Any first year magician or politician will tell you the most important part of their particular craft is misdirection.
It is misdirection more than anything else that aids Eli Roth in his sophomore film, HOSTEL.
While I didn't dislike Roth's first film, CABIN FEVER, I wasn't as overly exuberant as some of the other net critics. Basically, I felt that it was a beautifully shot film with some clever bits and a good amount of dread. It however went off on too many tangents for my taste and went out of the way to introduce you to quirky characters that had little or no bearing on the plot. HOSTEL retains a youthful cast in search of cheap thrills, a special type of horny twentysomethings I recently dubbed "Rotholytes." Where HOSTEL differs from CABIN FEVER in this regard is that as we get to know each of the three main protagonists, we genuinely like them and that makes what they will eventually go through so much more harrowing. There are no hangers-on like CABIN FEVER's Bert or the frat boys of 2001 MANIACS which Roth co-produced through his Raw Nerve company. All of the people, even the comically horny "king of the swing" Oli are good-natured enough to empathize with.
Their exploits don't get old, which is good, because we have a long time to get to know them. This is where the misdirection comes in. With its first images, HOSTEL lets us know that it is a horror film. But then, it makes us forget this obvious fact throughout the first half of the film. Instead, we are treated to the misadventures of our three protagonists, with subtle hints at what is to come every once in a while. A co-worker of mine compared the first half of the film to the surprisingly funny comedy EURO TRIP (whose original title UGLY AMERICANS, I would have liked a whole lot more). While I'm sure any similarities are purely coincidental, the fact is several coincidences to present themselves.
Like the film which had me uncomfortably watching Michelle Trachtenberg mature (Hell, I just got done watching her play a barely pubescent character on BUFFY, people!), HOSTEL concerns two Americans and a like-minded world traveler as they go on a cross-continental trek of Europe. Like most Americans, they want to get close to the art and culture of a world several centuries older than their own, to touch the artists and lords that once walked the cobblestoned streets and lush green hillsides. That and they want to take cheap drugs and get laid a lot. Yes, definitely the drugs and the getting laid.
It is during this debaucherous quest that the group is directed to Slovakia, staying at a hostel where they are promised astoundingly hot European women whose sole mission in life is to partake in drunken orgies with greasy Americans. Like any group of good horror movie dupes, they fall for it. This no doubt makes any tourist-haters very happy.
I will not go into great detail over the horrific aspects of HOSTEL, but trust me it's not because of any lack of content. Instead, it is something one really should experience fresh. All the cute, cuddly, carefree whimsy that defines the first half of HOSTEL is perverted into a brutal, visceral experience in the second. The film turns into a relentless, pulse-pounding feast for horror fans and adrenaline junkies alike. Even when the film reconnects with previously introduced comical characters, we no longer see them through rose-tinted glasses.
And that is one of the themes in HOSTEL. Vacations are trips built around romanticism and fantasy. Whether you're visiting Luxemburg, London or Louisiana, there are two sides to every beauteous locale - the one we show the tourists and the real one, which might contain things not suitable for any brochure.
Myself, I live in Florida, right down the street from Tampa. Now, I will not pretend that the pleasant beauty of this fine state had nothing to do with me moving here. It certainly had more to do with the weather than with our questionable vote counting, asshole governor or citizens' knack for freaking out whenever some vegetable's tube is pulled. I look up at the sky, with more stars at night than I ever saw up north and just marvel. Hell, if I could drive, I would be down at the beach every day, preferably with a notebook and some good tunes. That said, after just three years down here, I brace myself for the tourist season. Hey, most of them are good people, but it doesn't get me out of traffic jams any easier. Less than half a decade down here, and in my weaker moments, I find myself picking up the mantra of "Yankee, go home."
Yes, no nation is made up solely of its postcards. So, when HOSTEL unveils this unseemly little truth, it should come as no surprise to us that many of the faces that greeted our tourists with smiling faces and outstretched hands now respond with snarls and closed fists. It is no accident that the people who inflict pain and suffering on the unsuspecting victims of the hostel itself, never do so against their own countrymen. One may expect the antagonists to remain native to the strange dark country into which our tourists have ventured, but it is much more complicated that that. There is a hierarchy of cruelty in which one party exploits another who exploits another who in turn does the dirty deed. The actual violence perpetrated within this film is done by the bottom rung, just like in any country. But it gives these people a certain distance from their victims. This lack of intimacy allows them to work out their aggression, their prejudice and their xenophobia on other races. Thus, Roth's films are starting to take on layers and complexities found in the best of horror. It's the type of daring filmmaking that our genre directors explored throughout the 1970s.
Watching HOSTEL, it's almost as if CABIN FEVER was the film where Roth was merely getting his feet wet. HOSTEL contains many of CABIN FEVER's main components, but everything is honed and focused so much more clearly. The Rotholytes are fleshed out characters. The quirky personalities they encounter are more amusing and all have a relevance to the plot. And the horror, oh the horror is so much more satisfying. The only thing that surpasses HOSTEL's whimsy is its brutality and the only thing that surpasses its brutality it its intensity.
Seeing HOSTEL unfold is a thrilling experience, and when its done you really felt like you've been through a truly nerve-racking journey. It even ends at just the right time. People may be discouraged from this film, simply because the hype machine has been working overtime. But this is one of those all-too-rare cases when the hype is justified. Already it will be hard for any other horror film to beat HOSTEL this year.
- Scott W. Davis