The Feminist Politics of Hostel II
By Wil Forbis
July 1st, 2007
There can be no doubt that Eli Roth is the best director working in horror today. When his debut film, "Cabin Fever," came out, I raved about it as a visceral, terrifying return to the "alone in the woods" genre that had been popularized by the original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Motel Hell." "Cabin Fever" also continued a trend begun by movies like "The Ring" and "Fear Dot Com," navigating horror away from quasi-comedic, postmodern fright flicks like "Scream" and "I Saw What You Did Last Summer" back towards blood soaked splatter fests that got your heart racing and your stomach turning. "Cabin Fever" combined (mostly) believable characters, liquid gore and a nihilistic outlook to rattle audiences and unsettle even seasoned horror vets such as myself.
But that was a mere prelude to Roth's next movie, "Hostel." Playing off America's growing sense of (deserved) isolation in the wake of the Iraq war, "Hostel" told the story of several American tourists in Europe, who, while seeking the sexual thrills of Eastern European women wind up in a dank fortress in Slovakia where wealthy patrons pay to torture young victims. The camera in the torture scenes was unflinching and never shied away from the raw brutality and medical textbook gore. But what made the film especially unnerving was Roth's use of darkness and sound. For me, the most gripping points of the movie occurred when the camera explored the barely lit halls of the dungeon while unidentifiable noises panned across the stereo spectrum. As usual, it was the unknown that proved really terrifying.
That said, it should be no surprise that I was eager to see "Hostel Part II" when it opened a few weeks ago. I did and it was good. It's not a great horror flick, like its predecessor or "Cabin Fever," but it offers a fair share of scares intermixed with more refined storytelling. This time the movie follows two sets of characters: a trio of female American tourists who wind up in the Slovakian dungeon of the first film and a pair of middle-aged businessmen, also American, who have paid to take on the role of torturers. There's a few surprises, and a certain amount of role switching as members from both groups reveal what their motivations really are.
The first thing that caught my eye was the inclusion of actress Heather Matarazzo. Matarazzo starred in the infamous and spectacular cult film "Welcome to the Dollhouse," a movie that took an uncompromisingly bleak view of the tribulations of being an outcast. She has since come out as a lesbian and generally aligned herself to left-wing and feminist causes. What was she doing in a splatter film, I wondered. It's a genre often accused of being as anti-women as they come. But as I watched "Hostel II" unfold it all started to make sense. (For reasons I'll get to in just a sec.)
After I saw "Hostel II" I performed a ritual of mine, which is to dial up the film's entry on rottentomatoes.com and peruse its reviews. I was surprised at the generally positive tone (no genre attracts the ire of critics like horror; it's one more point in its favor) but one negative review stood out. Written by Linda Cook of the Quad City Times, it denounced "Hostel II" as "shockingly violent grotesque pornography... full of sex, nudity and ghastly scenes of torture and stomach churning mutilation." So far, so good, I thought, though I found these complaints a bit weird since Ms. Cook also claimed to have enjoyed the original "Hostel." But what really struck me in the review was this line, "Roth seems to hate women in particular."
My take on "Hostel II" was almost the exact opposite. I saw it as a grindhouse feminist piece in the same vein of the seventies cult classic "I Spit on Your Grave" which told the story of an enraged rape victim who tracked down and kills her rapists. And the more I ruminated on the topic, the more I became convinced I had several points in my favor, points listed below.
Point 1 - I think any objective viewer will agree that the violence in the first "Hostel," performed primarily (though not exclusively) on men, was more vicious and graphic than anything in the sequel. How one can say that Roth hates women "in particular" is beyond me when he's at his worst torturing male members of our species. (And yet, the first movie is the one Ms. Cook liked. Hmmmmm....)
Point 2 - In "Hostel II," the two main male characters are a gutless blowhard and a henpecked, emasculated sadist, neither of whom has an admirable finish. Roth's argument is pretty clear: the male predilection for violence against women is fueled by a sense of inadequacy and the acts of abuse that occur in the Slovakian torture chamber are the work of petty tyrants desperate to reclaim their perceived entitlement to the crown of male authority.
Point 3 - The film's protagonist and ultimate victor is a woman. She triumphs using her superior emotional intelligence, her ability to manipulate the inner turmoil of her male captor, and, in a twist on the first "Hostel's" condemnation of American excess, her access to cold hard cash.
It's in Point 3 that I think we can find the most rugged defense of the horror genre in general. The female protagonist is nothing new; horror heroines have a long and cherished history going back to the suspense movies Hitchcock made in the 40s (the men were off at war, so moviegoing audiences were mostly women.) Hitch recognized this and sensibly offered up a plethora of movies with female leads such as Joan Fontaine in "Suspicion" or Ingrid Bergman in "Spellbound." This trend was alive and well 40 years later in the the golden era of slasher flicks - the eighties - with Jamie Lee Curtis in "Halloween" and Heather Langenkamp in"Nightmare on Elm Street." And it continued into the nineties and beyond with Neve Campell in the "Scream" series and Naomi Watts in "The Ring." These movies featured intelligent, tenacious protagonists who had to use their wits and courage to overcome their formidable, supernatural and usually male opponents*. (The ideal of the noble heroine took a dark turn in the recent shock/torture movie, "Hard Candy", which unapologetically showed a sprightly teenage girl castrating a man who may be a child murderer.) Horror and suspense are probably the only genres where women consistently command lead roles.
* I'm not going to be willfully naïve here: part of the preponderance of female protagonists in horror is due the juvenile desire of male adolescents (horror's base) to see helpless women victimized by malevolent predators. And there are plenty of horror films - especially from the no holds barred seventies - that are truly disturbing in their women-hating. (Wes Craven, who showed women as canny fighters in the "Nightmare on Elm Street" films, brutalized them a decade earlier in the grim "Last House on the Left.") But I would argue that horror's best easily outdo the best of any other genre in its portrayal of female empowerment.
Now of course the feminist spirit in horror in general and "Hostel II" in particular is not your grandmother's feminism. It's an offshoot, mutant breed best represented by Valerie Solanas' S.C.U.M. manifesto, 90s punk band 7 Year Bitch*, and the post-O.J. heralding of Lorena Bobbitt as a feminist icon. This is hard edged, were-not-going-to-take-it feminism, perhaps best captured by shock rocker The Great Kat, who, in an interview I did with her several years ago, defended the scenes of bloody castrations in her stage shows and videos by saying, "The Great Kat is stating that WOMEN CAN BE AS POWERFUL AS MEN."
*Their anthem "Dead Men Don't Rape" foreshadowed the enraged reaction to the 1993 rape/murder of Seattle musician Mia Zapata.
And perhaps this is the grim realization of the horror genre, an insight actively avoided by both paleo-feminists and patriarchal traditionalists. Women are undoubtedly just as capable as men in all the noble pursuits traditionally marked as male: the sciences, sports, politics. But they may also prove to be men's equal in other areas: violence, torture, brutality.
Lynndie England anyone?
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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.