2006Director: Eli Roth
Cast: Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eythor Gudjonsson
either particularly terrifying nor nearly as gruesome as it thinks it is, Hostel is an inelegant and puerile genre homage that manages to get the gory details of grindhouse right, but gets the arrangement all wrong, and misses the spirit altogether. Abandoning the blithe whimsy that made his debut feature,Cabin Fever, such a treat (itself not all that scary either, but so good-natured in its goofy riffing on the Evil Dead and Friday the 13th films, that such shortcomings were easily forgiven), director Eli Roth delivers a follow-up seemingly content to wallow in its own stagnant ugliness (an ugliness more of intent and spirit, than anything graphic). This is a film that is, at once, both brutally visceral and entirely unaffecting, yielding an odd dynamic in which Hostel negates itself even as you’re watching it, leaving you wondering a) what you spent your last hour and a half actually viewing, and b) how the hell you’re supposed write anything halfway intelligible about something that seems oddly intent on canceling itself out of the equation. But here goes…
Our protagonists, two especially unlikable "Ugly American" (boorish, misogynistic, homophobic, and just plain idiotic) college stoners and a fellow partyhound from Iceland, follow an enticing tip in Amsterdam to a remote Slovakian hostel, where all the girls are reputed to be loose and parade around naked, and the drugs and booze flow freely and copiously - which, upon arrival, all turns out to be true (anyone wondering where all the naked breasts that once littered horror movies went—here you go). What follows is a good forty-five minutes of tedious partying and sex, half the film wasted on setting up what is obvious from the first frame—that these three shits entirely deserve whatever grisly fate awaits them in Eastern Europe. And what should've been a long, slow burn of a buildup is all sputter and fizzle; there's barely a hint of unease or mounting dread beneath these early scenes, though intellectually we know there should be. At this point, the film is so listless and dull as to seem capable only of putting the audience, and itself, to sleep—which, in a way, is exactly what happens, as our unlovable dimwits all pass out after a hard night of partying...
...and awaken to Hell. At last, the knives come out—the knives, the scissors, the scalpels, the meat cleavers, the power drills, the butane torches, the chainsaws—and they literally seem to come out of nowhere, like a new reel of an entirely different movie was dropped suddenly into the projector. The switch in tone and tempo is so sudden as to be thoroughly disorienting and disquieting (which, I suppose, is the point), and things thereafter move so fast that by the time you catch up with the film again, it's just about over. This is actually a bit of a shame, as this last half of Hostel, so unapologetically cruel and brutal, is…well, I can't say enjoyable, but it almost delivers on what it promises. That is, before it undermines itself yet again in its closing minutes.
It would be a shame to reveal the entire monstrosity of our Americans' fate. This dingy industrial-medieval torture chamber they find themselves trapped in is, in its own sick way, quite ingenious, especially in the slow reveal of its true purpose (even if Roth has no idea what to do with this contraption of his once it's sprung). While definitely not for the squeamish, any horror veteran, especially of what's been coming out of Asian over the past ten years, will notice a certain hesitant timidity in Hostel's scenes of sustained torture, the camera veering away to reaction shots during the grisliest moments. Whether this was to get by the ratings board, or cowardice on Roth's part to explore the full implications of what he's presenting, it basically drains the film of its power and purpose. This sort of disconnect suffuses the entire film: How can this barbaric sadism truly terrify us when we feel nothing but loathing for those being tortured? And, then, how are we supposed to pull an about-face and actually care about the fate of the prick who manages to escape (the action which propels the final third)? Hostel plays cheap, spilling rivers of blood without getting any on its hands. Roth refuses to acknowledge anything resembling basic humanity, but then demands that we do.
But the main problem is that Roth, for all his reveling in this filth, desperately wants to be taken seriously. He seems to want to make some vague point with Hostel—something besides the whole horny teenagers getting their just deserts angle. Enlisting Quentin Tarantino to "present" the film is one clue as to what Roth might be after here; including a quick cameo by Takashi Miike is another, and indeed, Audition auteur’s imprint (though none of his wit) is smeared all over the latter half of the film. Roth seems to be striving toward the same sort of Cuisinart cinematic style of his directorial heroes—appropriating styles, scenes and tones with abandon, while failing to comprehend that homage itself is not enough, that emotional ballast is necessary to keep the thing afloat. Roth has already displayed considerable talent with Cabin Fever, a campy B-grade thriller full of a clever giddy weirdness that always got the spirit right, if never quite the execution. Now, it's time for him to channel that potential into something more than unwatchable nihilism.