Hostel 2: Why People Hated It

Aw, c'mon, the movie wasn't THAT bad.

I finally got around to watching Hostel 2. I was reluctant to do so because I don’t really like horror movies and so don’t generally watch them, even if they’ve got some tasty bondage imagery in them, and a lot of them do.

(This may be confusing to some vanilla readers, so let me explain: people who like bondage often don’t like sadism or masochism -- they’re not the same thing, that’s why we have different words for them. Many bondage fans like to see women tied up, but don’t like to see them harmed. I fall into that category, so it’s quite consistent for me not to like horror films with all their sadistic imagery.)

Still I felt I should watch Hostel 2 because of the “torture porn” controversy that surrounded it. So I did. And I was kinda surprised -- I found it no better and no worse than OTHER gory horror movie I’ve watched. The maiming and cruelty inflicted on the female leads struck me as no different from the maiming and cruelty inflicted on female characters in any other gory horror movie (and on male characters, for that matter).

OK, maybe it was THAT bad.

I didn’t care for it at all, but it didn’t seem any worse than the woman getting her skin ripped off in Hellraiser III, or all the teens getting stabbed and slashed in various nasty ways in a horde of teen slasher flicks, or the various horrors Freddy inflicts on his victims in the “Nightmare on Elm Street movies. Hey, it’s ALL thoroughly gross and unpleasant as far as I’m concerned. I wouldn’t pay a nickel -- in fact, I never have paid anyone specifically to watch such movies, I just catch them when they show up on cable sometimes, and by “sometimes” I mean “almost never.”

Yet to read the various reviews and commentaries, Hostel 2 somehow was beyond the pale. But to me, the routine carnage to be seen in even the relatively tame fare on the SciFi Channel when it’s in horror mode matches what’s on display in Hostel 2. (I’m not even making an exception for the nudity -- SciFi Channel has run several horror flicks where their only concession to modesty has been to blur out the actress’ naughty bits.)

A naked woman with a nasty chest wound is rescued from being suspended by her wrists in the movie Shallow Ground, which has been seen several times on the SciFi Channel with the breasts blurred out as necessary. That's a gag around her neck, removed a moment before by her captor.

No, there’s something ELSE going on with respect to Hostel 2, and I know exactly what it is, because I’ve already written about it at length, though from a different perspective.

Let’s take a look at Hostel 2 to see what IS going on. The plot is revealing: four beautiful female college students are vacationing in a fairy-tale-ish resort area somewhere in Central Europe, whooping it up and having a great time being wooed by all the local swains, who are intrigued by the novelty of women you can get money from without pimping them out.

This aspect of the movie is brilliant -- Central Europe is White Slavery Central, a huge contributor to human trafficking worldwide. It’s a constant source of stories of beautiful young women kidnapped, enslaved, raped, purposefully addicted to drugs and forced into prostitution/sex slavery. This adds TREMENDOUS credibility to the story -- it is very easy to believe an organization like the Hostel exists given all the human trafficking rings that apparently operate with impunity in Central Europe. It’s just a matter of niche marketing, really.

Sure enough, the young women are being stalked by a ruthless crime ring, and even as they cavort and gambol about in the resort area, they are being auctioned on Ebay to a group of wealthy scumbags. (OK, maybe not Ebay, but something like it for ruthless criminals and their customers.) The auction winner gets to do ANYTHING to the “merchandise” that he or she likes. And by “anything” we mean torture and murder, as it’s possible to buy more survivable services -- blowjobs, fucking, consensual bondage and whatnot -- much more cheaply and safely at home.

You never know who will turn up on Ebay.

One by one, the coeds are captured, tortured and in most cases, murdered. (One coed escapes death, the rest come to grisly ends.) We get to see the bound and helpless coeds -- along with some other “merchandise” strapped to benches and cleave-gagged in a holding area. Then we get to see them bound and awaiting their fate. Then we get to see them tortured and murdered. This torture/murder scenes do not constitute the bulk of the movie, but they’re not exactly “blink and you miss it” stuff either -- the camera gloats on these images, rather than shying away from them.

(There’s also plenty of character development, both for the victims and their tormentors.)

The holding pen scene was best. The women were tightly cleave gagged, bound hands behind, and strapped in at waist and feet, and most of all, while they were very frightened, they weren't tortured or killed.

Now, as far as reviewing Hostel 2’s scenes: I thought the best scene was the holding pen scene with all the “merchandise” sitting strapped into benches, their hands bound beind them, wearing cleave gags. No one was tortured or killed in that scene, which I heartily approve of.

Bijou Phillips refuses to enjoy her visit to the beauty parlor, despite being bound and gagged.

Next in quality was Whitney’s (played by Bijou Phillips) “beauty parlor” scene, hooded, cuffed and shackled to a beautician’s chair while wearing a dress and a blouse. When the beautician removes the hood to see what she’s got to work with, we see that Whitney is also cleave gagged. She does a lot of screaming at this point.

For some reason, this causes the grandmotherly old beautician to remove Whitney’s cleave gag and cuffs. Whitney responds by biting off the beauticians nose and making a run for it, sadly without success, but it does add considerably to the atmosphere of the film as she flees through a high-tech prison set in what appears to be a bombed-out industrial site. We see the gaurds monitor her progress on vidcams and remotely trigger gates, trapping her until the guards with dogs can come and recapture her.

Heather Matarazzo, upside down, naked, gagged, bound and being probed by a point steel implement. Sure puts the shower scene in "Psycho" in perspective.

Next in quality was Lorna’s (played by Heather Matarazzo) scene hanging upside down, naked, gagged and bound to a ceiling conveyor belt that let her captors haul her about like a side of beef hanging in a meat locker. There’s a certain grisly humor in the sight of Lorna’s naked body swaying gently as she’s pulled along to her doom by the conveyor belt.

Man, why do I have to do all the work around here?

The scene is completely spoiled when “Madame Bathory” makes her appearance and starts torturing and murdering Lorna. (Think Countess Bathory.)

Bijou Phillips shows how well heaving bosoms can work in a horror movie scene.
Unfortunately, the effect is totally ruined for normal people in very short order, with a bandsaw.
Horror movies fans should love it ...

Finally, we have another scene with Whitney, this time wearing a black ballgag and a boustier and very little else while strapped helplessly into a chair at the wrists and ankles. I loved this imagery. Unfortunately, in pretty short order a tormentor takes a circular power saw to her head, accidentally injuring her much more than he intended, ending the scene with grotesque violence. That more than made up for -- in a bad way -- the ballgag and the boustier. (There was some grim comic relief as the Hostel patrons try to sell Whitney’s severely damaged body to other fiends at the facility, but none want her.)

As you can probably tell, I’m not really qualified to review Hostel 2 as a horror movie because, as I noted at the beginning of the review, I’m not a horror movie fan.

But even though I’m neither a horror nor SM fan I found Hostel 2 to be immediately and clearly recognizable as a film version of the hundreds of thousands of similar SM fantasy fiction stories about innocents and not-so-innocents running afoul of ruthless criminal organizations full of sadists that literally clog the Internet. And that gets us to:


What makes Hostel 2 so offensive and controversial is the exact opposite of what made the Gor novels a mainstream success. The Gor novels had that magic quality of plausible deniability. Hostel 2 does not.

Since the concept of plausible deniability is central to this review, I’ll reiterate what I’ve written before and try for increased clarity as I do so.

Plausible deniability is a phrase that first surfaced into public consciousness in the Watergate scandal. It was a phrase used to describing a semantic barrier that was maintained between President Nixon and the actions of his “plumbers,” the band of crooks who committed crimes on Nixon’s behalf, so that Nixon could “plausibly deny” knowing what the crooks were up to, or having anything to do with it.

"I am not a crook!
And I don't do that bondage stuff, either."

The usage hasn’t really changed much, it’s just expanded to new areas. I first encountered it in regard to kink in online discussions of “plausibly denible” jewelry -- jewelry that had a kink flair, but could be worn in public without being a dead giveaway of kinky interests. The reference was to things like leather chokers with rings set in front of them, heavy metal or leather bracelets, sometimes with rings set in them, “slave” bracelets and “slave” anklets (which are nowadays bejeweled and look no more like restraints than a modern necklace looks like a collar).

In both Watergate and plausibly deniable fetish wear, it’s a matter of being up to something while not having to acknowledge that you are up to something.

And it’s the same with regard to the Gor novels and Slave Leia outfits at science fiction conventions.

The Gor series’ first six novels were strong fantasy adventures with relatively little sexual bondage and dominance content, hardly enough to raise any eyebrows within the context of the genre. That was because Betty Ballantine was carefully editing most of the sexual bondage and dominance out of Norman’s manuscripts. Norman didn’t care for that at all, so with novel seven he went to DAW (Donald A Wollheim’s company) where he was assured of editorial freedom, I.e., freedom from being edited, and he cranked up the volume big time on the sexual bondage and dominance themes. And also on his anti-feminist rants, sadly enough.

Nothing kinky going on here, nossireebob! (Cover art for "Assassin of Gor.")

By this time, the Gor novels were established as just another fantasy series and anyone, even a kid, could buy them without so much as a raised eyebrow at all the grocery stores, pharmacies, magazines and bookstores they were selling like hotcakes at -- in fact, I once saw a copy of “Dancer of Gor” in the juvenile reading rack of a public library, talk about flying under the radar. And that plausibility was financially rewarding -- publisher Wollheim is reported to have said that the Gor series outsold all his other fantasy series combined.

You could buy Gor novels without comment until the early 80s, when feminist science fiction and fantasy fans finally got wind of what was slipping under their radar in the guise of heroic fantasy. But by then the series was up to 20 books or so. The cat was long since out of the bag, the horses well past the barn door, etc. The Gor novels benefited enormously from 20 years of plausible deniability.

These aren't just naked slavegirls in collars and chains dancing sexily -- they're Slave Leias!
Geez, don't you know anything at all about Star Wars fandom?

Same with the Slave Leia costume at science fiction and comic cons. It’s the one slave girl costume a girl can wear that doesn’t have all that much of a kink vibe to it -- it’s an accepted part of the Star Wars mythos, and arguably mainstream culture itself, even though the costume is really hot, sexy and bondage-y. Dozens of women wear Slave Leia costumes at science fiction conventions because they know it is all of these things and hence will attract mucho male attention, and yet isn’t a dead giveaway of being “into bondage.” (I’m not saying that all or any of them are necessarily into bondage -- just that they know the outfit creates interest in guys for those reasons, without being specifically sexual in nature.) It’s sexy and hot and bondage-y but most important, it’s plausibly deniable.

Being “plausibly deniable” is a huge advantage for any movie, TV series or whatever with BDSM content, because it will attract huge numbers of mainstream readers/viewers/participants/whatever, who are interested in the BDSM-y goodness but don’t want to acknowledge the nature of their interest.

It’s a matter of being up to something, without having to acknowledge that you are up to something, just like Watergate and the rest.

Corporate scumbag sadists visit the well-appointed equipment room where the tools of butchery are kept. How very Internet SM fantasy.

In presenting its horror story in what is clearly an Internet SM fantasy format, Hostel 2 does the unforgivable, and even worse, the unprofitable -- it rips the veil of plausible deniability from the horror genre. Doing things the way Roth did them was a formula for failure. Of course, such a movie will always draw the people who are out to themselves about their BDSM interests, but mainstream horror fans want nothing to do with any movie, TV show or book that forces them to be out -- to themselves or anyone else -- about the fact that their interest in horror is based on BDSM fantasies.

And that is what got so many moviegoers and reviewers so worked up about Hostel 2. It wasn’t that the SM imagery in Hostel 2 was any wilder than anything that had come before, it was that the movie was so clearly and recognizably an SM fantasy, without the trappings associated with horror movies generally.

Here's bondage model Lorelei, participating in healthy, wholesome sexual bondage that will leave her none the worse for wear and possibly even feeling better if that horizontal pole behind her is tipped with a vibrating dildo, as I strong sus ... er, know. Image courtesy of Device Bondage. Frankly, it seems tame compared to the icky stuff from Hostel 2 AND Timber Falls. Perhaps the real lesson of Hostel 2 is that bondage fans have to invent a mainstream genre so people won't know our porn for what it is.

For example, if Hostel 2’s plot had just featured the women’s tormentors as demons, or their suffering as retribution for something horrible they did by a lake years ago, or as the product of nightmares brought to life, Hostel 2 would have been accepted. Not just accepted, I suspect, but wildly popular because it would be presenting just the sort of thing horror movie fans actually do love, in a more intense, concentrated form than had ever been provided before, and in an accepted “horror movie’ format that would provide plausible deniability.

There's even a little imagery for foot fans in Hostel 2. Not that Roth is pandering or anything.

My disinterest in horror movies is what allows me to see, with great clarity, that Hostel 2 is no different than any other horror movie in terms of its basic appeal, which is gore, gore, gore, which equates to SM, SM, SM.

That’s what led me to the train of thought that revealed the reason for Hostel 2’s public rejection. (Though I strongly suspect that DVD sales and rentals via relatively anonymous services like Amazon and Netflix, will be VERY much larger than movie house sales where you have to PUBLICLY watch Hostel 2.) As a non-horror movie fan, I just didn’t see any different from Hostel 2 and most other current horror movies, and of course, there isn’t any.

Nothing Internet SM fantasy-ish about THIS image, nosireebob.

But then some reviewer called Hostel 2 “torture porn” and that was a stroke of genius, fully as brilliant as the toy manufacturers’ gambit of describing dolls made for boys as “action figures.” That’s because the term “torture porn” implies that Hostel 2 isn’t really a horror movie, that it’s actually more like pornography.

And by extension (here’s the genius part) horror movies AREN’T torture porn. That’s the real point of identifying Hostel 2 as “torture porn”-- even though of course it’s all arrant bullshit -- it maintains the veil of plausible deniability around other horror movies.

C’mon, the payoff for both Hostel 1 and Hostel 2 was a group of tormented, mutilated and murdered men and women. How is that any different from any of the Halloween movies? The Nightmare on Elm Street movies? The I Knew What You Were Doing Last Summer Movies? I’ll grant you that Hostel 2’s victims were all female, but Hostel 1’s victims were all male, and it was pretty much the same movie except for the gender switch.

OK, here are the goriest images from Hostel 2 along with an equally gory image from Timber Falls, a SciFi Channel horror movies just full of people being impaled and tortured. Just so you know what you're dealing with. I'll provide them via text links to the images so the squeamish may avoid them. I know I will, once I've checked to see if they work. This is really nasty stuff and best avoided if you're not a horror movie SM freak. Hostel Yech. Hostel Ick. Hostel - Can You Hear Me Now? Timber Falls Ouchie.

But note that the Hostel series didn’t become “torture porn” until it had female victims. I’m sure the gay community and some women saw Hostel 1 exactly the way most people saw Hostel 2, but it took the female victims to awaken most viewers to exactly what Roth was doing.

And now that you’ve heard my take on the Hostel movies, you must realize that I think Roth was insanely stupid to make Hostel 2 in the way he did. And that’s kind of puzzling because he was smart enough to do a very good job of realizing an SM sexual fantasy on film. Why wasn’t he smart enough to realize what stripping away the veil of plausible deniability would do to his film at the box office? Was he Up To Something himself? And if so, what was he up to?

I have a theory about that. I think that ultimately, Hostel 2 has a powerful anti-violence message at its core, delivered much more subtly than the one in Funny Games another putative horror movie that was a box office disaster.

Funny Games was a deliberate attempt to shame viewers for enjoying onscreen violence. The director, Michael Haneke, dealt with an inherently violent theme, two male psychopaths attacking, torturing and killing a middle class family. He never showed violent acts onscreen, only the suffering created by that violence. He wanted to shame viewers for wanting to see the violence by showing them its effects while withholding the graphic images of violence. Thus in a scene where the wife attempts an escape, we see her returned to the house by the bad guys, one eye swollen, gagged with a cleave gag holding a huge wad of cloth, a rope wrapped around her neck and her hands tied, gazing into the distance as if in shock. In another scene the couple’s child is killed, but in another room.

"I have to admit, I HAVE felt better. I think it's all the attacks by psychopaths we've been having."
(Naomi Watts in bound and gagged in
Funny Games.)

Despite all of that, there's not any imagery of anyone being attacked physically. Just how they feel and look afterward. They DON'T show the attacks, though they do show the aftermath (see image above) so it's crystal-clear that they happened. So I'm going to describe the attacks as being NOT shown even though the movie clearly indicates that they are occurring.

Haneke even refuses to offer audiences the relief of not showing the psychopaths being attacked and defeated. Well, actually he DOES not show that, but then has one of the attackers pick up a video remote and rewind the movie to a point prior to the attackers’ defeat, and then the movie goes on to not show the psychopaths torturing and killing the family, refusing to offer the audience any moral cover for enjoying not seeing the bad guys get theirs.

This turned out to be a huge mistake -- audiences, offered no reward for watching 90 minutes of human suffering, did the rational thing and did not show up to see the movie. Who’d a thunk it? Apparently not Mr. Haneke, because he made a shot-for-shot remake of Funny Games for US release -- which did just as badly as the original at the box office.

Essentially, Haneke was saying to the audience, “Look how these characters are suffering as a result of the violence YOU wanted to see. Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves for your willingness to inflict such suffering for the sake of some cheap gory thrills?”

Roth’s Hostel 2 is a much more subtle in its approach, not offering any direct taunts to the viewer like the video rewind scene in “Funny Games.” Instead, Roth serves up the viewers exactly what they like, but in a format that forces them to acknowledge that they are enjoying an SM fantasy.

“This is what you like,” Roth is telling audiences. “You want to see human beings suffer, so here it is, direct and to the point without all that rigamarole about supernatural vengeance or redress for evil deeds done in the past near a lake, etc. Enjoy.”

Well, audiences didn’t care for that message, either, but they went to see Hostel 2 in far greater numbers than they went to see Funny Games because even though it was presented in an unacceptable format, there was still the gore and violence that people go to horror movies to see. Reviewers panned the movie, as I’ve already noted, labelling it ‘torture porn’ in order to distinguish it from all the non-torture-porn horror movies out there. But of course, a difference that makes no difference, is no difference. All horror movies are torture porn, and it’s just a shame Hostel 2 had to tank at the box office for making that point -- but it was inevitable.

And so we reach ... the end, or at least, Heather Matarazzo's upside-down butt.

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