Hostel is as brutal a film as you’re likely to see this year — and it was released the first week in January, when it won the weekend box office race. Written and directed by Eli Roth, primarily at utterly visceral levels, much like the ’70s and ”80s low-budget horror films it emulates, Also like the early work of John Carpenter and Wes Craven, this one includes a not-so-subtextual critique of class systems and consumer culture.
This time, the critique goes global, in a perversely parochial way. American backpackers Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson) are traveling with their new friend Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), each trying hard to impress the others with his capacity for partying. In Amsterdam, they’re mightily amazed by the availability of sex, marijuana, and hash, all of these indulgences featured in graphic imagery. The boys are thrilled to learn from the ultra-skeezy Alex (Lubomir Silhavecky) that a hostel in Slovakia promises even more loose girls and more potent drugs. They hop on a train tout suite.
Here they’re forewarned of the mayhem to come when a fellow traveler, an older Dutchman (Jan Vlasák), makes an unwanted pass at Josh. Still, the boys’ cockiness only escalates when they meet a few girls who do indeed seem enthralled with them, in particular giggly Natalya (Barbara Nedeljáková) and Svetlana (Jana Kaderabkova), who “accidentally” flash their naked breasts at the travelers when they first enter the room they’re supposed to share. Soon enough, the boys are following them to the local watering hole. A few hours later, and everyone is having sex.
Still later, one by one, the boys start disappearing. Though Paxton and Josh think Oli’s just abandoned them, they’re troubled by the thought that maybe he “wouldn’t do that,” no matter that the girls they’ve met suggest they blow it off. Josh’s disappearance makes Paxton definitely suspicious, and he pushes the now bored Natalya and Svetlana until they agree to take him to the “art show” where Josh has reportedly gone.
You can imagine what sort of art they’re talking about, though at this point Paxton cannot. When he wakes up tied to a chair with a spastic German man whizzing a chainsaw over him, Paxton eventually pieces together that they have been kidnapped for use in torture rituals by wealthy customers who pay to abuse and kill pretty young tourists (Americans go for the most money, for no clear reason except to underline the arrogance of Americans and the hatred they inspire in their torturers, one played in cameo by Takashi Miike, director of ghastly classic Audition). Paxton’s efforts to escape are excruciating, mainly because of the things he sees (lots of point of view shots here — the limits make the tension worse): body-chopping (by a thug in an apron, assigned to dispose of the detritus) and body parts sliding off carts, slimy from all the blood and guts.
Paxton undergoes all kinds of horrific violence (his fingers cut off, seeing Josh’s body dismembered), then escapes, only to go back to rescue the frightened girl Kana (Jennifer Lim), whom he met earlier at the dreaded hostel. Here in the basement (metaphorical and literal), he finds her by following her bloodcurdling screams. He opens the door of her torture chamber and voila! She’s still screaming, her eye hanging out of its socket. To get her moving, Paxton has to engage in his own act of violence, repulsive but apparently necessary.
Such impossible situations leave Paxton’s status in constant flux. Though — or because — Paxton begins the film as one of those careless Yankees, his efforts first to comprehend and then to fight back against his abusers seem almost feeble. He’s suddenly the Last Girl in a movie about cocky boys who become vulnerable beyond their wildest dreams. And now he has to rig traps and maneuver through small spaces, shoot at and hide from monsters just like those nightgowned screaming meemies did in the ’80s.
Hostel makes another twist for Paxton when he must pose as one of the clients. While both wear rubber aprons and gloves (Paxton doing his best to hide his missing fingers), he shares a conversation with an anxious first-timer (Rick Hoffman). This weird scene — the other man so overeager and Paxton so repulsed — suggests the film’s other agenda, the one that’s not just grossing out and repulsively titillating an audience familiar with gore conventions (the audience with whom I saw the film booed when the film cut from penetrations and mutilations to show instruments or blood splatters instead). Whether or not Paxton recognizes his own consumerist frenzy in this pompous, too-excited goon, you can hardly miss the mirror images of grasping for hedonistic experiences at the expense of “native” cultures and compliant objects.
Much as the film has been condemned for its grotesque excesses — and these are legion — it is, in fact, not reckless. Though it makes its indictments both viscerally and abstractly, in ways so macabre they’re easy to overlook, it does make them.