HOSTEL (Eli Roth, 2006)
Three tourists, two Americans and an Icelander, enter a world of pain in HOSTEL. Their hedonistic quest for drugs and women takes them from Amsterdam to Slovakia, where they have been told they can find beautiful women willing to fulfill their every sexual indulgence. Sure enough, their room at the hostel is populated with partially clad women eager to sleep with them. Their good fortune splits up the group, with Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), the Icelandic acquaintance, leaving without saying goodbye, followed by Josh (Derek Richardson). Paxton (Jay Hernandez) begins to get concerned and demands one of the locals take him to where his friends are.
Paxton is brought to a rundown factory. Inside he finds rooms where men pay to torture and kill their prey, presumably gullible youth traveling through Europe. The customers are charged on a sliding scale depending on the nationality of their victims, with Americans bringing the top price.
As pointless and contemptible I thought WOLF CREEK was, HOSTEL ups the ante in on-screen depiction of fetishized violence. This is a vile exploitation film, and a shoddily-made one, that’s half softcore porn and half horror porn. HOSTEL is a showcase for bare breasts, the most depraved acts of torture (represented and implied), and nothing else. There’s really no story. What Roth stitches together amounts to little more than a poorly told urban legend in which key moments occur off-screen.
There are valid defenses for showing nudity and violence in the cinema—form is often as critical in evaluation as content—but HOSTEL obliterates the line between appropriate and inappropriate. The leering misogyny and orgasmic joy in watching torture make this an unpleasant viewing experience of the highest order (and I don’t mean that as a compliment). Roth appears to be trying his hand at Asian extreme cinema, but for all the shock value and blood in superior films like OLDBOY and AUDITION—not to mention Quentin Tarantino’s two KILL BILL volumes, somewhat of an American equivalent—they operate in moral universes and contain the filmmaking prowess that Roth lacks.
What makes HOSTEL most deplorable, though, is that much of it is coded to play as comedy. HOSTEL isn’t at all scary. For instance, Paxton escapes from a torture chamber, or so he thinks, on a cart. A severed hand impedes the cart’s progress, the destination of which is a chop shop. The scene plays out with queasy humor at his misfortune rather than any tension. HOSTEL’S worst scene isn’t a violent one. (OK, the blowtorch to the face is pretty bad.) Paxton has a conversation with an American businessman (Rick Hoffman) who wants advice on how he should torture and kill his specially selected victim. Hoffman plays it with comic glee in a sequence that’s more off-putting than any of the physical violence.
The counter argument to the charge of amorality is that Roth has fashioned a startling warning regarding amoral youthful behavior. Such justification is a specious argument because HOSTEL is so obviously enjoying the ugliness, but even if one could make such a case, only the most stringent hellfire and brimstone speaker could believe that these pothead horndogs deserve their fate.
At the risk of sounding like a humorless moralist (if I haven’t already), HOSTEL is a repulsive film that is harmful to watch. The degradation of humanity and celebration of our worst impulses are not fodder fit for consumption.