Snuff takes a holiday

Earth-shattering events often occur without anyone noticing their significance at the time. Few realized when the Spanish armada was lost at sea that Spain was on its way out as a world power. “Citizen Kane,” which revolutionized motion pictures, was a flop on release. No one could have predicted that the slithering vamp who recorded “Like a Virgin” in 1984 would become the top-grossing female singer in history. And few realized that Johann Sebastian Bach was the greatest living composer while he was in fact the greatest living composer. Not even Bach realized it. He thought it was Dieterich Buxtehude.

This hiding-in-plain-sight phenomenon finds a potent expression in this summer’s movie releases. While critics have lambasted Hollywood for its lazy recycling of old material -- as embodied in the latest installments of the “Shrek,” “Spider-Man,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Rush Hour,” “Die Hard” and “Bourne” franchises -- they have missed the larger point.

Summer 2007 has been a moral turning point for the country, a period when inspiring, uplifting -- though not especially great third-in-a-series -- movies triumphed over revolting, depressing first- or second-in-a-series movies. What’s more, the Part IIIs that prospered all come down solidly on the side of virtue, while the slasher flicks that went straight into the tank -- “Hostel: Part II,” “Captivity” -- are animated by a creepy directorial vision in which evil is made to seem attractive or at the very least -- by virtue of its ingenuity, persistence and panache -- kewl.

The laughable box-office performances of “Captivity” (less than $7 million worldwide) and “Hostel: Part II” (at about $33 million worldwide, nearly $50 million less than “Hostel”) nurtures a slender hope that mutilation (and its kid sister, self-mutilation), blinding, unauthorized coed kidney excision, immolation and general depravity may be going out of fashion. The failure of the ferociously hyped slice-and-dice flick “Captivity,” which deals with an abducted starlet forced to watch videotapes of previous captives being tortured, is particular cause for elation. Because it raises the possibility that there may never be a “Captivity II,” a “Captivity III” or a “Captivity LXVII: Leatherface, Michael, Jason and Freddie Versus Jamie Lee Curtis and the Survivors of Turistas II.”

No one is suggesting that “Shrek the Third,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” “Spider-Man 3,” “Rush Hour 3" or “The Bourne Ultimatum” (Bourne III) are immortal motion pictures. Though the third “Pirates” is better than its predecessor, it is too complicated and far too dependent on special effects to be considered truly memorable. Narratively speaking, the latest “Spider-Man” is a mess, “Rush Hour 3" is an inert retread of its antecedents, and “Bourne” merely races from one thrilling action sequence to the next without pausing for much in the way of a story. Only “Shrek the Third” stands out in any way.

But in all these films, the forces of evil get exactly what’s coming to them. Vicious pirates are punished. Wicked super-villains are chastised. The despotic ambitions of over-weaning princes are undone. And unprincipled CIA bigwigs are hauled before outraged congressional committees to receive their just deserts.

Contrast this with “Hostel II,” a snuff film in everything but the actual snuffing. Reveling in the amusement value of human suffering, this smorgasbord of barbarity runs the gamut from castration to scalping to serial decapitation to the crowning touch: a pickup soccer game played with a freshly severed human head. And the evildoers get away with it.

A year ago, when the film industry seemed to be plunging into the moral void, such pornographic endeavors as “Saw III” ($164 million worldwide) and “Hostel” ($80 million worldwide) were all the rage. But something has happened since then. Whether because of the Virginia Tech slayings, or public hue and cry about small children being exposed to the vile advertising for “Captivity” -- images of a tortured woman were turning up on bus stop billboards -- and other films of its ilk,or simply the fact that the directors of these cynical slime-fests went back to the well one too many times, these films have been resounding box-office disasters.

Though hardly classics, “Shrek the Third,” the third “Pirates,” “Spider-Man 3,” “Rush Hour 3" and even “The Bourne Ultimatum” will collectively rake in several billion dollars. By contrast, “Captivity” and “Hostel: Part II” went almost directly to video. Here’s hoping that “Saw IV” has a similarly dismal showing at the box office when released later this year. It’s time the people who make these appalling motion pictures got put out of their misery.