|A nasty, hostile scene from Eli Roth's Hostel|
by Andy Nowicki
Moral permissiveness is one symptom of a society in conspicuous decline. However, insofar as moral permissiveness feeds into artistic permissiveness, a wholly negative trend becomes at least potentially positive. "Extreme" art — that is to say, art that is dark, disturbing, and, to use a much overused word, "edgy" — often provokes reflection among its consumers, whether or not the artist intended any such thing. That is especially true of movies, which remain powerful and culturally ubiquitous in their influence.
I hardly need point out that reflectiveness and permissive behavior seldom go hand in hand; the former is, in fact, the determined enemy of the latter, and vice versa. Thus, in an age of decadence, movies that are "extreme" in content and theme have a double-edged function. On the one hand, they tend to feed the increasingly perverse appetite of a jaded and debauched general public. But that problem is sometimes misleadingly magnified by shortsighted right-wing scolds (conservative film critic Michael Medved being the most egregious example), who appear to think that the production of any movie containing profanity, nudity, or violence amounts to another act of naked aggression by liberal Hollywood against decent American values.
Less often remarked by prominent conservatives is the undeniably chastening effect that an "extreme" movie tends to have on an audience. Watching people do terrible things to other people for two hours on screen may titillate some viewers who are probably already drawn to deviancy, but it usually has the opposite effect on most people. In fact the "extreme" format may be an ideal vehicle for bringing home the point that restraint, found through the embrace of morality, is needed lest we become a society in which "anything goes" — which is just another way of describing a realm where the strong and sadistic have free rein to prey upon the weak and defenseless.
"Extreme" art may even call attention to the extent to which we already live in such a society, with the widespread practice of abortion being a case in point. Who is more cruel and depraved than an abortion "doctor," and who is more defenseless than the unborn boys and girls the abortionist slaughters for profit? One thinks of the ending of David Fincher's Se7en, in which one of the detectives discovers to his horror that before giving himself up to the police, the serial murderer they have been pursuing killed the detective's pregnant wife. That nightmare of an ending implicitly calls into question the large-scale acceptance of abortion in our society; undoubtedly what made the crime so terrible wasn't simply the fact that a man's innocent wife was murdered, but that his child also perished in that heinous act.
We see much hand-wringing today in some quarters over what has become known as the "torture porn" genre of movies, of which Se7en, released in 1995, could be said to be the forerunner. These are movies in which the main characters are caught in a sort of spider's web cast by a brutal and also very smart and creative torturer/killer. Often the killer seems to be conducting a kind of horrible experiment on his victims, in order to test their mettle. The hugely successful Saw trilogy revolves around a killer known as "Jigsaw" who kidnaps people and puts them into situations where they must inflict severe pain on themselves in a short amount of time in order to escape. Often the victims are highly imperfect people — junkies, adulterers, petty thieves — and "Jigsaw," who is seldom seen but who speaks through a creepy voice-distortion device, professes a desire to help them better their lot.
Of course, his purported altruism rings hollow, since he himself is obviously a sadistic sicko.
"Torture porn" movies are always luridly made, reveling to some degree in explicit carnage and gore. As such, there is a B-movie atmosphere to these movies, and what could be considered a lack of taste or class on the part of their directors and producers. Nevertheless, a discerning moviegoer with a strong stomach can see that there is often more going on than flowing blood and spilling guts. Sometimes a "statement" is made, and often (as is the case with many horror stories — Frankenstein, in all of its cinematic incarnations, being the case in point) the statement is a deeply conservative one. For example, Eli Roth's Hostel (2005), which is bloodier and meaner than all of the Saw movies put together, gives us three obnoxious, boozing, brazenly hedonistic frat-boy types trekking across Europe in search of carnal delights. They are contemptuous of anything that gets in the way of their lusts, and manifest nearly every personality trait of the "ugly American," although curiously one of them is Icelandic.
The boys get a tip that there is a hostel in Eastern Europe with babes aplenty, where they will have a chance to sow their wild oats for as long as they wish. It's an amazing place, they are told; you have to see it to believe it. Of course they go, and at first it seems as though everything they were told about the place is true. But then things take a decidedly nasty turn. One by one, the boys are drugged by their buxom whores, winding up in a house of ill repute of a different sort — a place where men pay to have a chance to torture and kill others, i.e., those young men and women who were guests at the hostel in question. Where at first they were selfish louts unconcerned with anything except satisfying their own libidos, the boys now find themselves at the mercy of those with sicker and more twisted desires.
Two of the trio perish in this terrible place, but one, following an extended and gruesome torture sequence, manages to escape and eventually is able to exact a measure of revenge against those complicit in the murder of his buddies. What is interesting to note, and what I haven't heard any critic discuss, is the transformation that takes place in the personality of the one surviving character. At first he is the most self-absorbed of the trio; but his harrowing ordeal makes him a better person. After getting away from the torture-house, he realizes that a young female Japanese tourist is still inside, and he returns in order to attempt a rescue. By the movie's end he is showing more concern for others and far less for himself than he had at the beginning. In other words, for all of its raunch and filth, and its NC-17-worthy graphic sex and violence (how "Hostel" landed a mere R is honestly beyond me), we ultimately have a somewhat compelling story of redemption. (Hostel Part II has just been released, featuring female protagonists.)
The recently released Vacancy (directed by Hungarian-born Nimrod Antal) follows a similar narrative arc. Here, the plot concerns the plight of David and Amy Fox (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale), a good-looking couple who are returning from a family reunion and have taken a detour on a California back road to escape a traffic jam. The Foxes (aptly named, as we will see) have clearly fallen upon hard times. The tension between them is palpable, and rendered in a way that any married person who has argued with his or her spouse will recognize — David's temperamental outbursts of frustration are matched by Amy's brooding silences and cutting sarcasm. We learn that they plan soon to divorce — their marriage is over but for the official signing of the papers — and that they have lost a young son, a death that Amy has taken particularly hard.
|Kate Beckinsdale and Luke Wilson in Vacancy (2007)|
The bad vibes between Mr. and Mrs. Fox aren't helped when their car (somewhat predictably) breaks down and they are forced to spend the night at the Pinewood Motel, an empty inn presided over by a bespectacled, mustachioed man named Mason (Frank Whaley), the creepiest motel owner this side of Norman Bates. In their room, David discovers a bunch of VHS tapes that appear to contain extremely low-budget snuff porn films, featuring guests at a motel being attacked and brutally stabbed by men in masks. To his horror, David soon realizes that the setting of all the films is the room he and his wife are in, that the murders are real, that there are hidden cameras in the room, and that he and Amy are the next intended victims.
What follows is indeed akin to a fox hunt, as the lurking killers and tormentors toy with their desperate prey; and all the while, the depraved innkeeper watches the events via televised monitors in a room behind the motel lobby. David figures out that Mason and his cohorts not only rob and kill the unfortunate guests of the motel but also film the murders and sell the tapes for profit. After his initial terror wears off, David grows determined to protect his wife and himself from these sick freaks, and a battle of wits ensues between the hunters and the hunted.
As was the case with Hostel, Vacancy has met with mixed reviews, with some critics praising its daring conceit, and others calling it exploitative schlock. Few, if any, have spoken of its similar theme of redemption. Particularly remarkable here is the extent to which David takes charge and, in a very old-fashioned, chivalrous (some would say "sexist") manner, tells his wife what their tactics will be from moment to moment; and the degree to which she, in turn, obeys him and shows herself grateful for his ability to think on his feet during a life-or-death emergency. By the time the movie is nearly over, we can sense clearly that, should they survive the ordeal, the Foxes will give their marriage another shot.
Both Hostel and Vacancy are notable for their shocking depictions of depravity, the logical consequence of a permissive culture where anything goes and a judgment of perversity is frowned upon as an unkind and uncalled-for act. Both movies show the dark side of a sexually licentious lifestyle and the pitfalls of such entrenched institutions as prostitution and pornography. Hostel may even be called a morality play of sorts, in which a group of young men who remorselessly use others for their own satisfaction wind up victims of other, even more morally dissolute "users." In Vacancy, while the Foxes are mostly innocent — their chief sin being their tendency to bicker with one another — they are likewise chastened by their experiences at the hands of Mason and his gang, and through their ordeal are inspired to become better people.
Unquestionably, the prevalence of "torture porn" indicates how far our culture has fallen. A healthier culture would have no need and no desire for such entertainments. But given that profoundly fallen condition, we can glean some worthy lessons from those unlikely sources. We reactionaries who bemoan the current, and likely future, state of things ought to be grateful for that at least. Perhaps extreme tactics are needed to reach people these days, in order to shake them out of their shared stupor. As Flannery O'Connor wrote several decades ago, in an attempt to justify her own shockingly violent fiction, "To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."
If such an artistic credo was applicable in Miss O'Connor's time, how much more so is it today?
(originally published at The Last Ditch, June 2007)
Andy Nowicki, co-editor of Alternative Right, is the author of eight books, including Under the Nihil, The Columbine Pilgrim, Considering Suicide, and Beauty and the Least. He occasionally updates his blog when the spirit moves him to do so.