Reviews

Hostel and its Attractions

Hostel

The attraction of horror, to me, lies in its aesthetics. Every audience member pays extra attention to what’s seen and not seen. The killer is hiding. The only thing we see is darkness. Something is obscured. Something is hidden. Body parts. Weapons. The urban decay in a foreign land. Blood. The cool tones in the image. Hostel makes interesting choices in cinematography and editing, and creates memorable sequences, subvert expectations, and above all else, put fear in the audience.

Now, Hostel is different from many horror films as part of the torture porn subgenre. It grosses people out, sickens them even. Released in the mediocre mid-2000s horror period, it pushes people to the limit. The torture porn subgenre isn’t for everyone, but I want to highlight the inner workings of Hostel in regard to its narrative structure and aesthetics. Basically, the film doesn’t use characters as a means to get the kills and the thrills. The expectations that the audience have are known, and the film works against them.

I won’t heavily delve into the psychology and politics of torture porn right now, because it’s a complex subject. There are essays that discursively analyze the socioeconomic politics and narrative of Hostel in depth, drawing comparisons to torture by soldiers in the Bush era and how Hostel evokes fears from 9/11. I find the connections to be persuasive, but instead of offering my own take, I’d rather review Eli Roth’s filmmaking decisions, how he presents his world and builds suspense.

Hostel has a very basic reversal structure, and it took me by surprise. The words people use in reference to Hostel are “disgusting,” “without purpose,” and “shock value” but there’s a breakdown of the spectator’s expectations in the film. For one, the opening has an unseen whistling person cleaning up a murder. From this point on forward, I expected the villain to only be a single person. As it turns out, the villain is an organization that fuels people’s sadistic desires.

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The film centers around three main characters: Josh (Derek Richardson), a white American, Paxton (Jay Hernandez), a Latino American, and Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), a white Icelander. The white American male, due to our experience with the Hollywood film, feels like the main character that will survive throughout the film. But, it is Paxton, who uses “gay” as an insult, misbehaves toward women, and acts as the typical annoying American, that becomes the survivor. This is one of the major reversals in the movie few people would expect.

In the beginning, the three friends are on a road trip through Europe, fulfilling their roles as sex tourists. The first major section of the film has the three sex tourists go to a brothel, which sets up a commentary on human trafficking and the human killing underworld. The inciting incident would be learning about the “easy sex” at the eponymous hostel in Slovakia, and the sex tourists travelling to live out their promised libertine fantasies. The third major section, past the midpoint, is where the film delivers its horror; Paxton uncovers the underworld in Slovakia and escapes it. The resolution has Paxton enacting revenge as a survivor.

As I said, the brothel mirrors the underworld section, which isn’t a reversal of expectations but still sets up a parallel structure that the film is built around. In the brothel, the camera moves down the long neon lit hallway focusing on each room, sexual acts heard in each one. In the torture sequence, Paxton is dragged down a hallway, glimpsing terrifying acts in every torture room, hearing the final screams of victims. The two sequences are remarkably similar in introducing two worlds, one sexual and one violent, thereby connecting the two concepts in a complex relationship. At one point in the brothel, Josh thinks someone is hurt, and barges in. In this mini reversal of expectations, Josh learns that the subject wanted to be hurt by the prostitute. The pain is real, but the man’s life is not in danger; at the same time, he’s in control and the dominatrix is in control. The dominatrix then says that Josh has to pay to watch, but he leaves, while Oli and Paxton enter to spectate the spectacle of a bodily exchange between a john and a prostitute. In the horror section, Paxton goes in the room where he knows the american client (Rick Hoffman) is torturing Kana, an Asian tourist. The man says get out, and Paxton shoots the man to save Kana. The power and pain structure between the two scenes may not be perfectly inverted, but the comparison of buying a human for services is clear based on these interactions. Human trafficking, the slavery of the modern age, exists in tandem with legal prostitution, and importantly, Americans aren’t exempt from it, especially when they’re on a sex tourism romp. The sex tourists, having used women for their bodies, find themselves in a foreign land used only for their bodies, although for lethal and malevolent reasons.

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The most interesting part of the movie to me, that few people mention in their reviews, is the role of the kids. The Slovakian children epitomize the normalization of violence, since they act as a gang taking what they want from whoever. Josh’s killer, the unnamed Dutch businessman (Jan Vlasak), says they attack anyone and commit the most crime. This proves useful later, when Paxton gives them candy to kill the men following him. The act of exchanging candy for murder is the third type of buying bodies, and all the more strange that it happens with kids. The deaths by the children are fully shown, with them bashing the two men in the head with rocks. The scene isn’t a usual horror sequence, but it’s part of what makes the film disgusting, in its own way.

More than most films, Hostel is particular about what violence it does show, because it actually shows less than what audience members probably remember, judging by their comments. The famous example is in Josh’s death scene, where we don’t see what the Dutch businessman is doing to him, and we have to imagine him slicing Josh’s Achilles heels and his throat. In another quick scene, a woman is screaming as her killer walks toward her. In an extreme close up, the killer is about to remove the woman’s toes with a pair of cutters, but the film transitions to the victim’s friend cutting her toenails. The violence is not shown at all, even more, the transition is almost comical.

Furthermore, Paxton’s torture sequence lacks a lot of physical torture, opting to go with mental anguish instead. The film teases us with what his German torturer will do to him. After holding a gun up to his head, the German looks offscreen and the next shot is a close up of Paxton’s legs behind his chair, near the ground. Paxton is frantically moving around, trying to get out of his shackles—until he hears the hum of a chainsaw. His body goes still. The camera rises to his hands gripping the back the chair and continues to a close up behind Paxton’s head. The music starts up again revving the audience in anticipation. Eli Roth favors a strategic, implied type of filmmaking to merely torturing his characters as much as possible, something that many reviewers don’t see.

The gross factor in Paxton’s torture scene doesn’t only occur when he gets his fingers sawed off; that type of violence is mild compared to horror movies that aren’t “torture porn.” What I suspect grosses audiences out, besides the unsanitary torture chamber, is Paxton vomiting with a ball gag in his mouth. Human bodily fluids that aren’t blood are almost rare in horror films. When it isn’t blood, it’s usually vomit. The most disgusting torture is done to the Asian woman, Kana, that involves a face on the receiving end of a blowtorch and an eye drooping off her face before it’s cut off. Make no mistake. It is disgusting to watch, but the film isn’t laden with images like these, though it’s likely what people have in mind when they remember the film, because it is shocking.

There are many more interesting details in the film that go beyond the scope of this reappraisal, but I chose to focus on the narrative and visual choices made in the film. Hostel is one of the definitive films of its era, and it’s still effective today, going by my recent viewing. As far as the torture porn genre goes, Hostel cuts away more than it cuts into its characters.

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Reviews

House of Wax 2005

It’s no secret that horror has a negative reputation. For a topic such as mediocrity, genre is one of the starting points in the conversation. The expectations of how great a film can be, for many audience members, begins with what it adds to the genre. While the horror genre has seen a surge in critical acclaim and popularity in recent years, horror films remain more divisive than films of different genres. The shock value, the teen demographic, and reliance on familiar narratives are part of the reason it’s considered lowbrow. Basically, horror is associated with mediocrity, and is probably the best representation for it.

Among horror enthusiasts, the mid-2000s, referring to 2003-2007, are considered a low point, or at least one of them. The entire decade is full of foreign horror remakes, torture porn, and going by critical scores and “Best of” lists, it lacks a great horror film on the same level as Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense, and Get Out, where horror films receive awards.

The film I’m going to discuss, House of Wax, exemplifies horror’s mediocre status with their audience and critical responses. House of Wax is (understandably) forgotten as mid-2000s teen slasher fare with gross out moments. For one thing, it has Paris Hilton. Despite the bad, the horror film interests me because of how it plays with a laughable concept, the theme of family, and the presentation of horror.

The House of Wax’s opening is one of the best parts of the movie, as it gives the viewer an unfamiliar perspective of watching a scene. The prologue is set in 1974 and has a yellow tint. It starts in a low angle close-up shot of wax hanging off a stove. A woman stirs melted wax in a pot in close ups. Noticeably, we never see a person’s full figure in the opening—faces are always cut off at the top of the frame.

Besides fragmenting the space and making it strange, it serves a strategic purpose of not showing the twin brothers, one throwing a tantrum, and the other calm. Audience expectations would assume that the disruptive boy would be the silent killer that we follow throughout the rest of the film. But the film has a twist to subvert audience expectations, the character Bo (Brian Van Holt), the seemingly “normal” one, refocuses the abuse he received onto his silent and passive, brother, named Vincent. It is Bo that makes the masked killer kill.

The main characters of the movie, Carly (Elisha Cuthbert) and Nick (Chad Michael Murrary), are also twins. It’s an interesting choice to make the heroes and villains twins, instead of just family members. The unstable cooperation between the villains in murdering people contrasts the bond that grows between Carly and Nick over the film. Carly, the good twin, and Nick, the bad twin, naturally have conflict in the beginning of the movie during their road trip with friends.

Nick is a memorable character for a forgotten picture. He has an impressive athleticism as seen when he throws a football, and his backstory involves juvenile delinquency, establishing that Nick’s street smart—which does come in handy once the killings begin.

Since mediocre movies, judged by the populace, aren’t all bad, they can have tiny moments of impressive filmmaking and acting. In the case of Nick, I took notice to the way Chad Michael Murrary incorporates the character’s athleticism and “street” past into the way he runs and fights. In the rescue scene, he knows Bo is lying, and skillfully thwarts his attack. Nick quickly runs to the gas station, and knocks down a garage door, so Bo can’t get to him or his sister. Nick intuitively knows the space and what to do to survive.

Carly is the main character and conforms to the standard heroin role. Her personal drive gets cast aside and is dominated by the relationship with her brother. She feels pity for Vincent, the disfigured brother, since he was abused by Bo. I don’t think there is a strong argument being made with the contrast between the protagonist twins and the antagonist twins, but a twin sibling bond highlights the differences of the siblings, and how the same environment results in different people. The narrative does reveal a twist on both ends, however, with Nick taking the blame for his friend, and Bo and Vincent as Siamese twins with opposing different personalities, a result of abuse no doubt. In the end, Carly and Nick prove themselves to each other in their own way.

House of Wax expands on its premise, once Carly and Nick realize that the entire town has people made of wax, and it was actually called Town of Wax. It commits to the subtextual rural function of an entire town fighting against you for being an outsider, as popularized in the 1970s with films such as Deliverance, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Hills Have Eyes, except this town is hollow and made for show. Instead of appreciating the town, as tourists did in the past, Carly and Nick become victims to the “artists.” Like the horror films of the 1970s, the Other in this film are working-class people that didn’t assimilate to modernization. Of course, House of Wax doesn’t hold up to the greats in any department. Above all other reasons, it lacks bite, contrary to the decapitations onscreen.

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Paris Hilton plays a not so terrible Paige, still, her role doesn’t amount to anything near special. Her presence works more outside the film rather than in it. A vapid personality celebrity getting killed in a horror film? A perfect teen scream for a Friday night. The character’s pregnancy subplot at least shows some effort in making her demise have some weight, suggesting the character is more than Paris Hilton. Yet Paris Hilton has a sluggish chase scene—while showing off skin in red lingerie—that ends in a metal pole through the forehead. The scene isn’t edited to build the tension it needs. The character aimlessly wanders in a sugar mill for about four minutes without the scene setting up an exit. Thus, there is no sense of direction for the character to go. Paige is a character designed to be killed, so her death scene, plus her boyfriend’s, only amount to a generic sequence.

The movie, all together, doesn’t have a great scene, but it does provide thrilling moments in multiple spaces such as a church of wax, a theater of wax, the actual house of wax, and the opening section where the group sets up camp. The film moves between all these spaces, though it isn’t completely fluid, partly because of characters devoid of personality, and the bland visual style. The titular House of Wax holds enough mood for the picture, and the climactic melting adds a dark sensuality to the visuals, reminiscent of the 60s movies the filmmakers respect. In the camp, the movie plays with point-of-view where an unknown spectator records the soon-to-be-dead characters with a video camera while they are sleeping. We have a literal camera to act as the I-camera to see what the killer sees, instead of having a first-person point-of-view like in Halloween and Friday the 13th. So, in two ways the antagonists are obsessed with finding ways to capture people, whether it is with a camera or by making wax figures of them, where their victims’ corpses will be displayed for the next unlucky visitors.

House of Wax is cheesy in its basic premise, but it knows what the audience wants and generally succeeds in throwing some interesting devices in the mix, instead of only providing kills. It adheres to the trends of the 70s and 80s slashers, without constructing a world where the characters, aside from Nick, are updated to be smarter. In this case, the movie feels part of the discussion where genre overcomes the voice of filmmakers. House of Wax didn’t survive along Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes, Saw, The Descent, and others in audience memory, probably because it dealt with old fears. The premise itself is archaic, but the filmmakers at least had fun with it.

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Synthwave

There are many times in people’s lives when they are searching for something. When one begins to persistently look to the point of unhealthiness, the search becomes a type of obsession. For years, I wanted a sound, a musical sound. It’s silly looking back on those times, but I was annoyed with inching closer, almost finding what I was looking for, and not getting any further in my exploration. Many months would go by where I would only be moving laterally instead of hitting a peak of discovery. Of course, I should have either searched longer or smarter. Just after giving up the search for the sound, I finally came across the music that continually slipped through my fingers, which typed all kinds of combinations but never found the sonic treasure. The music genre in question was synthwave, a genre built on nostalgia.

Listening to synthwave draws images on a past that only exists in imagination, a nostalgia for a time where I didn’t exist. Still, I connect to the past, feeling as if I’m roaming around in a car late at night, driving aimlessly, or in the afternoon, walking along the beach with people roller skating in varicolored shorts and knee-high socks. It’s a genre reminiscent of the 70s and 80s synthesizer music but the tracks aren’t limited in any way, because there’s various kinds of synthwave. In one style, I return to childhood, covered under a slightly scratchy wool blanket, watching movies like Legend or Enemy Mine on laserdisc late at night when staying up was a huge deal. Another takes me to a mystic dystopian future of neon lights shining upon a perpetual raining city. Nothing is as calming as hearing rain and thunder miles away in these musical pieces. The rain falls on a world different from our own: flying cars, trees and soil in a dome, skyscrapers filled with the technology characters go to war over.

My “discovery” of synthwave should have happened sooner. I typed in the YouTube search box synth music, and I watched movies with synthwave as the soundtrack, but I never struck that retro gold. After listening to the movie soundtrack of The Exorcist, I randomly clicked on a song made by a synthwave artist. Even then, a eureka moment was not in store. I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to this song. Only later would I retrace my steps to find the mystical tune and delve deeper into the style of the piece, leading me to love a subgenre I was not aware of, but always thought about. Synthwave dominates my thoughts; it relates to my other passions such as film and literature and takes me into reveries. It’s something I (hopefully) won’t get tired of, a healthy obsession for the retrofuturistic ages.

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The Value of Mediocrity

In film conversation, I find the most popular way audiences talk about films or filmmakers is in terms of the “best” or the “worst.” The two extremes naturally gather the most attention, since it is easy to talk about film when we are at emotional peaks. Plus, we yearn for validation, and seeing if others feel the same way. We might not be able to articulate specific reasons for a film being included in our “most favorite” or “best of” lists, but we know on a basic level why it is there. These films made a positive impact that won’t be forgotten.

The same type of conversation and thought process occurs with bad films. In this case, filmgoers are just as likely, if not more so, to communicate their thoughts on the movie with friends or users on film forums. I would argue it doesn’t take as much effort for people to criticize what they don’t like than what they do like, since it can be difficult to identify how all the elements work together. But I digress, the point is that it is a simple, uncontroversial observation to say that audiences spend more time on what they perceive as the apex of cinema, and what they consider trash.

The purpose of writing this blog is to dedicate time to mediocre movies, which is a more complicated topic than at first glance. What makes a movie mediocre? Like the bad and great film, people have their own ideas, but I think the outcome is the same: mediocre movies aren’t talked about.

That isn’t the only way I’m defining a mediocre movie, because there are many reasons for why this question is a difficult one to answer. I’d prefer not to strictly define what a mediocre movie is, and that includes not defining what a great or bad movie is either. I’ll talk about what critics such as Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, and what filmmakers like Douglas Sirk and David Fincher have theorized about cinema, but my objective is to look at the numerous ways mediocre films exist. In addition, my angle won’t involve using terms like underrated, overrated, or dated, because I’m not attempting to persuade anyone why a film is secretly a masterpiece. Rather, I want to look at how regular films work, and how they fit in popular and unpopular fields of study. How does The Faculty subvert genres, and what is its representation of high school and teen culture? How does Kong: Skull Island show tribes compared to its predecessors? What is the role of westerns–the romantic The Magnificent Seven (2016) or the slow burner Bone Tomahawk (2015)– for auteur filmmakers and for audiences? It is not simply the good and the bad things a film does with its story that makes it mediocre, or average, but also the context in which the film is being analyzed in.

The driving force behind analyzing mediocre movies will be how they deviate from the norm, and how they encompass the norm. The same measurement can be used for great or bad movies to see what they succeed or fail at, but mediocre movies are assumed to be the norm, representing all that is conventional and cliché. Their averageness does not inspire conversation. They are what we don’t think about after the credits roll. Presumably, they are the unnoticed, and the simple. However, mediocre movies cover a far wider area on the quality spectrum than the great and the bad, which means they are harder to situate in a category by themselves. There are various reasons why a movie might not be championed as other films have.

There are the movies which are derivative, and movies that don’t strive to be one of the greatest. Mediocrity is probably best understood within genre: mediocre movies are the type of films that conform to a genre’s tropes, and don’t offer anything new. In terms of a filmmaker’s oeuvre, a movie can be deemed mediocre compared to the other well-respected films from the filmmaker. I believe commonly accepted mediocre movies do as many interesting things as a movie that’s constantly placed in “best of” lists. In fact, the boundaries between the bad, the mediocre, the great, the mainstream film, the art film, and others are not explicitly drawn out, or easily located.

Of course, movies are reappraised, and there are plenty of examples of movies that were not deemed worthy of analysis, but later, they received enough praise to be added into the canon of the greats. Analyzing normal movies isn’t uncommon at all, but the topics that dominate film discussion are the historically great movies, the movies that we hate, the movies that are close to us. The movies we are ambivalent and unresponsive to are necessary for the community, since the average film is a vague idea, but also the most familiar.