Thursday, December 21, 2006

Hostel: The Problems with American Horror Cinema

Hostel is a movie that received a lot of the same criticisms that have been launched at 'Asia Extreme' filmmakers like Chanwook Park, Takashi Miike and Kim Ki-Duk. There's certainly superficial similarities between their films, with the heavy use of extreme violence and torture within the plots. Miike even turns up for a cameo in Hostel, which is what prompted me to watch the film in the first place. I also watched it because I'd heard a lot about the similarities with these Asian filmmakers and I thought maybe I was wrong in dismissing the film as horror schlock, perhaps that was just the same ignorant critics who dismiss the best of Asia. It's not, this film is pure horror schlock and it makes clear what separates mainstream American horror films from similarly themed Asian films. And, as with many things I write about here, it's the total embrace of pop! in Asian films.

Watching Hostel, I was actually surprised by how restrained the violence was. The buzz I heard indicated it was an absolutely sadistic nonstop progression of gore. That's not really the case, the first half is all setup and when we do get to the violence, it's nasty, but not particularly disturbing. Yeah, the eye getting cut out was really nasty, as was the slitting of the heel, but it's nasty on a superficial level. I felt more aware of it as a nasty makeup effect than as something the characters were actually feeling.

That's largely because the characters just weren't particularly interesting. I think Roth did a good job of capturing the way some people speak, but that's not quite enough to make them interesting. I suppose the point of the film was to comment on American arrogance, the idea that they're there not for culture, just to fuck some European chicks. And, of course, they end up getting fucked themselves. I was actually waiting for one of them to be raped, I feel like that would have been a more fitting reversal of roles. But, instead we get the torture and death sequences.

My big issue with the lengthy buildup to the torture stuff is that the characters don't ever feel real. In most American horror movies, there's a buildup to the scares rather than actual character development. There's some attempts here, and I suppose it could work for some people, but these guys never felt like anything more than caricatures to me. Now, there are real people like them, but we never get to know them beneath the surface. They each seem to have a characteristic and they act according to that characteristic. That means that we don't particularly care about them when they get caught up in the bad stuff that happens towards the end. Compare this to a similar torture scene in Casino Royale, where there's actual concern about what's happening to Bond.

In general, one of my big problems with horror movies is the fact that they're designed to scare you. This movie wasn't anywhere near as bad as something like The Grudge, which had something pop out and make a loud noise every couple of minutes just to keep you scared. The two genres that horror most resembles are comedy and porn. All of these genres are based around creating a base reaction. If people laugh, a comedy is successful. If people are scared, the horror movie is successful, right? Well, I don't think that's true. The problem with a lot of horror and comedy films, and I suppose porn too, is that the producers go for that base reaction rather than trying to tell a good story/make a good film. Comedy's a lot more funny if it's about someone you know, that's why Buffy is one of the funniest shows on TV, we know the characters so well, stuff that would be marginally funny with strangers is riotous with the Buffy gang. It's the same with horror, Six Feet Under's "That's My Dog" is one of the scariest things I've seen because it's happening to someone we know. Would the story be as effective as a standalone film? I don't think so.

In an hour and a half film, it's obviously tough to make us care about the characters, but I never got past the sense that these characters were developed as an obligation rather than out of real passion for their arc. Now, I will agree that these people at least have personalities, unlike most American horror characters.

So, the film wasn't great, but it was competent and entertaining. However, the ending left me with a really bad feeling. I'm not sure if it's meant to be a "Hell yeah" moment when Paxton kills the guy, that seems to be what the film is saying, but for me, it felt like he'd become just as bad as the people he fled from. This seems to contradict the character we'd seen for the rest of the film.

Takashi Miike appears in the film, in a quick cameo, and I think comparing his films with this one reveal a lot of what makes his cinema more entertaining and more genuinely terrifying. Miike's films take a wide variety of approaches to the horror genre. Audition is a film that, like Hostel, was hailed for its nastiness. What's surprising when watching it is the way the first half of film plays really well as straight drama. We care about the guy and are caught up in his story. He doesn't feel like his story takes place in a horror movie universe, and that makes it all the scarier when things go crazy at the end. Miike's filmmaking there is confounding and challenging, an art cinema approach, where the presentation is as important as the violence that's being presented. So, Audition is a good movie that just happens to have some nasty stuff in it.

This is a difference from American horror movies, where they all seem to take place in a horror movie universe. In the real world, a guy following you down the street at night can be scary, in a horror movie, not so much, because you're expecting things to go bad. The genre dictates the rules of the world, and there, a man following you down the street is pretty tame compared to what we've seen before. A similar problem occurs in romantic comedy, where you see two characters arguing and instantly know they're going to wind up together.

Ichi The Killer takes a different approach, going absurdly over the top with pop excess. This is a movie where there's such joy taken in depicting the violence, you enjoy it as black comedy as much as horror. Evil Dead II takes a similar tact, embracing the absurdity of what's happening. I think Ichi is still scary in the same way that Hostel is, but rather than having moments of horror and moments of quiet, the entire film is a world of bizarre horror. That's what Inland Empire does too, raise the stakes, make the entire second half frightening, rather than doing the traditional scare beats we see here in Hostel.

A lot of the torture horror genre is influenced from Asia, the pinnacle of which was Oldboy. Oldboy has a lot of surface similarities with Hostel, but it works much better because it taps into much deeper emotions. Oh Daesu experiences really awful things, and we have a better understanding of why he's doing what he does. The violence is still very nasty, but it's used to illustrate character, rather than having the character be an excuse for the violence. Having him cut out his tongue is disturbing, but it's as much because of what it means for the character as it is for the nastiness of the act itself.

And on a filmmaking level, Park uses the film as a chance to indulge in stylistic excess, with music and shots pushing everything to an incredible, baroque level. Hostel never ascends in this same way, the shots are fairly conventional and the music isn't used for anything but typical scare beats. I did like the use of 'How Do' from The Wicker Man, but other than that, nothing stood out. The shots weren't interesting, the most horrific moments in film, such as Irreversible, use the shots to maximize audience involvement. Here, the shots remained aloof, keeping us distanced from the characters' pain. If you want to make truly horrifying cinema, look to the swirling camera, pounding soundtrack and degraded mise en scene of Irreversible's Rectum sequence.

And that scene is part of a brilliant film. Hostel doesn't try to be anything more than a good horror movie, it may acheive that, but he never reaches the operatic heights of his Asian idols, who know that narrative has its place, but the unique power of film is in using stylistic flair to engage the audience.


Anonymous said...

couldn't agree more. i just can't get into most horror movies.

oldboy, on the other hand, is one of my very favorite movies.

Mauricio said...

Mmmmm. But you missed the best thing about Hostel: is a political satire, where "ignorant americans", thinking that the world is their brothel, find themselves in the other side of the equation ("... now you are my bitch"). I think that was quite evident. I liked it.

Patrick said...

That point is certainly made, but I feel like the film is torn between trying to do the satire, and trying to tell a story with a likable protagonist. It's not a bad movie, it's just I think the point is a little simpler and less emotionally engaging than what we're seeing with the best of the Asian equivalents to the film.