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Friday, June 19, 2020

June 19, 2020: American Horror Stories: Hostel, Taken, and Xenophobia

[On June 16th, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock premiered his new film Psycho in New York. So to celebrate that anniversary, this week I’ll contextualize Psycho and other horror films, leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on your own spooky story studying!]
On the horrifying xenophobia at the heart of two of the 21st century biggest hits.
It’s hard to argue with success, and Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) and Pierre Morel’s Taken (2008) are by many measures two of the most unexpectedly successful films of the 21st century’s first two decades. Hostel made more than $80 million worldwide (on a budget of $4.5 million), led to a sequel two years later, and contributed significantly to the rise of an entirely new sub-gerne (the horror sub-genre generally known as “torture porn”). Taken cost a lot more to make (budget of $25 million) but also made a lot more at the box office (worldwide gross of over $225 million), spawned multiple sequels and imitations, and fundamentally changed the career arc and general perception of its star Liam Neeson. Neither film was aiming for any Oscars or to make the Sight and Sound list, but clearly both did what they were trying to do well enough to please their audiences and hit all the notes in their generic (in the literal sense) formulas.
What the two films were trying to do is, of course, a matter of interpretation and debate (although Eli Roth is more than happy to tell us his take on what his film is about); moreover, they’re clearly very different from each other, in genre and goal and many other ways, and I don’t intend to conflate them in this post. Yet they both share an uncannily similar basic plot: naïve and fun-loving young American travelers are abducted and tortured by evil European captors, against whom the travelers themselves (in Hostel) or the traveler’s badass special forces type Dad (in Taken; young Maggie Grace gets to fight some of her own fights against additional Euro-types in the sequel) have to fight in order to escape. While it’s possible to argue that the travelers in Roth’s film help bring on their own torture as a result of their chauvinistic attitudes toward European women (in the sequel Roth made his protagonists young women, and much more explicitly innocent ones at that), there’s no question that the true forces of evil in each film are distinctly European. Moreover, since all of the young travelers are explicitly constructed as tourists, hoping to experience the different world of Europe, the films can’t help but seem like cautionary tales about that world’s dangerous and destructive underbelly.
It’s that last point which I’d really want to emphasize here. After all, bad guys in both horror and action films can and do come from everywhere, and that doesn’t necessarily serve as a blanket indictment of those places; if anything, I would argue that the multi-national and multi-ethnic villainy of (for example) James Bond films is a thematic strength, making clear that evil can and will be found everywhere.  Yet both Hostel and Taken are precisely about, or at least originate with, the relationship between American travelers and Europeans, about the naïve ideals of cultural tourism and about creating plots that depend on very frightening and torturous realities within these foreign worlds. “Don’t travel to Europe, young people,” they seem to argue; and if you do, well, be prepared either to kill a ton of ugly Europeans (or have your Daddy do it) or to be killed by them. Not exactly the travel narrative I’d argue for, and indeed a terrifying contribution to our 21st century American worldview.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: What do you think? Other horror films or stories you’d highlight for the weekend post?

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