Travel Horrors

03/06/2011

Backpacking

 

At one moment the mad Brazilian surgeon in Paradise Lost explains why he’s busily removing the organs from young backpackers. He’s had enough of the west exploiting Brazil and so what he claims to be doing is extracting the livers and kidneys from healthy westerners and giving them to people in his own country. This is apparently vital to the film’s theme but can hardly be claimed as its raison d’etre. Is this really what is at the core of an exploitation movie: the degree to which the film suggests a theme but focuses on its generic self-justification? A horror thriller like Paradise Lost echoes back to all those often South American set Italian nasties of the late seventies like Zombie Flesh EatersCannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox: its prospective audience isn’t especially the conscientious liberal who watches the first world exploiting the third; the subject merely offers up a useful pretext to set in motion the narrative terror. If Paradise Lost wanted to understand the resentment instead of exploiting it, then it might have given us a surgeon of complexity, someone whose first scene of self-justification a third of the way through the film didn’t consist chiefly of demonstrating a very vague point with a very heavy-handed example. As he hears that the westerners who’ve arrived in the small Brazilian beach resort and promptly been kidnapped have gotten away, he demonstrates to the street urchins who look on that there are several things you can do. “In any situation the best thing you can do is the right thing. The next best thing is the wrong thing. But the worst thing you can do is nothing” – before stabbing his incompetent flunkey in the eye with a barbecue stick. This has nothing to do with a reasoning process and everything to do with his baddie credentials. When he offers his bleeding heart speech later on about doing good deeds, all we’re really witnessing is the bleeding body and removed liver and kidneys of the woman he’s at the same time ransacking. This is if you like thematic bad faith for generic good sense; where the filmmaker knows that the audience isn’t here for speechifying about Third World exploitation, they’re here for the first world cinematic effects and cinematic exploitation: the DVD extras include a detailed break down of the top of the range special effects utilised.

But what we want to explore here in Paradise LostThe BeachBrokedown PalaceHostel, Hostel 2, and Wolf Creek is this tension between cinematic expectation and thematic exploration. Even perhaps the most obviously exploitative of the half dozen, Hostel, wants to play up a certain belligerence towards the westerner. As the film details gory exploits, it turns out that people pay good money to torture and kill citizens, and that they pay especially good rates for Americans. Is this the equivalent of paying top dollar for Argentinean beef, or is it much more the idea of a life quite literally not coming so cheaply? As Kim Newman points out in his Sight and Sound article, ‘Torture Garden’, the seventies exploiter Snuff had as its tag-line, “Made in South America, where life is cheap.” In Hostel an American is decidedly expensive, top of the list and ahead of even Japanese girls. This is offered more as a throwaway; and yet couldn’t it have been the film’s thematic underpinning? Couldn’t the film have explored the sort of trickledown geopolitical resentment that would have led to an American death being worth so much more than a second or third-world demise? It doesn’t take a great leap to think of September 11 and the relatively few people who died in New York and the number of Afghans and Iraqis who have been killed in the wake of the Twin Towers to see the preciousness of an American life next to a life elsewhere. As Jurgen Habermas says in The Divided West, speaking of the early stages of the war in Iraq, “Conservative estimates place the Iraqi dead at 20,000. This number…is monstrous when compared to US losses on 9/11”.

But again, an exploitation film doesn’t dwell on socio-political specifics; it’s more likely to dawdle over flesh in one form or another: either the slavering nudity in the early stages in Hostel, or the tortures later in the film as there are generic shifts within the film almost equal to that genre-shifting exercise From Dusk Till Dawn. Here the first half plays like a combination of Porky’s and National Lampoon’s European Vacation, before the second half enters horror mode. One might wonder whether the film is partly held together by a thematic it rarely chooses to confront. Whether it is the lads getting laid in the first half or getting laid out in the second, the twin problematics of complacency and resentment are expressed: the complacency of the Americans, the resentment of the Slovakians, or more broadly eastern Europeans. (Though Slovakia is explicitly mentioned, the iconography covers any former Eastern Bloc country: the gangsters in black leather jackets, the street kids, the heavy Slavic accents all suggest non-western Europe.) But of course, none of these issues are problematised; they’re promptly narrativized. Though a frequently populist critic like Judith Williamson in Deadline by Dawn was often irritated by what she saw as the ‘art movie’, and would frequently defend genre filmmaking over it, her defence of genre films as something that “offer ways of speaking”, “about the concerns of a society while producing pleasure, in part through recognition and repetition of these structures, for precisely the audience to whom those concerns are most pressing” (Deadline by Dawn) seems a little suspect. If we say that Hostel taps into an Eastern bloc resentment against western affluence and influence, we might think of Russia and the IMF, and Joseph Stiglitz in his book Capitalism and its Discontents addressing how the IMF in some way destroyed Russia’s economy and left millions destitute. As Stiglitz says, “the overvalued exchange rate – combined with the other macroeconomic policies foisted on the country by the IMF – had crushed the economy…” Now of course Slovakia isn’t Russia, but then the way Graeme Orr describes it in a short article in Chapman magazine, issue 94, suggests plenty similarities. As he says “people appear dispirited, unemployment is high…” and it is a “land where socialism still holds sway.” Metonymically whether it is Russia, Slovakia or any other Eastern European country is hardly the filmmakers’ concern. What it would seem to take from Slovakia is a notion of a lawless state with mass poverty and pockets of ever- expanding wealth. It is all very well for Williamson to talk up the genre film, but can we really say Eli Roth’s making a movie about the problematic of comfortable westerners in relation to the specifics of the Slovakian economy? It is one thing to analyse the underlying thematic sub-concerns of the genre film, but quite another to credit it with motive and purpose far beyond its generic aims.

So what is going on in these half dozen backpacker works and are they all generically driven or are some thematically focused? Perhaps the best way to make sense of what they are getting at is not to think of the cultures in which the characters are transplanted, first and foremost, but the cultures that they are from. In The BeachBrokedown PalaceHostel 1 and 2Wolf Creek and Paradise Lost the characters are all westerners, usually American, sometimes British, Australian or French. The point is they are all people for whom other economies are weak, economies where one’s currency can go much further by virtue of the very culture being so different, so much less economically advanced than our own. On this point, obviously Wolf Creek is the exception – it’s about two British girls and an Australian bloke venturing to the titular location and witnessing a site where a meteorite once landed and left a huge indentation in the land. But sub-textually the theme of affluence versus resentment still holds: the director shows us the outback redneck looking especially umbraged when he thinks the Aussie backpacker is taking the mick. This is an ageing loner who talks of the olden days where there were numerous mines, now long since defunct. Unemployment might have hit the community like a meteorite, but it is to the actual meteorite landing spot that tourists come. The relatively recent human consequences of collapsed communities interest the comfortable classes far less.

So what seems central to the films is the wake-up call of western complacency over the examination of the Third World and defeated lives. At the end of Paradise Lost a couple of enthusiastic backpackers discuss whether they should get on the plane or get on the bus: the idea being that the bus is the more exciting option, and will give them the chance to see the country. But one of the survivors, Alex (Josh Duhamel) advises him to take the plane. Good advice undeniably, for Alex, his sister and her friend took the bus and paid for their adventurousness. The bus crashed, they were stranded and eventually found themselves escaping from the mad surgeon who wanted to remove their organs. But we should also remember that in the early stages Alex was the most conservative character. Only on the trip to look after his sister, Alex is a figure who has problems with toplessness and is reluctant to have contact with the locals. By the end of the film, his conservatism is vindicated. It isn’t as if he’s even learnt much of a life lesson: he believes from the beginning that Brazil is a dangerous place, full of suspect people and there is little the film offers to counter this. Even the most sympathetic Brazilian leads the westerners to the very house where the surgeon performs his operations. Sure he shows signs of reluctance later after he says these are the first westerners who have befriended him, but the film is less about radical resentfulness, than a conservative complacency: South America lives up to its cliché of life being cheap, and only a naive westerner would have anything to do with the continent.

For the purposes of our argument we don’t want to miss out on the relative subtleties in Paradise Lost: for example the bus driver may clearly be in the grand tradition of Third World bravado as he takes corners at full pelt despite a yawning drop on one side or the other and also treacherous bends. However, it is a couple of westerners on a motorbike that leads to the vehicle’s demise as the bus tries to overtake them. Maybe a film more given to exploring the subject over exploiting it would have tried to work much more with levels of culpability; Paradise Lost, though, finally settles for narrative contrivance. Thus it is all very well for a couple of westerners on a motorbike to get in the way of the bus, but we can’t expect culpability to be a thematic pursued – it is rather an irony momentarily addressed and then ignored. It becomes, if you like, narrative irony over thematic irony.

If for example, the film had given us more of the Brazilian surgeon, had let us to understand his motives without turning him into the cypher baddie, and, if at the end of the film, Alex had said to get on the plane because there are dodgy bus drivers and selfish bikers, we may have felt that the thematic was constantly being addressed. However, it is as if the film has forgotten its own story: wasn’t Alex the reactionary traveller believing his own culture was effortlessly superior to the one he found himself in; didn’t the bikers not allow the bus to overtake it initially, and weren’t so many of the other characters in Brazil for the birds and the booze? There is a narrative pragmatism here where as soon as the plot element has served its purpose we’re supposed to forget about it, so that the ironic level never becomes repercussive. It is obviously ironic that the surgeon isn’t much of a role model as he offers life lessons to the street urchins in the earlier scene quoted above, and we might question his humanitarian ideals as he opens up someone’s stomach to remove their organs in the later scene. What the film wants to show us is a confused, contradictory villain in certain scenes that work for narrative tension, but not for thematic evolution. If for example, we had a better sense of his political reasoning and a clearer understanding of his actions, then the film would have possessed that dimension of radical resentment and at the same time offered perhaps a thematic irony that went beyond individual scenes and echoed back to earlier moments. When Alex says they should take the plane there seems to be no indeterminate, thematic irony to his statement. He doesn’t at all seem to be thinking that other westerners helped cause his misery, merely that the less time you spend on Brazilian land the better.

What we’ve suggested here, so far, is that central to the exploitative aspect of this mini-backpacker genre is the focus on the westerner who misguidedly believes (at best) that the world is their oyster and who realizes that actually this isn’t the case. The rest of the world isn’t their oyster but closer to a stone fish or a sting ray, and so we have characters moving from various degrees of complacency to a degree of painful realization. But why the films are generally exploitation works is because they don’t lead the characters (or the viewer) to a socio-political realization but closer to the personal sense of relief: a there but for the grace of God.

However, this is to suggest that all the films are optimistic works when this is clearly not so. Wolf Creek ends with the two girls dead and the Aussie barely alive; Brokedown Palace concludes with one of the girls freed but the other girl still imprisoned, Hostel ends with the leading character Paxton’s friends dead, and he himself devoid of several fingers. Hostel 2 concludes with the friend horribly dead and Beth an avenging angel. Paradise Lost is more optimistic, ending with the three main characters alive, while The Beach leads to possible romance between the two leading characters who return to civilization safely. This is to say no more than that the issue isn’t one of optimism versus pessimism; more a question of examination over exploitation. When we talk about the grace of God, it is that the story hasn’t explored the location but shown how the characters can escape from it. With its muted colour scheme and its minimal cross-cutting, Paradise Lost shows us a world very much from the character’s limited point of view. Brazil may so often be referred to as one of the most colourful countries in the world, but the film seems to have got its colour scheme from the slightly washed-out video look of the cannibal films of the late seventies. We might also notice that not just the washed-out look suggests the film is loaded in a particular direction; the film only usually cross-cuts to show us the brutality of the villains and not the complexity of their motives. In one scene we see a couple of Scandinavian tourists kidnapped; one gets hacked to bits, the other gets chased over a cliff. In another scene the film cuts back to the village after Alex and co. have escaped to show the brutality of the surgeon in the scene where he gives the kids a lesson in life. Colour and context are drained here, and the impression the film gives is of Brazilians exploiting the westerner more than the westerner exploiting the planet. Even the surgeon’s speech about the wealthy westerners stealing Brazilian organs barely holds up given the situation whereby he offers it.

From the point of view of colour and context, though, Hostel 2 should pass for some sort of ethical masterpiece. It has undeniably local colour and also an impressive sense of space that cross-cuts frequently from one part of the world to the other. Here director Eli Roth has upped the ante: where before the highest price would be paid for Americans, now there are auction bids. When the three American girls enter the Slovakian hostel of the title, the porter immediately copies their passports and the information is sent around the world as the wealthy bid to come to Slovakia and kill the girls. Roth definitely gives us a broader context than in the first film. He says in the DVD commentary that he wanted to show much more of the town than before; because the second film is focused on the women, the first on the boys, and he says he believed the women would be more inclined to sightsee. This is hardly the ethical context we have been proposing though. Thus the richly coloured carnival sequence is still less about local lives than local flavour: it is a world very much seen through the eyes of the westerner and the overhead shots of the carnival, match cutting from an axe to two swords, and the many locals milling around lit by firelight, are not attempts to open up perspective but give variety to suspense. Thus when the film cuts from one of the girls looking on at a carnival figure in a mask and holding an axe, to the other girls having a mock swordfight, the soundtrack emphasises an uncanny sense of impending trouble – or, rather, canny, since we as viewers know that the girls are up for auction. The cross-cutting between characters, and the scene of a Slovakian town during carnival, are no more than apparent irrelevancies to point up a greater sense of menace: it is in the tradition of the horse racing in Hitchcock’s Notorious, or the restaurant meal in the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. This is the ‘exploitative’ side of Hitchcock Roth picks up from – but without the complex sense of relations, guilt and formal innovation that makes Hitchcock such a key filmmaker.

This isn’t especially to disparage Roth, and Hostel 2 is a finely made horror thriller; it is that there is nothing underpinning it, and the sociopolitical absence is felt especially in the scene with the young street kids. After they see leading character Beth running through the woods they give her a beating, only to be stopped by the wealthy businessman responsible for auctioning the girls off. This is his girl, and he can’t afford to have the street urchins kill her or else he’ll lose out on the tidy sum of money someone is paying for her death. As the kids line up waiting chastisement, the businessman walks along the row rubbing a gun up against each kid’s face. Eventually, one of the boys is thrust forward by the other kids and the businessman shoots him. This has something of the poverty-stricken violence of City of God, but whatever the limitations of the Brazilian film it was ostensibly an exploration of favela kids. Here Roth uses the children for a moment of brutality that transcends the film. When some have attacked him for its presence, Roth doesn’t seem to have seen that it isn’t about brutality per se, but about the lack of perspective on this moment of violence. It is a powerful scene, certainly, but surely so very different from the scene shortly before it where one of the other girls is murdered in a homage to the legend of Bathory, with a woman bathing in virgin blood.

There is in a number of these backpacking films what we’ll call a tonal errora sudden sense of genre giving way to realism, and the film stranded between the two modes, rather than adventurously moving beyond genre boundaries. Where films like Repulsion or Dead Ringers will work loosely with horror conventions, they constantly push them to explore an aspect of the human psyche that can’t be contained by convention: the filmmakers get inside the minds of the protagonists and genre collapses and subjectivity takes hold. But in Hostel 2, the tonal error comes from a scene which doesn’t so much deepen and go beyond genre, but catapults the film temporarily out of its safe, fixed genre limits for a dose of relative reality. The scene with the street urchins brings to mind Devin McKinney’s differentiation between strong and weak violence in an essay in Screening Violence. Where strong violence suggests a strong after-effect and often a broader social context than the scene itself, in weak violence films “the violence of these pictures simply doesn’t last; it gets left on the floor with the candy wrappers. It’s too rationalized, too articulate…” The moment with the kids in Hostel 2 suggests an intense form of violence that seems to run absolutely contrary to the fantasy violence of Bathory,  so it doesn’t deepen the film’s perspective on violence – it simply indicates a social perspective the film promptly ignores except for the purpose of a coda at the end where Beth and the kids kill the baddie auctioneer.

Paradise Lost and the Hostel films are undeniably generic works, but what about Brokedown PalaceThe Beach and Wolf Creek? The first is closer to Traffic or Maria Full of Grace; it is a drug film that actually turns into a redemptive weepie as two childhood friends, Alice (Claire Danes) and Darlene (Kate Beckinsale), try to smuggle drugs out of Thailand after a charmer seduces them. How much they know about the drugs remains a moot point throughout and the film ends ambiguously. When the Thai king looks like he might offer them clemency, he ends up doing so only after Alice insists that Darlene is completely innocent and she is guilty, that she knowingly took the drugs through customs. We never find out for sure if she did so knowingly or not – earlier in the film director Jonathan Kaplan had cut away at a key moment when it looked like the charmer was moving in on Alice after having already slept with Darlene.

The film is obvious yet not generic, and this isn’t so much to defend the clichéd drama over the conventional genre film (obviously the latter is often much more interesting and narratively tighter), but to say that whatever Brokedown Palace’s numerous limitations, the story isn’t a pretext for the genre demands, no matter if it works with elements of the law film and the prison drama. It might present almost all Thai characters unsympathetically except for the American lawyer’s Thai wife and momentarily the king, but a number of the American characters don’t come out of it too well either – Darlene’s father, for example, who blames Alice for the situation the girls are in with no evidence whatsoever. Brokedown Palace, then, is a clichéd film but not a generic one. Its failure to examine the specifics of the culture it happens to be in is more a failure of directorial imagination, than the ‘success’ of generic expectation. Brokedown Palace could easily have been half an hour longer and given us far more on the girls getting comfortable in the culture before coming across the Aussie charmer who will ruin their lives. There is not the sort of generic demand that we feel in the Hostel films and in Paradise Lost to get on with it.

The local flavour Roth insists he wanted to offer in the second Hostel film nevertheless knows it has to earn its keep, so at various moments the local flavour has to give way to horror sound and fury. Hence in the early stages of the film our hero from the first outing gets initially to have a dream sequence where he’s stabbed to death, and then after he awakens ends up decapitated. The sweaty dream sequence and the grisly early death are mainstays of horror, so Roth sets less the scene than the genre expectation. This can take care of the fury; but what about the sound – and the image? In a scene shortly after the decapitation we have a shot that starts on two dogs and then slowly tilts up to its owner while the music offers suspense. There is nothing the man is doing except drinking his coffee, but the sound and image make it clear that this is the villain of the piece. In the carnival sequence, the music moves between local flavour and potential menace as the gypsy fiddle accompanies Beth’s search for her friend. Where before it served the dancing mood, now it serves Beth’s anxiety as the camera is in constant motion and Roth offers numerous cuts to capture Beth fretfully looking for her buddy. What Roth generally does is utilise local sounds and local images to up the suspense. For example, in between the beheading and the shot of the baddie, Roth shows us the beautiful Slovakian town but in such a wide angle that it contains a menace by virtue of little more than the distortion in the shot.

What we are saying here is that Roth works some fresh locations into his genre pic, while Kaplan, with so much more potential freedom, offers us clichéd images of Thailand. But if one is a genre film and the other a social drama, nevertheless they both converge on and conform to the point we made about how the films are about western complacency over foreign resentment. If we think of the degree to which Jean Renoir’s famous statement in The Rules of the Game – that everyone has their reasons – has become a narrative trope in recent film, then we can understand the bias at work. Critics including David Bordwell in The Way Hollywood Tells It and Wendy Everett in an article in Studies in European Cinema called ‘Fractal Film and the Architecture of Complexity”, have used terms like network narratives, fractal filmmaking and hyperlink cinema to show how films of the last fifteen to twenty years have utilised multi-strand narratives: City of HopeShort CutsMagnoliaCode UnknownBeautiful People, and Wonderland are just a handful of films that cut between various characters’ perspectives. There is no reason why a film like Brokedown Palace couldn’t have opened up its point of view much more to suggest that everybody has their reasons. Instead, it crosscuts between the girls’ predicament and the lawyer’s as he tries to get them off. It is taken as a given that Thailand is a corrupt country, just as it is taken as given that Slovakia is a country where life is cheap: both want the specifics of locale without the specificity of perspective. In Hostel 2 this makes generic sense – we don’t want too much motivation from the baddies, we want the film, as we’ve noted, to get on with it. But as we’ve also suggested, in Kaplan’s film it seems a failure of imagination: as if he was happy to utilise all the cliches of the unknown Orient by assuming that whatever the reasons they are unknown to the westerner. Bill Pullman’s American lawyer in Bangkok may potentially be a character for whom Thailand is known – he’s married to a Thai woman and speaks Thai – but he’s less the character who allows the girls to comprehend a foreign culture; more the crusading lawyer who wants to get them out of jail. Brokedown Palace may be a better, more nuanced work than the Hostel films and Paradise Lost, but it might be all the more disappointing: it doesn’t take advantage of its social drama freedom – despite the relatively ambiguous ending, where we still don’t exactly know how involved Alice happened to be in the drug deal.

But what are we asking for here: what sort of backpack filmmaking might we expect? Perhaps what is required is a combination of the late sixties/early seventies logistical cinema of Battle of AlgiersZState of Siege and The Mattei Affair, with the network narrative films of above. This would be a cinema that makes clear what is at stake in a country where everything appears cheap, and where everybody might have their reasons, but some of those reasons would be basic survival. Though maybe that would be too much to ask; so what about a decidedly singular perspective? That is, a point of view that captures the vulnerability of cultural alienation without giving the impression of context (like Hostel 2Paradise Lost and Brokedown Palace appear to offer us).

Of all the films mentioned maybe the most successful in this regard happens to be WolfCreek. A low-budget example of ordeal cinema that owes something to The Texas Chainsaw MassacreWolf Creek stays close to the atmosphere of the foreign, no matter if one of the characters tortured is Australian and the other two British. What it does well is suggest the nightmare of inexplicability as the camera chooses not the cross-cutting clarity of Hostel 2Paradise Lost and even Brokedown Palace, but the terror of the solitary perspective. As the three characters find themselves drugged after being helped by the apparently good Samaritan redneck who fixes their car so they are then each separated for individual torture. Liz wakes up having no idea where she is, and steadily manages to release herself from bondage, only to venture to the nearby garage where she sees Kristy being tortured by the no longer-so-good Samaritan. What the film is great on is the partiality of point of view. So for example rather than cross-cutting to show the redneck as a threat earlier in the film, we find out that he’s been trailing them only later: when Liz watches some video footage that shows the redneck was in the town that they visited shortly before going to Wolf Creek. We work out that he obviously followed them, tinkered with their car so it wouldn’t start, and later came to appear like he was saving the day.

This is less cinematic cognition, if you like, than personal realization. It is less the film cross-cutting and offering the audience a privileged position, than a partial perspective that Liz works with. By denying itself the broader perspective it alleviates the problem of context. Sure we might still find the villain too broad and too clichéd, but otherwise the film offers a decent attempt at the immediacy of fear over the abstraction of sadism. One of the ‘problems’ of the cross-cutting in Hostel 2 is the way it feeds into sadism – sadism as a state of privilege so that we know what will soon take place, and knowingly enjoy the process of awaiting the torture and the killings. A film like Wolf Creek is undeniably an exploitation film (no matter if it is based on a true story), but it is exploitation as immediate terror rather than exploitation as abstract glee. What Wolf Creek is good on is the feeling that something is about to happen, but what that something might be is the unknown as opposed to the knowing. Where Hostel 2 fits with the comedy horror of Scream, the later Nightmare on Elm Street films and I Know What You Did Last SummerWolf Creek is closer to the unremitting, unknowing horror of Open Water and Gerry, to films that may even (as in Gerry’s case) leave the genre altogether and become a meditation on nature’s deadly indifference to man.

Thus we’ve differentiated here from the knowing and the unknown, and throughout the article tried to articulate the difference between the clichéd and the genre convention. Wolf Creek seems to be the most successful of all the backpacker films mentioned at working from the unknown and minimising the conventional and the cliché-ridden. However the film that in theory should have most successfully trodden this line is Danny Boyle’s The Beach, and perhaps with a different actor in the lead role might have done so. Here Boyle’s film predicates itself on the unknown – on a positive mystery – an idyllic beach that the characters hear of and then search out. The film could have been about a first principle in backpacking, and what separates the tourist from the traveller. Where the tourist knows exactly what they want before they get it, the traveller (in theory at least) wants what cannot be named, what cannot be photographed, what cannot be put in a brochure. Of course, the backpacker is usually less the solitary traveller venturing into the unknown than the Lonely PlanetRough Guider who’s looking for things on the cheap. It is more that the cost of living is inexpensive than life is mysterious that the films play on, and this is partly why they offer themselves up as learning curves for the characters. In The Beach, the characters eventually find the location of their dreams but of course it quickly turns into their worst nightmare, as the beach the community’s leading character Richard (Leonardo Di Caprio) and his friends come across isn’t quite as idyllic as they hoped, as Richard starts to lose the plot, retreating into his own mind, and as local drug dealers are unhappy with their presence. Once again we are in the realm of plot, stuck in the middle of narrative machinations that defy the very purpose of the mission in the first place.

Like other Boyle films including Sunshine and 28 Days Later, Boyle sets up a world that he then closes down conventionally. He brings in the gun-toting baddies and allows the film to be about characters versus other characters, rather than man against the environment. When one suggests The Beach ostensibly could have walked the line between genre convention and cliché it resides in its non-generic origins, and its predication on the mysterious and beautiful beach. The viewer doesn’t go in with the genre conventions the way they do in a horror thriller like the Hostel films, so its failure to explore the intricacies of the mystery gives us a strong sense of lost opportunities. The film at one stage goes out of its way to differentiate the exclusivity of the exclusive beach over the general beach culture when lead characters Richard and Sal (Tilda Swinton) leave the island retreat and go into town. Richard says this is the very thing that they want to avoid: the mass tourism experience with its throbbing music, drunken and drugged-up teenagers, and its roar of traffic. But the film itself plays closer to the latter than the former: it has all the predictability of a consumer culture product as it offers guns, drugs and pulsating music of its own.

To conclude, what we’ve looked at is half a dozen films that predicate themselves on the backpacking experience but offer us little that is off the beaten track. Some of the films conform to the conventions; others fall into the clichés. If we finally believe Wolf Creek the most competent it resides at least partly in its lack of ambition. By holding to its leading characters, by giving us no broader perspective, it occasionally gives us the sense of feeling lost, isolated and without a hope in the world. This might not be what any backpacker expects when they go out into the wild blue yonder. But it is surely the possibility that is at the core of the travel experience as defined by those who found the heart of Africa, discovered the poles and climbed Everest. Generally, the films here lack the very element that backpacking culture should at least attempt to offer: a sense of discovery. In the essay collection What Am I Doing Here, that great traveller Bruce Chatwin says that he and Werner Herzog “share a belief that walking is not simply therapeutic for oneself, but a poetic activity that can cure the world of its ills.” One wonders what exactly a backpacking cinema might look like if it shared with Herzog and Chatwin a similar poetic ambition, rather than a generic predictability that removes the poetry and exacerbates those very ills as it so often shrinks our perspective on the world rather than expanding it.

 

©Tony McKibbin

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Travel Horrors

Backpacking

At one moment the mad Brazilian surgeon in Paradise Lost explains why he's busily removing the organs from young backpackers. He's had enough of the west exploiting Brazil and so what he claims to be doing is extracting the livers and kidneys from healthy westerners and giving them to people in his own country. This is apparently vital to the film's theme but can hardly be claimed as its raison d'etre. Is this really what is at the core of an exploitation movie: the degree to which the film suggests a theme but focuses on its generic self-justification? A horror thriller like Paradise Lost echoes back to all those often South American set Italian nasties of the late seventies like Zombie Flesh Eaters, Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox: its prospective audience isn't especially the conscientious liberal who watches the first world exploiting the third; the subject merely offers up a useful pretext to set in motion the narrative terror. If Paradise Lost wanted to understand the resentment instead of exploiting it, then it might have given us a surgeon of complexity, someone whose first scene of self-justification a third of the way through the film didn't consist chiefly of demonstrating a very vague point with a very heavy-handed example. As he hears that the westerners who've arrived in the small Brazilian beach resort and promptly been kidnapped have gotten away, he demonstrates to the street urchins who look on that there are several things you can do. "In any situation the best thing you can do is the right thing. The next best thing is the wrong thing. But the worst thing you can do is nothing" - before stabbing his incompetent flunkey in the eye with a barbecue stick. This has nothing to do with a reasoning process and everything to do with his baddie credentials. When he offers his bleeding heart speech later on about doing good deeds, all we're really witnessing is the bleeding body and removed liver and kidneys of the woman he's at the same time ransacking. This is if you like thematic bad faith for generic good sense; where the filmmaker knows that the audience isn't here for speechifying about Third World exploitation, they're here for the first world cinematic effects and cinematic exploitation: the DVD extras include a detailed break down of the top of the range special effects utilised.

But what we want to explore here in Paradise Lost, The Beach, Brokedown Palace, Hostel, Hostel 2, and Wolf Creek is this tension between cinematic expectation and thematic exploration. Even perhaps the most obviously exploitative of the half dozen, Hostel, wants to play up a certain belligerence towards the westerner. As the film details gory exploits, it turns out that people pay good money to torture and kill citizens, and that they pay especially good rates for Americans. Is this the equivalent of paying top dollar for Argentinean beef, or is it much more the idea of a life quite literally not coming so cheaply? As Kim Newman points out in his Sight and Sound article, 'Torture Garden', the seventies exploiter Snuff had as its tag-line, "Made in South America, where life is cheap." In Hostel an American is decidedly expensive, top of the list and ahead of even Japanese girls. This is offered more as a throwaway; and yet couldn't it have been the film's thematic underpinning? Couldn't the film have explored the sort of trickledown geopolitical resentment that would have led to an American death being worth so much more than a second or third-world demise? It doesn't take a great leap to think of September 11 and the relatively few people who died in New York and the number of Afghans and Iraqis who have been killed in the wake of the Twin Towers to see the preciousness of an American life next to a life elsewhere. As Jurgen Habermas says in The Divided West, speaking of the early stages of the war in Iraq, "Conservative estimates place the Iraqi dead at 20,000. This number...is monstrous when compared to US losses on 9/11".

But again, an exploitation film doesn't dwell on socio-political specifics; it's more likely to dawdle over flesh in one form or another: either the slavering nudity in the early stages in Hostel, or the tortures later in the film as there are generic shifts within the film almost equal to that genre-shifting exercise From Dusk Till Dawn. Here the first half plays like a combination of Porky's and National Lampoon's European Vacation, before the second half enters horror mode. One might wonder whether the film is partly held together by a thematic it rarely chooses to confront. Whether it is the lads getting laid in the first half or getting laid out in the second, the twin problematics of complacency and resentment are expressed: the complacency of the Americans, the resentment of the Slovakians, or more broadly eastern Europeans. (Though Slovakia is explicitly mentioned, the iconography covers any former Eastern Bloc country: the gangsters in black leather jackets, the street kids, the heavy Slavic accents all suggest non-western Europe.) But of course, none of these issues are problematised; they're promptly narrativized. Though a frequently populist critic like Judith Williamson in Deadline by Dawn was often irritated by what she saw as the 'art movie', and would frequently defend genre filmmaking over it, her defence of genre films as something that "offer ways of speaking", "about the concerns of a society while producing pleasure, in part through recognition and repetition of these structures, for precisely the audience to whom those concerns are most pressing" (Deadline by Dawn) seems a little suspect. If we say that Hostel taps into an Eastern bloc resentment against western affluence and influence, we might think of Russia and the IMF, and Joseph Stiglitz in his book Capitalism and its Discontents addressing how the IMF in some way destroyed Russia's economy and left millions destitute. As Stiglitz says, "the overvalued exchange rate - combined with the other macroeconomic policies foisted on the country by the IMF - had crushed the economy..." Now of course Slovakia isn't Russia, but then the way Graeme Orr describes it in a short article in Chapman magazine, issue 94, suggests plenty similarities. As he says "people appear dispirited, unemployment is high..." and it is a "land where socialism still holds sway." Metonymically whether it is Russia, Slovakia or any other Eastern European country is hardly the filmmakers' concern. What it would seem to take from Slovakia is a notion of a lawless state with mass poverty and pockets of ever- expanding wealth. It is all very well for Williamson to talk up the genre film, but can we really say Eli Roth's making a movie about the problematic of comfortable westerners in relation to the specifics of the Slovakian economy? It is one thing to analyse the underlying thematic sub-concerns of the genre film, but quite another to credit it with motive and purpose far beyond its generic aims.

So what is going on in these half dozen backpacker works and are they all generically driven or are some thematically focused? Perhaps the best way to make sense of what they are getting at is not to think of the cultures in which the characters are transplanted, first and foremost, but the cultures that they are from. In The Beach, Brokedown Palace, Hostel 1 and 2, Wolf Creek and Paradise Lost the characters are all westerners, usually American, sometimes British, Australian or French. The point is they are all people for whom other economies are weak, economies where one's currency can go much further by virtue of the very culture being so different, so much less economically advanced than our own. On this point, obviously Wolf Creek is the exception - it's about two British girls and an Australian bloke venturing to the titular location and witnessing a site where a meteorite once landed and left a huge indentation in the land. But sub-textually the theme of affluence versus resentment still holds: the director shows us the outback redneck looking especially umbraged when he thinks the Aussie backpacker is taking the mick. This is an ageing loner who talks of the olden days where there were numerous mines, now long since defunct. Unemployment might have hit the community like a meteorite, but it is to the actual meteorite landing spot that tourists come. The relatively recent human consequences of collapsed communities interest the comfortable classes far less.

So what seems central to the films is the wake-up call of western complacency over the examination of the Third World and defeated lives. At the end of Paradise Lost a couple of enthusiastic backpackers discuss whether they should get on the plane or get on the bus: the idea being that the bus is the more exciting option, and will give them the chance to see the country. But one of the survivors, Alex (Josh Duhamel) advises him to take the plane. Good advice undeniably, for Alex, his sister and her friend took the bus and paid for their adventurousness. The bus crashed, they were stranded and eventually found themselves escaping from the mad surgeon who wanted to remove their organs. But we should also remember that in the early stages Alex was the most conservative character. Only on the trip to look after his sister, Alex is a figure who has problems with toplessness and is reluctant to have contact with the locals. By the end of the film, his conservatism is vindicated. It isn't as if he's even learnt much of a life lesson: he believes from the beginning that Brazil is a dangerous place, full of suspect people and there is little the film offers to counter this. Even the most sympathetic Brazilian leads the westerners to the very house where the surgeon performs his operations. Sure he shows signs of reluctance later after he says these are the first westerners who have befriended him, but the film is less about radical resentfulness, than a conservative complacency: South America lives up to its clich of life being cheap, and only a naive westerner would have anything to do with the continent.

For the purposes of our argument we don't want to miss out on the relative subtleties in Paradise Lost: for example the bus driver may clearly be in the grand tradition of Third World bravado as he takes corners at full pelt despite a yawning drop on one side or the other and also treacherous bends. However, it is a couple of westerners on a motorbike that leads to the vehicle's demise as the bus tries to overtake them. Maybe a film more given to exploring the subject over exploiting it would have tried to work much more with levels of culpability; Paradise Lost, though, finally settles for narrative contrivance. Thus it is all very well for a couple of westerners on a motorbike to get in the way of the bus, but we can't expect culpability to be a thematic pursued - it is rather an irony momentarily addressed and then ignored. It becomes, if you like, narrative irony over thematic irony.

If for example, the film had given us more of the Brazilian surgeon, had let us to understand his motives without turning him into the cypher baddie, and, if at the end of the film, Alex had said to get on the plane because there are dodgy bus drivers and selfish bikers, we may have felt that the thematic was constantly being addressed. However, it is as if the film has forgotten its own story: wasn't Alex the reactionary traveller believing his own culture was effortlessly superior to the one he found himself in; didn't the bikers not allow the bus to overtake it initially, and weren't so many of the other characters in Brazil for the birds and the booze? There is a narrative pragmatism here where as soon as the plot element has served its purpose we're supposed to forget about it, so that the ironic level never becomes repercussive. It is obviously ironic that the surgeon isn't much of a role model as he offers life lessons to the street urchins in the earlier scene quoted above, and we might question his humanitarian ideals as he opens up someone's stomach to remove their organs in the later scene. What the film wants to show us is a confused, contradictory villain in certain scenes that work for narrative tension, but not for thematic evolution. If for example, we had a better sense of his political reasoning and a clearer understanding of his actions, then the film would have possessed that dimension of radical resentment and at the same time offered perhaps a thematic irony that went beyond individual scenes and echoed back to earlier moments. When Alex says they should take the plane there seems to be no indeterminate, thematic irony to his statement. He doesn't at all seem to be thinking that other westerners helped cause his misery, merely that the less time you spend on Brazilian land the better.

What we've suggested here, so far, is that central to the exploitative aspect of this mini-backpacker genre is the focus on the westerner who misguidedly believes (at best) that the world is their oyster and who realizes that actually this isn't the case. The rest of the world isn't their oyster but closer to a stone fish or a sting ray, and so we have characters moving from various degrees of complacency to a degree of painful realization. But why the films are generally exploitation works is because they don't lead the characters (or the viewer) to a socio-political realization but closer to the personal sense of relief: a there but for the grace of God.

However, this is to suggest that all the films are optimistic works when this is clearly not so. Wolf Creek ends with the two girls dead and the Aussie barely alive; Brokedown Palace concludes with one of the girls freed but the other girl still imprisoned, Hostel ends with the leading character Paxton's friends dead, and he himself devoid of several fingers. Hostel 2 concludes with the friend horribly dead and Beth an avenging angel. Paradise Lost is more optimistic, ending with the three main characters alive, while The Beach leads to possible romance between the two leading characters who return to civilization safely. This is to say no more than that the issue isn't one of optimism versus pessimism; more a question of examination over exploitation. When we talk about the grace of God, it is that the story hasn't explored the location but shown how the characters can escape from it. With its muted colour scheme and its minimal cross-cutting, Paradise Lost shows us a world very much from the character's limited point of view. Brazil may so often be referred to as one of the most colourful countries in the world, but the film seems to have got its colour scheme from the slightly washed-out video look of the cannibal films of the late seventies. We might also notice that not just the washed-out look suggests the film is loaded in a particular direction; the film only usually cross-cuts to show us the brutality of the villains and not the complexity of their motives. In one scene we see a couple of Scandinavian tourists kidnapped; one gets hacked to bits, the other gets chased over a cliff. In another scene the film cuts back to the village after Alex and co. have escaped to show the brutality of the surgeon in the scene where he gives the kids a lesson in life. Colour and context are drained here, and the impression the film gives is of Brazilians exploiting the westerner more than the westerner exploiting the planet. Even the surgeon's speech about the wealthy westerners stealing Brazilian organs barely holds up given the situation whereby he offers it.

From the point of view of colour and context, though, Hostel 2 should pass for some sort of ethical masterpiece. It has undeniably local colour and also an impressive sense of space that cross-cuts frequently from one part of the world to the other. Here director Eli Roth has upped the ante: where before the highest price would be paid for Americans, now there are auction bids. When the three American girls enter the Slovakian hostel of the title, the porter immediately copies their passports and the information is sent around the world as the wealthy bid to come to Slovakia and kill the girls. Roth definitely gives us a broader context than in the first film. He says in the DVD commentary that he wanted to show much more of the town than before; because the second film is focused on the women, the first on the boys, and he says he believed the women would be more inclined to sightsee. This is hardly the ethical context we have been proposing though. Thus the richly coloured carnival sequence is still less about local lives than local flavour: it is a world very much seen through the eyes of the westerner and the overhead shots of the carnival, match cutting from an axe to two swords, and the many locals milling around lit by firelight, are not attempts to open up perspective but give variety to suspense. Thus when the film cuts from one of the girls looking on at a carnival figure in a mask and holding an axe, to the other girls having a mock swordfight, the soundtrack emphasises an uncanny sense of impending trouble - or, rather, canny, since we as viewers know that the girls are up for auction. The cross-cutting between characters, and the scene of a Slovakian town during carnival, are no more than apparent irrelevancies to point up a greater sense of menace: it is in the tradition of the horse racing in Hitchcock's Notorious, or the restaurant meal in the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. This is the 'exploitative' side of Hitchcock Roth picks up from - but without the complex sense of relations, guilt and formal innovation that makes Hitchcock such a key filmmaker.

This isn't especially to disparage Roth, and Hostel 2 is a finely made horror thriller; it is that there is nothing underpinning it, and the sociopolitical absence is felt especially in the scene with the young street kids. After they see leading character Beth running through the woods they give her a beating, only to be stopped by the wealthy businessman responsible for auctioning the girls off. This is his girl, and he can't afford to have the street urchins kill her or else he'll lose out on the tidy sum of money someone is paying for her death. As the kids line up waiting chastisement, the businessman walks along the row rubbing a gun up against each kid's face. Eventually, one of the boys is thrust forward by the other kids and the businessman shoots him. This has something of the poverty-stricken violence of City of God, but whatever the limitations of the Brazilian film it was ostensibly an exploration of favela kids. Here Roth uses the children for a moment of brutality that transcends the film. When some have attacked him for its presence, Roth doesn't seem to have seen that it isn't about brutality per se, but about the lack of perspective on this moment of violence. It is a powerful scene, certainly, but surely so very different from the scene shortly before it where one of the other girls is murdered in a homage to the legend of Bathory, with a woman bathing in virgin blood.

There is in a number of these backpacking films what we'll call a tonal error: a sudden sense of genre giving way to realism, and the film stranded between the two modes, rather than adventurously moving beyond genre boundaries. Where films like Repulsion or Dead Ringers will work loosely with horror conventions, they constantly push them to explore an aspect of the human psyche that can't be contained by convention: the filmmakers get inside the minds of the protagonists and genre collapses and subjectivity takes hold. But in Hostel 2, the tonal error comes from a scene which doesn't so much deepen and go beyond genre, but catapults the film temporarily out of its safe, fixed genre limits for a dose of relative reality. The scene with the street urchins brings to mind Devin McKinney's differentiation between strong and weak violence in an essay in Screening Violence. Where strong violence suggests a strong after-effect and often a broader social context than the scene itself, in weak violence films "the violence of these pictures simply doesn't last; it gets left on the floor with the candy wrappers. It's too rationalized, too articulate..." The moment with the kids in Hostel 2 suggests an intense form of violence that seems to run absolutely contrary to the fantasy violence of Bathory, so it doesn't deepen the film's perspective on violence - it simply indicates a social perspective the film promptly ignores except for the purpose of a coda at the end where Beth and the kids kill the baddie auctioneer.

Paradise Lost and the Hostel films are undeniably generic works, but what about Brokedown Palace, The Beach and Wolf Creek? The first is closer to Traffic or Maria Full of Grace; it is a drug film that actually turns into a redemptive weepie as two childhood friends, Alice (Claire Danes) and Darlene (Kate Beckinsale), try to smuggle drugs out of Thailand after a charmer seduces them. How much they know about the drugs remains a moot point throughout and the film ends ambiguously. When the Thai king looks like he might offer them clemency, he ends up doing so only after Alice insists that Darlene is completely innocent and she is guilty, that she knowingly took the drugs through customs. We never find out for sure if she did so knowingly or not - earlier in the film director Jonathan Kaplan had cut away at a key moment when it looked like the charmer was moving in on Alice after having already slept with Darlene.

The film is obvious yet not generic, and this isn't so much to defend the clichd drama over the conventional genre film (obviously the latter is often much more interesting and narratively tighter), but to say that whatever Brokedown Palace's numerous limitations, the story isn't a pretext for the genre demands, no matter if it works with elements of the law film and the prison drama. It might present almost all Thai characters unsympathetically except for the American lawyer's Thai wife and momentarily the king, but a number of the American characters don't come out of it too well either - Darlene's father, for example, who blames Alice for the situation the girls are in with no evidence whatsoever. Brokedown Palace, then, is a clichd film but not a generic one. Its failure to examine the specifics of the culture it happens to be in is more a failure of directorial imagination, than the 'success' of generic expectation. Brokedown Palace could easily have been half an hour longer and given us far more on the girls getting comfortable in the culture before coming across the Aussie charmer who will ruin their lives. There is not the sort of generic demand that we feel in the Hostel films and in Paradise Lost to get on with it.

The local flavour Roth insists he wanted to offer in the second Hostel film nevertheless knows it has to earn its keep, so at various moments the local flavour has to give way to horror sound and fury. Hence in the early stages of the film our hero from the first outing gets initially to have a dream sequence where he's stabbed to death, and then after he awakens ends up decapitated. The sweaty dream sequence and the grisly early death are mainstays of horror, so Roth sets less the scene than the genre expectation. This can take care of the fury; but what about the sound - and the image? In a scene shortly after the decapitation we have a shot that starts on two dogs and then slowly tilts up to its owner while the music offers suspense. There is nothing the man is doing except drinking his coffee, but the sound and image make it clear that this is the villain of the piece. In the carnival sequence, the music moves between local flavour and potential menace as the gypsy fiddle accompanies Beth's search for her friend. Where before it served the dancing mood, now it serves Beth's anxiety as the camera is in constant motion and Roth offers numerous cuts to capture Beth fretfully looking for her buddy. What Roth generally does is utilise local sounds and local images to up the suspense. For example, in between the beheading and the shot of the baddie, Roth shows us the beautiful Slovakian town but in such a wide angle that it contains a menace by virtue of little more than the distortion in the shot.

What we are saying here is that Roth works some fresh locations into his genre pic, while Kaplan, with so much more potential freedom, offers us clichd images of Thailand. But if one is a genre film and the other a social drama, nevertheless they both converge on and conform to the point we made about how the films are about western complacency over foreign resentment. If we think of the degree to which Jean Renoir's famous statement in The Rules of the Game - that everyone has their reasons - has become a narrative trope in recent film, then we can understand the bias at work. Critics including David Bordwell in The Way Hollywood Tells It and Wendy Everett in an article in Studies in European Cinema called 'Fractal Film and the Architecture of Complexity", have used terms like network narratives, fractal filmmaking and hyperlink cinema to show how films of the last fifteen to twenty years have utilised multi-strand narratives: City of Hope, Short Cuts, Magnolia, Code Unknown, Beautiful People, and Wonderland are just a handful of films that cut between various characters' perspectives. There is no reason why a film like Brokedown Palace couldn't have opened up its point of view much more to suggest that everybody has their reasons. Instead, it crosscuts between the girls' predicament and the lawyer's as he tries to get them off. It is taken as a given that Thailand is a corrupt country, just as it is taken as given that Slovakia is a country where life is cheap: both want the specifics of locale without the specificity of perspective. In Hostel 2 this makes generic sense - we don't want too much motivation from the baddies, we want the film, as we've noted, to get on with it. But as we've also suggested, in Kaplan's film it seems a failure of imagination: as if he was happy to utilise all the cliches of the unknown Orient by assuming that whatever the reasons they are unknown to the westerner. Bill Pullman's American lawyer in Bangkok may potentially be a character for whom Thailand is known - he's married to a Thai woman and speaks Thai - but he's less the character who allows the girls to comprehend a foreign culture; more the crusading lawyer who wants to get them out of jail. Brokedown Palace may be a better, more nuanced work than the Hostel films and Paradise Lost, but it might be all the more disappointing: it doesn't take advantage of its social drama freedom - despite the relatively ambiguous ending, where we still don't exactly know how involved Alice happened to be in the drug deal.

But what are we asking for here: what sort of backpack filmmaking might we expect? Perhaps what is required is a combination of the late sixties/early seventies logistical cinema of Battle of Algiers, Z, State of Siege and The Mattei Affair, with the network narrative films of above. This would be a cinema that makes clear what is at stake in a country where everything appears cheap, and where everybody might have their reasons, but some of those reasons would be basic survival. Though maybe that would be too much to ask; so what about a decidedly singular perspective? That is, a point of view that captures the vulnerability of cultural alienation without giving the impression of context (like Hostel 2, Paradise Lost and Brokedown Palace appear to offer us).

Of all the films mentioned maybe the most successful in this regard happens to be WolfCreek. A low-budget example of ordeal cinema that owes something to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wolf Creek stays close to the atmosphere of the foreign, no matter if one of the characters tortured is Australian and the other two British. What it does well is suggest the nightmare of inexplicability as the camera chooses not the cross-cutting clarity of Hostel 2, Paradise Lost and even Brokedown Palace, but the terror of the solitary perspective. As the three characters find themselves drugged after being helped by the apparently good Samaritan redneck who fixes their car so they are then each separated for individual torture. Liz wakes up having no idea where she is, and steadily manages to release herself from bondage, only to venture to the nearby garage where she sees Kristy being tortured by the no longer-so-good Samaritan. What the film is great on is the partiality of point of view. So for example rather than cross-cutting to show the redneck as a threat earlier in the film, we find out that he's been trailing them only later: when Liz watches some video footage that shows the redneck was in the town that they visited shortly before going to Wolf Creek. We work out that he obviously followed them, tinkered with their car so it wouldn't start, and later came to appear like he was saving the day.

This is less cinematic cognition, if you like, than personal realization. It is less the film cross-cutting and offering the audience a privileged position, than a partial perspective that Liz works with. By denying itself the broader perspective it alleviates the problem of context. Sure we might still find the villain too broad and too clichd, but otherwise the film offers a decent attempt at the immediacy of fear over the abstraction of sadism. One of the 'problems' of the cross-cutting in Hostel 2 is the way it feeds into sadism - sadism as a state of privilege so that we know what will soon take place, and knowingly enjoy the process of awaiting the torture and the killings. A film like Wolf Creek is undeniably an exploitation film (no matter if it is based on a true story), but it is exploitation as immediate terror rather than exploitation as abstract glee. What Wolf Creek is good on is the feeling that something is about to happen, but what that something might be is the unknown as opposed to the knowing. Where Hostel 2 fits with the comedy horror of Scream, the later Nightmare on Elm Street films and I Know What You Did Last Summer, Wolf Creek is closer to the unremitting, unknowing horror of Open Water and Gerry, to films that may even (as in Gerry's case) leave the genre altogether and become a meditation on nature's deadly indifference to man.

Thus we've differentiated here from the knowing and the unknown, and throughout the article tried to articulate the difference between the clichd and the genre convention. Wolf Creek seems to be the most successful of all the backpacker films mentioned at working from the unknown and minimising the conventional and the clich-ridden. However the film that in theory should have most successfully trodden this line is Danny Boyle's The Beach, and perhaps with a different actor in the lead role might have done so. Here Boyle's film predicates itself on the unknown - on a positive mystery - an idyllic beach that the characters hear of and then search out. The film could have been about a first principle in backpacking, and what separates the tourist from the traveller. Where the tourist knows exactly what they want before they get it, the traveller (in theory at least) wants what cannot be named, what cannot be photographed, what cannot be put in a brochure. Of course, the backpacker is usually less the solitary traveller venturing into the unknown than the Lonely Planet, Rough Guider who's looking for things on the cheap. It is more that the cost of living is inexpensive than life is mysterious that the films play on, and this is partly why they offer themselves up as learning curves for the characters. In The Beach, the characters eventually find the location of their dreams but of course it quickly turns into their worst nightmare, as the beach the community's leading character Richard (Leonardo Di Caprio) and his friends come across isn't quite as idyllic as they hoped, as Richard starts to lose the plot, retreating into his own mind, and as local drug dealers are unhappy with their presence. Once again we are in the realm of plot, stuck in the middle of narrative machinations that defy the very purpose of the mission in the first place.

Like other Boyle films including Sunshine and 28 Days Later, Boyle sets up a world that he then closes down conventionally. He brings in the gun-toting baddies and allows the film to be about characters versus other characters, rather than man against the environment. When one suggests The Beach ostensibly could have walked the line between genre convention and clich it resides in its non-generic origins, and its predication on the mysterious and beautiful beach. The viewer doesn't go in with the genre conventions the way they do in a horror thriller like the Hostel films, so its failure to explore the intricacies of the mystery gives us a strong sense of lost opportunities. The film at one stage goes out of its way to differentiate the exclusivity of the exclusive beach over the general beach culture when lead characters Richard and Sal (Tilda Swinton) leave the island retreat and go into town. Richard says this is the very thing that they want to avoid: the mass tourism experience with its throbbing music, drunken and drugged-up teenagers, and its roar of traffic. But the film itself plays closer to the latter than the former: it has all the predictability of a consumer culture product as it offers guns, drugs and pulsating music of its own.

To conclude, what we've looked at is half a dozen films that predicate themselves on the backpacking experience but offer us little that is off the beaten track. Some of the films conform to the conventions; others fall into the clichs. If we finally believe Wolf Creek the most competent it resides at least partly in its lack of ambition. By holding to its leading characters, by giving us no broader perspective, it occasionally gives us the sense of feeling lost, isolated and without a hope in the world. This might not be what any backpacker expects when they go out into the wild blue yonder. But it is surely the possibility that is at the core of the travel experience as defined by those who found the heart of Africa, discovered the poles and climbed Everest. Generally, the films here lack the very element that backpacking culture should at least attempt to offer: a sense of discovery. In the essay collection What Am I Doing Here, that great traveller Bruce Chatwin says that he and Werner Herzog "share a belief that walking is not simply therapeutic for oneself, but a poetic activity that can cure the world of its ills." One wonders what exactly a backpacking cinema might look like if it shared with Herzog and Chatwin a similar poetic ambition, rather than a generic predictability that removes the poetry and exacerbates those very ills as it so often shrinks our perspective on the world rather than expanding it.

Tony McKibbin


© Tony McKibbin