The most remarkable quality of the picture lies in its ability to find the razor’s edge of hope, and dangle us across it long enough to get a sense that, at some point, there may be a moment of relief for at least one of the movie’s poor sufferers. And indeed there is one: narrow and off at a great distance with many hurdles in between, some semblance of closure does exist for a particular player in this maddening game of slaughter and screams. But the movie would not warrant positive marks merely on the basis of its ability to spare one soul in a conclusion, either. The journey he and countless others endure fragment them from the comforts of a civilized reality, but it does so gradually, establishing distinct rules (however harsh) in the process, and undertaking the trek with certain pace and discipline. And even when the movie does release the hounds of horror, Roth’s direction is so on-target that it’s impossible not to admire the meticulous ferocity of it. Whereas most modern slasher films cut straight to the flesh-ripping for no purpose of art or psychological stimulation, “Hostel” marries them with skillful execution and, somehow, a relevant subtext.
The premise is formulated from a long-standing tradition in horror films in which characters are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, usually resulting in unspeakable pain and suffering. Sometimes their fate is brought on by the curse of curiosity. Think of the fatalities of “Evil Dead,” or the unfortunate victims in the “Halloween” pictures; a world exists all around them where shadows and soundtrack chords seemingly give birth to monstrous entities capable of harming simple people to grave lengths, and sometimes beyond the measure of imagination. The three male protagonists in this film are adventurers back-packing across Europe, and the next destination on their trip is Amsterdam: a place that, as a minor character explains early on, will be a great source of fun and booze (and beautiful women) for any group of young agile men. Unfortunately for them, there is also a world of horrible gratuity resting in its trenches, and each of them will participate unwillingly in a game in which they are lured, sold and victimized in an elaborate human slaughterhouse that even most horror movie villains would find overzealous.
The screenplay progresses to that reality gradually rather than forcefully – a good half hour of the movie plays out without so much as a scream, and the characters enjoy endless nights out on the town, heavy drinking, sex with big-breasted ladies with thick accents, and carefree demeanors that are unburdened by thoughts of a tomorrow. Too bad for them. Foreshadowing begins to creep over their journey early on when an older man sits next to them aboard a train, and reveals traces of psychotic tendencies through conversations that are awkward and suggestive (one of the guys perceives it as a homosexual come-on, but us movie buffs immediately recall the famous early scene in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” when a van of teenagers picks up a creepy hitchhiker and set the stage for all sorts of impending violence).
Later still, after their first romp with a group of ladies has boosted their egos, one of the guys disappears without a trace. While the hostel registry shows him checking out that morning, his friends doubt its validity, even after they get a text message from his phone indicating that he has decided to return home (which is in turn leads to a quiet but shocking reveal in the following scene). That night, the two friends hang around the hostel as if waiting for their lost comrade to show up somewhere, and pass out after having a few drinks. A second friend disappears the next morning, except this time the movie takes us directly to the place he has been moved to: a dark underground corridor where shadowy figures whistle happy little tunes while horrible screams carry over from nearby rooms. I will not dare reveal what he is subjected to over the following five minutes.
None of this material is remotely original even for a genre determined to push every button in modern times, but “Hostel” has an intriguing benefit: it portrays these details through a pragmatic lens, and holds back on urges to undercut the effect with deafening soundtrack cues or actors mugging for screen time. Ironically, the performances are actually more legit than a movie like this probably deserves: in particular, Jay Hernandez as the backpacker Paxton, and Jan Vlasák as the mysterious Dutch businessman from aboard the train to Amsterdam. Hernandez plays the material straight and never amps up the drama to excessive levels, even in the one scene that would warrant it: he is chained to a chair and taunted with a hand rake, and then pleads with his German captor in his native tongue as a way of appealing to any possible humanity left in him. Vlasák, meanwhile, finds the right note of disturbing when an earlier victim in the film listens unwillingly to a diatribe about always wanting to be a surgeon, and then becomes a guinea pig for all kinds of sharp surgical instruments.
What inspired Eli Roth, an understudy of the great Quentin Tarrantino, to make a movie as lurid as this with an air of seriousness? Heck if I know. But regardless of the intention, the movie discovers a mood that never diminishes the visuals to simple exercises in blood and gore, and his script even marries them to an intriguing political argument: the idea that, in a Europe seeped in anti-American sentiment, English-speaking victims go for top dollar in the seller’s circle. Yet there are even more alarming qualities. The dialogue is pointed and believable. The horror seems to sneak up on characters that emerge as more than disposable flesh. The cinematography has precision, and the film isn’t overly edited as if to create a greater sense of anxiety in audiences; it simply finds its tension through situations, and plays them out succinctly. To call “Hostel” a good film is inaccurate because that would imply it has any basis of entertainment value, which it does not. But it is very well made and realized, and never backs down from the audacity to unleash unspeakable horrors in a world that, alarmingly enough, seems like it has always functioned under the influence of horrendous rules.
Author's Note: This review was originally started in 2005 but never completed. Now, it has been revised, expanded and finished for publication. More will follow in this manner.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Horror (US); 2005; Rated R for brutal scenes of torture and violence, strong sexual content, language and drug use; Running Time: 94 Minutes
Jay Hernandez: Paxton
Derek Richardson: Josh
Eythor Gudjonsson: Oli
Barbara Nedeljakova: Natalya
Jan Vlasák: The Dutch Businessman
Produced by Chris Briggs, Mike Fleiss, Daniel S. Frisch, Eli Roth, Scott Spiegel, Quentin Tarantino, Philip Waley and Boaz Yakin; Directed and written by Eli Roth