I'll admit to feeling a certain dread walking into Hostel last weekend. After all, as much as I love the horror film genre, I fall on the squeamish side when confronted with scenes of extreme torture and excessive gore. Still, the pre-film anxiety is part of the Hostel experience. And I doubt anybody who walked into Hostel didn't realize what they were getting into -- with the possible exception of the two women who brought their 5-year-old daughters and plopped down behind me, only to leave after about 20 minutes as the movie ratcheted up its exploitive, explicit sex scenes. They must have realized they weren't in Narnia. Lucky for them, they left before things got ugly.
And trust me, things get ugly. Real ugly.
In fact, the acts of violence in Hostel are so gruesomely over-the-top, they border on garish. This is one of those rare films where you never quite become desensitized to the deluge of gore, the bits of strewn flesh, the piles of severed limbs. And there are a few isolated moments, including one involving an Asian girl, that rank among the most retch-inducing things I've ever witnessed on screen.
Gag me with a ball: Hernandez and tormentor.
In his first film, Cabin Fever, director Eli Roth paid homage to the exploitation horror films of the '70s. That movie, which involved a group of teenagers camping in the woods who succumb to a flesh-munching virus, began promisingly enough, but inevitably fell apart as the story grew sillier and sillier.
Hostel, which draws inspiration from the recent epidemic of extreme Asian cinema, suffers from a similar fate, as the initial horror evaporates under the imposition of an absurdly-wrought third-act narrative focused on escape and revenge. It takes the movie in an entirely different direction, one that removes the credibility that made it so damned frightening in the first place.
Hostel, you see, is only truly effective when its victims have no hope of escape. It delves into a realm of horror that is as terrifying in concept as it is psychologically unnerving, as it turns us -- the audience -- into sadistic, bloodthirsty voyeurs. We are guilty as we watch unspeakable harm befall innocents. We may cover our eyes, but it's what we paid to see. We are complicit in Hostel's brutality, in its horrific crimes. It's a Hitchcockian technique ramped up and modified to startling effect.
It doesn't hurt matters that Roth sets up the three principal victims -- a trio of backpackers, two young Americans (Jay Hernandez and Derek Richardson) and an Icelandic chum (Eythor Gudjonsson), on a pleasure tour of Europe, seeking hedonistic sex at every possible venue -- as misogynistic creeps. Louts they may be -- but they don't deserve what eventually befalls them.
Lured to a secret Slovakian youth hostel by the promise of busty, lusty, ever-so-willing women, they are so blinded by their hormones, they don't realize that they are, in fact, a commodity to the cash-starved locals. One by one, they go missing. And where they turn up is almost too terrifying for words: shackled to a chair in a dank warehouse filled with various devices of torture and torment, including chainsaws and revolvers, a place where the scarlet blood of victims past hasn't merely stained the cement, it's seeped deeply into it, becoming part of its make up. There, the boys are at the mercy of otherwise ordinary businessmen who, as part of a secret society, pay up to $25,000 to don a black latex butcher's apron and pale green surgical mask, and have their sadistic, murderous way with their charge.
Hostel is all the more frightening for the fact that it could possibly happen. Let's face it: boogeymen like Freddy and Jason have run out of scare-power. But Hostel's horror carries with it a shred of plausibility. The purveyors of terror here aren't supernatural, unstoppable creatures. Rather, they're ordinary human beings who have a extremely depraved sense of what constitutes entertainment.
When the socially awkward Josh (Richardson), awakens from a drug-induced stupor, naked and chained to a chair, he is confronted by a soft-spoken man with a scalpel and quaking hands. "I wanted to be a surgeon, but the medical board wouldn't let me," says the man, extending his quivering hands. "Can you guess why?" The tormentor then gets down to business with a power drill and a pair of garden shears.
The banality of evil is hardly a new topic -- one of the finest examples is the stunning Dutch thriller, The Vanishing (the original, not the American remake) -- but Roth misses a bigger opportunity to explore this subtext by suddenly shifting gears and allowing one of the movie's victims an opportunity to escape. The sequence has muscle, power and intensity, but it also diminishes the horror, leading Hostel down a road of implausibility and outrageous coincidence.
It's no surprise that Quentin Tarantino has lent his name to the project -- the director has made a career out of mining exploitation flicks. Roth, too, seems dedicated to that path. And that's fine by me. We need a solid horror director to pick up where greats like George A. Romero and Mario Bava left off. With Hostel, Roth has certainly come closer to than anyone else has in years in scaring the hell out of us.
But what good is a scary movie without a lesson? Halloween and Friday the 13th taught us not to be distracted by indiscriminate sex. Jaws taught us not to swim in the ocean. And Nightmare on Elm Street taught us that sometimes it's best to stay awake. But Hostel imparts perhaps the greatest lesson of all: When traveling abroad, always choose Marriott.