I’m getting ready to leave for a screening of Hostel Part II, and I can’t help but think about how angry everybody is with Eli Roth before they’ve even seen his new movie. David Poland of Movie City News not only bought a bootleg copy of the film on the street, he watched and reviewed it. Ethical issues with that aside, his review is very much a screed against what he sees as the movie’s moral black hole, and he finds himself wondering where the line of decency and humanity is in film these days. Nikki Finke, who hasn’t seen the film, took up the call, as, to a more thoughtful extent (shocking, I know), did Jeff Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere. Commenters on their various blogs have also come out swinging, saying really awful things about Eli Roth and what a sicko he must be and how he must get his sexual jollies from all this and yadda yadda yadda.
Well played, Eli.
I love exploitation films. No apologies – I like things as grotty and ugly and disturbing as possible. I’m starting a new column for CHUD soon called Bad Taste, where I defend the most indefensible movies of all time. I don’t think ‘getting off’ on these movies would be the right terminology to use, but 'fascinated' or 'intrigued' probably is. The reason why is because the most awful, disgusting and vile exploitation movies are often screaming confessions from within the soul of the filmmaker, or at least they feel that way. That’s why exploitation films today don’t work – they’re too filtered and slick, and don’t feel like there’s anything genuine going on, just an attempt to rack up the prerequisite tits and gore to make the movie a rental success. It’s why Grindhouse was fun but not really emblematic of the exploitation film experience, because you’re just not afraid of Rodriguez and Tarantino. A good exploitation film makes you sort of creeped out by the guy behind the camera, like you think maybe the movie he’s made is a dry run for something he’s really planning to do to his neighbors. A good exploitation film is like coming face to face with some stygian nastiness deep inside another human being. Which, to some of us, is thrilling in the same way that riding the loop-de-loop roller coaster is thrilling to some of you. It’s a form of staring into the abyss and hoping the abyss stares back into you, it’s a way of looking at our own darkness – the things we suspect and fear everyone has much closer to the surface than any of us like to admit – from a comfortable distance.
The joke here is that Eli Roth is not scary. And yet here’s Eli Roth as a cinematic boogeyman for these establishment types (who, because they write on the web like to think they’re not establishment types). I’ve seen a lot of people saying that while Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left is a punishing and despicable exploitation film, Wes himself is a classy guy, and that Eli is no Wes. The funny thing is that Craven is seen as a classy guy (and he is a classy guy) NOW, years after he made that very disturbing movie. Last House was certainly not greeted as a moral masterpiece from a gentleman filmmaker when it came out. Craven was yet another in the line of exploitation film maniacs whose imagination made you more than a little queasy and who dared you not to turn away from what he was showing. Just like Eli Roth.
I liked Hostel. I hope to like Hostel Part II (here’s a secret: I hope to like every movie I see. I’m stuck there for two hours, after all, I might as well hope to enjoy the time spent). And I look forward to writing about the film after I see it (as opposed to some who are willing to call the movie out without having seen a frame of footage). But for those who have seen it and are upset by it – well, isn’t that what the movie is trying to do? This isn’t a secret – it isn’t as though Roth made one hour of a family movie and suddenly dropped in graphic sexual torture. The fact that you’re upset is the proof that the movie works on its own terms. Whether you like those terms or not is another matter.
But the fact that Roth is becoming the poster boy for sickness and cinematical amorality is a huge victory for him. Besides the dubious pleasures of exploitation films I talked about above, there's something to be said for transgressive and socially unacceptable cinema. The country is so lowbrow now that shocking us is impossible; I remember when I was younger that being into serial killers was considered creepy - now it's studying for a career in CSI. There's a need - and it might be a juvenile need - to stick it to The Man, to sipt in his eye and take a shit on his sense of decorum and decency. Hate to tell you Dave, Nikki and Jeff - you're The Man now. And by reacting this way you've given Roth the final piece of his puzzle, made him the outsider pariah extremist. If only you could figure out a way to get his film banned in a large number of countries, so he could emblazon that on the DVD case...