Disturbing? Gory? Classic? Judge Bill Gibron believes that Cabin Fever's Eli Roth has fashioned one of the first fright masterworks of the post-millennial age with this look at backpacking gone very, very bad.
Our review of Hostel (Blu-ray) Director's Cut, published October 23rd, 2007, is also available.
Welcome to your worst nightmare.
Hostel is a great movie, a near mini-masterpiece of post-modern horror. Some see it as mindless gore surrounding a stupid, sloppy story, while others dismiss both the blood and the narrative. Yet such criticisms are grossly unwarranted. There is nothing here dripping with disgustingness as in the heavily-praised Texas Chainsaw Massacre redux or the re-imagined Dawn of the Dead, and if people would bypass the notion of torture and torment for a moment, they would see that writer/director Eli Roth has a very cogent point to make…and it's not just about being careful behind the newly-drawn Iron Curtain. While his Cabin Fever was mediocre, too insular to make much sense outside the filmmaker's own realm of cinematic scares, Hostel redefines the genre by remembering the elements that made the original frightfests of the '70s and '80s so special. By taking the best bits from the past and placing them directly in a film as timely in its criticism of the American mindset as any Michael Moore documentary, Roth has revitalized the hard-R rollercoaster ride, reviving the notion that terror should be tactile as well as tripwire, playing on both your darkest fears and as many universal maxims as possible.
Facts of the Case
Josh (Derek Richardson , Dumb and Dumberer) and Paxton (Jay Hernandez, Friday Night Lights) are backpacking across Europe, using the student hostel system as a means of lodging on the cheap. While on the road, they befriend a wild man from Iceland named Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) and it's not long before the trip is one big orgy of sex and drugs. While in Amsterdam, they learn of a place in the former Czechoslovakia that offers hot and cold running women just desperate for a little "American" affection. Taking a train to the far-off foreign locale, Josh runs into a bizarre Dutch businessman with more than idle chitchat on his mind. Their meeting is portentous, however, of events to come.
Sure enough, this new hostel is a very hot place—co-ed accommodations, a spa full of naked Czech chicks, and the local nightlife jumping with disco fever—and our hopped up he-men make a bee line for their ravishing roommates, Natalya and Svetlana. They are so head over heals that they fail to fully freak out when Oli goes missing. Though all signs point to his early departure with an attractive Asian girl, something is still not right. In reality, Josh and Paxton are about to learn the truth about their stay in Slovakia. There is something sinister going on behind the pleasant peasant façade of the village, something that is destined to divide these lifelong friends, and show their lodging is more hostile than hostel.
While it may seem hard to believe now, Hostel will be the Halloween of the 2020s. Removed from its immediate surroundings, studied and written about, it will take on an air of importance that will guarantee its place in the legion of classics. It will sit alongside Romero's Dead trilogy (or whatever number he finally stops at), Craven's most memorable fright films, and Saw as the reason that true visceral horror returned to the mainstream marketplace. Long after the J-ghost fad has faded away and a dozen other designs on terror have been tried and tossed aside, Roth's deconstruction of the standard "stranger in a strange land" ideal will be viewed as transcendent. Where others just use their premises as means to an end (haunted summer camp = dead teens), Roth reinvents the notion of foundation as a way to fool and eventually freak out his attentive audience. Sure, they may see the set-up a mile away, especially since the modern marketing machine mandates that every surprise be spoiled inside a two-minute trailer, but they cannot possibly anticipate what Roth intends to do with his ideas nor how he plans on paying them off.
Hostel is a film full of surprises…though not many are found in the "pay to slay" prospects of the storyline. After all, if you've seen one version of The Most Dangerous Game, you already get the main idea of this picture. But Roth makes his movie stand-out by switching gears, giving the "game" as much reason to be hated as the hunter. Our trio of traveling horndogs, ready to pump anything slightly human within a moment of meeting them, is the true definition of the post-modern Westerner abroad. The ugly American is nothing new; watch the Travel Channel for a day and you'll see a myriad of arrogant tourists trashing the landscape. But Roth has micromanaged it down to two completely college things—drugs and pussy—and he never once deviates from this design. By making his characters completely base, but letting them come off as lustful losers wasting their time in the culturally rich setting of Europe, he creates a disturbing dynamic. We want these dorks to die, to feel the sting of pain that they seem to be spreading across the continent, yet when it does eventually come, we realize how foolish our bloodlust has been.
Hostel is a remarkably reflective piece, one that constantly challenges our own perceptions about events and extremes. Any fan of the modern horror movie will have seen far more disturbing imagery in the cannibal films of Italy or the nasty necrophilia of Jorg Buttgereit. Similarly, those who've sought their scares in the far more mundane world of PG-13 will see the slaughter here as fouler than they are prepared to endure. Indeed, one of the main reasons the film is so polarizing is that it confronts you and your sensibilities, asks difficult questions about human endurance and evil, and waits for you to draw up your own often crappy conclusions. Roth may be thinking that he's just joking around, reverting to long forgotten horror histrionics to give his movie a new neo-snuff porn feel. But the truth is that Hostel hones in on our instinctual ideals regarding survival and killing. Many of us wouldn't be a part of the sick society depicted in the movie, but we cannot deny our own desire to use any means—including the taking of life—to preserve our own.
Some may see this as reading way too much into what is basically an exploitation excuse to push the envelope. But because of Roth—and in spite of him as well—Hostel works on dozens of dizzying levels. Naturally, this fright-film fan can't resist the occasional homage, be it within the practical premise of Psycho, filching from Fulci, or acknowledging the numbing works of Takashi Miike. By setting his story in Eastern Europe (a perfectly-realized Prague stands in for the Slavic backdrop) and using various ethnicities as bait, we stare diversity in the face and watch multiculturalism dissolve into a clear "us vs. them" dichotomy. Roth really wants to ream America, to give its superpower prissiness a good gob in the face. Our "heroes" are hopeless, hedonistic to the point of international incident. Obviously an indictment of the "might makes right" mindset that has stained our image among foreign countries for decades, Hostel hopes to exorcise and/or expand this demagogic demon once and for all. After all, who's the most expensive victim on the club's kill list? Who's the most frightening participant in the narrative's third-act exposition? Roth routinely sets up the United States as a bilious bastard and pays us back in more and more horrifying ways.
This doesn't mean our lovable locals get off Slav-free. Hostel hints at reasons for the lack of global domination by the countries we visit. Amsterdam is lost in a haze of marijuana smoke, liberalism, and retail red-light districts. Our Iron Curtain country appears hateful and hollow inside, giving off an inviting vibe of possible prosperity while, beneath the surface, all manner of sin and the sinister bubble and boil. It also argues that fools rush in where multinationals fear to tread, illustrating that much of the world is locked in its own insular identity, unsure of how to interact with each other. This makes Hostel a very political film, yet one that doesn't shout its slogans out loud and proud. Roth remains true to the horror dynamic—he piles on the dread and suspense with great skill—but he also dives into the thriller and the coming-of-age romp rather efficiently. In essence, Hostel crosses many different genres, taking the best from each and then moving on. It doesn't matter if the gore is the most memorable part initially. Nor do we care that nudity makes a (welcome?) return to the cinematic style that celebrated it most. The overriding truth about this film is that it places us directly in the position of the victims, far more effectively than most movies of its kind, and asks us to imagine our own reactions. What we learn about ourselves and our own desires/defense is part of Hostel's most horrifying goal.
There will be those, however, who won't get past the vivisection and the vileness, who see oozing puss, flowing blood, and dismembered body parts, and chalk up the entire experience to one man's miserable example of macabre masturbation. They will miss the subtext, ignore the truths, and dismiss the more interesting elements. Such is the burden that Roth places upon himself and his film. Hostel needs its violence to solidify its stance. Humans are never more vulnerable than when lacking control and threatened with harm. Some may rise up and fight, but that's a rarified defense mechanism, not a true test of individual mettle. Staring down the barrel of a gun or watching a chainsaw blade move closer and closer to our side breaks down the barriers between civilization and impulse. It's this electric evil that swims throughout Hostel and what keeps it from being a cheap rip-off of better films. After all the pundits polish their bully pulpits and go home, once the bloom is off the bloodletting and we've excused the grue as the metaphysical mortar that it is, Hostel will find its home in the hierarchy of horror. It may not be near the top and it could become displaced by additional attempts by equally brave filmmakers pushing the confines of eerie, but today it stands a miscreant milestone. If you don't see it now, give it time. Eventually, you'll understand.
Thanks to its success at the box office and its fervent admiration among the fan base, Lionsgate does a wonderful job with the technical specifications of this DVD. The near pristine image, captured in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, is excellent. The balance between night and day is expertly maintained, and the colors are controlled to provide both beauty and the baneful. While the version of the film here is called "uncut" Roth reveals (in his numerous commentaries) that there is very little added gore. A bit more eye spew, a tad more severed leg fluid, but that's it. There are not missing scenes of carnage or added moments of nastiness inserted here. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital 5.1 is superb. It provides a real atmosphere of foreboding and foulness, especially when we find ourselves in the deserted factory where most of the "fun" occurs. There is also a great deal of incredibly catchy pop and rock songs from Czechoslovakia's '80s hit parade. They make for an excellent, if quite disquieting, scare soundtrack.
As for bonus features, get ready for a big-time double dip somewhere down the road. Sure, this version of Hostel has four—that's right FOUR—commentary tracks, an interesting hour-long behind-the-scenes featurette, trailers (though none for Hostel itself), and a multi-angle interactive feature. One imagines there is more material to be had—Roth suggests as much during his discussions—so this DVD is obviously intended to satisfy the sinister urge of those anxious for the film, with a revamp due around the time Roth unleashes his next fright flick. As for what is offered here, it is very interesting. The alternative narratives take on differing personas based on who is present. Roth's solo outing is an overview of his career, his advice to novice filmmakers. and his well-reasoned rants against Hollywood and the mainstream horror film. Roth is then joined by executive producers Quentin Tarantino, Scott Spiegel, and Boaz Yakin in what can best be called the "professional geek-out" track. Tarantino loves this movie and enjoys pointing out the moments that strike him as funny/gory/outrageous. Everyone else joins in for the fun and describes their own nerd-nasty highlights.
The "actors" conversation brings us Barbara Nedeljakova (Natalya) and Eyethor Gudjonsson (Oli), editor George Folsey Jr., and Web author Harry Knowles. This is another backslapping, glad-handing experience with everyone loving everything about the film. The anecdotes are hilarious and Knowles attempts to prove he is more than just a Web dork. He almost succeeds. Our final look at the film is overseen by Roth, producer Chris Briggs, and documentarian (and little brother) Gabriel Roth. This track focuses on the pleasures and pitfalls of making a movie in Prague, the ways around certain production problems, and the reaction the film faced during testing. Roth loves to recount the low score and the suits sweating the movie's potential failure and/or success. Some of what is discussed is repeated in the entertaining making-of featurette and the multi-angle experience (for a sequence during the final chase) offers us an interesting view of how a scene is assembled. While this might not be the definitive presentation of Hostel on DVD, this is still a very good digital offering.
The reason Hostel will resonate years after its release has as much to do with the "double dare" design that will have legions of sleepovers breaking out the film as a social rite of passage, as it deals with the notions of helplessness and being alone. This is one of the rare films that plays with our need for human connection, arguing that such a psychological crutch may be as harmful as it is homogenous. Eli Roth has really stepped up, arguing for his place as one of the masters of menace, his overall approach to this story as kinetic and craven as the films of the '70s and '80s that he worships so. Don't fret if you don't get it now…people didn't embrace The Texas Chainsaw Massacre right up front and it's gone on to define an entire style of scare films. Hostel holds a similar place presently. It is an amazing achievement that doesn't deserve outright dismissal, yet will only face same until its novel nastiness wears off. Like most of the memorable offerings of macabre, it must age and ferment like fine dandelion wine. Two decades from now, true aficionados will recognize and revere it. Amazingly enough, it will deserve it.
Hostel is hereby found not guilty and is free to go. All those who dismiss it as a Grand Guignol bit of false bravado are hereby admonished by the court, and held in contempt for failing to see its potential greatness.
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Scales of Justice
• Full Length Audio Commentary with writer/director Eli Roth
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