Hostel (2005)

Hostel first published (in a slightly different version) by EyeforFilm, 22 March, 20006

One has to feel a little bit sorry for Eli Roth. After his breakthrough debut with Cabin Fever (2002), a hilariously icky pastiche of seventies and eighties horror motifs, this young, articulate filmmaker, with his flair for self-promotion and his list of personal friends that includes David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino, was widely regarded by the cognoscenti as the great new hope for the whole genre. Much like second albums, however, second films tend to be difficult affairs, and Hostel is a far more juvenile piece than might have been hoped from so promising a director.

Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson) are two American college buddies on a Eurotrip, who have hooked up in Amsterdam with an Icelandic hedonist named Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson). Together they smoke a lot of dope, get kicked out of a nightclub, and check out a local brothel, despite Josh’s somewhat naïve – and prefigurative – objection on the grounds that “paying to go into a room to do whatever you want to someone isn’t exactly a turn-on”.

Following a tip about a hostel in Slovakia filled with hot, desperate women who will do anything to sleep with Americans, the trio hop straight onto a train – and sure enough, no sooner have they arrived than they are being invited by their accommodating roommates Natalya (Barbara Nedeljakova) and Svetlana (Jana Kaderabkova) to share a spa, then drugs and a bed.

“I’m never leaving here,” declares an incredulous Paxton the following morning, and then is left to ponder how true his words might prove, after first Oli goes missing, abd then Josh. Alienated, confused and scared, Paxton searches the town for his friends and will give an arm and a leg to find out what has happened to them.

The tension in Hostel derives not from wondering where the plot is leading – for that is made clear right from the chilling opening sequence – but rather from being forced to sit, riveted, to your seat (not unlike the principal characters) knowing exactly what is coming and uncertain only about the degree to which it is going to make you wince, squirm and scream.

In this respect, Roth is all too successful, at first tormenting his viewers with a leisurely build-up, then using restricted point-of-view shots and some rather unpleasant sound effects to encourage viewers to imagine for themselves far more than they can actually see on screen, before finally unleashing some truly gut-wrenching images that imprint themselves onto the brain as though seared there with a welding torch. So far, so good.

The problem, though, is that Roth seems unable to control the tone of his premise, in the end pandering too much to the male adolescent audience that he at first seems to be satirising. Roth painstakingly creates an atmosphere of hopeless Sadean entrapment, before losing his nerve and veering into a crowd-pleasing dénouement of revenge that only dilutes the disturbing nature of all that has preceded. Or perhaps it is the other way around: for by appealing to both sadism and masochism as they exist, to varying degrees, in the viewer, Hostel gets to have it both ways, allying us to tormentor and victim alike, and letting us get our kicks wherever we can find them.

An eye-popping gore scene, though certainly memorable, makes no sense at all and in its overt gratuitousness introduces black humour where seriousness would have been far more effectively discomfiting. Any notion that Paxton and his pals are being taught a hard lesson about their objectification of women is undermined by a scene near the conclusion that not only reinforces the boys’ misogynistic attitude, but invites the viewers to applaud it. This feels like the kind of film that its main characters would themselves enjoy watching, brewskies in hand and chicks on their knee.

The appearance of Takashi Miike here in a cameo serves only to remind viewers that Hostel is no Audition (1999). Indeed, this sort of material has been handled with far more intelligence, sensitivity and subtlety, and with greater visual appeal, by Gela Babluani’s recent 13 (Tzameti) (2005), strongly recommended as an adult antidote to Roth’s fratboy antics. Nonetheless, coming out in the wake of Abu Ghraib, this serves to allegorise American adventurism abroad – often clueless, occasionally cruel. For the world beyond the United States is not merely a playground for touristic entertainment, and the exploitations and outrages perpetrated in it have, in the end, a nasty habit of coming back home.

strap: Eli Roth’s early ‘torture porn’ entry confronts pleasure-seeking fratboys on a European vacation with the exploitations and abuses of American adventurism

© Anton Bitel