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. In 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.