Extreme Horror: Basic Escapism or Simply Base?

Lauren German and Vera Jordanova in 'Hostel: Part II' i i

hide captionAn American tourist (Lauren German, left) and her friends learn too late in Hostel: Part II that the cheap lodgings recommended by a Slovakian model (Vera Jordanova) come with hidden costs.

Rico Torres/Lionsgate
Lauren German and Vera Jordanova in 'Hostel: Part II'

An American tourist (Lauren German, left) and her friends learn too late in Hostel: Part II that the cheap lodgings recommended by a Slovakian model (Vera Jordanova) come with hidden costs.

Rico Torres/Lionsgate
Heather Matarazzo in 'Hostel: Part II' i i

hide captionFor the sake of a spa patron's singularly sanguinary beauty treatment, Hostel II's Heather Matarazzo undergoes an unfortunately draining experience.

Rico Torres/Lionsgate
Heather Matarazzo in 'Hostel: Part II'

For the sake of a spa patron's singularly sanguinary beauty treatment, Hostel II's Heather Matarazzo undergoes an unfortunately draining experience.

Rico Torres/Lionsgate
Bijou Phillips in 'Hostel: Part II' i i

hide captionBijou Phillips' mean, mouthy American tourist ends up bound and gagged (who saw that coming?) in Hostel: Part II.

Rico Torres/Lionsgate
Bijou Phillips in 'Hostel: Part II'

Bijou Phillips' mean, mouthy American tourist ends up bound and gagged (who saw that coming?) in Hostel: Part II.

Rico Torres/Lionsgate

Hostel Part II opened Friday, and it's expected to kill at the box office. The first Hostel cost less than $5 million to make, and grossed 10 times that amount in ticket sales alone.

Of course, gross may be the operative word: Along with other so-called Splat Pack films, like Saw and The Hills Have Eyes, Hostel and its sequel dwell on pain and mutilation. Like it or not, such films are extremely popular — and their appeal is adding up to a real extreme-horror trend.

Here's the Hostel setup: Callow young Americans abroad get lured to an evil youth hostel in a former Soviet Republic, where they're dismembered — for sport — by an international cabal of thrill-seeking businessmen.

The victims in the first Hostel were frat boys tempted into the danger zone by photos of local beauties. What lures the American girls of Hostel II? Spas — it turns out the chicks can't resist the spas.

Of course, it turns out that the "treatments" there range from grisly to revolting; one already-infamous scene shows a literal bloodbath enjoyed by a naked woman. Another naked woman is the faucet.

Hostel II is one of nearly 40 horror movies scheduled to hit theaters this year. That's twice as many as last year or the year before. Horror is cheap to make, and it can bring in buckets of money. The film Saw and its two sequels cost about $15 million combined, and made $250 million — in the domestic market alone.

Saw concerns a killer whose captives are forced to make diabolical choices: "He doesn't want us to cut through our chains," one horrified character says in that movie. "He wants us to cut through our feet."

Gruesome, yes. But Saw and its sequels are innovative in a way, says Mikita Brottman, a horror scholar educated at Oxford. She says Saw is structured like a video game.

"You have to get through this sequence and find the key to this particular handcuff, and then you get out and you're in the next sequence," Brottman says. "And just when you think you've managed to escape from this room, you're in a room with a bigger minotaur, or whatever."

Extreme horror is really nothing new, though. Brottman cites a notorious 1980 exploitation flick called Cannibal Holocaust, along with Sola, by the art-house director Pier Paolo Pasolini. And starting back in the 1960s, Brottman says, Herschell Gordon Lewis was cranking out makeshift B pictures like Blood Feast.

"Exactly the same things happen," Brottman says. "People have their legs cut off and tongues pulled out and eyeballs exploding — but they seem really ridiculous and laughable, whereas the movies now seem really visceral and shocking. But the same things are being done to the body."

Special effects have improved, of course, and so has market penetration. Today's extreme horror is mainstream entertainment, thanks partly to the independent studio Lionsgate, which released Hostel and the Saw films.

"The horror genre has been very good to us," says Tom Ortenberg, who runs Lionsgate's theatrical-releasing division. "We feel like we've been very good to it."

Ortenberg describes extreme horror as a thrill ride for its core audience of male (and increasingly female) 18- to 24-year-olds. That gives David Poland the shudders. He edits the online industry journal Movie City News.

"I don't think there's any question that it leads to a certain coarsening of culture," Poland says. "The question is where that ultimately leads in the spiritual lives ... of people watching it. And that's something we do have to keep our eyes on as adults, I think."

Poland was a horror fan before he watched the film Wolf Creek a few years ago. Since then, he's become an outspoken critic of extreme horror. Hostel II had limited advance screenings, but Poland bought a bootleg DVD. He describes what he saw as "misogynistic, hateful, heartless, thoughtless, despicable" and "soulless."

After watching it, he says, "I think that we've crossed some sort of line."

For certain horror fans, of course, that's a ringing endorsement. For his part, Ortenberg says Lionsgate is mindful of its responsibilities to the public.

"We are working with the MPAA," Ortenberg says, referring to the Motion Picture Association of America, "and obeying their guidelines."

That, apparently, would mean that bathing in blood is OK, but bathing in blood while touching one's nipple is not OK. The latter image, once part of the aforementioned bloodbath scene, was cut from Hostel II to ensure an R rating.

Such decisions now bedevil director Rob Zombie — that is his legal name — as he edits his remake of the classic slasher film Halloween. It's due out late this summer. Zombie says that in his movies, violence isn't gratuitous — it's the point.

"It's like taking the sex out of a porno movie," he says. "It deals on such a gut level that when you remove those gut elements, it becomes a hollow experience."

People who don't want to watch his movies shouldn't, Zombie says. He sees extreme horror as simple escapism for some members of an increasingly jaded society.

"They go to their job every day ...and they want to go to the movies, and they want an experience," he says. "They either want to be scared, or they want to laugh, or they want to cry — they just want to be affected by something."

Something, perhaps, like the brother-sister team of psycho killers from Zombie's film The Devil's Rejects, who brutally torment a family in a hotel room. Such scenes have inspired a new name for this kind of horror: It's sometimes called "gore-nography" or "torture porn."

That's a label Eli Roth doesn't much like. Roth directed Hostel and Hostel II, and he says he's an artist inspired by the real-life horrors on the evening news.

"While we were recording the score for the first Hostel, I turned on the television, and Hurricane Katrina was on," Roth says. "[There were] bodies floating down the street, reports of people raping and shooting — and the police quit! Look around the world, at what happens when you're in a society where no one's looking and no one's paying attention and you can do whatever you want: People revert immediately to this state of killing."

The idea that horror films reflect the fears of their times is familiar to horror scholars like Brottman. It's obvious to her why torture is a "trope" at a moment when, she says, the U.S. and other countries are party to it around the world.

"Because there are people disappearing," she says. "And bodies are disappearing, and life is cheap over there, so I think it's a displacement of real horrors."

Brottman says that although we hear about war atrocities, the only pictures we've seen that can compare to the shocking images from other, earlier wars are the photographs from Abu Ghraib.

"And so there's this massive disconnect between what we're told is going on and what we're seeing, which is nothing, nothing at all — not even coffins," she says. "So maybe these vignettes are compensations for what you don't see in real life."

By "vignettes," Brottman means gory sequences in movies as well as the online offerings that compete with them. LiveLeak.com, for instance, is filled with soldiers' amateur footage from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; there's video of bombings, wounds and accidents, often set to music. In one video, a car rolls over a person and into a pit.

All of this exists as a sort of cultural Id, Brottman says, and humanity's dark side is a fascinating place to explore.

Still, even Brottman has limits. "I don't like anything with Robin Williams," she jokes.

In spite of the laughter, Brottman says extreme horror might be a way of examining the core of what makes us human.

Figuratively speaking, of course.

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