My knowledge of Eli Roth’s film career is fairly limited. That said, I loved 2002’s Cabin Fever (just watched it a few years ago) and thought Roth was great in both that and in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds. So I was looking forward to seeing what Hostel had to offer.
When the condescending label “torture porn” was being thrown at films like Saw and Hostel back in the early years of the new millennium, I was unable to weigh in on it, as I had not seen either film. Saw is a cleverly plotted thriller that transcends such restrictive and unimaginative criticisms; would Hostel be equally, if not more, intriguing?
In a word, no.
Hostel’s biggest problem, besides unconvincing and often wooden acting, is that it feels like it doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be.
When I heard people talk about Hostel, I knew enough of the plot to get an idea that it would probably be an uncomfortable, if not gruesome, watch. I expected something that would be dark, grimy, and bloody. The opening credits sequence is all three but then things change.
The next half-hour or so is nothing more than a glorified sex comedy, which is fine if that’s what kind of movie you want to watch. I didn’t. College student backpackers Paxton, Josh, and Óli are tearing a strip off of Europe and notching their bedposts in the process. They’re smug, annoying, and not very fun to watch as they get high, get drunk, and try to get laid.
Then two things happen that change the course of their fates. They hear about the hot and sexually available women in Slovakia and en route to this pussy paradise, they meet a creepy Dutch businessman. I think you can tell this isn’t going to end well. As it turns out, the two men have targeted the trio specifically: they will be victims of the Elite Hunting Club, a group that allows European travelers to torture and kill people for a fee.
If you missed the opening credits and just watched Hostel without the dialogue, you’d probably be stunned when the first violent scene appears. The film completely avoids all visual cues that it’s a horror film, which would probably be acceptable except for the fact that the score is as bland and corny as anything you’ll hear on a bad made-for-TV movie.
Horror fans both love and loathe the clichés of the genre. At times they can be comforting, while at other times they can be (unintentionally) hilarious or frustrating. It is the rare horror film that can make tropes like negative space and jump scares work to its advantage.
But horror is more than just tropes and clichés. In order to invest in what’s happening we need to 1) care about the characters and as an outgrowth of that we also need to 2) feel some sort of suspense or fear on their behalf.
There is none of this in Hostel. In fact, the bro trio of Paxton, Josh, and Óli are so irritating and gross that I actually said out loud, “I hate these guys; I can’t wait until they die.” Roth (who also produced and wrote the script) tries to make them sympathetic by showing Josh as the “sensitive” guy of the group (he just got dumped, he’s not into sex with random prostitutes no matter how hot they are) and revealing that Paxton might be more than just a penis on legs (he was traumatized by witnessing a little girl drown when he was a child), but none of these things make us care about them or add to the narrative in any way.
The lack of visual cues and the terrible music, along with the shallow characters, mean that when the bad stuff starts happening we don’t really give a shit. To make things worse, the women in the movie, with rare exceptions, are portrayed as greedy and soulless or mere holes into which the men can shoot their loads. Even the women who aren’t treated as pieces of meat in a sexual manner are eventually literally turned into that at the Elite Hunting Club.
That said, if you like gore, Hostel’s got you covered. In the beginning we see most of the aftereffects of the torture but not the torture itself. That is, until Paxton gets handcuffed to a chair and a creepy German dude walks in with a chainsaw. Still, even with the ramped up gore of severed limbs and squirting arteries, the effect is more comical than scary, despite some pretty good SFX work from Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero (The Walking Dead).
Even if you feel bad when Paxton gets his fingers sliced off and think he’s a good guy for trying to save fellow victim Kana, he destroys this goodwill in the final scene of the film. Rather than telling the authorities about the Elite Hunting Club so that it can be shut down (granted it is implied that the police in Slovakia are in on the scheme), once he escapes, he stalks the Dutch businessmen, corners him in a bathroom, and slits his throat before bailing out of the country on a train.
Of course, if he didn’t do that, there wouldn’t have been a Hostel 2. But is that really such a bad thing?