plus a small segment I like to call 'Why Saw Sucks'
Reviewed by Sam Hatch
AS THIS IS PART OF A YEAR-END DISCUSSION AS OPPOSED TO A TRADITIONAL REVIEW, THERE MAY BE SPOILERS PRESENT IN THE TEXT.
I had never seen writer/director Eli Roth's debut film Cabin Fever, but I can recall that it received as many accolades as it did derision from those who labeled it 'stupid'. Likewise, his sophomore effort Hostel seems to divide audiences in much the same way. Roth has gathered numerous other fanboys-turned-filmmakers as his friends, and he has allied with fellow cinema geek Quentin Tarantino to bring this low budget beast to the big screen. Roth in turn brings a talented eye to the project, and his direction is a cut above. (I particularly enjoyed his classy reveal of the film's title, by using a reflection of a neon hostel sign in a streetside puddle.)
Hostel involves three male tourists (two American friends and their Icelandic acquaintance Oli) as they trawl through the bars and brothels of Amsterdam. The template has been used before (horny young guys looking for tail), yet the execution is wildly different. World Trade Center's Jay Hernandez plays Paxton, who isn't your typical cinema tourist (he can speak German, a nice touch which isn't introduced with a hammer over the head of the viewer), yet comes across as an actual human being. Sure, he wants to get laid, but he also discusses the guilt he feels over a years-old incident in which he was unable to save a child's life in a drowning accident. His friend Josh (Derek Richardson) is also richly layered, and one is never sure whether or not his character is simply shy and reserved or fighting to discover his own sexual orientation. That said, in a nod to reality Josh isn't always being a stick in the mud or trying to do the right thing. When an early visit to an Amsterdam nightclub goes awry, he delights in spewing obscenities at the bouncers and clientele as he's being escorted outside. He doesn't appear to be morally outraged by pot smoking either.
The Norwegian Oli (real life character Eythor Gudjonsson) is an unreserved clownish fellow who is always on the prowl for sneepur (reportedly the Icelandic word for 'clitoris') when he's not painting his asscheeks with a smiley face. Perhaps what's most refreshing about these guys is that instead of coming across as leftovers from EuroTrip (which could have been so easy to do), they feel like actual people I've known. Most college kids are alot like these guys, and I've met folks just like them on numerous occasions. Plus, their indiscretions don't rid them of our sympathies. They have good qualities and bad qualities. Just like real kids in their early twenties (and people of all ages for that matter).
Much has been made of the 'T & A' quotient in the first thirty minutes of Hostel. The boys visit a brothel, and later scenes in the room of a sex-obsessed self-ordained 'tour guide' (and the hostel in Romania) are also laden with instances of unclad breasts. The most common complaint I hear is that it's just a bunch of pointless nudity followed by another bunch of pointless gore. However, the purpose of the establishing scenes is triplefold. First, it establishes a mood of levity, and much like Takashi Miike's Audition (a film that definitely influenced Hostel), it leads the viewer into a false sense of security. On the flipside, for those of us who are thinking of the danger ahead, it allows the dread to percolate beneath the surface until it's just about unbearable. The anticipation of something awful is usually much worse than the thing itself. The second purpose is to draw a parallel between sex and death, and how flesh is integral to the effectiveness of both erotic and gruesome imagery. Not only does the film meditate on the American tourist's sense of entitlement while abroad, it focuses on the male's attitude towards exploitation and the sex trade, and turns that concept upon its ear in the second half when the exploiter becomes the exploited. The third purpose is purely motivated by character, as we encounter Josh's reluctance to partake of the bacchanalia in spite of his friend's protestations that he get some.
Josh is a great, detailed character. We assume that he is both heterosexual and sexually experienced based upon dialogue referencing an ex-girlfriend of his back in the States. But when faced with the possibility of scoring, he shrinks with what could be stemming from either a homosexual orientation or a virginal shyness. Or neither. He could also be merely morally opposed to the events, or just an angst-ridden Romeo, focused on brooding over lost love even while he's supposed to be out partying with the guys. There is evidence that he is in a period of self-evaluation, and the notion that he might not be straight is brought to the forefront by his overly angry outburst when an older man touches his leg during a train ride. The fact that so much attention is paid to this character is another brilliant move of the script. The audience believes that he will be the main character, based on his moral grounding. This is a smart mutation of the classic slasher-film template, in which the morally upright, virginal girl is the only one to make it out alive at the end of the film. The script emasculates Josh, since he is essentially the 'virginal girl' of this story (or as close to it as we're going to get - he does eventually have sex in the film). Luckily, Roth then spits in our faces by killing him off the first chance he can get, in a move that emulates Hitchcock's ballsy writing for Psycho. It is Jay Hernandez's Paxton who then has to step out of the shadows into that of the main character, and it seems as if he ages fifteen years by the end of the film.
Hostel not only explores the dirty corners of the sex trade, but it criticizes the attitudes of Americans while abroad. (Though the inclusion of the Icelandic Oli does help to balance the story so that it isn't a blanket indictment of Americans) The characters of Hostel are global minded, internet users who feel at home no matter where they are, even when they shouldn't. Part of the problem is that other global minded Americans have come out of the woodwork, and the Amsterdam of the film feels like home to the youths because so many of their brethren are also there to score and get high (which yields the great line in which Josh complains that Amsterdam sucks because there are so many Americans present). This creates an intriguing paradox in which the traveller not only wants to experience an exotic atmosphere, but he feels that he himself is not to be considered an outsider. These guys feel that the world is their playground, no matter where they are. It's only after things get very grim and Paxton goes to the corrupt police for help that it truly sinks in that 'California is very, very far away'. In these regards, the film remarkably summons the spirit of The Wicker Man, in which a character visiting a strange locale cannot drop his superior attitude and does not recognize that he's in way over his head until it's too late.
Their horniness and quest for true exoticism leads them into the arms of Alex, a gawky, stoned-out, cross-eyed Russian kid (with a strange mole on his lip), who tells tales of a youth hostel in Brattislava that yields high quality 'poosy' that will go crazy over Americans. In truth, Alex is a limb of a pipeline that furnishes fresh human meat for the death trade, a mafia-run pay-for-torture service in which American victims fetch very high prices. The 'hot sluts' of Romania are other agents of the business, and lay claim to new tourists in order to later drug them and sell them for commission. The concept reportedly came from 'Ain't It Cool News' creator Harry Knowles, who surfed upon a Thai website promising the opportunity to kill someone for a hefty price. Like The Most Dangerous Game, but with captive prey.
Quentin then took the idea to Roth, and together they created one of the most horrific and most plausible scenarios in film history. The film lays everything out with stunning realism. The nightclub that the local girls frequent plays real Slavic pop music. The burnt out factory ('or art gallery') where the killings occur is out in the middle of nowhere, and looks perfectly plausible as a house of death. Ties to the mob and corrupt police further the realism, and one can believe that these people wouldn't mind making some spare change at the expense of some obnoxious foreigners. Here, the elite American with his sense of obligation is just fresh meat.
Luckily, I knew nothing of this premise when I saw the film for the first time, and was initially wondering what the nature of the torturer was going to be. The film opens with establishing shots of the torture chambers accompanied by a disturbing whistling (a nod to the Morricone track used in Kill Bill?), which left me thinking that the film would follow the exploits of one particular serial killer. Color me suprised when the shockingly effective twist was unraveled in the second act. The killers that we do meet aren't killers at all, they're death tourists - ordinary people who travel and pay for the opportunity to torture or kill a person in the fashion of their choice. It's Disney Land for the damned. Josh's killer is a taciturn, Hannibal-esque Dutchman (played with a creepy elegance by Jan Vlasak) who eats his meals with his fingers in order to better connect with his food. Paxton meets a hyperventilating German who becomes distressed when his pleading victim begins speaking in his own native tongue. Paxton then later encounters Rick Hoffman, who plays an intense, foul-mouthed American client eager for his first kill. It's here that the transformed Paxton gets to encounter the mirror image of his previous self, looking for vicarious thrills in a foreign environment at the expense of others.
Of course none of this would matter if the horror didn't work, and Hostel works like gangbusters. The aforementioned build-up scenes start the dread gathering in the gut, and by the time the foul deeds started occurring, I was overloaded with nervous energy. Once our heroes leave the cozy sins of Amsterdam behind, the film starts slathering on small elements of creepiness - the terrain starts to look deserted and dangerous. The bucolic village in which the hostel resides offsets this, but then we're introduced to the seedy outskirts and encounter a gang of children that just might kill you if you don't give them bubblegum. Even the hot local girls start to devolve - later in the film two girls that once looked like models suddenly resemble junkies. Their friendliness has also dissipated, and they begin excluding Paxton and speaking in their native tongues around him, much to his chagrin.
At first the thrillseeker Oli and a Japanese tourist go missing, and the two Americans begin searching for them. I enjoyed their genuine concern for his well being, despite the fact that they were just recent acquaintances and not longtime friends. Once Josh goes missing, Paxton is essentially up shit creek, and the bleakness of the story is heightened by the lack of jocularity that was found in the opening segments. Once all of his friends are gone, Paxton is locked into a self-destructive endgame of curiosity akin to the brilliant Dutch film The Vanishing. Forcing Natalya, the now-hostile local girl he had just slept with a night before to take him to the 'art gallery', she shoots back the classic line 'Now you're my bitch!' after revealing that she will get paid well for his death.
There's also a bit of postmodern glee to be had at the sight of Takashi Miike leaving the building as Paxton and Natalya arrive. When asked what it's like inside, Miike replies with "You could spend all your money in there", except he's not talking about purchasing classic paintings. This bit of postmodern cameo casting was great in that it referenced Roth's love for and debt to Miike's work. It also added to the realism of the film, as we are never told if he is playing a 'character' or himself (the credits hint at the latter possibility). After watching films like Gozu, Audition and Ichi the Killer, it's a chilling thought that perhaps the Japanese director would indeed be a client if such an outlet existed.
The final act is all heart stopping tension, as we follow Paxton during an escape attempt, a subsequent rescue attempt, and yet more escape attempts. I can't remember the last time I was that wound up with adrenaline during the ending of a film (perhaps David Fincher's Se7en or Fight Club), and even when the story moves beyond the site of the killings, the sense of ominous doom is palpable and close to overwhelming. And if the script hadn't proven its genius already, it wraps up with cathartic acts of violence that finally purge the audience of some built up energy. It's also an interesting move, since the sole remaining character punishes the act of extreme violence and murder by indulging in the same. The film's thesis on exploitation then spills over to us the audience, for although we may or may not have been titillated by the erotic imagery during the film's onset, we're all frothing for revenge at the end and are meant to revel in the ultimate murders. I literally left the theater buzzed, bristling with edgy energy much like the first time I saw Fight Club. I had to talk about it with someone who had already seen it, or else I feared I might suffer a spazzy cardiac arrest.
It's an amazing film on all levels - writing, acting, score, cinematography, and location. It's also amazing to find an exploitation horror film that also has so much going on inside it's demented little head. It's often compared to Saw, but that's akin to comparing Cristal with Crazy Horse - they can both get you drunk, but only one does it with elegance and style. My first reaction to Hostel was that a film finally delivered upon what Saw promised. That other film's intriguing advertising art (a poster with a woman's head inside an elaborate steel trap) had me expecting a dark, disturbing masterpiece of trash cinema. What I got was a lukewarm 'Se7en of the Lambs' rehash that was dependent upon the final reveal of a mega-twist.
Unfortunately, that revelation was the ultimate reason for the film's existence (and popularity), but it didn't add to the film or even make any sense. A good twist (a la Fight Club or The Sixth Sense) rewrites everything the viewer has assumed about the film. Saw's twist skirts around good storytelling by delivering a 'Wow, I didn't see that coming!' feeling at the expense of logic. I could write a movie in which the final reel reveals that a toaster oven that's been lingering in the background is really a microwave oven, but why would that be important in the first place? Saw decided to introduce a visual element of the staging, allow the audience to take it at face value and forget about it, and then ultimately reveal that it was something different. We're supposed to be amazed, even though there's no reason for it to happen that way except for us to be amazed. It's a cheap trick that hopes the audience will be too stunned to suss out its shoddy execution. Thus, the reason for the twist is not to inform or enhance the story, but solely to be a twist. And hopefully generate a lot of box office cash for a minimal creative expense.
Apart from that bit of annoyance, Saw does nothing new or interesting in the way of its characterizations. The concept of a killer who forces his victims to kill themselves or one another is interesting, but it's handled in such a haphazard, sloppy way. The MTV-on-crack shooting style hinders the film even further - take for example the scene (referenced in the aforementioned movie poster) in which Shawnee Smith's character learns that she has a short amount of time before the contraption on her head kills her. In the room with her is a captive person whose body contains the sole key to her freedom and survival. The tension inherent in the concept is immediately thrown away as the shitty director decides to bask in music video trappings, most notably the frenzied body shake in which Smith freaks out in hyper speed. It might work in a Zbigniew Rybczynski video (the Polish video director helmed numerous Art of Noise videos in the eighties, but his work for Accept's Midnight Mover video uses the same technique), but it anally rapes the tension in a horror film. With no lube. Unfortunately, he uses this technique repeatedly during the film.I guess I'm just surprised at how often the two films are compared, when one is a shoddy throwaway hack-job and the other is an expertly written, character-rich film that not only plumbs the depths of terror, but also truly has something to say on top of it all. I believe that Hostel will stand the test of time, and as Saw's impact lessens over the years, Hostel will take its rightful place in the pantheon of films that are deservedly called the best horror films of all time. I was expecting to be truly disturbed by Saw, but sadly I was merely annoyed. Hostel carried through on the promise, and permanently scarred my brain. Bravo!