AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 90 mins
Reviewed by: Dr Lenera
Paxton and Josh are two college students backpacking their way through Europe in search of new experiences. While in Amsterdam with their Icelandic friend Oli, they are shut out of their hotel on the way back from a brothel at night. They stay the night at a friendly stranger’s house, and he tells them about a hotel in Bratislava, Slovakia, which is full of promiscuous and beautiful women. Heading there, they find that, initially, the place is everything and more than they expected, an easily score with two women. Then the following morning Oli mysteriously disappears, then, after Paxton and Josh are apparently drugged, Josh disappears too….
The ‘torture porn’ sub genre. Is it a good thing for the horror film or a bad thing? I’m kind of in the middle when it comes to answering that. I believe it’s a totally valid expression of horror, a genre where in my opinion a filmmaker can be as nasty and horrible as he or her wants to be. Yet I must admit I do sometimes feel uncomfortable watching some of the torture sequences in the Saw franchise, whose popularity either says something good, or more than likely, says something very bad about the current cinema-going audience! Is this what we’re reduced to, watching torture? It’s a difficult one. One of the most popular ‘torture porn ‘films at the box office was Hostel, although interestingly it doesn’t seem to be spoken of much these days. Its director Eli Roth had just come off Cabin Fever, which though a reasonable hit and effective in parts, was a bit of a disappointment to me – but then Roth did compare it to The Evil Dead so he was almost asking for trouble.
The inspiration for Hostel was supposedly, and I emphasise the word supposedly, a Thai website which Roth had come across, inviting people on a ‘murder vacation’, to torture and kill someone for 10 000 dollars. He claims he initially wanted to do a documentary on this and in doing so unearthed similar groups, but realised that he would be placing himself in danger so decided to use it in a work of fiction instead. One perhaps needs to take this with a very large pinch of salt – I certainly believe that it’s possible that this could be going on in some places but it certainly wouldn’t be easily found on the net. One thing is certain; it’s a cracking idea for a film, so good that it’s a wonder that it hasn’t been used before. It’s also too good for Hostel, which doesn’t really do its premise justice. Hostel is an annoying film, it has some good ideas including a background which has clearly been thought through very well, and is certainly quite enjoyable on first viewing, partly because it’s structured so that you really don’t know what’s going to happen. But if you think about it, is ‘enjoyable’ really what a film based around torture should be?
Of course, in a device which seemed to really piss a lot of people off, it’s around an hour before we get into the torture. I actually love a really long, slow build up if handled well, many classics of the genre, from The Wicker Man [most of the film, actually, if you think about it!] to The Exorcist have one. For a while, watching Hostel’s protagonists bum around Amsterdam and Bratislava trying to get laid is quite diverting, because we know that sooner or later it’s all going to go wrong, but this eventually starts to go on for far too long. Roth plays a remix of Britt Ekland’s haunting song from The Wicker Man during a sex scene to show he’s a real horror fan, and after a while does start to build up uncanny little details in and around the hotel – the slightly sinister clerk, the gang of deadly children, the girls who just seem too, um, accommodating. I will also say that it all does seem quite convincing, and perhaps the slow, even pointless movement of the ‘plot’ helps this.
When we finally get into the torture place, which is nicely foreshadowed with s scene in a torture museum, Hostel, for a short period of time, becomes very good and very frightening indeed. Paxton’s viewpoint of waking up in a torture room with this head covered by a sack, is scarily shown by darkness and a moving circle [representing his eye] behind which, as the eye scans the room, you can make out loads, and loads, and loads of torture implements. Soon after, he is dragged down a corridor and the camera pans past some rooms where we just have time to make out horrendous torturing going on in them before we move on. There’s a real feeling of a descent into Hell here. An Achilles tendon severing, where we don’t see the severing but we see the aftermath where the poor guy tries to stand up, is truly wince-inducing. Soon after that though, Paxton escapes, far too easily, and the film turns into an especially silly revenge fantasy. He doesn’t so much find his victims as bump into them [boy is Bratislava a small place], and as for the girl walking around a train station with half her face hanging off unnoticed – huh? This is all quite well handled by Roth, who gives the final section of the film a likeably manic pace, but it’s just hard to take seriously. I do admire him though for a few things, such as having his hero graphically slit someone’s throat and yet still have us on his side!
I think that Roth was torn between making a really extreme, grisly movie [I haven’t yet mentioned a drilling through the stomach and the cutting off of an eye hanging from a face!] that pushed the boundaries for mainstream, and making a film for teenagers that, after all, probably comprise the biggest part of the cinema-going audience for the genre. I do think it’s interesting that it had little trouble with the censors, with the MPAA only asking for a few seconds to be removed, and the BBFC asking for nothing. Imagine if this had come out in the 80’s – it would have gone straight onto the ‘Video Nasty’ list. Every now and again there are signs of a far better movie than the one we get. I’ve mentioned some of the torture chamber moments, and just after those there’s a really chilling dialogue scene between Paxton, who’s just escaped his cell, and an unnamed character credited as ‘The American Client’. As played by Rick Hoffman, this guy, who just considers what he’s about to do as the next step for someone who’s sampled everything in life, is a brilliant creation and the way he says lines like, “how was it”? and, “this is something you never forget…RIGHT?” is really scary and yet ever-so-slightly comic. Roth obviously realised he was onto something here and would expand on it with his superior sequel.
Overall the script is quite weak – I think it’s obvious that more time was spent thinking up the premise and how things operated, than actually getting the film’s characters around. Bratislava remains a really good setting though, a carefully constructed horror movie location –I love the way pretty much everyone seems, to greater or lesser degrees, be ‘in on it’. Roth’s solid direction is only partially matched by the acting, which is mostly just okay and no more. I don’t know if the main three guys were supposed to be a little dislikeable, but they come across that way to me. The best performances in the film come from some of the supporting roles, and even bit parts, such as Milda Jedi Havlas as the creepy though stupidly named Desk Clerk Jedi. Takashi Miike turns up briefly for a couple of minutes. Nathan Burr does a reasonable job of scoring the film though sometimes the music’s a little intrusive. Is Hostel a good film! I would say it’s certainly almost a good one, and I’ve watched it far more often than many films I would consider far superior. At the moment though, my main thoughts of it are – what a premise, and hopefully one day there will be a movie that will really take advantage of it!