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Is 'Hostel' poster high art or 'torture porn'?

Take your kids to the theater to see the barnyard fable "Charlotte's Web" and you might find yourself confronted in the lobby by a jolting new poster that is pure slaughterhouse -- and the latest example of pop culture looking more and more like an autopsy photo.

The posters arriving in theaters nationwide are advertisements for "Hostel II," a horror movie due in the summer from Lionsgate Entertainment. The film's director, gore merchant Eli Roth, conceded that he was "pleasantly surprised" that the extreme image was approved by the Motion Picture Association of America; every inch of the poster is packed with splayed organs and moist tissue.

"My jaw was on the ground when I first saw the poster," Roth said. "It's unbelievably beautiful. It's one of the most beautiful posters I've ever seen."

Beauty, clearly, is in the eye of the beholder on this one. On the Web site hubs of horror and genre fans, debate is under way about the poster and "Hostel II"; several postings on the Harry Knowles site Ain't It Cool News dismissed the movie as "torture porn" and railed against the poster as a sick display. Others wondered what exactly their peers were so upset about.

"You guys," one fan wrote, "must hate walking down the meat aisle in the grocery store."

And just what is that meat anyway? The photo used for the poster was taken by Tim Palen, co-president of theatrical marketing for Lionsgate. He said he was inspired by some "elegantly photographed" cuts of meat he saw in a magazine. With the help of a "great butcher in La Crescenta," Palen experimented with different slabs of animal flesh until he found the perfect look. "It's wild boar," he said proudly.

Roth also compared the image to something "you might see at a high-end market in the meat section." He contends that "if you saw it at Gelson's, it would make you want to buy a steak."

The image gave pause to the advertising reviewers at the MPAA, where the image was given "more consideration and review than most posters," Palen said. (MPAA spokeswoman Kori Bernards last week said she did not have any direct knowledge of the "Hostel II" images.) For what it's worth, Roth said he believes the photo is so close up (and bloodless) that the tissue image is abstract enough to stay within MPAA taste guidelines.

"That's the beauty of it," he said. "It tells you everything you need to know about this movie, but it doesn't give away anything about the story. When you add the words 'Hostel II' it becomes extremely disturbing. You know those poor girls are in for it."

The "poor girls" would be the onscreen victims in "Hostel II," which is now in postproduction in Los Angeles. The sequel carries on from the 2005 movie that presented an Eastern European hotspot for the bored rich who pay to torture and snuff tourists; both films are produced by Quentin Tarantino.

Palen said he has been anticipating squeamish reactions from exhibitors who might blanch at putting posters in their lobbies. "The reaction has been just the opposite, though," he said. "There's a buzz out there, and we got calls (from exhibitors) asking how soon they can get them."

Lionsgate has shown a flair for movie posters that elicit visceral reactions, which is a branding must for a horror film. The signature images for the "Saw" movies, for instance -- such as the two mangled fingers of a corpse for "Saw II" -- clearly spoke to hard-core fans while turning the stomachs of just about everybody else.

Then again, stomach turning is in right now. The autopsy had a banner year and, unlike the quaint days of "Quincy, M.E.," every twist and turn is now shown to the audience in high-definition. Television gore, especially, has increased by the gallon since "The X-Files" whipped out the rib separators in the 1990s.

On television, the "CSI" franchises continued to specialize in high-craft, slow-motion bodily harm. Their success in syndication means that viewers across America can watch detailed eviscerations and decapitations at dinnertime. Then there's "Dexter," the critically acclaimed Showtime series that showed its star sliding around in the blood of a serial killer's victims.

At theaters, Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" carved up characters with the sort of verve once reserved for fringe genre films. In video games -- easily the year's most dynamic entertainment market -- the gore is not only relentless, it's accepted as a core aesthetic.

Some observers say the cultural crackdown in recent years on sexual content (especially following Janet Jackson's breast flash during the Super Bowl) has pushed creators, especially on television, to use violence instead of sex to titillate -- more red and less blue.

Roth claims his meaty movie poster is a public service, in a way. "This makes it very clear what my movie is. ... Nobody is going to think they are walking into 'Happy Feet: Part II.' Not after they see that poster."

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