Published on October 10th, 2015 | by Clint Davis
Summary: Director Eli Roth's unlikely smash hit took a brutal stance against American consumerism while raking in millions on the public's bloodlust. The movie conveys a chilling premise but gratuitous nudity and awful characters drag it down.
R | 94 min.
Director & Screenplay: Eli Roth
Starring: Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Barbara Nedeljáková
Worldwide Box Office: $80.5 million (#67 of 2005)
In the mid-2000s, the bloodlust of the moviegoing public was at its highest peak since the slasher genre exploded in the 1980s. The post-Sixth Sense popularity of the PG-13 thriller was losing its grip on audiences, but hardcore, R-rated horror was back in fashion thanks to the first two Saw films, which raked in over $250 million in 2004 and 2005.
The distribution studio that was riding high on the blood-gushing hog? Lionsgate. This still-new studio slapped its name on some of highest-grossing R-rated flicks of the last decade and resurrected grindhouse horror on a mainstream level. Lionsgate released 19 movies in 2005, including Saw II, The Devil’s Rejects and Three… Extremes. But as the new year approached, the studio was set to release perhaps its most gruesome — and controversial — picture yet.
Hostel hit theaters on Jan. 6, 2006 after being heavily promoted as one of the most shocking films to ever see a wide release in America. I remember being 17 years old and going with two of my buddies to see it on opening weekend. My expectations were high in terms of shock value because of everything I’d read, but being a kid who’d always been a lover of extreme horror, I only came away from Hostel disappointed.
I owned DVD copies of Cannibal Holocaust and Faces of Death, and I’d seen I Spit On Your Grave and Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. I felt like Hostel was an admirable attempt at shocking my teenage sensibilities but it had fallen short. Maybe it was the attractive production values and overall sheen on the film compared to those raw 1970s gems, but I just felt I’d seen it all before.
After sitting back down with Hostel more recently, I realized my teenage self had failed to see what the movie did so well.
Despite all the advertisements proclaiming this film was destined to shock audiences and the bullshit-filled critics who dubbed it “torture porn” (one of the lamest attempts at labeling a subgenre I’ve ever heard), Hostel wasn’t a movie made to show people being gruesomely mutilated. It was a statement film made by a horror director who truly cared about both his message and his craft.
But it also had some sick-ass gore!
The plot of Hostel is pretty straightforward. We follow a pair of American college students and their Icelandic friend on a backpacking trip through Europe. The trio of overgrown boys embody all the worst stereotypes of “bro-dom” — rampant misogyny, an air of entitlement and near-constant homoerotic horseplay. Indeed, they are a cliché group of ugly Americans abroad — yes, they even make a weed-filled stop in Amsterdam — but as your disdain for them mounts, you’re relieved by the knowledge that they will all be painfully tortured and likely killed later in the film.
But how does the film transition from a raucous tour through Europe to a grisly exercise in horror? That’s the best thing about Hostel. Not enjoying Amsterdam’s debauchery enough, the men hear about a hostel in Slovakia where there is an endless gaggle of horny, attractive women. So after a few conversations in which the word “pussy” is tossed around liberally, the gang boards a train to Slovakia. But the hostel in question turns out to be an elaborate ruse designed to capture young tourists to be used as subjects by a secret club of wealthy men who pay thousands to torture and kill people.
A club of rich guys who pay to act out their sickest fantasies on helpless people who can easily disappear? It’s as creepy a premise as I’ve ever heard in a horror movie — and just simple enough to be believable.
Writer-director Eli Roth has one of Hollywood’s sickest and sharpest minds. His respect for the unflinching foreign horror films of the 1970s shows through in nearly every frame of Hostel, just as his old-school devotion to hand-made makeup effects was obvious in his 2002 debut Cabin Fever. He sticks to his shock-horror roots in this film by showing the audience some disgusting feats of gore. We see a man try to stand after getting his Achilles tendons sliced open; we witness another screaming man have half of his hand lopped off by a chainsaw; and in the movie’s sickest moment, we watch as a woman’s eyeball must be snipped off with a pair of scissors as it’s hanging far out of its socket.
There’s no question that Hostel isn’t for the faint hearted, but Roth’s smarts shine in the story’s subtext. What I got from Hostel more recently that I didn’t grasp as a teenager was Roth’s take on American ignorance and the dangers of unchecked capitalism.
The three protagonists (and I use that term very generously) show zero respect for any of the countries in which they are guests. They’re drunk, loud and only out to get laid. At one point, Josh (Derek Richardson), who’s the sweetheart of the group and likely a repressed homosexual, complains rhetorically to his pals, “Did we come all the way to Europe to smoke pot?” His question is answered with a joke and the three proceed to get stoned and then applaud themselves for getting thrown out of a club for starting a fight.
They are jackasses and they represent every young, white American college kid who spends a month farting around overseas and later refers to it as “when I lived in Europe … “
The guys are hedonists who are just looking to get their rocks off — no matter the price. Roth’s script then turns their situation inward, turning them into prey for an even worse group of fun-seeking predators with larger wallets. Money is at the center of all the horrible things that happen in Hostel. In the film, capitalism is still a relatively new concept to the former Soviet nation of Slovakia but some business owners have found an extreme way to take advantage of the free market. The group who organize and participate in the torture sessions are called Elite Hunting and like any self-respecting enterprise they even have a business card and a logo.
The severity of a vice is often limited to the amount of cash one has available. A group of street-dwelling kids in the movie use reckless violence to get candy; the backpackers use handfuls of money to get drugs, drinks and women; the members of Elite Hunting use thousands of dollars and discretion to satisfy a taboo bloodlust. The bottom line in Roth’s story: everything has a price.
While I applaud the ambitious theme of Hostel’s storyline and the careful eye with which Roth directed it, the movie’s strengths are often outweighed by its glaring problems. A large chunk of the film’s runtime is filled with gratuitous nudity. Copious amounts of naked breasts are often par for the course with dumbed-down horror films but Hostel is smarter and better than that. Some of the nudity drives home the hedonism present in the lead characters but after a while, it just feels like we’re filling time.
Acting and character development are also liabilities in this film. There isn’t a single performance or character that really stand out in your head once the credits roll. We’ve got a lot of one-dimensional players and it doesn’t leave much for the actors to work with.
In terms of criticizing the volume of extreme violence and bloodshed in Hostel, my only complaint is that Roth seemed to pull back too much at times. This is one of those film’s whose reputation precedes it so anyone sitting down with Hostel knows to expect graphic imagery but there are times when the camera cuts away at pivotal moments of brutality. When it comes to making an extreme horror picture, I say leave it all on the screen and make the audience squirm.
Roth is the kind of director that doesn’t crank movies out on a regular basis. Since 2005, he has only directed three films, two of which came out in 2015. Hostel remains his highest-grossing film to date and likely the one that will be listed first in his obituary.