Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Love/Hate Relationship: Hostel

When I wrote my last Love/Hate piece on Rob Zombie's Halloween  (2007) I had no idea I'd be doing another - but damn it was so much fun, here I am with round two. Dissecting and criticizing the film, combined with a few compliments and praise is what this is all about.
And yes, I do tend to ramble. So here goes:

Hostel.  Sounds like hostile.  Which is what I have found a lot of people seem to think this film is. And they wouldn't be wrong.  When Hostel came out I really couldn't wait to see it.  It looked so different and downright terrifying. I'm really ambivalent as far as Eli Roth and his "attitude" that so many in the horror blog-o-sphere seem to complain about.  Quite honestly, I have mixed feelings about most directors. I let them do their thing and if I like it, great.  If I don't, I will certainly give them another shot when they put something else out.  I don't think Roth is a tool at all, in fact - I am considerably fond of his first venture, Cabin Fever.  So when all those ads for Hostel came out, I knew I'd be sitting in the back row of the theater (because there is no better place to plant your ass at the movies, in particular a horror movie - at least you can see it coming, and no one can spit saliva-soaked Jujubes into your hair!) Knowing Roth got into bed with Quentin Tarantino to put this film out there, I had a feeling it was going to be a wild ride.

And then... the first thirty minutes or so dragged so much I wondered if I was actually at a horror movie. I'm all for character development but generally, when so much time is given fleshing out the roles of the main characters, I'd like to at least think I am invested in their welfare.  I should at least care a little bit that they are about to have their guts ripped out.  Take Psycho for instance.(And yes, I will always unfairly compare everything to that film, so get over it!)  A film everyone has probably seen. Nothing scary happens in the first half hour or so, right?  Because they are building a relationship between Marion and the audience.  Though Marion isn't even a very likable character, we become interested in her plight.  We care. People can relate to her situation.  She loves Sam but he won't marry her due to his ex-wife and all his debts.  So what happens?  All kinds of unforgivable behavior:  she stretches her lunch hours out to have some afternoon delight, extorts a huge sum of money, flees from her job, mouths off to a policeman, and then acts all snarky with Norman.  But even with all these things, we were appalled when Hitch offed her in the shower.  We felt bad because we cared.  (Well, that and it was Janet-effing-Leigh for pete's sake!)

But with Hostel, the three main characters were so awful, so ridiculously infantile, that I nearly found myself cheering when the time came to dispose of them.   Okay, okay, I get it.  This was a guy's film, right?  A guy would relate to criss-crossing Europe looking for pussy.  I want to see the Pantheon, guys want a raunchy three-way in a skanky club in Amsterdam. Whatever.
That being said, I still hated these guys.  At first I thought Josh (Derek Richardson) was going to be the "final guy".  Figured that since he acted like the chaste girl of the group (not wanting to have sex with "just anybody", not hooking up because a girl smokes, and let's not forget the worst of all his faults:  wearing a fanny pack! Gah!) that he'd be the idiot to make it through the trauma.  Pax (Jay Hernandez) was like forty thousand other college-age guys I have seen not only in movies but have known in real life. Obnoxious, half-baked, and thinking with the wrong head.  It was a given he was going to be murdered in a horrendous fashion, and I welcomed that.  Óli (Eyþór Guojonsson), the random Icelandic dude they met and were traveling with, is just downright goofy.  His laugh gave me an instant migraine and when you find out he has a kid (!) and he's gallivanting all over the place looking to unintentionally make more mini Óli's it gave me a pretty bad taste in my mouth. So far this seems pretty one-sided in the hate department, but I'll eventually get to the love...

So our trio of tawdry boys meet a Russian slime-ball near their hostel who tells them, in no uncertain terms, that if they take the train to Bratislava they will find a whole country full of sordid women who will do "anything they want".  That's "annnnyythingggg", boys. Of course it's no surprise that the next thing we see is our guys on a train.

After a disconcerting incident involving a Dutch businessman ((Jan Vlasák) who likes to eat salad with his fingers and make untoward advances towards American men, the guys find the hostel to which they were recommended.
The place is a whole lot more like a spa than a hostel, and Josh and Pax are pleasantly surprised when they discover their roommates are two beautiful women.  Which of course would never happen in a million years.  Even less likely is the fact that Natalya and Svetlana think it's absolutely normal to be lodging with guys they don't know.  Right.
After getting naked with these girls in a sweat room, they meet up in the local disco, take some drugs and then move on to sex (all of them in the same room) with our little vixens. 

Right about here is where Hostel finally takes a turn toward violence - and it finally gets interesting!  I'd almost written it of, wondering what they hell was so nasty about it.
After the night of wanton sex, the guys go to breakfast and can't find Óli.  They search the town a bit, thinking they see him entering a museum of torture (Does this place actually exist? And when can I go there??).  When they eventually discover it is not Óli but someone who apparently has his coat on, they soon receive a photo message from Óli showing just a head shot and the words "I go home".  It cuts to what appears to be an actual torture chamber and shows Óli's head separated from the rest of him and someone in a butcher's apron whistling a happy tune.  What I love about the next scene is that it makes me seriously squirm in my damn seat.  An Asian girl gets a toe snapped off.  Subtle, yet decidedly harsh.  I liked it. And strange as it may be, I hoped for more.  Does that make me weird?  Um, yeah....pretty sure it does.

From here on, we have our dynamic duo of Josh and Paxton deciding to stay one more night to try a few more positions with Svetlana and Natalya, but end up getting drugged at the disco by the girls.  Josh disappears after staggering back to the hostel but Pax is lucky enough to get stuck in a storage room for the night.

FINALLY we get to all the advertised violence.  It evokes a tremendous amount of inner chills when we see Josh tied to a chair in a rank torture room. Even worse is when we see the salad-eating businessman coming towards him with a hand drill.  This is what we wanted to see this movie for, right?  We were promised torture, and this movie delivers.  I cannot explain what the hell made me want to watch a guy get his achilles tendons cut and vomit all over himself.  Personally I think it is because it did actually scare me, at least back then.  It was so very different than anything else out there.  And it felt like it could happen.  It definitely made me want to stay the fuck home and never travel.  I had a friend ( a girl, no less) who traveled Europe on her own back in the 90's - and she stayed in hostels the entire time.  Totally effing crazy.

 In the a.m., Pax heads off looking for Josh after wondering what the hell would make Josh leave without him.  Questioning Natalya and Svetlana (who incidentally now look like haggard, drug-addicted sluts), Natalya tells him Josh went to an "art show". 
Ok, seriously?  Sooo very hard to believe and though I'm pretty sure Pax isn't buying it, he implores Natalya to take him to the show.  Naturally, the art show is at the factory that doubles for a house of horrors. 

I'll admit I was starting to like Pax at this point.  When you take Horny Óli and Pathetic Josh away, Pax is the bees knees. I doubted he'd make it through to the end, but was hoping for the best.  After realizing Josh wasn't "final guy", I figured Pax was as good a choice as any.

What happens once Pax enters the factory is pretty much not a surprise considering what has already happened to Josh and Óli.  I have to commend Roth for capturing a true sense of dread- the film still gives me the willies to this day. When that German dude had the gun to Pax's head it was bad enough, but then you hear the chainsaw...  And don't even get me started about the Asian girl and her cringe-worthy eye trauma. Probably the most gut-churning moment in the entire movie.

Hostel was berated over and over again for being a leader in the sub-genre of so-called "torture porn". Why they picked on it so harshly is beyond me, as the Saw franchise started a year prior - and if there was ever an obvious example of torture porn I should think the Saw films should have the corner on that market.  The beauty of Hostel for me is its gritty atmosphere.  The factory to which they are taken just reeks merciless brutality and horror.  You can practically smell the blood on the floor and hear the people screaming even if you have the movie on MUTE.  It's oppressively dank and overwhelmingly dreadful. Oooo, I like it.

I recall seeing Captivity (2007), which is also in this sub-genre, and it just flat-out stinks.  It's awful, with no discernable plot, animal cruelty (which I abhor), and fairly awful acting.  Hostel actually runs rings around it, even when the guys are just fornicating and smoking copius amounts of hootch.    And I think it gets a totally bad rap.  It has a good plot, albeit an abbreviated one.  Not much to know except some guys go backpacking and end up being tortured, but the idea that there are nut-jobs out there that would actually pay large sums of cash to kill someone, and that there is a pay scale according to what race or country you come from.... yeah, I can see that happening.  One need only watch the news to know how some people feel about Americans.   Elite Hunting was a fun idea and not too far from a reality check.

So my relationship with Hostel is basically a good one.  I can't hate it but frankly, I hate most of the characters and I hate how long the buildup to get to the action took.  I also got tired of all the damn vomit.  Ugh.  But if we are really calling it torture porn, I guess I'd have to admit it is a fine example.  There have been few since.  Including this film's sequel, which also includes two extremely annoying (and one just merely tolerable) main characters.

Hostel is extremely gory, fairly depraved, and entirely unnerving - but I find myself enjoying that debauchery.  Call me crazy, you wouldn't be the first.


Budd said...

crazy! the movie was interesting. I liked that the whole town was in on the elaborate scheme or torture and murder or unknowing tourists. It came out just in time as technology and social media would make a town like that unbelievable (why do all these missing persons tweet that they are in the same wild and crazy city just before they go missing?)

RiseandFight said...

Great post! I like the love/hate theme. I liked some of the imagery in hostel and I like how you brought up the brutality of the location. I've been struggling a lot with the torture porn genre though.


Lemme know what you think

Kev D. said...

You know, I still have never watched it. I did enjoy Cabin fever though, so perhaps I should give it a go...

Nice review.


Anonymous said...

Nice blog! I love this hostel very much. I will definitely visit and stay to that place.

Hostel Rio De Janeiro

Kaijinu said...

I like Hostel, but I love it's sequel more. i can't explain it either, but the sequel's more "decent" than the first for me...