Running time: 94 mins
Director: Eli Roth
Starring: Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eythor Gudjonsson, Rick Hoffman
Eli Roth’s homage to the Exploitation subgenre of ‘Torture Porn’ offers up his take on a genre made famous by Hideshi Hino’s Flower of Flesh and Blood and laid the ground work for a resurgence that would include Koji Shiraishi’s Grotesque against the backdrop of a troubled Eastern European country. Three backpacking friends find themselves tempted by beautiful women and the promise of sexual fantasies to
where they’re about to check into the most costly hostel in the world. Slovakia
In true torture porn fashion Roth has developed a simple and rather terrifying premise but like Cabin Fever before it he hasn’t been given enough credit for the underlying complexity he has sown throughout the screenplay. On the surface this is the tale of horny students, exotic women and brutally disturbing acts of violence for violence sake. However what Roth taps into is something primal. One of Maslow’s basic human needs is that of safety. Safety in one’s own home, this is why the ‘House Invasion’ genre is so terrifying. As a race we must entrust this basic need into the hands of others when we reside in hotels (and in this case hostels) and it’s also why we truly can not fully relax until we have assured ourselves that the place we are staying is safe. We check adjoining doors, we make sure balconies are locked, that are valuables are safe and that our key card has properly looked the door to the room. The true terror of the Hostel screenplay isn’t the acts being portrayed on screen, even though they are horrific, but the fact that a place like this can exist and you can voluntarily place yourself in harms way without knowing it until it’s too late. You take this instinctive human fear and add together the general uneasiness that most American’s seem to feel about travelling abroad (latest statistics have the number of passport holders at 37%) coupled with the fact that Slovakia is a country of unknowns, after all it spent most of the twentieth century behind the iron curtain, and you have the most fear inducing stimulus that mankind has dealt with. The fear of the unknown. On top of that you have a carefully crafted mystery, not so much a ‘who done it’ but more of a ‘what’s going on’…providing you haven’t over-watched the trailers, read the synopsis or have indulged with other forms of media.
For a relatively unknown director in 2005 it was a brave, and right, choice to cast of equally unknown performers (with the exception of Takeshi Miike who’s a welcome cameo). Actors, especially Hollywood actors, come with baggage and that brings a level of expectations and often gives the audience an ‘out’ with regards to who lives or dies. With a cast of unknown actors you don’t have that luxury and it’s this lack of safe areas for the audiences imaginations to hide is what Roth skillfully plays with as he picks the characters off one at a time. Derek Richardson and Eythor Gudjonsson (Josh and Oli respectively) are both likable and broadly drawn enough that anyone who’s spent time backpacking or hostel hopping will be able to relate to the characters. This is another wonderful little touch from Roth, at first glance it looks like the construction of generic characters yet what it actually does is allow the audience to relate and in turn place themselves in the familiar hostel surroundings with the familiar backpacking friends. The ladies of the film are somewhere between pornographic ideals of the youth and the femme fatale of the traditional mystery/noir. I was a little unsure about Jay Hernandez (Paxton), as for the first thirty minutes of the film he seemed a little wooded and out of his depth but it’s after the escape attempt that he really comes into his own, firstly with the termination of his torturer, then his interaction with Rick Hoffman (who serves up a remarkably overchatty and annoying guest spot) before attending to Yuki’s eye. At the time this scene was said to be tough for many to watch but given some of the cinematic offerings of late (Grotesque¸ The Human Centipede [First] & [Full Sequence], A Serbian Film plus Slaughtered Vomit Dolls) it’s relatively timid…ish and goes to show Roth’s dark leanings when it comes to humour.
Roth’s direction is tight, the shot framings in the hostel, in business rooms of the Elite Hunting Club and on the streets of Slovakia show the audience enough to keep the mystery alive and the maze sequence as Josh and Paxton follow someone they think is Oli is an example of how to construct a slow moving chase all the while keeping the tension and suspense levels high. The death sequences are showy, bloody, grueling yet at the same time never really push it into the realm of glorification and therefore manage to keep the suspense levels high.