Hostel (2006)

I'm not even going to pretend this is a real, impartial movie review. If you're reading this website, you probably already know that any movie with the name "Eli Roth" attached to it is going to get me all kinds of over-excited. It's difficult for me to be unbiased, but actually I'm probably harsher on the film than your generic random cinemagoer. I had butterflies in my stomach before I saw it, because if Hostel sucked -- if it was dull, badly written, or full of plot holes -- I was going to have to answer to everyone to whom I've sung Eli Roth's praises in the past three years.

Luckily for me, Hostel is awesome. It's a well-made, well-thought-out, as-near-as-dammit-perfect horror movie (the perfect horror movie being, of course, Takashi Miike's Audition). While that's not an unprejudiced remark, it's a considered judgement nonetheless. I had thought I probably shouldn't write formally about Hostel at all, though I've had long and drawn-out email correspondences and message board debates about it, but since I've come across several very negative reviews lately, most of which completely missed the point of everything, I feel obliged to write something just to balance things out a little.

Let me preface this by saying that I don't generally enjoy torture movies. Any movie that gets too sadistic, too cruel, or too realistic makes me want to go home and hide under my duvet until the world solemnly promises not to cut me up the moment I set foot outside my door. Switchblade Romance made me want to give up horror movies, it was so thoroughly joyless; House of Wax, ditto, and I don't think I've ever seen anything quite so mind-numbingly awful as Wolf Creek in all my 22 horror-saturated years of life. So the hype surrounding Hostel was, if anything, a little bit off-putting. Even now, having seen it multiple times and discussed it to death, I still think it's about a hair's breadth away from being too disturbing. Happily, though, it's ever so delicately perched on the side of being awesome; possibly because it's just that little bit different, and that little bit cleverer, than all the other recent splatter-fests.

The first half of the movie follows the adventures of Josh, a cute, ambiguously gay, likeably responsible wannabe-writer; his best friend Paxton, a foul-mouthed law student; and Oli, a random Icelandic drifter they met in Paris, as they negotiate their way through the drug-fuelled excesses of Amsterdam. Dope, alcohol, and sex: Amsterdam is, after all, the sex capital of the world -- and with enough money, you can pay to do anything. The only problem is, there barely seem to be any actual Dutch people in Holland: almost everyone is a tourist, and those who aren't, are resentful locals. Things almost turn nasty when the boys miss their curfew one night, but they're rescued by Alex, a weaselly-faced pimp who tells them that if they want to go somewhere really cool, they should head to Slovakia: the girls there are ridiculously hot, and, more importantly, easy -- particularly for Americans.

They're on the train the next day. And Bratislava initially seems to be everything they were promised it would be: the next few scenes are awash with hot naked girls. The boys seem to be heading for some kind of sensory overload: drugs and sex are both almost too readily available as Hostel turns briefly into one of those sex-comedies that never quite seems to be as fun to watch as to be in. (It's probably nowhere near so funny if you haven't been subject to Eurotrip at some point in your life.) Before it manages to outlive its welcome, though, the whole thing twists, seemingly on a pin; in case everyone had forgotten about the frankly rather grim opening credits sequence, one of the boys is kidnapped and brutally murdered by a cheerily whistling man. From that point onwards, the film descends into an ever-darker, gore-filled nightmare, though actually most of the bloodshed is left to the audience's imagination as the camera tantalisingly cuts away at most of the crucial moments, focusing instead on bizarre parodies of medical instruments, with only excruciating screaming to fill in the blanks. This is one of many ways in which Hostel constantly sets up horror clichs only to thwart them so thoroughly it almost takes one's breath away: Eli Roth's first feature film, Cabin Fever, did much the same thing, though not quite to the same extent, and while I'm a huge fan of that movie, something has evidently changed in his filmmaking since then. Loath as I am to admit it, Cabin Fever was flawed; Hostel is far, far more polished, and, in a way, more grown-up.

Although the film is a proper adrenaline-pumper while you're watching it, Hostel's real triumph is the way it sticks in your mind afterwards. The concept is so bizarre and yet so terrifyingly plausible that it lingers in your imagination; whether it's based on true events or not is, as Eli Roth himself has pointed out on numerous occasions, not really the point: it's that someone, somewhere, would think up this idea, and that other people would then buy into it. The film isn't straightforward and doesn't have any easy morality; our protagonists, likeable as they are, are no saints; they're believably real people, warts and all, and though their own attitudes contribute in part to their ultimate fates, they're really not deserving of what happens, and it's impossible not to feel pity for their situation. Something I find more disturbing than anything in the film itself is the average audience reaction: many, many people have reacted badly to the amount of female nudity in the first half of the film. Considering this is a film in which people are graphically and horribly tortured to death, you'd think a few breasts were the least of people's worries -- but no, nudity is apparently the most sinful thing ever. And this is something people will argue in the same breath as claiming that there wasn't enough violence, that the gore wasn't graphic enough, and that if there'd been more torture and death, it would have been a better movie.

(Aside from the fact that those are just horrible standards to have, it's notable that these people have completely missed the point: the sex and the violence mirror one another, the boys paying for sex is a direct parallel with the jaded businessmen paying to kill people; the film demonstrates that the "pleasures of the flesh", as it were, are very accessible, and are very extreme, mooting the possibility that eventually these won't be enough to sate society's appetite for depravity -- it's not even a subtext that's in any way subtle, the lines are very clearly drawn, but I suppose people will only see what they want to see.)

I'm not sure that it's not deeply wrong to enjoy this movie. I've thought about going to see it again and leaving after the first half, before everything properly goes to hell in a handbasket, but that would be missing the point. I'm not entirely sure I know what the point is anymore, but I do know that all the reviewers denouncing this film as not scary enough, not shocking enough, or not clever enough, are glossing over everything that makes this film so disturbing, focusing on the purely superficial elements of it (which is fair enough in a way, because it's such an utterly polished and perfectly-turned out movie; it's not so stylised as a Tarantino movie would be, though his influence is hard to miss). There are so many ingredients that are smartly combined to make this film work on many levels: the homages and references that so many people objected to in Cabin Fever are a little less high-profile this time, though they're still very much there for anyone who bothers to make the effort to notice.

It would be stupidly pretentious and probably quite delusional to say that Hostel is making an important enough point that it'll go any way towards changing the world. But it's not an ignorant, pointless film, either; it's not political, really, because it's too busy being funny and sexy and scary and generally brilliant, expertly manipulating the audience's every reaction, so I guess I'll stop talking now, and leave it at this: Hostel is an awesome, awesome movie. Go and see it -- but not with your mother.

(Post script: I'm finding it ridiculously fascinating how different people react so completely differently to Josh's character. I have absolutely no theories on why some people like him and some don't, but I'm loving debating it anyway, to the point where I think my friends are going to, very soon, impose a ban on the words "Hostel", "Josh", "Paxton", and "Eli Roth" from ever leaving my mouth again.)

(Post-post script: Having seen Hostel, I'm even more convinced that Greg McLean is a talentless hack. Ha!)

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