Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan


Posted by CinemaPsycho on January 13, 2006

Directed and written by Eli Roth/starring Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eythor Gudjunsson, Barbara Nedjeljakova, Rick Hoffman/Lions Gate – Screen Gems

Three young travelers are lured to a Slovakian city that promises sexual paradise, but is instead a quite literal tourist trap.

Hostel is one of those movies that deliberately earned itself a reputation. It’s like the problem child, the kid that purposely acts up to get attention and, predictably enough, is certain to get it. Some of the other kids are certain to stay away, yet others are strangely drawn to it. Whether you love this movie or you hate it, you can’t deny that everyone knows its name.

While most of those kids wind up in juvenile hall, the “problem child” movies often use their reputations to great effect. When you’ve got enough pre-release hype telling people that this is one of the nastiest, most brutal and disturbing (not to mention bloody and gory) films ever made, it’s no wonder that a certain audience flocked to see it. It’s a great example of turning what some would see as a negative into what others would view as a positive. “Yeah, this is sick and fucked up – but it’s SO sick and fucked up that you can’t handle it! We dare you to try to sit through this bad boy! No, never mind, because you’re too much of a fuckin’ pussy to see it! Nah, you should go see BloodRayne instead, that’s more your speed!” Just try to keep people away.

And so it is that Hostel has become known as “the torture movie”, a twisted piece of business that only genuinely disturbed people would want to watch. When I stood in line for the film at my local cineplex, I overheard the ticket seller informing the potential ticket buyers in front of me that the violence was “pornographic” – and this is a person who works at the theater. She was trying to discourage them from seeing the film (the exact opposite of her job description), yet I think she only added in a small way to the movie’s anti-establishment legend. I don’t know if those people actually bought tickets or not – they let me go ahead while they made up their minds – but I’m willing to bet they’ll come back.

In truth, Hostel is really not that bad. I’ve seen a lot of violent movies over the years, and I wouldn’t even put this in my Top 20 for extreme violence and gore. We live in a world where you can see severed fingers on Medium, for cryin’ out loud. Yes, there are moments that are absolutely cringeworthy, but they’re used sparingly for maximum effect. Those who consider this a wall-to-wall gorefest are simply delusional. While I liked the movie, I was more genuinely disturbed by Roth’s debut feature, Cabin Fever – and a lot of people consider that a comedy. If anything, Hostel is more like Tobe Hooper’s classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the way it handles its violence – it’s a movie where the idea of what’s happening is so revolting that it makes people think they’re seeing more graphic carnage than they really are.

While Roth claims to have been influenced by the intense, extreme cinema of Takashi Miike, in actuality Hostel plays more like an ‘80’s teen sex comedy gone horribly wrong. A good 40 minutes or so is devoted to watching our young protagonists tour Europe and have various misadventures in their endless quest for easy, dirty sex with hot babes. This is, of course, just the setup, and while some people consider this a waste of time, you can feel Roth slowly turning the screws (so to speak) throughout. He knows exactly what he’s doing here, and when our horny kids wind up in a suspiciously friendly Slovakian town, it’s not difficult to predict that there’s trouble ahead. After all, we didn’t pay good money to see another Eurotrip, now did we?

Strangely enough, what ultimately makes Hostel interesting is not its abandonment of conventional morality but its eventual embracing of it. While our boys have lots of fun with the hookers in Amsterdam, eventually the tables get turned on them and they become the ones who are exploited. Of course there’s a serious difference between the two – prostitutes choose to be willing participants, whereas torture victims definitely do not. I personally don’t consider wanting sex to be a crime worthy of violent punishment, but Roth shows us a culture in which the usual conventions of exploitation have been turned inside out. Where tons of young people travel to Europe to take advantage of more permissive attitudes, it seems only natural that some Europeans would find a way to take advantage of that and use them for their own benefit. We fuck them, they kill us.

This underlying theme makes it all the more puzzling when, in the third act, Roth reverses direction once again and turns the movie into a vengeance flick, where the lone surviving American gets even with the opportunistic Europeans. While this ending depends on an escalating series of massive coincidences, it would be dishonest to call it unsatisfying. And it’s not like our hero walks out completely unscathed either, which is a refreshing turn of events. Still, it’s difficult to imagine anyone getting caught in this kind of situation and not being, you know, completely fucked.

The charges of the violence in Hostel being “pornographic” seem particularly specious. Where pornography is obviously intended to titillate – or to get you off, in other words, I don’t think that’s Roth’s intention here. It’s pretty clear that his message is “look how fucked up this is”, not “look how COOL this is!” The whole point of this is that it’s supposed to be disturbing and awful – it’s a horror movie, not a comedy. Hostel is clearly not a celebration of torture, or a fetish flick for sick fucks who are into watching people get sliced and diced. The violence here isn’t slick or “cool” – it’s repulsive and ugly, and it’s meant to be.

There’s a natural amount of xenophobia here, as the movie deals primarily with American kids who are strangers in a strange land. But this is offset somewhat by the generally boorish behavior of the Americans, as well as one particular character who shows up late in the film, an American businessman (played by veteran TV actor Hoffman) who takes a particular delight in violent sadism after being burned out on just about everything else out there. It’s clear that there’s plenty of scum to go around on all continents.

Ultimately, Hostel may not be a horror classic, but it is a decent flick that shows a lot of progress in Roth’s evolution as a filmmaker. While some supposedly intelligent critics will simply dismiss it as exploitation trash (as Ebert slammed Wolf Creek with his ridiculous zero-star review – the man simply does not understand horror films), there is a functioning brain at work here. Some people just don’t like what films like this have to say. The idea that life isn’t all sunshine and roses apparently scares these people beyond all rationality. But some of us already know that people commit hurtful acts towards each other on a regular basis – movies like this just take that concept to its natural extreme. It’s a cruel, fucked-up world out there, and sometimes bad things happen to nice people. That’s the true horror of it all, as sick and sad and terrible as it is. Movies like Hostile – oops, I mean Hostel – simply illustrate the truth, and do it well.

*** 1/13/06

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