Director: Eli Roth
Horror movies are a wacky breed. How many other movie genres can offer a wide range of sub-genres? There's zombies, cannibal rednecks, masked serial murderers, and all forms of the supernatural. However, there has been a recent trend heading towards darker, more misanthropic horror stories. With flicks like Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects, Alexandre Aja's High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes, Greg McLean's Wolf Creek, and the Saw franchise, horror has slowly been returning to the mid-'70s style of visceral, violent, blood-and-guts terror. And one of the most evident of these films is Eli Roth's Hostel. A fan of notorious Japanese director Takashi Miike, Roth uses his sophomore project to craft a loving ode to Miike's style of filmmaking, an unrepentantly violent look into a world that I hope and pray does not truly exist. But is the movie actually worth seeking out?
Our story follows two Americans, Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson), as they backpack through Europe with their Icelandic friend Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson). After an evening of entertainment at various Amsterdam hotspots (e.g. a hash bar, a discotheque, a brothel), they return to their hostel to discover that it's past curfew and they've been locked out. They end up causing a commotion when they try to get back in, but before they can face the wrath of some hostile locals, another local calls them up to his apartment. They dash up the fire escape and into his window, where the local introduces himself as Alex (Lubomir Bukovy).
The trio strikes up a discussion with Alex about hooking up with as many women as possible while on their tour of Europe, and Alex tells them of a hostel outside of the Slovakian capital of Bratislava that is home to beautiful women that will have sex with any foreigner for little money. Alex looks more like a sewer rat than he does a man, but hey, he's offering nubile young women who are so uninterested in human interaction that the only thing they care about is having lots and lots of freaky, nasty, unbridled eastern European carnality. Why not listen to the guy?
Naturally, they catch the next train to Slovakia. Once they arrive, the three backpackers check into the hostel Alex spoke of, finding that their semi-private room is already populated by a pair of Russian beauties, Natalya (Barbara Nedeljáková) and Svetlana (Jana Kaderábková). The five roommates hit it off quickly, hitting the town that evening at the local nightclub. But as the three male travelers enjoy all the sex, drugs, and rock and roll that they can handle, it soon becomes apparent that foul things are afoot in Slovakia. One by one, they discover the horrifying truth: that their hostel is merely a front for a group that allows rich tourists to sadistically torture and murder kidnapped innocents for a fee. They have entered a veritable Hell on Earth, where they will be maimed, tortured, mutilated, and discover their worst nightmares come to life.
Hostel could have been really, really good. It has respectable direction, wonderful music, inoffensive performances from its cast, and blood by the gallons. Unfortunately, the movie is bogged down by its lackluster script. The movie was billed as "inspired by true events," but that may be a bit of a stretch. Writer/director Eli Roth says he got the idea for Hostel when he was shown a Thai website that advertised a "murder vacation," where interested parties could pay 10,000 dollars to torture and kill innocent victims. He admittedly didn't know if it was real or a joke, but he was intrigued enough to write the movie. It was written, produced, edited, and released in just short of a year, with the script apparently being finalized in right around a month (give or take a few weeks). I think that's really apparent, because it seems as if Roth didn't take his time when writing. It seems to me that he had so many ideas he wanted to include, that he forgot to give us anything meaningful. It's nothing that you couldn't see by renting either Faces of Death, Wolf Creek, one of the Saw movies, or something directed by Takashi Miike.
I think it's fitting that Takashi Miike has a cameo in Hostel, because Roth cites Miike's wonderful Audition as one of his major influences for the movie. While there is no middle-aged Japanese man looking for a new wife in Hostel, nor does it carry the same type of vibe as Audition, both movies involve characters falling deeper and deeper into a world they eventually regret ever getting involved with. (Though to that aspect, Hostel also bears a striking similarity to the far superior Wolf Creek.) Though while Audition gives the appearance of a romance movie in its early going, Hostel initially comes across as a badly written teen sex comedy, and its very hard to actually identify with any of the three leads. They only really exist to get high, drunk, and laid. I understand that sort of character is somewhat of a cliché nowadays, especially in an era of movies like American Pie and Van Wilder. But what made the characters from those movies so endearing is that the have their own personality, charm, and charisma. Though there is some attempt to give Hostel's characters some dimension, it ultimately falls flat.
Though to be fair, the script wouldn't have been all that bad if the few bizarre leaps in logic had been excised, and the entire first act of the movie hadn't been spent making the three leads look like stupid, stoned, sex-crazed losers. On second thought, perhaps the characters being so unlikable is Roth's intention. The three leads are self-serving, narcissistic frat boys that do not connect on any level with any of the women they hook up with; to them, the women are just stories, or life experiences. We don't have any reason to feel bad for them (or we might outright dislike them), so when they are finally maimed, tortured, and finally killed, we may be cheering for the brutality. And how awful are we, for cheering on the cruelty? Ultaviolent movies like this are confusing, because any sort of entertainment or enjoyment derived from them could paint the viewer as being nearly as depraved as the movie's villains. That's something to think about.
As with Cabin Fever, Roth shows a lot of promise as a director, and I think that he could in time become a prime time player within the horror genre. The movie has quite a few brilliant pieces of filmmaking, believe it or not. There are gorgeous camera movements (thanks to cinematographer Milan Chadima), and the subtle changes in lighting and atmosphere before arriving in the torture chamber are excellent. When we first arrive, the hostel and its surrounding area are bright, cheery, and comfortable. But as we move along and the torture chamber begins to claim its victims, the hostel becomes drab and dreary, and the chirping birds outside are replaced by crows. There is also some wonderful editing in the movie too. For example, there is a scene in which one character hides in what has been termed "the butcher shop." The butcher (played by Josef Bradna) is hacking up body parts to better dispose of them, and with every slow, agonizing chop of his meat cleaver, we cut to a stack of disembodied limbs, to the looking for an escape, to the lifeless face of one of the survivor's deceased compatriots. It was a very good choice in editing, as it makes the scene a very harrowing one. But thanks to Hostel, I think I've started to grow numb to nudity in films. The first half of the movie has so much nudity that I could have sworn it was a porno film. After a while, I just wanted to throw up my hands and say, "Okay, I think I've finally seen all the naked women I'll ever need to see in life." Thanks a lot, Eli Roth. Jerk.
Moving on, there are also the viciously realistic makeup effects orchestrated by Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger from KNB EFX Group. As I've said in many of my reviews, I've been a fan of KNB for a long time, and they didn't let me down with Hostel. From the severed limbs to the especially disturbing eye scene (you'll know it when you see it), the movie is a tour de force in cinematic nastiness. There's also the astounding musical score composed by Nathan Barr. The orchestral music alternates between haunting and ferocious, and successfully added to the intended atmosphere. And let's not forget the film's cast. Practically everyone in the cast is either an anonymous nobody, or actors that only people in eastern Europe would know. And in all honesty, I think most of them will remain unknown in America. However, I must acknowledge that there were a few performances that I really liked. Eythor Gudjonsson isn't around much past the first act of the movie, but I thought he was hilarious and I hope that more American productions will cast him. Jay Hernandez is really good, and both Barbara Nedeljáková and Jana Kaderábková are a lot better than I thought they would be. I also liked Jan Vlasák as an incredibly creepy Dutch businessman and Rick Hoffman as an ultra-intense client of the hunting club, but anybody could have played the other roles.
Hostel is like three different short movies put together to make one. The first act is a sex comedy with tales of ribaldry and women with loose morals, the second act is the horrific torture movie, and the third act is a chase/revenge movie. With a better script, the movie could have been something of a modern cult success, but unfortunately, its full potential was not realized. I should say, however, that the movie's mere concept is scary enough. The execution may have left something to be desired, but I really did think that the idea of people paying money to torture and murder someone else is terrifying. But when you boil it down, there doesn't really seem to be much of a point to Hostel, mainly because there is so little emotion outside of complete misanthropy. It's a modern-day geek show, just one step higher than the guy that bites the heads off chickens at the circus.
Hostel has the appearance of a softcore porno movie that turns into a disgusting snuff film halfway through, like a Faces of Death video with better production value. It serves no purpose other than to see how much senseless gore a theatrically released horror movie could get away with and still earn an "R" rating, then making a killing on the home video market with an unrated DVD. But because there actually are some parts I liked, I'll give it a "thumbs in the middle" with three stars. I didn't hate it, but it didn't give me much of a reason to recommend it to anyone but people who love torture horror.
Final Rating: ***