Saturday, July 28, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Hostel (2005)

I was at the Toronto Film Festival the same year that director Eli Roth brought Hostel there. In fact, we appeared on the same TV program (Saturday Night at the Movies) to discuss our mutual fondness for an American horror movie classic, The Bad Seed, but our paths never actually crossed. Now that I've finally seen Hostel, I wish we had met. I want the guy's autograph...

Frankly, I didn't expect to appreciate Roth's hit movie so much; or to find that Hostel is such a brilliantly-directed and cleverly-realized film. I'm not particularly enamored with the "gorno" or "torture porn" sub-genre in horror, but I suppose I should have realized that those media-imposed labels (like most labels) serve only to demean the thing categorized. So I'll put my money where my mouth is (better late than never, I guess): Hostel is the best horror movie of the 21st century so far. Hands down.

Presented by Quentin Tarantino and written and directed by Eli Roth (who previously directed the harrowing Cabin Fever; which I liked but didn't love...), Hostel is the story of two wayward American youths, Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson), as they debauch themselves on a vice-is-nice vacation across the European continent. They gleefully smoke pot in Amsterdam, and Paxton engages in group sex with hookers. It's a European decadence tour, with Icelandic buddy Oli, ("The King of the Swing") along for the ride. I
n general the appetites on display here are...endless.

So endless, in fact, that Paxton, Josh and Oli are duped into visiting an out-of-the-way Hostel in Slovakia where the women are said to "love" Americans. Yep, these supermodel-type ladies simply hear an American accent and immediately drop trou. Or so the myth goes. The men, naturally, are intrigued (translation: thinking with their dicks...), and hop a train for Slovakia.

What Josh and Paxton discover in Slovakia, however, in the best tradition of the horror genre, is not paradise, but damnation, a "wrong turn"-type dead-end. All too soon, they descend into an underworld that euphemistically could be termed Hell, a torture-for-profit business named Elite Hunting run by callous locals. There, the world's rich and powerful pay big money to torture, maim and murder their fellow man. The lure, especially for Americans (who fetch a high price as victims...) is the promise (and deliverance) of sex. In particular, Josh and Pax are seduced by Natalya and Svetlana, two Eastern European beauties who easily lead the wayward boys to the "Art Show," the isolated torture factory where furnaces are always burning (burning up human body parts, that is...)

I don't believe a horror movie can truly be great (or classic) unless it is transgressive, meaning that it shatters some barrier or screen taboo. Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre shattered one of the great screen taboos: the belief that movies - even genre flicks - should always feature a level of decorum or distance. Hooper's initiative ripped that sweet idea right out from under unsuspecting audiences with a kick-ass, unconventional narrative that I nickname "no learning." Characters faced Leatherface and died horribly; and then it was time for the next victim to do the same thing...with no traditional advancement of the plot on the horizon.

In its own way, Hostel is equally (if more subtly) ground-breaking, because it smacks viewers in the face with a realization that we like to steadfastly ignore in our everyday lives. We lost decorum long ago; so that's not it. No, Hostel - released in 2005 - explicitly bursts the bubble of American superiority (in a time that American military is also looking not-so-superior, mired down in the Middle East). Yet we still believe (and Hollywood has also led us to believe...) that we "amuricans" are invincible; the chosen ones. We're the shining city on the hill; it's morning in America; I'll always believe in a place called Hope. And on and on. We have mythologized ourselves to such an alarming degree that many of us live in denial of the fact that death - for most people in the world - is still an everyday occurrence. Just because we have Starbucks and I-Phones doesn't mean that we're immortal. We think we are above the rest of the world when in fact, we are connected to it.

Above, I wrote that the audience learns this powerful lesson along with the characters, and how Eli Roth impresses (and transgresses...) is by showing us the horror of torture, by visually landing us - his viewership - in his evil torture chair. Despite all the cries from moral guardians of how twisted and perverse this movie is, you will notice (I hope...) that Roth never (not one bleeding time...) adopts the point of view of the killer or torturer. On the contrary, when he turns to the subjective first person shot it is always from the perspective of the person being tortured. In other words, we are seeing through the eyes of the person suffering; not the person causing the suffering. This fact alone should serve to defend the film against cries that it is immoral, or somehow engendering blood lust. Quite the opposite: this movie asks you to sympathize with those who are treated so horribly. To give us a real world example: Hostel asks us what it must be like to be in Guantanamo Bay; or in Abu-Ghraib: without hope, terrified, lost.

The first such P.O.V. shot involves Josh awakening in the torture chamber. He is wearing a hood (shades of Abu-Ghraib indeed...) and can see only through a small round eye slit. The majority of the frame is blacked out, save for a small iris, where he can make out his torturer approaching. Later, Roth adopts the P.O.V. shot again when Paxton is captured at the factory. It is thus our hands we see scraping the walls of the factory; our feet we see dragging the floor. Excepting 3-D, and until virtual reality becomes available, this is as close visually as viewers can get to going through the horrific experience endured by these characters. What Roth is doing here is intentional and important: he is revealing that Americans - if they foolishly venture out of their delusional bubble - might awake to the reality of "blowback," the notion that our government's policy (in this case the suspension of those "quaint" Geneva Conventions) might have made the world a much less safe place. In other words, the message of the film is that you reap what you sow.

But the second element of transgression is the explanation behind the torture we see here. I hark back to Chain Saw again: the taboo shattered there was cannibalism. The Sawyer family was eating people. In Hostel, the transgression (human-on-human torture) is not motivated by twisted psychology, sexual domination, nor cannibalism, but rather an American value we have exported to the rest of the world like a religion: capitalism. (Ask yourself: who would Jesus torture?) The evil committed in Hostel is done in the name of the market, free enterprise and the pursuit of the almighty dollar. It's done to make the locals rich and nothing more. I remember in Chain Saw how it was shocking and horrific that the cannibals didn't even want to have sex with their victims. Sally Hardesty offered herself to the clan and they rejected her outright. To the cannibals she was merely ingredients for dinner.

There's that same sort of alarming, inhuman distance on display in Hostel. Only here, the value of the characters, their worth, is in what money they can draw. Josh begs his torturer to stop, noting that he will "pay" him. The torturer responds, horribly, by informing Josh that he's the one who is paying. So Josh is not an ingredient in a stew, he is a mere commodity to be bought and sold...and used (or abused) as the highest bidder sees fit. His life, his dreams of becoming a writer are unimportant because the market has dictated that his highest worth is as torture fodder. It is a terror just as powerful as Leatherface's. Whether we are ingredients or a commodity, we have been devalued as human beings in a most horrific way. "You can pay to do anything," one character is explicitly told in the film; a statement that reveals the triumph of capitalism and the American way.

What seems so frightening in both cases is the notion of running into a person who doesn't share our human values; one who is a sociopath and doesn't care if he snuffs out life; or one who murders innocent people to achieve an ideological goal. But what is so compelling about Hostel is the fricking irony. The irony that Josh and Paxton have run into callous killers who have learned the exported lessons of America too well. And those lessons are 1.) let the market decide, and 2.) torture is okay when push comes to shove. We have exported these values (just like our Big Macs) to the rest of the world in the Bush era, and it should come as a surprise to no one that the rest of the world is starting to get the message.

On a more basic "scare" level, a horror movie is effective when viewers are able to put themselves in the place of the lead character and sympathize with what they go through; usually some kind of universal human fear. Jaws is scary because we've all been in the ocean, and so we understand the fear of sharks. Psycho is scary because everybody showers. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is terrifying because ultimately, we all have to go to sleep. I submit that Hostel is frightening because it captures some universal human feeling of powerlessness. The characters in the film are strapped down to a chair, bound and gagged, and unable to move or escape. This is an ancillary fear to being buried alive, I suppose: the notion that you are trapped, immobile and at the mercy of someone else. In Hostel, this fear is palpable and carefully exploited. It's not that there's nowhere to run; it's that there's no way to run.

A great horror movie should be reflexive as well as transgressive, and Hostel fits that bill too. Midway through the film, while in search of the missing Oli, Josh and Paxton visit a torture museum...a shrine to the arcane tools that, across our history, have maimed, wounded and killed people. The question this visit raises is: why, as human beings do we tend to be fascinated with devices like these? By inference then, Roth is also asking his viewership, why do we like movies such as Hostel? What draws us in? What element of the human psyche craves this darkness, and relishes the act of causing others pain (or the voyeurism of seeing pain inflicted on others?) I have my answers (and they involve catharsis, primarily), but Hostel addresses this issue in an oblique and interesting way.

The film is reflexive in other ways. It relates directly to horror film history in that Josh and Paxton stay in room 237 of the hostel; which is the "evil" room number from Stanley Kubrick's 1980 masterpiece, The Shining, (which also charted the dark, twisted recesses of the human mind). On a more global, political level, the film clearly has soaked up the Zeitgeist of this miserable, post-911/"War on Terror" age. For instance, when Paxton scores with Svetlana and sees that the virginal (and sexually ambivalent) Josh has done so with Netalya, he enthusiastically states "Mission Accomplished," a direct reference to President Bush's premature announcement from the deck of an aircraft carrier of the end of major combat operations in Iraq. The comment means the same thing in both contexts. Both Paxton and Bush believed they had won the day; unaware that they had actually met their Waterloo.

Transgressive and reflexive, Hostel also impresses because it is never obvious what the film's end game is. These days, pre-release publicity, sneak previews and trailers reveal everything about a movie, but if you knew nothing about Hostel, you wouldn't necessarily know where it is headed. And that means the film boasts the important element of surprise. My wife, Kathryn, was surprised, for instance, by the critique of capitalism and the business angle of the story. She had assumed the torturer was simply going to be a lone wolf psychopath...not a corporate entity. But the point is that Hostel feels legitimately like a travelogue turned sour; an experience unwinding before our eyes. The good location work enhances the subtle feeling of reality, and Roth's unobtrusive but knowing compositions show us what we need to see without actually spelling everything out. There's also a sense of the unpredictable in who lives and who ultimately dies in the film.

An example of the savage cinema, Hostel is gory but not outrageously so (save for the over-the-top and somewhat unsuccessful eyegasm scene...). What makes the film powerful and scary is not just its tapping of a universal fear (of entrapment and immobility) but in its reckoning that our existence is one dominated by random fate. Lives hang in the balance, seemingly decided by a roll of the dice. A door that locks unexpectedly, or a facility for speaking German means the difference between life or death for characters in the film. Hostel also shares something in common with the slasher genre, because vice precedes slice-and-dice. The characters suffer horrible fates after badly misbehaving with drugs and sex. Moral lapses are punished with torture in some instances. Indeed, like the slasher films of the 1980s, one might make a case that there's a very conservative argument at work here. Specifically, early in the film, the boys visit a whorehouse and Josh opens a door only to be rebuffed by the occupants inside. They tell him to get out unless he wants to pay to see what they are doing. At the end of the film, Paxton bursts into a torture dungeon to rescue an Asian girl named Kana, and is told by the torturer to leave unless he wants to pay to see what's going on. "Get your own fucking room! I paid for this!" This line explicitly connects prostitution with torture, and so the argument seems to be that if a culture gets too permissive, it's a slippery slope. One day, it's free sex, the next day murder and torture for profit. Although one can legitimately argue this is merely an extension of the film's critique of capitalism, I think there's a case to be made for the conservative argument too; especially as it has been an important factor in the recent history of horror films.
Some reviewers who object to the film do so on the basis that the characters aren't particularly likable or honorable. I agree that this is the case. Josh and Paxton objectify women to an alarming degree, and as is typical of our culture engage in anti-gay slurs to belittle the manhood of others (everybody they don't like is a faggot). There is constant discussion of "sneepur" (Icelandic for "clit"), pussy, and so forth. However, I would make the case that every bit of this characterization is 100% intentional. The point of Hostel - you reap what you sow - would not be possible without first charting, at least to a degree, American arrogance. Paxton and Josh represent that quality perfectly. They are on tour for selfish reasons (to build some memorable experiences before turning to their careers), they treat women as receptacles, they engage in drugs, and they invite those they don't like to "kiss my American ass." The film involves taking these characters down a notch; introducing them to a larger world outside the bubble of American superiority and safety. Without showing such behavior, this point wouldn't be made. At least not so cogently.
Despite the callow nature of the film's protagonists, I felt for them as their lives turned sour. These two youths had dreams and futures in mind. Paxton tells a story about his youth (and a girl who drowned at Lake Michigan) that explains a lot about him, and Josh is awkward and dorky not in a typical movie way, but in a very real, uncomfortable way. I went to college with guys just like Paxton and Josh. One of my best friends, in fact, looked and sounded and acted exactly like Josh. These characters are recognizable if not deep, and ultimately you come to care that they are imperiled. This doesn't mean that they are a pair of Einsteins; but that's part of the film's message too: the lure here is no deeper than Paxton's Beavis and Butthead-like exclamation "juggs!" when he sees a naked woman in the hostel spa.
Basically, Hostel is far more accomplished than critics gave it credit for being. There's even an economic argument underlying the film (another factor the film shares in common with the trail-blazing Texas Chain Saw Massacre). Remember how in that film, the local slaughterhouse had been closed, leading to mass unemployment in the area, and ultimately to starvation...then cannibalism. In Hostel, the old factory is ruined, of no use, until it is re-purposed in the new global a torture dungeon. The film features many artful long shots revealing the desolation of the landscape; vast, empty industrial fields...where nothing is being manufactured or produced. In a world like this, people do grow desperate. I would never condone torture, but if it were the only major industry of your town (the only way to "put food on our family" as President Bush might turn a phrase), would it be so easy to walk away from?
Roth makes this point in two ways. First, he shows us the "workers" in the torture chamber. There's a lumbering old hunchback whose job it is to cut up the body parts of the dead and throw them into the furnace. Not very nice, but it pays the bills I guess. Secondly, the film's opening sequence reveals a dungeon being hosed clean, while on the soundrack, an unseen worker whistles contentedly. These sequences reveal two things. First, they make it plain that this is a business and that like any business, people work there to get by. Secondly, by showing how torture has become an industry, Roth is able to express the idea that human beings can close down their emotions and do anything, anything, if it's a matter of survival.
I'm not going to argue that Hostel is pleasant to watch. But it is scary, intelligent, occasionally humorous in a macabre way, and highly relevant to the times we live in. It isn't a traditional horror film where the monster is outside humanity. The villain here isn't a Mummy, an alien, a vampire, a werewolf or any of the usual suspects. Why, the villain isn't even a sociopathic human being, a psychotic killer. It's more uncomfortable than that. You see, what makes the film so fascinating to me is that the villain is the system itself. The very American belief that when it comes down to it, absolutely everything is for sale. Even life and death. Paxton and Josh subscribe to this belief themselves, in regards to sex and drugs and anything else their hearts desire at any given moment.
Only one of them lives to regret it.


  1. Great review. I hadn't thought much about similarities to Chainsaw, because I was so focused on similarities to the 1932 film "The Most Dangerous Game," and more recent films with the same premise, like 1994's "Surviving the Game" and John Woo's "Hard Target"... both of which had something to say about American capitalism. In those films, the "hunted" were under-privileged members of society, stalked by the rich. Interesting that this latest incarnation of the story gives us a new victim (the target audience's "best friend from college").

  2. Anonymous12:22 PM

    As you know I don’t watch many horror films, but the Marxist critique that’s coming through your description and analysis of the film has piqued my interest. I’ll try to watch it before we meet to transfer footage.

  3. I have not yet watched this film because I've encountered many "alternative" readings that don't buy the fact that Hostel's ideology is positive. I most frequently encounter the idea that Hostel, window-dressing and gorno content aside, is a wildly xenophobic exercise. For instance (as with something like TOURISTAS), there is a thread in many films in contemporary U.S. cinema - regardless of genre - in which any "other" place in the world is painting as evil, depraved, and dangerous for WASP middle classers. From other things that I've read, HOSTEL seems to confirm the mindset that its not a very good idea for Americans to go to any country that is not an advanced capitalist nation or a social democratic, Western European state.

    I think what I'm expressing, John, is something that we discussed in relation to your 1980s book. Can these films be progressive (which I take to be a positive word, adjoining the idea that social texts exists to, in some way, better articulate the human experience and provide alternatives or "ways out" from the world's fears)? If their transgression is nihilistic, are they ultimately just affirming the pessimism of the age, or are they rather showing the reactionary consequences of the times in which we live? And if films like HOSTEL are valuable at all, is it only for their sensationalist taboos, or their comments on world relations, or their stories?

    Just skeptical, since HOSTEL is precisely the impulse to which I am most skeptical (hostile) in contemporary horror.

  4. Kevin:

    I enjoyed your comment, and it got me thinking about the film again.

    Hostel does, by way of mitigation, feature positive foreign role models in the form of at least two central characters, primarily; Icelandic Oli and the Asian girl, Kana.

    However, I would be lying if I claimed the film doesn't feature some aspect of xenophobia. Yet I see this as a critical and absolutely vital element of the genre as a whole.

    There are very few horror movies that don't single out some kind of "other" to fear, if you get right down to it. But the reason is not necessarily a malice or hatred of other cultures or all things non-American, but rather the necessity in horror to keep protagonists and audiences off-balance.

    The stranger in a strange land is a powerful horror archetype, and I honestly don't think a director could "do" horror without that aspect in his or her quiver of techniques.

    For instance, much of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (old and remake) hinges on a deep-seated but undeniably biased fear of regional differences: you know; don't get stopped by the cops if you're driving through Texas!!!!

    Also, the fear of foreign lands and foreign customs (Americans abroad!) informs such great horror classics as Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, The Wicker Man (original), And Soon the Darkness, and on and on. The fear of the foreign (and the dangerous allure of the foreign...) is also an important facet of the Gothic archetype and can be seen in cinema going back as far as Bela Lugosi's Dracula in the 1930s.

    Again, I would argue this isn't a hatred of other cultures and a lauding of all things American, but rather a necessary tool to make characters "feel" vulnerable and off-balance...which is necessary to generate scares (and also to prevent the cavalry - in the form of our laws and policemen... from interrupting the chainsaw massacre.)

    Hostel does indeed depict a foreign world where Americans (and others from other nations too...) are imperiled, but I would make the case that Roth in his use of long shots and establishing shots (the rotting factory; the desolate train station when the boys first arrive in Slovakia...) generates at least a subconscious and under-the-surface sense of sympathy for the people who live there. They are poor. They have nothing. This is done entirely with visuals, I admit, but film is a visual medium first and foremost.

    I should stress too that xenophobia is part of the terrain here intentionally (and thus commented on...) in the sense that how Paxton and Josh "see" their new foreign environs (a resource to be exploited) is very much part of the plot. Their beliefs (their American arrogant beliefs...) are very much part of the landscape of Hostel; at least how I read it.

    So I do recommend the film; even though I understand what your reservations are. My primary reservation before the film was that I simply had zero interest in seeing people torture other people. I didn't realize that the "torture" was going to be used to support what in essence is a social commentary on our times. I'm glad I got over my preconceived notions about the film and watched it; if that's helpful at all to you in rendering a decision on a rental or not.

  5. Anonymous3:06 PM

    Hey John,

    It's been a long time since I have posted on here but this has inspired me. I LOVE the Hostel movies! I am thrilled to see that you think it is the best horror movie made so far in the 21st century. All I can say is, if you loved Hostel, just wait till you see Hostel II! I think that both of them are two of the best horror movies ever made, of any decade.

    Chris Johnson

  6. Chris,

    Glad you wrote in! I haven't seen Hostel II yet, but I'm looking forward to it. I've heard a lot of people say it is indeed quite a good film, and some folks I've takked to also think it's better than the first film.

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  8. Shawn Neal5:32 PM

    I'm in the process of reading your book, Horror Films of the 1980's, and really enjoyed reading your reviews and also your thoughts on the underlying issues within each movie. Searching you, I found your blog, which is a great way to get more of your insight on more current movies.
    With that said, I can say I had the same reservations you had in watching this film. I thought it was trying to run with the concepts introduced with the "Saw" movies. And similar to them, I would enjoy the movie yet be sicken that I did. Instead I saw a movie that already takes the premise of Hostel and puts a humorous spin on it (similar to Shaun of the Dead's take on zombie films, though not as comical). I highly recommend you rent "Severance" if you haven't seen it already. It approaches critiquing capitalism in 2 different ways then Hostel but with the same slasher/torturer type of feel. 1) Commenting, similar to Office Space, on how ridiculous office culture is, especially when it tries to be carried over in the middle of a forest in Eastern Europe and 2) what are the effects of corporations in America and in this film, Britain, on other countries. Especially if you work for an arms corporation, like the characters in this movie.
    Thanks for doing what you do and for giving some great movies a new audience.

  9. Shawn,

    Thanks for writing the review of Horror Films of the 1980s at I ran across it today!

    Also, welcome to the blog. I hope you'll be a regular visitor (and commenter).