Eli Roth is a name that excites me. After watching his 2003 debut Cabin Fever, it was love at first sight. My friends were skeptical but one by one I convinced them that Cabin Fever was a campy, jaunty, unapologetically hilarious good time. I’ve made Roth disciples out of my fellow human beings. Naturally, I was looking forward to Roth’s follow-up, Hostel. I had heard the rumors that the flick was based on a true story of a South East Asian website, though said site can no longer be confirmed. Whatever the muse may have been, Hostel‘s got the added cache of Quentin Tarantino’s name slapped aboard as a “presenter” thus ensuring to the young male demographic that Hostel should be, “frickin’ sweet.” While not reaching the rapturous entertainment heights of his debut, with the grisly Hostel, Roth proves that he’s no flash in the pan.
Over in Amsterdam, Paxton (Jay Hernandez, Friday Night Lights) and his best friend Josh (Derek Richardson, Dumb and Dumberer) are living it up. They’re on the hunt for pot, poontang, and an endless array of good times and cheap thrills. They’ve got big wallets and big appetites. They’ve befriended Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), an Icelandic horn dog willing to be their guide throughout their most excellent European adventure. While locked outside their stay, the trio learns of a mythical youth hostel all the way in Slovakia. The girls are buxom, beautiful, and go absolutely wild for boys with foreign accents, particularly Americans. This is an opportunity worth salivating over for our trio. They book a train for Slovakia and it looks like this hostel could be the Playboy Mansion of the former Soviet bloc. The women are frequently naked, open to most any suggestion, and eager to please the American visitors.
Ah, but things are not what they seem. The young Americans check in but they don’t check out, at least in one cohesive piece. Our Slovakian sirens are leading their horny backpackers to their doom. Tied with the hostel is a large, empty warehouse that a lot of high-pitched, ear-splitting screams seem to waft out of. Inside is a dungeon where those willing to pay the right price can torture, mutilate, eviscerate, and kill a person. Can Paxton, Josh, and Oli even hope of surviving such a place?
Even for a horror movie, Hostel has a lot of nudity. Normally this wouldn’t bother me but the film does seem to be topped with an incredible amount of sex scenes and nudity during its sloshy build-up to the horrors that await. Many will cry “exploitation!” or “gratuitous!” and, though I’d agree with both, I must remind all fans of the genre that the bedrocks of horror are exploitation and voyeurism. Let me theorize why Hostel‘s first half is as it is. Sex and violence in horror movies are always linked, particularly the violence as retribution for wayward sexual indulgences. So then, if the second half of Hostel is a sickeningly display of cruelty, torture, and mankind at its most heartlessly gruesome, wouldn’t it make sense, in retrospect, to up the ante on the debauchery in the first half to even out the tone?
One of the most interesting elements of Hostel is how it makes you root for the ugly Americans. The first half of the film shows Paxton, Oli, and to a far lesser degree Josh, as booze hound backpackers interested in tasting the wares, be it through illicit drugs or illicit encounters with the local ladies. They?re stomping through Europe in an arrogant, obnoxious, near-reprehensible fashion trying to score some cheap thrills. Eli Roth doesn’t intend for an audience to align themselves with these tail-chasing characters, except for the more sympathetic Josh. And then once the boys enter Slovakia and become the cheap thrills themselves, Hostel turns on the surprise factor. After profoundly disliking these misogynistic party animals, we root for them to survive. This goes against most modern horror, particularly slasher flicks, where the audience is rooting for the grisly demise of its empty-headed horny teenage cast. The audience hungers for death and titillation. In Hostel, we’re presented with boorish backpackers and, despite everything prior, we really want them to succeed and get rescued from their dungeon of horrors. The last act only confirms this further. I don’t know about your theater, but mine was rollicking and roaring as they rooted for the home team to pull it out.
Truth be told, the set-up is a bit overly long, though nowhere near as boring and comatose as Wolf Creek (maybe Roth was smart to put in the nudity). In Wolf Creek, we watched a group of uninteresting “characters” drive around and get lost for a whole friggin’ hour. That movie went from boring to “oh, is something happening?” to over. At least Hostel had movement and relevance to its set-up, including characters and situations that will be repeated later. Some of it is a bit heavy-handed, especially with the sex/violence link and a blowtorch torturer repeating, “Get your own room,” but Hostel finishes with a grand flourish. Roth weaves back different storylines and characters in clever ways and serves the audience vengeance on a platter, and we just gobble it up. I was jumping in my seat, pumping my fist, and, forgive me, shouting at the screen during Hostel‘s final act. It’s somewhat paradoxical for me to be disgusted by violent retribution so recently with Spielberg’s Munich and then a week later to be relishing it. I credit the tones of the films. While Munich is contemplative and realistic, Roth’s Hostel is a squirmy, over-the-top, dark comedy with some moments of cringe-worthy horror. Hostel‘s fabulous finish may erase any lingering doubts you had over the very Euro Trip opening.
Roth has a great sense of visual flavor with his shot arrangements but he also knows when to draw upon our dread. Hostel is really more of a survivalist thriller than a horror movie. Sure, torture and gore is prevalent but a lot of the violence and gruesome makeup is unexpectedly played down in limited appearances. This isn’t the shocking sadistic movie that outcries have made it to be. Without a doubt, I think Eli Roth is the most promising name in horror. Cabin Fever is one of my all-time favorite good-time flicks, and now with Hostel, Roth has proven that he can work miracles with a small budget and a giant, depraved imagination. Hostel is more disturbing than horrific but Roth knows exactly what chord to strike, what scenes to hit, and what sounds to echo to make you want to cover your eyes.
Roth’s best attribute, besides a pleasing visual sensibility, is his twisted sense of humor. Cabin Fever was more humor than horror, and also took an extended set-up before the gore was unleashed, but Hostel makes the flip and is more horror than humor. That’s not to say Hostel is without its dark, jovial jollies. Roth seems to approach his gore, outside of the torture sequences, with a macabre absurdity, like a character slipping on dismembered fingers only to chainsaw their leg off, or a character pretending to be dead and gets a severed hand placed on his face. Somewhere, Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi are nodding their heads in approval. Surely Tarantino is amused. Granted, Cabin Fever was more of a tongue-in-cheek fever dream homage to 70s horror, but Hostel has its share of twisted humor which elevates it far above most recent horror, either the boring and meandering (see: Wolf Creek) or the single-mindedly shocking (see: High Tension). This is what excites me about an Eli Roth horror movie: his lively, warped, depraved sense of humor. If people claim that Roth is one sick bastard, then I must also be one sick bastard for finding his movie funny and highly amusing in spurts.
There are so many moments that I loved, from the opening cleaning-up, to seeing the Slovakian sirens on their day off sans make-up and totally trashed, to the Bubblegum kid gang, to the Takashi Miike (Audition) cameo, to knowing that killing an American is the most expensive option, to seeing the ins and outs of a facility dealing in murder for money, to seeing the equivalent of the Dunkin’ Donuts guy (“Time to chop up the bodies…”), to the madcap, fist-pumping race to the finish. There?s so much Hostel does right, not just as a horror movie but simply as a movie itself. I wouldn’t mind taking another trip to Hostel with a big group of my less-than-squeamish friends. Oh who am I kidding, horror movies are more fun when you see them with the squeamish.
Eli Roth has crafted a dirty, depraved, but highly amusing horror film. Hostel is full of surprises, from an overly long set-up that couldn’t have more female nudity if it tried, and actually making an audience root for the survival of the ugly Americans when things get dicey. The premise may be sickeningly realistic but the rest of the movie is on an overdrive of macabre fun. Roth’s twisted yet gleeful sense of humor is what makes him unique, and his attention to atmosphere and compounding dread is what will make him successful. There’s no faster rising horror name, in my mind, than Eli Roth. Hostel may not fully be the down-and-dirty horror film its ads have made it out to be; it’s certainly more of a thriller with a heaping helping of gore. This is one experience well-worth booking, especially if you have a strong stomach and a dark sense of humor. I can only imagine that the tourism industry for Slovakia is about to drop precipitously.
Nate’s Grade: B