As box-office observers awaited the latest data on the battle between King Kong and Narnia, a horror film called Hostel, took over the number-one spot in theaters this past week. A film about, and marketed for, young males, Hostel hit its demographic target, perhaps assisted by the advertising line, "presented by Quentin Tarantino." A whopping 65 percent of the viewers were under 25 and 60 percent were males. Concerning the film's early success, writer and director Eli Roth explained to Box Office Mojo, "My whole theory was that if it's scary, the public will really respond to it. People want their horror to be horrific. They don't want it to be safe." Respond? Well, yes, the film does call for a response, and at least Roth did not try to dignify the film by describing it as in the tradition of the suspense practiced by Hitchcock. "Horrific" comes closer, but Hostel is not so much scary as it is revoltingly grisly.
Commenting on Hostel's rise, Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations, gushed, "The track record of horror films tells you maybe Hollywood should just release horror movies to be successful. I can't think of a more consistently performing genre at the box office." Well, not exactly. The summer months saw quite a drop in the popularity of the horror film. (Anyone remember the dismal Dark Water? I thought not.) Citing the proliferation of zombie movies and "Asian creepy kid movies," a more perceptive studio executive suggests that we are witnessing a "burning-out of the sub-genres" of the horror film.
And before the burn-out of the sub-genres, there was the burn-out of the horror genre's staple, at least in the 80s and 90s — the slasher flick. The modern genre in horror actually dates all the way back to 1960 with Psycho and the British classic, Peeping Tom. It picked up steam over the next 20 years, with Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, and Halloween all quality horror films. Two features of these films proved most influential over the next 30 years. First, there is the motif of the serial killer who just can't seem to be brought under control, or even killed for that matter. Of course, this dramatic device paves a path to endless sequels, but it also stresses a theme of the modern horror genre that evil is something primordial and incapable of being contained by civilization. Second, there are the surface aesthetics of evil, the attempt of one filmmaker after another to outdo his predecessor in the number, complexity, and offensive nature of acts of torture, dismemberment, murder, and so forth. Both of these plotting devices are subject to the law of diminishing returns. Audiences, once traumatized by the artistry of Rosemary's Baby or The Exorcist, are no longer surprised by such things — or at least no longer terrified. Jaded audiences have come to expect such performances, and even find them humorous. This trajectory reaches its conclusion in the Scream trilogy and the Scary Movie films, wherein the conventions of the movie genre (never drink, never have sex, and never say "I'll be right back") are made explicit and spoofed.
By far the most effective filmmaker working in the hybrid genre of horror comedy is Quentin Tarantino, but even he now seems terribly dated. At any rate, his trademark humor is on display in the closing third of Hostel. Alas, not much else of value is on display in the film, which features three buddies — Paxton (Jay Hernandez), Josh (Derek Richardson) and Oli (Elythor Gudjonsson) — who have settled briefly in Amsterdam, where they become bored with the local drug and sex scene. After being told of a hostel in Slovakia where there are no Americans, few men, and lots of available women, they set off in search of new adventures. Immediately upon arrival, their wildest fantasies are realized, when the hostel insists they must share a room with stunning female roommates. At this point, Hostel could have become a cheap porn film (Spring Break Slovakia would be a good working title), and that might have been the wiser and more honest choice for its makers. None of the setup here is even remotely credible, and, as is usually true of films in this style, attempts at making sense of what's going on only serve to make the whole thing more preposterous. It's as if the film simply follows the Friday the 13th horror-film rule, spoofed in Scream: "Have sex and you die," slightly modified in this case to "Have sex with Eurotrash women, be subject to hours of grisly torture, and then die."
It's not so much new meaning that this film gives to European anti-Americanism (there's no real point to anything in the film), but new mechanisms of implementation. More than a few echoes of Tarantino grace the screen — Pulp Fiction is showing on a TV at one point, and the torture chamber allied with the hostel is like an enhanced version of that redneck basement toward the end of Pulp Fiction, a place where Europeans come to "get medieval" on Americans, or just to recover their physiological rush when they become bored with a surfeit of drugs and sex. Whatever. As I said, the film is at its worst when it so much as hints at an explanation. It's at its best, if that term applies to anything in the film, when it adopts Tarantino-style humor toward the end. Unlike most horror films, in which the bad guys just keep winning, here a certain measure of vengeance is allotted to one of the tortured trio. In humorous ways, chance — a central theme in Pulp Fiction — puts the perpetrators in the path of one of the escaped victims. There's even a scene featuring an encounter between a car and a pedestrian at an intersection that appears to have been lifted directly from Pulp Fiction.
By contrast, the other big horror release currently in theaters, Wolf Creek, is a much better film, or at least it's a better half of a film, before it too devolves into explicit, gruesome sadism. This film also features three pals, in this case two women, Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi), and one man, Ben (Nathan Philips), who, after a night of partying at the beach, head off for a trip to the Australian outback to view a meteor crater in Wolf Creek. The plot and its resolution are thin indeed. The best stuff here is a direct consequence of the style and the setting, with a sense of menace created by a jittery hand-held camera and the effective use of tight shots. Both in the style in which it is shot and in its plot theme of young adults lost in the wilderness, the film calls to mind the most impressive features of Blair Witch. In fact, the desolate and barren landscape of the outback, where it is as easy to lose one's bearings as in the desert, is an even more unsettling setting for a horror film than the woods in Blair Witch. If it had not degenerated into unwatchable gore, Wolf Creek might have been a superb horror film — that is to say, if it had gone in the direction of Peter Weir's Australian horror classic, Picnic at Hanging Rock, rather than in the direction of Freddy Krueger.
One should not understate the explicit, senseless gore in these films, much worse for their being void of the sort of artistic indirection found in Tarantino's Kill Bill or last year's Sin City. Even I, a recovering horror-film addict, found myself covering my eyes for extended periods in both films.
Yet, the most depressing and horrifying thing about these sorts of films is, alas, not the explicit gore. It is the fact that at nearly every screening of a gruesome horror film I attend (from Massachusetts to Texas), I see parents in the audience with young children. That strikes me as a serious form of child abuse and a more convincing sign of the impending apocalypse than anything depicted on the screen.