From Hostel II

Torture chamber horrors

Hostel II continually makes comments on a stereotypical view of how Americans are perceived and think they are perceived in the world.

The film's interest lies in the staging of its horror action.

From Wolf Creek (Greg Mclean, 2005)

Like many other Australian films, Wolf Creek plays with the powerful iconography of the bush...

...as both a national defining symbol...

...and an unknowable and fearful place.

Wolf Creek is interested in the place where the horror happens...

...how the victims are captured, the torturerís actions, and the victimís escape.

From Saw (James Wan, 2004)

More thriller than horror, the Saw films are consumed by the suspenseful intricacies of the narrative and some character development.

We never know our serial killing Jigsaw.

The filmís concerns are universal ones.

What will you do to survive?

Would you take anotherís life to save your own, to save your family?

These films are full of existential anxiety about how we live our lives.

What all these films have in common is the explicitness of their violent action...

From Hostel II

...which is staged as a theatrical drama.

From Antony Gormley’s Blind Light

The experience reminded me of the feeling of compression and restriction that I had in this installation.


Hostel II

I cannot remember ever feeling so apprehensive on entering a cinema as on going to see Hostel II. I have to remind myself it is only make-believe. The cinema is deserted except for two old men sitting up the back of the theatre. I hate the fear that plays on my mind and lets me imagine they are in the cinema for all the wrong reasons. And it scares me. Thankfully a twenty-something couple enter carrying popcorn and hotdogs. Their dyed blonde hair and junk food normalize the experience. The commercials start. The screen seems enormous. Light, fluffy advertisements ease my apprehension but not for long. The cinema begins to darken and my body tenses. A line from a newspaper article pops into my head — horror has finally got “its edge back.” Now I’m sick of the trailers, sick of the suspense.

Finally the rating appears, and the by-line: “Producer Quentin Tarantino presents.” Distorted, dark images appear, sounds of running water and burning, a background rumble, a blurred figure burns a picture. The screen is huge. Flames eat the picture — the evidence? There is a rumbling, bubbling dangerous sound. In my seat, in the dark, I am bought back to my senses, to my sensing being in this moment, in this environment. The film begins with a rejoinder to the first Hostel. Our survivor, Paxton “the final boy” doesn’t last long. We learn there is a spa in Slovakia — a kind of hunting club symbolized with the image of a bloodhound — rich people go there to kill and torture and maim people. They pay money to do this. Everyone including the authorities seems to be complicit. Paxton’s friends are all dead, but he miraculously managed to escape. Too scared to tell the police or his friends’ parents, Paxton is hiding out with his girlfriend in the country, convinced “they” are going to get him. And they do. We find him one morning in the familiar domestic bliss of the kitchen. He’s missing his head and the pet cat is making a meal of the bloody stump of his neck.

Now it takes a long time for something else to happen, but we know something is going to happen. In Hostel II there is a gender switch. Three young women from the U.S. — Beth, the wealthy one, Lorna, the daggy one, and Whitney, the bitchy, slutty one — are travelling in Europe. Encouraged by an Eastern European bombshell, they take a trip to that same spa in Slovakia. As they check into the spa, we see the scanned images of their passport photos being sent around the world. Men with blackberries and mobile phones frenetically bid for the girls. That night at a festival in the local village, Lorna and Whitney disappear. From this moment on, we move between luxurious images of the peaceful spa and grisly, bloody images of a masked and leather-clad woman wielding a scythe and men in plastic gloves and jump suits using chain saws and blow torches on their victims. In this film, the surprising shift is that it is money rather than chance, virginity or ingenuity that allows Beth to buy her way out — but she also has to kill. After surprising myself by surviving this film, I went on to see others in this trend. As a result, I see in them several issues I think need to be addressed including how these films function on both global and local fronts, and how they make us feel.

For all the torture chamber horrors, Hostel II is a slick film that continually makes comments on the global and national perceptions of a stereotypical view of how people from the United States are perceived and think they are perceived in the world. The victims are Americans, the main torturers are American. When the girls are invited to go to Slovakia, they query whether there is a war going on there. Their Eastern European companion replies that there hasn’t been a war in fifty years. In Stupid White Men, Michael Moore humorously highlighted U.S. ignorance of geography and world events. The torturers fulfill another classic stereotype of believing in the power of the dollar. Money makes you immune to the law and justice, money can buy you anything — even young girls to burn, cut, maim and finally kill. The radical twist to this film is that Beth survives because she is so wealthy, she can buy all of them. It seems like a crowning indictment of U.S. consumer culture. Yet much of this critique is broad and general, produced by one-liners. As an Australian, I felt like I was watching a film that was typecasting “other” people, a different culture. This is partly because the film is not interested in developing the characters, nor our identification. What it is interested in is the staging of its horror action. In the first Hostel there is little of this kind of U.S.-directed critique. Yes, Paxton and his buddies also think there is a war in Slovakia and that money can buy you anything. But what they want to buy are “normal” things like girls and drink and drugs. More telling is the fact that in this film the torturers are a multicultural lot. This is a film that comfortably places itself within the horror genre and appears to have little interest in contemporary world events. I think we need to contextualize director Eli Roth’s rhetoric — about 9/11 and young people's desires to see on screen things as scary as they find in real life — in light of the critique we find in the second film. Roth, consciously or not, has taken on board the current debates about the relation between this trend of more explicit violence in feature films and world events. I would argue the literal critique in the second film suggests the filmmakers' informed stance.

To test Roth's thesis, I would like to consider a few other horror films of this period. Like many other Australian films, Wolf Creek plays with the powerful iconography of the bush as both a national defining symbol and an unknowable and fearful place. Yet it also picks up on an Australian criminal history involving the disappearance of hitchhikers. Two particular criminal events have been prevalent in the contemporary Australian media: the seven “backpacker murders” by Ivan Milat in the 1980s and 1990s; and the more recent disappearance of the British tourist Peter Falconio in 2001. Falconio was travelling with his girlfriend Joanne Lees, and although his body has never been found, Bradley John Murdoch was convicted of his murder in 2005. Wolf Creek has a particular resonance with local audiences yet it is still a close relation of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The international media coverage of the hitchhiker murders and the way the film plays with the internationally successful Crocodile Dundee films ensure its fascination for these audiences. Again, this film it not concerned with its character’s development or motivation. Much more time is spent on the idiosyncrasies of Mick, its psychopathic anti-hero. What the film is interested in is the place where the horror happens, how the victims are captured, the torturer’s actions, and the victim’s escape.

The Saw series is different again. More thriller than horror, the Saw films are consumed by the suspenseful intricacies of the narrative and some character development. We never know who Jigsaw, our serial killing psychopath is, but there are many cases of mistaken identity as victims are pitted against each other. The film’s concerns are universal ones. What will you do to survive? Would you take another’s life to save your own, to save your family? These films are full of existential anxiety about how we live our lives. Really the only thing all the above films have in common is the explicitness of their violent action, which is staged as a theatrical drama.

It is difficult to ascertain why audiences — specifically those under 25 — have flocked to see these films. While there are films that currently deal with 9/11 and torture in an explicit sense, I do not think that audiences are flocking to see “torture porn” as a kind of homeopathic cure for the unease and uncertainty of their world. When Roth argues that young audiences want “something to scream at” that is as shocking as the events of their lives; it almost sounds like an argument in support of a catharsis. However, I don’t think there is any literal correlation between these films and contemporary political events. But that is not to say that young audiences who feel disengaged, anxious and hopeless do not seek out these films. I think they do, but for the same reasons they have always sought alternative and explicit films out. My sense is these audiences want to feel intensity and fear. Fear that brings you into the moment, back to the body, to the senses, allows this sense of immediacy and intensity. And the intensity and fear the cinema creates is a safe one.

Bodily experience watching horror film

Again, I would like to take a detour. When I was in the cinema watching Hostel II, I felt like I was bought back to my senses. The experience reminded me of the feeling of compression and restriction that I had in an installation by the British artist Antony Gormley called “Blind Light” at the Hayward Gallery (17 May-19 August 2007). The installation was a glass shed in the middle of a room filled with dry ice. Unseen fluorescent lights produced in the vapour-filled room a luminous white light. From the outside you could watch people disappear into its vapour. Occasionally dark, looming shapes or the imprint of a hand would appear on the clear walls, as those inside attempted to orientate themselves. On reviewing the listed ailments that would prevent you from entering, I decided I was an appropriate participant and stepped inside. A clever trick — but what a powerful one. A few steps, in seconds, I can barely see in front of me. Completely disorientated, I have no idea which way is out. I think of the fog and pollution of early industrial London, but most importantly I feel the way this loss of visual clarity has reduced and radically altered my way of experiencing this world. Instead of being in the world, or in my head and not my body – I am in my head and body — and it is very close. The light is blinding and I become a sensor of two feet of visibility that I have around me. This experience reminds me of something I have always known, but it resonates here as my eyes lose their visual orientation and my skin becomes a sensor of dampness, myself and space. I am bought back to the sentient and somatic experience of the body that is so significant in our experience of these films.

What I am talking about here is the power of the corporeal sensorium, the human bodily senses. In “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered” Susan Buck-Morss reminds us of the original meaning of “aesthetics”:

"Aisthitikos is the ancient Greek word for that which is “perception by feeling.” Aisthisis is the sensory experience of perception. The original field of aesthetics is not art but reality — corporeal, material nature. As Terry Eagleton writes: ‘Aesthetics is born as a discourse of the body.’ It is a form of cognition, achieved through taste, touch, hearing, seeing, smell — the whole corporeal sensorium" (6).

What this reminds us of is that the body is a sensory organ, the skin — a surface, a mediating boundary — a sensual field. While our senses are cultivated to particular sensibilities and tastes, Buck Morss argues that at their core they resist “cultural domestication” (6). Our senses remind us of the fact of our biology through their

“instinctual needs for warmth, nourishment, safety, sociability” (6).

Buck Morss claims it is only in the modern era that

“aesthetics underwent a reversal of meaning….to cultural forms rather than sensible experience”(7).

In fact, the modernist project involved the training of the senses, their biological denial and their acculturation to the constructed world. Similarly, David MacDougall argues that conscious experience is much more than thought or cognition. It is made up of emotions, sensory responses and “pictures of the imagination” (2). Like Buck Morss, MacDougall draws on the original Greek meaning of aesthetics as a broad range of “culturally patterned sensory experience” (98). Specifically speaking of the filmmaking and audience experience, he argues that when we look,

“we are doing something more deliberate than seeing and yet more unguarded than thinking. We are putting ourselves in a sensory state that is at once one of vacancy and of heightened awareness” (7).

Our experience of the world is all about how we perceive it. Gormley’s installation illuminates this human perception by creating a radically altered environment that makes the participant intimately aware of his or her “own body space.”[8][open notes in new window] The enchantment of the cinema is that it engages us with the inhabitants on the screen in a way that we feel is real even though we know it is not. For us, the bodies in films are on one hand unworldly but “in another way, to our sense, corporeal” (MacDougall 13). MacDougall acknowledges the way the cinema generates a

“continuous interplay of stimulus and bodily responses between the spectator and screen” (20).

Drawing on Linda Williams discussion of “body genres,” he comments:

"Viewers are known to have strong physical responses to such images — of shock, flinching, faintness, sexual arousal and even vomiting. These responses underline Williams’s point that in film viewing we do not necessarily feel for others, we feel for and in ourselves. It is also a fallacy to assume that vision is simply a way of possessing as 'absent other' (as in much 'gaze' theory) or to interpret the technologies of film as a one-way extension of the senses. This, in Williams’s view, perpetuates the 'lingering Cartesianism' of the disconnected voyeur, when in fact vision is much more directly connected to our own bodily processes" (18).

What happens when we watch the explicit violence of “torture porn”? How do we respond to these images of dramatic representations of victims of capture and torture screaming as they are being burned, hacked and maimed? Most of us are not in the cinema to gloat sadistically or use the victim voyeuristically, nor do we simply masochistically identify with the victim. The audience’s experience of identification and projection is a complex one that involves perception of the world and a diffuse, shifting array of positions of engagement, affectation and identification-projection. Similarly, the cinema involves a complex process through which it “incorporates” us in the film (MacDougall 25). Referring again to William’s work, it is important to note that we don’t just project ourselves or empathize with what is going on in the scene – rather, we feel “for and in ourselves.”

This is particularly the case in “body genres” like horror and pornography that have an “excess” that exceeds and resists

“absorption into symbol, narratives and plot” (MacDougall 18).

MacDougall notes that this excess generated by “cultural ambiguity” or unfamiliarity with the subject cannot be

“easily assimilated to prior experience” (21).

The escalation of violence in “torture porn” presents us with an experience of which most of us have no prior experience. Therefore, its intensity functions as excess and its kinesthetic potential affects us in a sensory and immediate way. I want to return to Scarry’s work for a moment, where she talks about what pain does to subjectivity:

"It is intense pain that destroys a person’s self and world, a destruction experienced spatially as either the contraction of the universe down to the immediate vicinity of the body or as the body swelling to fill the entire universe. Intense pain is also language destroying: as the content of one’s world disintegrates, so the content of one’s language disintegrates; as the self disintegrates, so that which would express and project the self is robbed of its source and its subject….World, self, and voice are lost, or nearly lost, through the intense pain of torture "(35).

In no way do I wish to suggest a conflation of this extreme subjectivity destroying pain with an imaginary sensual experience of the cinema. I do not think there is any direct correlation between our access to images of torture and violence in the actual world and the development of the torture porn trend. However, Scarry’s work addresses the effect of fear and pain on subjectivity and I think this is an idea worth teasing out.

The experience of ecstasy also has the power to make us forget our individuality — make us forget subjectivity. What is fascinating for me in this discussion is that extreme pain, like ecstasy, has the power to radically alter subjectivity. While the pain of torture destroys our being in the world by reducing subjectivity to the confines of the body, or by obliterating subjectivity through the body consuming the universe, ecstasy relieves us of our subjectivity by again taking us outside of ourselves. Rooted in what are often called the more primitive functions of the brain that precede thinking, the intensity of the ecstatic experience allows us to forget ourselves, by stepping beyond ourselves.

The cinema engages us in powerful ways. As an aural and visual medium it can create a kinetic experience that involves excess. In the case of “torture porn,” this excess while perceived cannot be thoughtfully understood. But it can be experienced through the complex phenomena of the sensorium — through perception by feeling. I don’t think that

“fear supplants empathy and makes us all potential torturers.”

But I do believe that intensity and fear — a fear we feel “for and in ourselves” grants us a kind of ecstasy. We forget ourselves — our cognitive subjectivity — in the immensity of physical feeling. Apprehension, anticipation and fear bring us back to the moment, to the body, to the immediacy of the “perception of feeling.”

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