Honeymoon in the Charnel House
A review of Hostel. Written and Directed by Eli Roth. Lion’s
a Next Entertainment/Raw Nerve production, 2005.
It was while watching Hostel the second time, this time on
DVD, that I noticed that it is essentially an updating of The Wicker Man. The
thing that hit the button was the scene in which the boyish American tourist
Josh (Derek Richardson) loses his virginity to one of the predatory women in
the eponymous hostel in Slovakia. Briefly one hears the same piece of music
that is playing in the scene in The Wicker Man where Sergeant Howie is anxiously
resisting the seduction of Willow, the sacred prostitute. Sgt. Howie is a pious
man, a virgin engaged to be married, and the pagans who run Summerisle have
engineered a complex scheme to lure him into the role of a human sacrifice to
be burnt to death in the vast structure called “the Wicker Man.”
The islanders, all believers in neo-Paganism, have done their research on him
as a likely choice, because their ritual requires the offering up of a virgin
who is a fool and possesses the authority of a king (reflecting the ancient
“fool king or “king for a day” sacrifice victim). The fool
part comes in when Howie is asked to come and investigate the disappearance
of Rowan Morrison, a young girl, from the island. Upon his arrival Sgt. Howie
is led through an elaborate hoax, first told there is no such girl as he seeks,
then that she has died and been buried, then that she is still alive and awaiting
sacrifice at the May Day festival. All the while, he is being led to his own
capture and sacrifice.
Well, the sex-seeking trio of adventurers in Hostel are lured
to a village in Slovakia where the girls are beautiful and easy. After sleeping
around a bit, they are, one by one, led off to their dooms. It seems that the
sex farm hostel is a spider’s web for capturing candidates to be tortured
to death in the cell-like rooms of an old factory nearby. The establishment,
called Elite Hunting, provides hapless human lives and plenty of weapons and
torture instruments for their clients who pay megabucks for the opportunity
to make their most sadistic fantasies come true.
The first of the trio to go is Olie (Eythor Gudjonsson), a
hedonistic Icelander who met up with the other two, college grads about to start
graduate study in the fall, in the Paris brothels. Josh is the next to go, tortured
to death by a man who always wanted to be a surgeon but couldn’t on account
of his unsteady hands. But that doesn’t stop him from practicing, minus
anesthetic, on poor Josh, whom he has already met in a scene we will get to
in a moment. Third up is Paxton (Jay Hernandez), just as much a veteran drug
smoker and flesh connoisseur as Olie despite his youth. But we learn something
interesting about Paxton. In his childhood he saw a young girl perish at sea
when a lifeguard thought he was kidding when he pleaded for someone to save
her. Ever since he has blamed himself for not trying to swim out and retrieve
her. Through a lucky accident, the man commencing to torture him incapacitates
himself, leaving Paxton the opportunity to kill him and escape. In stolen clothes,
he is about to peel out in a stolen car when he hears a familiar sound: a young
woman is screaming, the victim of a crazy jock, an Ugly American Paxton had
just met on his way out. Remembering the drowning incident many years before,
Paxton is compelled to double back and save her, a development leading to a
couple of the most disgusting and disturbing moments in the film. But they make
it out and away.
The young woman, a Japanese tourist named Kana, sees in a mirror
how hideously mutilated she has been and throws herself into the path of an
oncoming train while Paxton, having done what he could to save her, sneaks aboard
a train, evading the police (who, not surprisingly, are in cahoots with the
torturers). On the way back into Western Europe, he happens to hear a familiar
voice: it is the amateur surgeon who killed Josh! He follows him off the train,
into the men’s room, and there kills him.
That brings us back to the earlier scene in which the hedonistic
trio first encountered Josh’s murderer-to-be on the train heading to Slovakia.
He introduced himself as a Dutch businessman and showed around a wallet photo
of his young daughter, prompting Olie to show a picture of his own little girl.
The lads are quite surprised to discover that the happy hedonist (who calls
himself “the king of the swing”) is a family man! He explains how
he was married for eight years. One can more or less guess what ended the marriage.
Unexpectedly, the Dutchman grabs Josh’s thigh, is rebuffed, apologizes,
and leaves the train compartment. He later turns up in the same Slovakian village,
something that at first seems a bit too coincidental for comfort. There he rescues
Josh from a mugging, and the two patch things up. Soon Josh is surprised to
find himself playing doctor with this twisted son of a bitch in the torture
What is going on here? The movie swings from being a sex travelogue
to a horror show to an action adventure, but the transition is natural and seamless.
Furthermore, the story is unified by a single over-arching theme: the updated
parallel to The Wicker Man. The 1973 film contrasted, in a very politically
incorrect manner, the humanistic, rationalistic morality of traditional Christianity
(those elements it imbibed from Greek philosophy and Roman law) with the indiscriminant
Nature-wholism of pagan religion. Today’s “Earth-First” ecologism
is pagan in the same way, explicitly “sacrificing” human interests
for the sake of Gaia. (Indeed, one suspects that much of what passes for “Humanism”
in our day, with it’s zeal for abortion, euthanasia, and population reduction,
is actually eco-paganism if not just plain “secular misanthropism.”)
The Christianity of The Wicker Man, though presented as the priggish faith a
Scots policeman, is really that of Harvey Cox in The Secular City, where he
follows Durkheim in tracing the progressive “disenchantment of the world”
that occurred as the ancient Hebrews laid aside the worship of Baal and divine
Nature in favor of a linear view of history in which God and his godlings, made
in his image, namely us, are alike lifted out of and above Nature. Nature is
desacralized and man is given dominion over it, together with increased dignity
as being placed on God’s side of the creation, not that of the rest of
the world. This is what it means for humans to be “in God’s image.”
We do not worship nature, subordinate ourselves to it, or lose ourselves as
merely part of it. It is this god-like perspective that has enabled human reason
to conquer the forces of Nature, sometimes sloppily and dangerously. And it
is no wonder that eco-anti-humanism today is also anti-scientific. The Wicker
Man is clear about this clash of worldviews: Sgt. Howie is simultaneously a
pagan sacrifice and a Christian martyr.
Hostel, these twenty-two years later, takes aim at a different
sort of paganism, the amoral, hedonistic nihilism of decadent Europe. There
the world has been completely disenchanted, and not even Nature is sacred. Anything
goes. Drugs, sex, whatever you want, is available at a price. The key statement
in the movie is, again, in the train compartment, when the Dutch businessman
quips that you can get anything, anything, if the price is right. Little do
we suspect at that point that he means recreational torture and murder.
The three hedonistic questers are a trio of Sgt. Howies. Olie
goes first, because, as the train car scene shows us, he is the most like the
depraved would-be surgeon: both are or have been family men but who have abandoned
the implied moral discipline for a policy of benign amorality. He walks obliviously
from the sex-room to the torture room, there being no moral difference between
them. The only difference between them is, of course, hedonism: he doesn’t
enjoy being the target of some sadist who is getting pleasure out of his death.
Josh is a virgin like Sgt. Howie. He is quite evidently ill
at ease during the whole trip. But he finally succumbs, remember, in the scene
with the seduction music from The Wicker Man. And then, in the style of all
adolescent slasher films, he is marked for death. He has failed the test Sgt.
Howie passed. Of course, Howie, too, wound up dead, but he did retain his integrity.
And had Josh retained his, he might not have wound up where he did, led along
by the penis.
Paxton, by no means naïve or innocent, would seem to be
another like Olie, but he is not. He is early on marked as one who, amid the
torpor of Das Mann (the collective, conformist stupidity of the age), yet hears
the faint echoes of “the Call” (as Heidegger calls it) of one’s
authentic self and destiny. Paxton remembers his moral duty to save another.
He fears he once did not do enough to save the drowning girl, so he risks his
life to save a fellow captive. (And just at this point he is like Sgt. Howie,
who risked his life for a girl victim.) Here he authenticates himself by a single
act. In doing so, he deserves to survive the ordeal of the Hostel. The girl
he rescues is not so lucky. She lacks the will to continue. In throwing herself
in the path of the train, she teaches a lesson: you cannot save someone who
will not be saved. Everyone is on his or her own in the end.
The point of Hostel is that there is a direct continuum: where
everything has been rendered a commodity, as Baudrillard says, even human life
becomes mere merchandise (the eternal story of the still-thriving slave trade
after all). When the goal of life has sunk to mere orgiastic pleasure-seeking,
human dignity has vanished, no matter which end of the transaction one finds
oneself on. Man has exchanged the image of God for the image of a pig. And this
he must not do. Even if there is no God—especially if there is no God—we
must assume the image of God and take responsibility for our values. If we don’t,
well, Freud told us what would happen: society will collapse into a libidinous
pigsty. Humanity will be like the Bonobo chimps who spend all their time coupling
Europe’s decadence has “pro”gressed to dangerous
levels. The pathetic spectacle of French youth rioting in the streets against
a bill that would make it legal for employers to fire employees (!) shows a
retreat into infantilism. The French want the guaranteed security of the womb,
and they want their government to provide it, or they will throw tantrums. Or
think of the Neville Chamberlain approach to diplomacy in Europe: just mollify
your enemies until they attack, hoping they never will. Europe’s problem
is that they are godless. The problem is not that they have abandoned Christianity.
No, that was the inevitable outcome of the rationalistic, scientific process
that enabled mankind to transcend Nature-paganism. They and we do not need the
Christian God. The need, as Nietzsche saw, is to become gods ourselves.
So says Zarathustra.