If you can give Eli Roth credit for one thing, its that he’s upfront about himself and his interests. A self-promoter to be sure, the guy nevertheless has an obvious love of the horror film genre and in particular the subset of ‘gore-nography’ which builds a movie around a simple but effective premise and then indulges in heavy use of blood, tits and gore. It’s a genre that was huge back in the 70’s, then vanished, only to have emerged again first overseas in Asian cinema and more recently again with films like “Saw”, “High Tension” and “The Devil’s Rejects”.
Roth’s first attempt, his debut feature “Cabin Fever,” simply didn’t work as a horror movie but did play on the level of an enjoyably campy low-budget dark comedy. More conventional horror fans will be far more satisfied with “Hostel” though which also demonstrates impressive growth in terms of Roth’s filmmaking capabilities, even if the film doesn’t exactly break any new ground. The premise and early scenes play out a little clunky, but makes up for it later on when the chills are at full effect and all the while it indulges in Roth’s trademark sex and gore-toned humour (albeit more toned down than “Cabin Fever”).
The first third of “Hostel,” when not displaying of breasts or snatch galore, sets up a scenario of a group of American college kids backpacking around Europe in search of thrills on the cheap and being told to head to Slovakia. Male backpackers from western countries sadly often do fit the stereotype which this film portrays two of its three leads as – dumb, loud, brash, arrogant, cheapskate pricks out only for sex and drugs and with no respect for anyone but themselves. Thus much of these early scenes ring true, albeit cheesy thanks to some “Eurotrip” style outlandish characterisation.
The Bratislava in this film doesn’t have friendly “Miami Vice” watching peasants, rather its filled with gorgeous women in a very lavish looking hostel. Credit to actor Derek Richardson for making one of this trio into a mildly sympathetic lead – even with admittedly lackluster scripting, he’s able to convey his character as thoughtful, inexperienced and the only one of the trio with a seemingly reasonable head on his shoulders albeit one far too inept to truly root for. The rest of the cast do decent jobs as well with their limited characters, Hernandez in particular is fun as a cocky asshole whom you hope will receive a much deserved comeuppance.
Then the horror begins, and this is where the film will divide it audience. I’m much more of an atmosphere and scares fan than a gore movie fanatic, I don’t mind the gore so long as its delivered with shocks and punch, but it has neither here. Taking inspiration from the likes of the artistic Takashi Miike to the more exploitative Herschel Gordon Lewis, the horror is pure old school in mold – all visual dynamic with little forethought or dramatic power. Unlike the aforementioned Miike though (who makes a brief cameo), there’s no real weirdness or different levels of subtext – its all pretty mainstream and straightforwardly commercial. Thus you won’t jump so much as say “ewww!!” once or twice when you get an eyeful of oozing fluids and snipped appendages.
Admittedly the film isn’t as dismissable as the lackluster “Saw” movies or last year’s woeful “The Devil’s Rejects”. There’s no reliance on crappy MTV-style quick-cut editing, and whilst the moments of torture are needlessly cruel, its never as unrelenting as “The Devil’s Rejects” thanks to breaks in the horror giving audiences breathers between the gross outs. Roth also demonstrates a more assured hand in filmmaking terms – the visuals at times striking, the pace almost never lulling, and elements from the production design to the music all come off with a decent style.
Yet there’s little displayed in the way of intent – the humour is more subtle than “Cabin Fever” but is far from clever or biting enough to take on the issue of Americans abroad in modern times. It’s actually kind of frustrating as it effectively conveys both the macho xenophobic posturing of young Westerners in foreign countries, and the mild antagonism that people feel towards American tourists in their homelands in the post-Iraq environment, but never really does anything with them beyond spelling them out.
There’s also mild attempts at political subtext in terms of mass consumerism of illicit activities, but it never really has much to say about so interesting a topic because it plays that hand far too late in the game. It’s an interesting setup, with many of the elements clicking better than expected, but in desperate need of a stronger script and sense of identity – especially towards the end as the adult creepiness turns to cornball popcorn antics. Sharp with its irony at times, needlessly dimwitted at others, it’s a schizophrenic film but one with a lot of style and simmering potential to be a cult hit.