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Those ‘Hostel’ ads test the squirm factor

WHAT does it take to shock us these days?

The question came to mind as I watched “Hostel: Part II,” the sequel to Eli Roth’s horror film. The original was such a big hit last year that its distributor, Lionsgate, is putting out the new thriller Friday in the midst of a crush of summer behemoths. Whereas the previous installment featured college boys being butchered by lowlifes who pay top dollar to kill a human being, “Hostel 2" spices up the formula with a trio of comely coeds who are lured to a Slovakian hostel, where a pair of American businessmen are preparing to torture and murder them.

Though that description may make the film sound like a grade-Z splatter picture, “Hostel: Part II” comes armed with a fancier pedigree, thanks to Roth’s cult reputation among Comic-Con fan boys who view him as a cross between Quentin Tarantino (who has a “presented by” credit on the film) and George Romero. The critics will have their say on the gory R-rated film’s merits. What fascinates me about the film is its marketing campaign, which brazenly uses disturbing images of torture, nudity and depravity to attract attention for the film.

The campaign is the brainchild of Tim Palen, Lionsgate’s co-president of marketing, who has become a master of guerrilla marketing for the studio’s popular horror films. The studio’s “Saw” series, for example, was promoted with billboards featuring two severed fingers with the tagline: “Oh yes, there will be blood.” Some of Palen’s most arresting material is seen only at Comic-Con conventions and youth-oriented Internet sites, allowing it to pass under the radar of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, which governs studio marketing material in the U.S.

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In an era when most movie marketing material is dreary and unimaginative, Palen has quietly built a reputation as Hollywood’s most daring impresario. Filmmakers rave about his work, which he often photographs himself. When the Hollywood Reporter announced nominees for its 36th annual Key Art Awards, Lionsgate, for the second consecutive year, earned the most nominations of any studio. Rival studios have paid Palen the ultimate compliment, either by trying to hire him away or doing knockoffs of his material.

But after seeing the images Palen has created for “Hostel: Part II,” you have to wonder -- is it art or is it exploitation? Or some unsettling combination of the two?

“Advertising by definition is exploitation,” Palen said the other day. “It’s easy to shock people. But you have to know when you’re crossing the line. It’s all about appropriateness. As a marketer, you have to have an appropriateness meter or you run the risk of people laughing at you or shunning you.”

The problem is that we all have different standards for what’s appropriate. Many of the same people who are outraged by violent lyrics in rap music had no problem with Johnny Cash singing, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” On the other hand, hip-hop artists get a pass when they insult black women in the most vulgar, demeaning way imaginable, but when Don Imus called the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy headed hos,” he quickly got the old heave-ho.

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Palen’s “Hostel: Part II” images are especially provocative because they can’t easily be dismissed as trash. They are disturbing because they get under our skin, being almost in equal measures volatile, vulgar and inspired. Palen wanted to start the campaign with an image that would stand out amid the clutter of endless movie posters. So he went to a butcher’s shop, bought five different cuts of meat and photographed them in his kitchen.

The winner was a cut of boar meat: “We had to prove to the MPAA that it wasn’t human, so I sent them the receipt from the butcher shop,” he recalls. Shown in an extreme close-up that gives the veins of fat in the meat the look of someone’s intestines, the poster instantly established the film’s bona fides to horror fans.

The next image in the campaign was from a photo session Palen did with film costar Bijou Phillips. It shows Phillips nude, holding her own severed head in her hand. Knowing the image was too graphic to ever be shown in a theater or in a newspaper ad, Palen gave the poster to international Internet sites, which are not subject to MPAA guidelines, and Comic-Con festivals.

His next image was a mash-up of the previous two, with Phillips’ severed head embedded in the rivulets of close-up boar fat. This poster was displayed in theaters, though only in multiplexes that weren’t playing G or PG movies. Palen followed this up with another poster, this one with Heather Matarazzo, who plays one of the women tortured in the film. He photographer her hanging upside down, her face contorted, the veins in her neck bulging, a tiny rivulet of snot dripping from her nose.

The photo, which appeared in an ad in our paper on Sunday, stops you in your tracks, which, of course, is what great advertising is meant to do. If you want truth in advertising, this is it -- you couldn’t possibly walk in to see “Hostel: Part II” thinking it is a harmless teen comedy. But while I admire the art of these posters, there’s a fine line between an image that deftly captures the spirit of a gory film and an image that glamorizes the degradation of women.

Palen defends his work in two ways: in terms of context and execution. The poster of a naked Phillips holding her severed head in her hands, he says, “is completely inappropriate to be on a billboard on the street or even in the lobby of our offices.” But he says it is suitable for theaters in foreign markets -- where people are far less concerned about sexual images -- and for hard-core horror fans.

“It’s for the boys in the backpacks at these comic conventions, waiting in line for hours to get the posters signed,” says Palen.

Palen insists his images are considerably different from the ones that appeared on billboards for “Captivity,” whose graphic portrayal of the kidnapping and torture of a woman caused such a furor that they were quickly taken down earlier this year. (The movie, made by After Dark Films, is distributed by Lionsgate, but the company claims it never saw or approved the advertising materials.) Palen says those images were “vulgar” because of the way they were designed and photographed.

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But what about his severed-head poster? Why isn’t it vulgar too? “There’s a way for Bijou to hold her head in her hand and do it elegantly instead of gratuitously,” he says. “It’s the flourish and technique brought to it that makes all the difference.”

I’m guessing that many people have trouble buying that logic, even though I’d be the first to argue that a photo of sexy teens by Larry Clark has a very different aesthetic than one by, say, Bruce Weber.

One vocal critic is “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon, who recently posted an impassioned essay about how women are treated in pop culture, comparing the trailer for “Captivity” to a gruesome CNN story on a young Iraqi woman who was stoned to death by a group of men who took time to film the killing (Read his take at whedonesque.com).

I don’t blame Palen for doing his job. He’s not making these movies, just promoting them. Art can often make us squeamish, whether it’s high-minded social commentary or squishy horror porn.

What I find depressing is that while “Hostel: Part II” will play at multiplexes everywhere, the disturbing images of carnage in Iraq are largely hidden away from view, in part because the Defense Department refuses to allow them to be shown, in part because the public acts outraged whenever the media put them on display.

It’s hard to imagine anything more moving than “The Sacrifice,” a series of war photos by James Nachtwey in December’s National Geographic that captured in unflinching detail the price our soldiers in Iraq have paid on the battlefield and on the home front. But this is a reality no one wants to see. Imagine the uproar if these photos -- simple evidence of the price of war -- were on billboards across America, depicting our own horror movie sprung to life.

The next time you see a “Hostel: Part II” poster, perhaps you’ll ponder for a moment why so many of us get a kick out of movies in which kids are gruesomely hacked to death yet so few of us will bother to look at the carnage when it’s real kids in a real war. It must be why they call the movies escapist art. When it comes to real gore, we like to turn away.

“The Big Picture” runs each Tuesday in Calendar. Questions or criticism can be e-mailed to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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