Just as crucially, Saw and Hostel feature excellent and novel villains. If G.K. Chesterton had been a gore hound, he might have come up with somebody like the Saw franchise’s Jigsaw, the terminally ill torture whiz whose schemes have a queer philosophical power. “Hello, Paul. You’re a perfectly healthy, sane, middle-class male. Yet last month you ran a straight razor across your wrist. Did you cut yourself because you truly want to die? ... Tonight you’ll show me.” (Paul duly perishes trying to escape the maze of razor wire that Jigsaw has constructed.)
The Hostel franchise, meanwhile, has refreshed one of the deepest conventions of the genre—travel as a means to getting slashed. Once more the backpack becomes the symbol of elemental trespass, as American kids blunder irreligiously across eastern Europe looking for sex and pot and complaining that they can’t understand the local TV. Correction comes in the form of Elite Hunting, an international torture ring whose victims are abducted, strapped to chairs by huge Slavic mafiosi in creaking black-leather coats, and then chopped or drilled to death. Elite Hunting’s paying customers, drawn mostly from the CEO layer, are a fascinating crew: “D’you think we’re sick?” one of them worries in Hostel II, en route to his maiden torture session. “Fuck no!” says his buddy, a corporate carnivore in the American Psycho mold. “Dude, you look anywhere in the world where there’s no law, whether it’s fuckin’ ... Chad or New Orleans, this is the shit people are doing, bro! We’re the normal ones!” (Takes hit of coke.)
Sensitive readers will have registered the use of the word torture twice in the last paragraph. Perhaps they’ve already heard the term torture porn, a label invented in 2006 by the critic David Edelstein for the particular nexus of gore and excitation that he located in Saw, Hostel, and—interestingly enough—Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The phrase has since become one of those bywords for civilizational collapse, like Perez Hilton or too much estrogen in our drinking water.
But civilizational collapse, the rending of the established order, has always been part of the slasher’s brief. Look at Grendel, the ur-slasher, the slaughterous bog-dweller whose war on society and eventual comeuppance are chronicled in the thousand-year-old text of Beowulf. Slasher-wise, Grendel’s got it all. He’s a blue blood of homicide, directly descended from Cain, with a mother who (like Mrs. Voorhees in Friday the 13th) will avenge his death with her own string of sub-slashings before being (again like Mrs. Voorhees) decapitated. He has, in addition, the true slasher’s great hatred of parties—nothing primes his purpose like the sound of a harp being struck. And as he makes his last incursion into the drowsed mead hall, we can even see the Beowulf poet employing a Dark Ages version of that staple of slasher-flick technology, the Steadicam. In Seamus Heaney’s translation from the Old English:
The iron-braced door
turned on its hinge when his hands touched it ... while a baleful light,
flame more than light, flared from his eyes.
He saw many men in the mansion, sleeping,
a ranked company of kinsmen and warriors
Scaly knuckles against the door, and the snoring victims picked out in hellfire flashes—a single smooth shot, as it were, from the camera mounted on Grendel’s forehead. Ten or so centuries later, armed with his new Panaglide (Panavision’s clone of the Steadicam), director John Carpenter would pull off something similar in Halloween.