworker's apparently superior cards. ("Copperplate Gothic font. Eggshell stock. It's perfect.") Bale slam-dunks the business card scene by not just playing the comedy straight, but by playing it as deadly serious as the climax of King Lear. Classic!)
That said, though, I would love to see Roth direct American Psycho, mainly because Roth is a great director and a lousy writer. He's got great visual flair, he surrounds himself with great designers, he hires strong actors, and he gets great performances out of them. Roth's deft touch with casting deserves special praise, again, because his dialogue is so weak.
But like I said, his story is sound, and amidst the carnage of his torture-for-pay storyline, he gives us this great moment:
The movie's highlight: Rick Hoffman, who has been popping up as Central Casting for "obnoxious Jewish businessman" in a few movies, finally gets to use his abrasive energy to memorable effect by playing one of the clients of the torture syndicate. Hopped-up on coke and synergy, Hoffman's businessman encounters the movie's nominal hero (a solid Jay Hernandez) and mistakes him for a fellow client.
"What did you get?" Hoffman asks, referring to the nationality of Hernandez's supposed victim.
Hernandez replies, "American," remembering that Americans fetch the highest price.
Hoffman hoots with envy and says, "A big spender! I fuckin' love that!"
Watching this scene, I couldn't help but think of American Psycho, because Roth simply takes the amoral materialism and serial murder of Ellis' novel, and instead of juxtaposing them, he combines them. Instead of suggesting that amoral materialism is tantamount to serial murder (like Ellis does), Roth says that they are the same thing.
Great, now I've gone and argued that Roth has a deeper moral agenda in mind with his movie. Well, to counteract that, let me go back to the beginning of this essay and explain why I prefer the final third of Hostel to the original Texas Chainsaw: because Roth punishes evil. The girl in Texas Chainsaw just gets lucky. She barely manages to escape Leatherface because some dudes drive by. Jay Hernandez's character catches a break when his torturer slips on Hernandez's severed fingers and chainsaws his own leg off. (A darkly comic moment that, again, is the clearest nod to Texas Chainsaw.) But then Hernandez's character breaks loose, escapes the bad guys, rescues a fellow victim and brutally kills a few of the bad guys along the way. These kills include throat cuttings, skull crushings and a shocking car collision.
In short, Roth shows that he can film super-violence as well as Ellis can imagine it, and with Hostel, Roth gives us haunting, corporate amoralism — and he punishes it with even more righteous super-violence.
Roth has a great skill set, but because his dialogue is so lame, I would rather he direct original scripts or novel adaptations. Indeed, Roth is attached to direct the film version of Stephen King's techno-zombie thriller Cell, and it's a good match of director and material. King is no great writer of dialogue himself, and Cell rambles in a lot of the same ways that Hostel does, but it brims with affection for the works of George Romero and Richard Matheson — two fellow masters of genre horror — and if there's one thing Roth does well, it's homage.
Hostel ain't perfect, but I'm looking forward to the sequel. Cell ain't no American Psycho, but I can't wait to see what Roth does with it.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.