Monday, September 19, 2005


Hostel is Eli Roth’s follow up film to his wildly successful (but polarizing) disease ‘stalker’ film Cabin Fever. It is not hard to see that Roth is a horror film Uber-geek who is living his dream to be able to add to the genre he loves so much. It gives him a certain smarts with the genre, but runs also into the danger of letting the homage to his favorite films/directors overshadow the content of his own film. (Again this is a common complaint with regards to Cabin Fever, however I thought the rough around-the-edges feel that film a certain charm). Roth has grown tremendously as a genre filmmaker and his loves are integrated in a much more satisfying way in Hostel. With Hostel, he is firing on all cylinders: Great tension building, maximum performances from his actors and a solid, satisfyingly sick, idea to wrap a film around.

The first half of the film plays like a straight up teen stranded-road-trip film, not uncommon to either American Werewolf in London or Evil Dead. Two American friends are backpacking across Europe, more to meet women and get a little European sex than say, look at the architecture or visit the museums (it is amusingly ironic that the only museum they step foot in is more of a side-show funhouse of medieval torture). Paxton is the Stiffler-esque party guy who wants action, and wants his friend to loosen up as well, this is their last great 'experience' before joining the mundane world of finding a career and moving on with life. Somewhere along the line, they’ve picked up the wildly enthusiastic Icelander Oli. Calling himself the Sultan of Swing, Oli is constantly chipper and constantly successful at getting women. Josh is the shy fanny-pack wearing responsible one who is a bit of a spoil-sport, and doesn’t want to have sex with hookers if the fail to pick up. Oli and Paxton have no issues here, sometimes they even share.

When Josh, Paxton and Oli cruise the Amsterdam streets looking for red-light district sex, they salivate over the live flesh on display in the windows and party it up with hookers. After being locked out of their hostel after staying out to late, they drift around town and meet a young kid who tells them about a hostel in Slovakia which, like an urban legend, has the best looking women who are always willing to please. They hop aboard the next train for Slovakia and have a stock horror-film encounter with an eccentric 50-ish European man who likes to eat garden salad with his hands instead of a fork, and makes a casual sexual pass at Josh who reacts as the typical young American homophobe. When they arrive in the small picturesque town and check in at the Hostel it is way too good to be true.: All opulent and expensive looking, with detailed frescoes on the wall and large stately rooms. They boys are told they will have to share a room with two others. This initially bums them out until they discover that the other two are busty and attractive Slovakians, Natalya and Svetlana. They are on thier way to the Hostel's Spa (!) and are willing to party with them at the disco and in the bed. Oli goes missing with out a trace, making Josh uneasy, but Paxton writes it off. This sort of thing happens when you are travelling around Europe; you travel with people for a bit, then they move on. But, when Josh goes missing the next morning, Paxton looses his confident asshole persona and becomes worried, lost and confused. The film follows his descent into a private and European torture experience.

When Hostel begins, it gets mean and intense very quickly. The first half of the film is justified, because it makes the second half of the film that much more intense. Roth has now established realistic enough characters to let the horrors have maximum impact.

There are really smart touches to the film, not the least of which is having the film follow the asshole character over the ‘nice’ character. While he plays Paxton and Josh as typically ignorant and boorish Americans initially, he breaks down some stereotypes by having Paxton speak German and Josh being a fair more sensitive than the average Jet-setting American Jock. It is perfect that iconic cult director Takashi Miike acts as the gate-keeper to hell in the film, as Hostel does liberally reference Miike’s films. He also borrows a few things from Anthony Shaffer’s The Wickerman, and subverts them as well. Take for example the way he uses Britt Ekland’s temptation song from that film (actually, he is using a Sneaker Pimps version of the song called “How Do”). He also takes some of the concept from Marc Evan’s dreadfully unsucessfuly My Little Eye and does the whole thing right.

There is enough substance here to make the journey not just to a masturbatory or titillating genre romp. Although Hostel does want to have its cake and eat it too, and Roth wisely integrates the initially gratuitous elements of the first half into visceral and pounding second half. The gore and blood and guts are there, but like Miike’s Audition, it things are not shown as graphic as the effect they generate. By pacing and teasing the scenes appropriately, you get the overall effect maximized without showing too much visually. Rest assured though, this is one of the most explicit horror films to come out of the United States in a while, and for the effect fans of the genre want, Hostel is top shelf. Roth could still improve in his visual set-ups, as some of the establishing shots looked a little flat in contrast to when the movie really gets going, but this is a minor complaint, and I was after all, viewing a rough cut of the film, sound and music effects may fix this.

While the movie doesn’t spend too much time on subtext in favour of being quick moving thriller, there is nevertheless social commentary buried into the story. What is entertainment for some people? Where is the line drawn between consenting adults and exploitation in terms of prostitution. And when hookers and drugs get boring, where do extreme experience seekers turn? The guys are stalked for a different form of entertainment, but one that is grounded in the same need that their journey started out: An experience divorced from their real world lives, which will soon be beginning a career after University (or for in the case of Oli, just a break from the daily routine). A large abandoned factory with one large smoke stack jutting like a giant phallus into the sky is a prominet image, and there is every imaginable act of penetration in the film. For that matter, freshly opened sliced flesh could fall into vaginal metaphors if you wanted to go (probably a bit too deepy) there. If the film was carried all the way to its original conclusion (expect that 'alternate ending' to appear on the obligatory 'unrated' DVD), Hostel may have been even more interesting in it commentary on the dark corners of human experience.

In the end, Hostel is best of breed in American horror film. It pushes the genre away from the typical dreck for PG-13 horror being foisted on the multiplexes just because it makes money to an undiscriminating audience. Hostel is smart enough to mock the past two decades of American Horror cinema without descending into post-modern parody. It plays the situation straight and means business. Roth proves adept at integrating the some elements of 1970s American horror, as well liberal dashes of European and Japanese flavour, while making still making it feel like his own and also quite accessible.


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