Asking an avowed pacifist to see a film such as "Hostel," the latest flick from "Cabin Fever" creator Eli Roth, is akin to asking Mother Theresa to serve as hostess at an abortion clinic.
It's simply a bad idea.
Nonetheless, I put on my "film critic" hat and entered the rather crowded theatre for a viewing of "Hostel" with an open mind. There are, after all, horror films I have admired and even adored such as the original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and the original "Halloween." Despite being a fan of Troma films, I don't really fancy myself a fan of extreme gore and such films are, inevitably, my least favorite of Troma's releases.
"Hostel" is based upon a conversation between Roth and Quentin Tarantino in which they discussed a web link that had been received by "Ain't It Cool News" related to a Thai vacation destination offering murder vacations for $10,000. Out of the conversation between Roth and Tarantino comes this story, in which Roth withholds nothing from the audience. "Hostel" is filled to the rim with offensive language, abusive behavior, abhorrent attitudes, and is, without a doubt, one of the most graphically violent films created that, somehow, never dissolves into complete pointlessness.
It is nearly an hour, in fact, before any violence truly occurs. We are introduced to two young college graduates backpacking across Europe. As they enjoy the bordellos and bath houses of Amsterdam with their new, wild friend from Iceland, Oli, the boys decide to seek out even greater adventures when they hear of a hostel in Slovakia where the girls go wild for any foreigner. After becoming locked out of their hostel, they naively and blindly head off for their adventure.
Adventure they find.
"Hostel" will be adored by those who consider "Ichi the Killer" an artistic, intentional and thoughtful piece of cinema. In fact, "Ichi" auteur Takashi Miike even makes an appearance in the film at one point. Roth makes the very intentional choice to go 1 or 2 steps beyond the point where 99% of most horror films stop. One could easily produce an argument that it is both courageous and also reckless filmmaking.
The two men in question are boorish and, quite honestly, your typical American traveler who bring to mind this young high school student who decided one day to just "go to Iraq." Without regard for anyone else's thoughts or feelings, cultural norms, or accepted societal behaviors, these young men party, abuse, gay-bash and, ultimately, may actually attract the consequence they most deserve (if it is, indeed, possible for one to deserve this sort of behavior).
As the strong, macho one, Jay Hernandez offers a stellar performance considering this genre of filmmaking. As the film evolves, it becomes clear that he is treated much the way he has treated women and others his entire life. While his own treatment of others has never been this violent in nature, it has been no less impactful on their lives. Even as he backpacked across Europe, he enjoyed becoming a spectator to those who suffered, those who prostituted themselves...in essence, he was a more subtle form of the sadistic voyeur who now victimizes him.
What is, undoubtedly, more controversial and likely to raise the ire of gay rights groups is Roth's unabashedly homophobic script that allows the captors of the second young man, played by Derek Richardson, to be taunted, mutilated, humiliated and subjected almost exclusively to demeaning acts on the basis of his closeted homosexuality.
Of the two, Hernandez offers the stronger of the performances as we watch him transformed and nearly destroyed by his captors.
It is, for me, a challenge to decide "the line" of taste in horror films. Can there, in actuality, be justification for the presentation of such extreme violence? Can the mere existence of a moral lesson be justification enough? I suppose the problem for me is that in a film such as "Hostel", the vast majority of directors end up falling into the trap of creating the very lessons they try to teach.
For example, Roth appears to be telling us that we enjoy this sort of film. On a certain level, he is most definitely right. If there wasn't a market for these sorts of films, then they wouldn't get made and I wouldn't be reviewing them. However, for me, that argument inevitably is weak in itself. It is, first, denying both sides the ability to stop on their own. If Roth were, for example, guaranteed an enormous profit on a film in which his own child were molested would he make the film? The fact that there's a market for such a film doesn't inherently create a responsibility to create the film. Likewise, however, the almighty dollar does speak and if this filmmaker would actually lose money on this low-budget flick then it is doubtful he would go there again. It's a weird cycle, and there's no easy answer. Yet, Roth does fall into his own trap here and it ultimately causes the implosion of his film. He does, indeed, seem to be saying that we enjoy watching each other suffer and his film, in a way, winks at the audience with a darkly humorous tone through the entire proceedings as these young men are, first, enticed with a bevy of topless beauties, then tortured nearly beyond description. By creating the very behaviors for which he seems to judge others, Roth ultimately creates a film of contradictions that never truly resolves itself. He does, however, exploit to the hilt the Anti-American sentiment and vividly justifies the sentiment. It's an ugly presentation that will feel ugly because it is ugly. Sometimes, the truth hurts.
If I were to assess this film solely on the basis of my own taste, it would be an overwhelming failure. There's nary a likeable character in the film and the film is excessively and graphically violent to the point of inducing nausea with scenes of eye violence and amputation. Yet, in reality, I am unable to simply assess the film from the angle of my own personal taste. From a critical perspective, there are aspects of this film that work and must be acknowledged. First, and foremost, Roth accomplishes much of his goal here by creating a film that goes beyond your usual horror film into the realm of a film that is horrifying both for its graphic violence and for its graphic examination of human nature. While his central message appears to evaporate, the script is cohesive, dialogue is strong and the performances by Hernandez and Richardson carry the film well above your usual horror fare. Likewise, the cast of supporting actors and actresses are filled with beautiful women, captivating Europeans and sadistic voyeurs. The cinematography is effective in its graphic nature, and only the score seems oddly out of place at times.
"Hostel" will only appeal to fans of extreme gore and, quite possibly, shock cinema. If you had appreciation for "Ichi the Killer" or the shock-horror films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, then you may well find yourself chuckling with sadistic delight at the scenes contained with "Hostel." I wholeheartedly recommend that the rest of you stay away.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic