Monday, February 25, 2008

B-Grind Rewind, and The Trouble With Eli

I've been slumming at the New Beverly like the raincoat masturbators of yore. Or at least I was the first night, this past Tuesday. They've been running this series, The Greats of Roth, where Eli Roth the horror director of Cabin Fever and Hostel introduces all these old scratchy prints of obscurities that he and Quentin Tarantino make out to. Roth is kind of Tarantino's protege or something, since he supervised the scripts of both Hostel movies. More on those in a minute. There's even fucking a photoshop picture that accompanies the handbill for this month long extravaganza, with Eli's face over Henry Fonda's, that you can buy along with his blurbs on the movies for only a buck.

That pun, though. Fuck that guy for that one. I have extremely mixed feelings about Roth and they're not helped by Tarantino's obvious coaching to make himself into more of a respected celebrity movie nerd than an original talent. Tarantino made some missteps trying to get away with plagiarism before the Internet made plagiarism much easier to expose. He worked in a videostore with Daniel Waters and figured he could pretty much rip off any obscure old thing without being caught, and made the plot from a forgotten Hong Kong action movie called City On Fire into the plot for Reservoir Dogs. There are many other examples of this, and the media doesn't dare rock the S.S. Weinstein marketing boat lest they not get into their parties.

Roth must have learned from Tarantino's mistakes at least a little bit, being somewhat younger, and when he was introducing Mother's Day on the second night I was there he was cheerful to point out how he stole certain stuff, which Tarantino did a lot more openly after the goddamned Kill Bill movies. Anyways, Charles Kaufman was there. He's Lloyd Kaufman's brother, who's the president of Troma. Charles could pretty much be Lloyd's twin. He had some good stories and brought a bunch of bags of rolls for the audience because after directing the movie in 1980 he turned to baking instead of sticking with movies. Mother's Day was the first horror movie Troma released in their pre-Toxic Avenger period, when they were doing sex comedies like Squeeze Play! and Waitress! and Exclamation Point!

The first night I was there, on Tuesday night, there was hardly anyone in the crowd because the night when Roth gave his commentary on the movies had been the night before. Tuesday's movies were a double bill of Torso, which was this early 70s "Giallo" flick. I guess "Giallo" means Italian slasher/gore movie, although there wasn't much slashing or gore. It was a lot more like an Agatha Christie story with slashings than even Halloween or something because of course that hadn't come out yet. Lots of slasher movies are stupid mysteries where you're supposed to guess who the killer is before the end, only it doesn't change anything.

The second feature that night was called Pieces, and I'd actually read about it once in an old issue of Fangoria. It was much much better. It was from the early 80s golden age of cheesy slashers, only instead of being boring and incompetent it was hilariously incompetent and campy. Joe Bob Briggs would've had a field day with the drive-in totals. By my estimation, there were:

6 dead bodies
chainsaw fu
roller bunny fu
gratuitous aerobics
gratuitous asian kung fu stereotype
8 nekkid breasts
1 male ding-dong
heads roll
arms roll

Drive-in nominations for the intrepid reporter girl, who in a fit of grief screams "BASTAAARD!!!!" not once, not twice, not THRICE, but FOUR TIMES to bring her scene to a screeching halt.

It was also a goddamned murder mystery of a slasher. Can you tell I just finished The Catcher In The Rye?

There weren't that many people there Wednesday night so it was sort of an intimate setting, being slumped in my seat and "vegging out" as mom would say. The parts of Pieces that were really silly got good laffs, and I don't think I would've enjoyed that so much if the room had been packed with people ready to laugh over every single little silly thing, instead of the most silliest things. That's the trouble with audiences, they're always condescending to the movie when even a bad movie needs to be taken seriously in order to be funny. Maybe it's the result of having too many Hollywood movies condescending to them...

During Torso I had to turn around and tell this 12 year old looking guy with long blonde hair, who was with some bimbo babes, to stop cracking jokes every two seconds right behind my head. He really stopped, too. What did he care, he had bimbos to go home with. All I had were the goddamned slasher movies.

Anyways. What I want to say about Mother's Day, there was this scene where one of the two killers was going to be killed by the two girls who had heretofore been terrorized by him, and then suddenly the movie jumped ahead to just after his death scene and the audience groaned. After the movie and before the Q and A with Charles Kaufman, Eli stood up and explained that lots of movie projectionists working in grindhouses and drive-ins used to snip out their favorite scenes to keep for themselves. He put a positive spin on it by saying we'd had an authentic grindhouse experience and all.

Someone went and put two clips of the interview on Youtube which you'll find in that link and this one.

He was disappointed because that missing scene was the scene where we, the audience, were supposed to "go nuts." The second feature of the night was Creepshow and I noticed that in the last segment of the movie, when the cockroaches burst out of E.G. Daly's neck, he turned around at that very moment to see the reaction of the crowd.

The reason I bring all that up is that when I saw Cabin Fever, I really liked it and I was pretty pumped a few years later to see Hostel. I had the best possible viewing experience of it because not only hadn't I seen any ads - I don't even remember seeing a single trailer, only posters - I also didn't know what the revelation about the titular hostel was, that it was a secret club for people to torture and kill kidnapped tourists. That twist was as shocking to me as it could've been when the movie revealed it.

Let me explain something else about the kind of things in movies that actually disturbs me. I've seen a metric ton of fucked up shit in movies, so as far as I know this is the only thing that can really get under my skin: otherwise seemingly normal people doing cold-blooded murder, or at least enjoying it. Robert Altman's The Player disturbed me more than a hundred horror movies because Tim Robbins makes peace with his own killing and hooks up with the girlfriend of his victim, who doesn't even care that he's dead. The end of David Mamet's House of Games shook me up pretty bad because the main character doesn't feel guilt about her cold blooded murder, either.

Both those characters are sort of normal people, more or less, which is the whole point. The bullies in Toxic Avenger are far more cartoonishly evil, but that scene is unquestionably part of the same obsession for me: not the fact they laughingly murdered a child, but that the next day they're back to being 80s movie cliches. I even get bothered by stuff like the end of Tarantino's Death Proof, where the girls go from scared to actually enjoying the prospect of killing their attacker on the turn of the dime. It's one thing to kill in self-defense, and something entirely other when characters go out of their way to do it.

Hostel portends that your average wealthy person will be so jaded by their wealth that they'll pay for the opportunity to kill someone and get away with it, and there are enough of those people that you could make a profitable business from that. Scarier, there are hot Eastern Bloc babes who're willing to lead tourists to their deaths just for some scratch. That's more detestable than the actual vacation-murderers themselves since the babes actually get to intimately know the guys they're leading to slaughter while keeping a smile on their face.

So the reason I actually liked the movie overall wasn't just that the revelation came halfway through the runtime and took care to build suspense, putting me in the same position as the main protagonist who then has to escape, but there was obviously some rudimentary thought put into the themes of the whole concept. The main characters who fall prey to the hostel are horny dudes looking to use European women for hedonistic sex, and wind up being used by European women for hedonistic death. The clientèle of the murder-hostel were guys burnt out on hedonistic sex themselves. There had obviously been some thought put into these things.

My trouble with Eli is my trouble with Hostel 2, which I've been avoiding seeing.

In the first place, why a sequel? Because the first one made money, natch. But that just means Eli Roth was going to get to make more movies, period. So what more was there to do with the Hostel concept? Absolutely nothing, far as I can tell from the reviews and plot synopses: three new tourists, GIRLS this time, go to the hostel and, well, guess. The only new angle is that there's a parallel story following two customers on their way to the place for their recreational torture.

So not only is the clever gender reversal of the first film gone, and not only is the suspense about the hostel's terrible true nature gone, but Eli spends screen time better getting to know the vacation killers - the conceit of which seems less likely the more you think about it, unless you have zero faith in humanity whatsoever. That could be true of Eli, given how shitty the kids in Cabin Fever were to each other, but I didn't notice it then.

Slant Magazine posits in their review that when the pair of soon-to-be killers are going on about how cool it's going to be, and how exactly they're going to do it, what we're really hearing is conversations Roth and The QT have had about how awesome it's going to be when the audience sees the slow, elaborate deaths they've thought up. QT is obviously no stranger to the art of the torture scene given it's emphasis in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

This theory sounds pretty likely since when you come down to it the only reason for another Hostel is more and better torture scenes. The inclusion of actual killers as central, intimate characters only bolsters the argument that this is where Eli's real empathy lays, and that all that gore is an end in itself. There hasn't been a pretext this flimsy for watching people die slowly since Make Them Die Slowly. Even Salo: 120 Days of Sodom was ostensibly making a point about the nature of fascism. Even fucking Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS was afforded that pretension.

Hostel Part II's big idea is that ordinary people are shits who'll pay to kill someone for fun if they can afford it. I find that terribly depressing, not frightening. Gore doesn't frighten me either, nor does it most people. Gore is gore, whether the movie is good or bad.

The movie is on my computer and I've been thinking about it so much without actually seeing it that I've had several dreams about it now, and I don't like any work of ficiton having that kind of intimidation over me. Now that my thoughts are down in writing, I'll sit and endure the thing and let you know what I think then.

No point in torturing myself.

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