Directed by Eli Roth.
Starring Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson and Eythor Gudjonsson.
Three backpackers travelling through Europe find themselves staying in a hostel with a dark secret.
It’s difficult to deny that Hostel is an important film within the horror genre, ushering in a wave of torture porn. David Edelstein’s 2006 article ‘Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn’ is largely credited with the first use of the term ‘torture porn’ to describe a distinct group of films. Sure, the term torture porn has been retroactively applied to Saw (2004), a film which is now considered to be key viewing within this exploitative subgenre, but Hostel popularised the term. Director Eli Roth has hit back at the terminology, claiming “I think that the term ‘torture porn’ genuinely says more about the critic’s limited understanding of what horror movies can do than about the film itself” – which is a fair point. Regardless, by labelling a film as torture porn, you’re generally aware of what you’re getting into (generally graphic senseless gore), and rarely are there any surprises to be had. There are countless debates to be had regarding the worth of this critically-applied term, but that’s for another time – right now, we’ve got a movie to discuss.
Hostel takes its time to really get going. We’re introduced to two American backpackers, Josh (Derek Richardson) and Paxton (Jay Hernandez), who are travelling across Europe with their Icelandic friend Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), the self-titled ‘King of Swing’. This trio are primarily preoccupied with two things, sex and drugs. To Paxton and Oli, women are mere objects to be fucked, and although Josh is a little more sensitive, deep down he’s also a red-blooded American male wanting to score. The set-up is strikingly familiar to EuroTrip (2004) and both films actually feature eerily similar moments set in a train carriage. Unfortunately, Hostel attempts to get us to like these horny males by including supposedly comedic scenes, but this doesn’t really do a good enough job of establishing the characters. If anything, once the idea of comedy has been introduced, the rest of the film just feels awkwardly comedic instead of horrific.
After visiting a few clubs and showing us copious amounts of boobs, the trio are told about a hostel near Bratislava. It’s the sort of place that isn’t featured in any guidebooks, but there is a plethora of hot local girls just desperate for some American action. It’s around this point that my first issue with the film is raised. Roth seems keen to portray American ignorance (both Josh and Paxton are hardly understanding of foreign cultures), yet is constantly reaffirming and reasserting American authority and desirable status. We can easily read Hostel as a warning to Americans – your paranoia of the outside world is justified, just look at what could happen to you!
The first third of the film wastes our time trying to get us to side with these unlikeable characters, but once the second act kicks in things get a little more interesting. In a move lifted from Psycho (1960), Josh, the least detestable guy, is killed off. With over half the movie still to go, it appears we’ve lost our protagonist. Paxton steps up to assume lead, and must navigate his way out of a factory where innocent tourists are chained to chairs and brutally murdered with an assortment of tools by the rich with too much money for morals.
Roth interestingly casts Takashi Miike in a cameo role, which is perhaps a little unfortunate. Sure, we think we see more torture than we actually do in Hostel (and rarely is the gore particularly unpleasant – one eye-slicing scene sounds far more horrid than it actually is) but the sight of Miike reminds us of a film that similarly includes acts of torture – Audition (Ôdishon) (1999). Now here is an example of a film that doesn’t just rely on torture to sustain a plot, and one is left wishing we were watching an equally accomplished example of filmmaking.
That’s not to say Roth is entirely without talent. Hostel does raise some really interesting ideas and themes, but they’re never really developed to their full potential. It takes more than just schlocky special effects to properly get under the skin and unsettle, and sadly Hostel doesn’t have much else to offer. The last third is at least vaguely entertaining, but the film is severely hampered by questionable acting and a messy narrative. Besides a couple of stand-out scenes, there is sadly little to warrant recommending this movie to those who aren’t easily pleased by just gore and boobs.
I want to offer a defence to Hostel, but the first act is so successful in crafting really odious characters that it seems almost futile. This is one of those cases where the idea far surpasses the film itself. I do like Eli Roth’s enthusiasm for the horror genre and I think he is a director with potential, but here he flounders early and struggles to really recover. Still, that didn’t stop Hostel from being hugely successful and profitable – evidently an audience exists for torture porn.