I didn’t buy the guff about Eli Roth being the “savior of horror” when Cabin Fever came out and I’m not buying it now, though Hostel is a much more accomplished piece of work than his debut offering. That said, I’m cognizant of the fact that 2005 was one of the worst years in the history of the horror genre in some time.
The first few years of the new century gave us such things as the Hughes brothers’ From Hell, Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others and Gore Verbinski’s The Ring — not to mention Victor Salva’s Jeepers Creepers films and Don Mancini’s Seed of Chucky. The best 2005 could offer was Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects and Francis Lawrence’s Keanustantine … er Constantine, so it would be an easy thing to overrate anything that even flirted with mere adequacy.
Hostel is more than adequate as a horror picture in the ultra-sadistic mode, but not a lot more. Setting aside — for the moment — the sociological question of the intrinsic value of horror where the entire raison d’etre of the film lies in showing people being tortured and murdered, the very format is limited.
Here we’re given two American backpacking tourists and their goofy Icelandic sidekick, who are lured from the hedonistic pleasures of Amsterdam to the promise of more hardcore delights at a hostel in Slovakia. At first this hostel turns out to be everything they’ve been told, but, naturally, all is not right and they find themselves at the mercy of jaded rich folks who are allowed to engage in torture and murder for a hefty fee — things the Slovakian Tourism Board would now probably love to do to Roth.
In essence, this is nothing more than the umpteenth variation on an all-too-trite-and-true formula where travelers find themselves at the mercy of a madman or a group of madmen. Strip away the overt gore (not all that gory, really) and sadism (pretty extreme), and you can take the setup at least back to 1925 and Roland West’s Lon Chaney film, The Monster. Quentin Tarantino (who served as one of the film’s executive producers) once indicated that Roth is “the future of horror” — in which case, the future of horror appears to lie in the recycling business.
Roth has gone on at some length about the film’s deeper implications. Who’s kidding whom? The film is mostly about topless babes and seeing people dismembered and disemboweled — with the unusual (but not unique) addition of payback time. This last bit gives the movie a degree of moral ambiguity, since it appeals to our baser nature, but the same can be said of virtually any revenge or vigilante flick ever made. If you’re looking for the type of depth found in something like Cronenberg’s A History of Violence on this topic, look elsewhere.
While I’ll admit that there are hints that Roth has something on his mind, his film never really seems to be sure what that something might be. Hostel starts out like a twisted rethinking of Eurotrip (I’d have paid good money to see Joanna Lumley pop up as the proprietor of the hostel), but with the characters in unlikable mode (a Roth trademark if we judge by this and Cabin Fever). Paxton (Jay Hernandez, Ladder 49) and Josh (Derek Richardson, Dumb and Dumberer) are the poster children for why Europeans hate American tourists. There’s some attempt at making the more sensitive Josh into a likable character — including the implication that he’s gay and in denial — but this gets so mixed up along the way that it never amounts to much.
And if it does amount to anything, I have questions about the message it’s sending, since Josh is linked to a sadistic murderer who comes onto him (kind of like the “creepy guy” on the train in Eurotrip minus the humor), later befriends and advises him (“For me, marriage was the right choice”), and then … well, that would be telling. Other possible readings are no less unsettling, since they could include raging xenophobia and cautionary tales that this is what happens to bad little horny boys (and girls, as it turns out). Neither would surprise me given the overall tone of Roth’s work to date. Anyone as humorless as he appears to be could very possibly be a closet puritan. This, after all, is a guy who doesn’t seem to see the absurdities inherent in a gang of 10-year-old thugs or someone slipping in blood and inadvertently chain-sawing his own leg in two.
But really, the film’s all about hot, naked girls and torture (that the two should be linked is another matter) and is fairly effective and well-crafted on a wholly visceral level, even if it cheats to get there. After all, there’s no earthly reason why the Slovakian temptresses actually have to bed their victims, except that not doing so would cut down on the T&A, and there’s no discernible point in having the bodies chopped up before incinerating them, except that doing so gooses the gross-out factor. The suspense is still fairly suspenseful and the payback scenes are disturbingly satisfying, but at bottom Hostel is just another excessive shocker. Rated R for brutal scenes of torture and violence, strong sexual content, language and drug use.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke