Thursday, October 16, 2014

Watch This: Hostel

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Hostel (2006)
Written and directed by Eli Roth

The horror film has long been an unfairly maligned genre, despite its popularity among general audiences, and despite the fact that a number of the best films ever made (Nosferatu (1922), Psycho (1960), Dawn of the Dead (1978), to name just a few) fall within that genre.  The splatter film sub-genre, in which graphic displays of gore and violence take center stage, has especially been the target of widespread negativity, and its resurgence in the last decade has been no exception.  This recent wave of gore-centric horror films has been dubbed "torture porn" by critics, and while many of these films leave something to be desired (there is certainly some merit to the claim by the sub-genre's detractors that "gory" does not mean "scary"), one of the films that helped launch this trend, Eli Roth's Hostel, is far more creative, clever, and darkly funny than its subpar successors.  Roth infuses his film with the same combination of genuine dread, gruesome gore, sly commentary, and oddball dark humor that made his directorial debut Cabin Fever (2002) such a joy to watch.

Hostel follows American college students Josh (Derek Richardson) and Paxton (Jay Hernandez) as they travel across Europe with their Icelandic friend Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson).  As the film opens, the three are in Amsterdam.  Paxton and Oli are eager to fulfill every hedonistic desire, but the more sensitive Josh, who has just broken up with his girlfriend, is clearly uncomfortable in this environment, and is reticent to engage in sexual activity, even though Paxton insists that he sleep with a "hot Euro chick" to help him get over his break-up.

They meet a young Eastern European man named Alex, who tells them about a hostel in Slovakia that is filled with beautiful women.  The three friends board a train for Slovakia.  They share a compartment with a Dutch businessman (Jan Vlasak, in a superbly discomfiting performance), who makes unsettling conversation and touches Josh's leg, leading to an outburst of protest from Josh.  They arrive at the hostel, where they are greeted by two beautiful young women, Natalya and Svetlana, who invite them to a spa and a disco.  At the disco, Josh has another encounter with the Dutch businessman, and their interaction opens up questions about Josh's sexual orientation.  Paxton and Josh end up spending the night with Natalya and Svetlana, but the next morning, Oli is gone, as is a Japanese girl who was also staying at the hostel.  A few scenes later, we see Oli's decapitated head on a table in a blood-spattered, dungeon-like room, and the Japanese girl strapped to a chair in a room down the hall.

Josh and Paxton decide to stay one more night, and at the disco, they are both drugged.  Josh wakes up strapped to a chair in the same type of dark, dirty room we saw earlier, where he is tortured and eventually killed by the Dutch businessman.  Paxton, who passed out in the disco's storage closet, makes his way back to the hostel, where he finds Josh is missing.  The local authorities are no help, and after Paxton tracks Natalya and Svetlana to a local pub, they tell him Josh and Oli are at an "art show."  Natalya agrees to take him there, and they arrive at a factory, where Paxton discovers the horrific sight of the Dutch businessman stitching up Josh's internal organs.  Paxton is dragged to another room and strapped to a chair.  Through a combination of luck and daring, Paxton manages to escape his torturer, and after a surreal encounter with a manic American businessman, who mistakes Paxton for a fellow paying customer (the organization responsible for arranging the gruesome killings calls itself "Elite Hunting"), he eventually makes his way out of the building.  Outside, he hears cries for help.  Will he choose to save himself, or will he go back and save the screaming victim?  And how will he make it out of town when so many local people seem to be involved in the conspiracy to lure potential victims to their demise?

While there is all the ample gore and nudity one often expects from this type of film, Hostel's clever narrative structure and formal playfulness make it clear that Roth had far more than just exploitation in mind when he made the film.  For example, Josh is positioned as the film's protagonist in the first half, with his sensitivity, his backstory of heartbreak, and the implication that he may be gay.  However, rather than exploring this dimension of the character, Roth kills him off halfway through, taking a page from the book of Alfred Hitchcock, who famously offed the protagonist of Psycho midway through the film.  The film's creative editing provides a good bit of morbid humor as well.  In one sequence, a close-up shot of a bolt cutter beginning to snip off a Japanese girl's toe cuts directly to another close-up shot of her friend clipping her toenail.  In a later scene at the factory, as Paxton hides on a cart of corpses being prepared for incineration, a butcher begins carving up bodies with a meat cleaver, and the scene is edited so that each cut between shots is matched to the sound of the cleaver cutting into flesh.

Roth also makes a direct link between sex and murder, both of which are seen as the fulfillment of fleshly desires.  Outside of the Amsterdam brothel, Josh says, "Paying to go into a room to do whatever you want to someone isn't exactly a turn-on," but the film suggests that there are indeed many people who would pay good money to do just that, although not in the way that Josh meant.  This idea is further enhanced by the mirroring of the early brothel sequence, in which Josh walks down the hall peering at the silhouettes of people engaged in an array of sexual activity, with the later sequence in the factory, where Paxton passes room after room of bloody victims being sliced, diced, and beaten.  There is certainly an element of voyeurism as both the film's characters and the viewer peer into each room, and during these and other sequences, especially those involving gore and nudity, the camera often seems to mimic a human gaze.

Hostel is obviously not for the squeamish, but there is more going on than just the superficial nudity and gore.  The film is critical of its characters' blind devotion to hedonism, and there is an implicit disapproval of the Americans' blatant disregard for any local culture or customs.  It is a warning to those who pursue worldly pleasures ahead of all else.

The film also hints that the desire to kill is an inherent part of human nature.  As one Elite Hunting customer says about the factory, "Be careful ... You could spend all your money in there."

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