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Editorial - Sunday, February 26, 2006
"Hot 'n' Heavy 'n' Horrific at the Hostile Hostel - A Look at Eli Roth's Hostel"

So, by now you're all familiar with the name Eli Roth. His freshman effort, Cabin Fever...love it or hate it...has achieved its own share of cult noteriety since its 2003 release. I think it showed a great deal of promise, flair, and balls for such a "mainstream" project, and that it trumpeted the arrival of a potential giant of genre filmmaking. It wasn't perfect...far from it...but Cabin Fever had just enough going for it to make it truly stand out from the dismal "horror" pictures being lobbed at audiences. Since then, Eli Roth has really grown into his newly acquired status as horror's "boy wonder"...a title bestowed upon him by such luminaries as Guillermo del Toro, Takashi Miike, and Quentin Tarantino. Enter Hostel. Produced by Quentin Tarantino, a guy whose name is justifiably a selling point for a flick, the film expands on Eli Roth's growing hype. Again, it ain't perfect, but it's got some seriously big balls.

Hostel tells a simplistic tale. Two "All-American" boys named Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson), along with an Icelandic dude named Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) are holed up in Amsterdam, in search of the typical weed, booze, and sex. Seems Paxton and Josh are weeks away from plunging themselves headfirst into law school, and they decided that a debauched trip through Europe was in order before they hunkered down with their books and exams. They picked up Oli (pronounced "oh-lee") somewhere along the way, who is in search of some good times himself, and the three of them proceed to exhaust Amsterdam's supply of super-touristy red-light districts, hash bars, and nightclubs. Soon, it becomes clear that if the three buddies really want to discover all the seediness that Eurpoe has to offer, they're going to have to hit the road for pastures new. They run into a shady Eastern-European stoner-dude who tells them about a little-known hostel in Bratislava, Slovakia, frequented by whorey Slav babes that, it seems, are practically ripe for the picking. They particularly dig American dudes, so the story goes, so Paxton, Josh, and Oli make quim-starved haste to the train station, and they are on their way. On the trip, they encounter a Dutch businessman who introduces a horrified Josh to would-be man/boy love, much to the amusement of Paxton and Oli. Soon, these three blithering idiots arrive in Bratislava. On the surface, and due to a sweeping crane "reveal" shot and musical flourish, Bratislava looks like a peaceful, pristine, and pretty (but basically nondescript) former Soviet Republic burg. After some cursory exploration, our "heroes" arrive at the hostel, where they check in and find that they will be sharing their room with two cock-hungry Slav babes named Natalya (Barbara Nedeljakova) and Svetlana (Jana Kaderabkova). Immediately, the two highly suspect ladies invite the three fellas down to the "spa". In another sweeping crane shot and musical flourish (with shades of old-school "Fantasy Island" cheesiness), the spa comes into view, and it's everything and more our dudes had hoped it would be, with more boobies than they can count. They're in heaven, and that's the precise moment that we're absolutely certain that they are doomed. After a night of nightclubbing and the obligatory and highly spirited sex with Natalya and Svetlana, Josh and Paxton wake up to find that Oli has "checked out" of the hostel and vanished...without explanation. Caring waaay more than they probably would given the utter superficiality and brevity of their friendship with Oli, they drop everything and go searching for him. In their search, they find out what happened to Oli...oh yes they do...and they slowly learn that they are mere pawns in a much larger and more sinister game than they could have possibly imagined. Awww, who am I trying to kid here with my vagueness? We all know what's going to happen...at least in principle. I mean, we saw the fuckin' trailers, right? It's a horror movie, right? Needless to say, things get really brutal and messy from here on out. What starts as a crude "comedy" about three dudes on the search for an easy lay takes a sudden and dramatic turn...into some really dark territory.

Hostel takes this really simple concept and fleshes it out just enough to make a plausible horror film out of it. What Roth does here is interesting. He takes three guys who are clearly total dolts, makes purely unsympathetic jerks out of them, and then introduces a plot device so terrible and horrific that we feel genuinely bad for these schmoes. It's interesting because it works on several levels; we want to see these guys get "punished" somehow for being such pricks, we want the film to go into that dark, brooding place, and then we want them to somehow get out alive. Being a modern, mainstream horror flick, there are certain conventions and formulas to which a film like this needs to adhere, lest it completely alienate about 50% of its target audience. One of those conventions is the idea of a "final girl", or in this case, a "final guy". I won't tell you which character survives, or how, but I will tell you that by the time the credits roll, the idea of the "final" character will take on a new meaning for you. Furthermore, since this is an "extreme" horror movie, we know that when people do die...and die they will...it's pretty gruesome and disturbing. I've read a lot of articles about Hostel, and there are certain scenes that your average critics tend to hover around. One such scene involves a scalpel and a pair of ankles. Another involves a pair of scissors and a dangling eyeball. Yet another involves a power-drill and some still-attached extremeties. And people, these are some gross scenes. Really gross scenes. But, like the best examples of films that walk the line between "mainstream" and "extreme", the really really gross stuff happens just off camera, or is obscured by shadow, or whatever. The point is that with as much gore and shock as there is in Hostel, there's just as much stuff that happens offscreen that makes you think you've seen more than you have. So, what we've got is a film that uses genre formulas to a point, and it uses them well, and then it turns them back on themselves, leaving the audience gasping for breath (and often reaching for a convenient vomit receptacle). I've seen some really nasty stuff happen onscreen...in full view...in movies before. But, there's something so palpably icky about some of the stuff in Hostel that it comes off as being a lot more "extreme" than mainstream. I can understand why a lot of "mainstream" critics have dragged the film over the coals...it's mostly because the film made them uncomfortable, thus achieving one of its more lofty goals. And that, people, is the point.

Where Eli Roth is exceptionally gifted is in the details. He makes his movies, fills them with enough obvious and up-front horror that it pleases and/or repels the casual viewer. But, it's the little stuff that really makes his work here stand out. Hostel is absolutely filled with references and tributes to other movies, but it's never overly cheesy or gratuitous. Roth is a guy who loves his horror and exploitation flicks. I can see why Tarantino gets along with him so well. They're from the same school of thought...they just attend slightly different courses. Among my favorite references in the film comes during the obligatory hot-sex-with-the-Slav-babes sequence, which has Josh and Paxton banging (or being banged by) Svetlana and Natalya. During this scene, there's a particular piece of music playing...or at least a hyped-up techno-style version of a particular piece of music. That song, my friends, is the "siren song" that Britt Ekland sings to Edward Woodward through the boarding-house wall in Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man. When I heard that song being used in that way, I got some total geek wood, I can tell you. What other director...what other film is cool enough to have a blatant Wicker Man reference used to such amazing effect? I was simply astounded. It's a sublime moment for those "in the know". I sat there wondering, in the reasonably crowded theatre in which I watched Hostel, how many other viewers got the joke. Brilliance, I tell you. Utter. Brilliance. It doesn't end there, though. Eli Roth has tributes to tons of movie and directors in here. From Takashi Miike (who has a great, entirely appropriate little cameo role in Hostel) to Argento. From Romero to Cronenberg. And let's not forget Roth's great mentor, David Lynch. Lynch must be so proud of his protege. This is a film for fans, made by a fan of the genre. As such, it's inherently a bit less than completely accessible to some viewers/critics, as they just won't "get" some of what is going on here.

Hostel ain't a perfect film...far from it, but it's definitely a step in the right direction for Eli Roth, who has grown by leaps and bounds as a filmmaker, and as a purveyor of nightmarish imagery and storytelling. Highly recommended, but be warned: this movie (like so many other similarly-themed films) isn't for all tastes. Good stuff. Can't wait to see what's next for Roth.

- Matthew Dean Hill

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