The PR hype machine loves Eli Roth, and I ’m sure he loves it right back. His big studio directorial debut, 2002’s Cabin Fever, had the likes of Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi spewing praise. The film attempted to cover every genre in the book with extremely mixed results. But Roth had already roped in a cult following and a thick stack of “love it/hate it” reviews. We knew he’d be back.
Which brings us to Hostel. The hoopla is already raging regarding the “extreme” scenes of torture and gore. Roth is said to have been inspired to do the film by a website that was shown to him, which offered a “murder vacation” of sorts where wealthy folks could pay $10,000 to torture and murder someone. The catch: all of the participants were willing to give their lives. It should be noted that the validity of the site is unknown, but that evidently lets you proclaim that your film is “inspired by true events.” Quentin Tarantino has been all over this film from the beginning; hawking it all over the world and singing the praises of Eli Roth. They even did their homework and slapped together a teaser with a warning saying a viewer at a screening passed out and the paramedics had to be phoned in.
Paxton (Hernandez) and Josh (Richardson) are college buddies backpacking through Europe in search of legal drugs, booze, loose women, and occasionally some sights. The film picks up in Amsterdam as the two are accompanied by Oli (Gudjonsson), an Icelandic drifter who may be the horniest of the three. The men get word of a dream hostel in Bratislava, Slovakia where beautiful women yearn for men – American men. The trio hightail it to Slovakia to find that the hostel does indeed live up to its reputation. Soon people begin to disappear and it becomes evident that something far more sinister is unfolding within the city – human trafficking in the form of a torture chamber for bored, wealthy businessmen who need a “rush.”
The first forty minutes of the film play like a screwball adventure comedy. None of the three characters are very likable, which comes back to haunt Roth’s script later in the film when we are actually supposed to care about their fates. Roth laces his script with plenty of profanity and female nudity, and it’s not quite clear if this is done as a throwback to the good old days of horror or if there is something brimming in Roth’s subconscious. Both of his films so far have homophobic undertones that don’t seem necessary within the context of the story.
Things do eventually turn ugly, but not nearly as much as one would expect. The brouhaha over the gore level is largely a product of the ingenious ad campaign. Gore hounds will be gravely disappointed by the lack of detail, but the uninitiated horror film goer will inevitably be cringing and looking away, convinced that they have seen more than what is actually shown. That’s the thing – the premise (which is undeniably disturbing) can be played out in our minds and be more horrific than anything put on screen. Compared to, say, last year’s High Tension, this is small-time in the realm of gore.
Despite the criticisms, Roth does show improvement as a director. He showed in Cabin Fever that he has the skills to build tension and pull off horror violence. But, it seems like he picks his location and instruments of death first, and then tries to build a story around it. The result before (and now) is a confused narrative that doesn’t know what it wants to be. The closing sequence will have people talking, and I applaud Roth for taking the chance.
I suppose that it is only appropriate that, after all the hype about the violence, the most chilling scene comes in the form a dialogue exchange between Paxton and a businessman who is in costume and ready to torture. He wants to know what the rush is like and if he should do it fast or slow. These are the kinds of thoughts that manifest in our minds when we think about torture, not outright blood and guts. That is Roth’s best building block scene yet, and it’s still too early to write him off.
Studio: Lions Gate Films
Length: 95 Minutes
Rating: R for brutal scenes of torture and violence, strong sexual content, language and drug use.
Theatrical Release: January 6, 2006
Directed by: Eli Roth
Written by: Eli Roth
Cast: Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eythor Gudjonsson, Barbara Nedeljakova, Jana Kaderabkova, Jan Vlasák