Sunday, 19 November 2006

Hostel (2005)

This review was originally posted on Ian's Personal Blog on 5th August 2006.

HostelWriter/director Eli Roth's debut feature, Cabin Fever, was an interesting, if fundamentally flawed, low budget horror film that made so much money Hollywood, and Quentin Tarantino in particular, were forced to sit up and take notice. Hostel is, in some ways, more of the same, albeit a more mature, and more extreme, offering than its predecessor, and one given much higher visibility, thanks largely to the 'Tarantino presents...' marketing that has had the less observant assuming he is the director.

Hostel is, when all's said and done, a deeply disturbing movie that pushes the envelope in terms of horror and gore. As such it has invoked the wrath of many critics, with The Daily Mail pretty much insisting that this was the end of civilisation as we know it, and resulting in some hilarious to-and-fro arguments between the paper's journalist and the film's writer/director which left neither side looking very mature or open to alternative views. Over on imdb, the people's voting web site, it gains a rather odd, and rather low, 5.8 score out of 10. This is a fairly unrealistic score in that it represents an average of two extremes - people are taking very polarised views on the film, giving it either nothing or 10/10, which really skews the picture when trying to work out whether this is a film worth seeing or not.

The premise for the story is a strong one: a group of backpackers find themselves victims of a business in Slovakia that lets rich Westerners torture people and get sick kicks for money. Attractive girls are used to lure naive foreigners at 'The Hostel' to a point where they can be drugged and then taken away to the decaying, dilapidated building where other visitors pay their money according to the nationality of the person they wish to sadistically torture. To say more would be to give too much away, but those critics who dismiss the film as mindless pornography (the first half hour, featuring the backpackers indulging in everything Amsterdam has to offer, has more female breasts and attractive women than has been seen in a long, long time), followed by mindless gore have, I think, somewhat missed the point. The film's 'pornography' is there to show how reprehensible the behaviour of Americans abroad can be (whilst admittedly providing the teenage 'dude' audience with the mindless 'hot babes' they seem to think obligatory if they're going to part with their cash). The gore is pretty standard in a world that has genocide an almost daily occurrence, and the Iraq/Afghanistan/Israeli wars getting bloodier by the day. Hostel is a story written for the American market, with the clearly signposted sub-text being that the world is a different place outside the United States and that you're being naive if you think you can travel around as if you own the world.

The first third of the film sets up the main characters, showing a group of rather obnoxious Americans taking advantage of the 'delights' (the drugs and prostitutes) of Amsterdam. The entire cast are pretty much unknown, and probably likely to remain so, but deliver the performances required here, where the aim is not so much to set up sympathy for the characters, but to draw parallels between the prostitution the youths happily indulge in, and the 'money for torture' situation they find themselves the victims of later. This first act is beautifully shot, with a clever title sequence that builds the tension up before the film's even started, and shows that Roth has made leaps and bounds, both in terms of writing and directing, since Cabin Fever.

The second act moves into the expected 'watch through the gaps in your fingers' story that has been publicised in most of the reviews as if it were the whole film, with the third act being a rather hokey, and over-the-top, chase/revenge story. Despite all the negative publicity, the three main torture scenes that have caused so much criticism do not take up much screen time, and if one examines them up close they are laughably bad and inconsistent - given the nature of most of the horror movies that Roth is a fan of, one wonders whether the glaring 'mistakes' in each one were deliberate or not. We see (or rather don't really see) a guy get his right knee drilled but then blood is shown flowing from the left leg. Another victim has a 'money shot' showing three of his fingers being shot off, but immediately recovers one for no apparent reason. And the most controversial scene, featuring a detached eyeball being snipped away from a rescued victim, is so silly, with thick yellow custard oozing from a very obvious prosthetics, somewhat later than it should have done, that one wonders how anybody could fail to see that this is anything other than very black humour.

The answer is that it's not what's shown on screen that feels 'sick'. It's the build-up in tension, the basic truth of the sick story (it's based on some real events reported on in Thailand), with some very good acting from unknown actors, that makes the premise seem real. And that only comes from great writing and great direction. That being said, for some reason this does feel at times just plain 'wrong' in places, in the sense that it feels like it's just strayed the wrong side of the line in terms of what should be acceptable as entertainment, even entertainment deliberately designed to make you jump and feel afraid. It's certainly not a comfortable film to watch, and Roth's third act is so hokey it doesn't sit well with what's preceded it, but there is talent on display here, and whatever else you think, it's a film that's very hard to forget.

Anybody who's seen Eli Roth talk about his movies knows that 'Motormouth' should be his middle name (yeah, yeah, I know it takes one to know one ;-)) but even by his own standards, the DVD is rather excessive with not one, not two, not three, but FOUR commentaries featuring the man and various accomplices. Even hard core fans who think this is the best movie in decades are going to struggle to sit and listen to that lot. I'm afraid I didn't have the patience, or interest, to listen to more than the first one, which features Roth with Tarantino and the other executive producers. It was a lively, fun romp, as one would expect from such large, extrovert personalities, but didn't leave me feeling I had to listen to the other three commentaries as well to get the most out of the package. There's also a multi-part featurette that is a good, entertaining 'behind the scenes/staff souvenir' of the whole shoot, and a pointless multi-angle scene from the movie that will only be of interest to those wanting to test that feature out on their DVD players.

All-in-all the DVD's good value for money, and with a chapter index leaflet and trailers that don't intrude because they're on a menu option rather than automatically played when the disc is inserted, one really can't complain about the package. But if you're at all squeamish then this one isn't for you.

Hostel screencap

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