I'm pleased to notice that there's been a lovely tide of anti-wimp horror flicks hitting the screens lately. I'm seeing some slickly sick cinematic sleaze that has the (bravery, balls, audacity, shame, etc.) to linger on overt physical violence in an effort to actively unsettle those who paid $9.50 to get spooked out. Flicks like Saw, High Tension, The Devil's Rejects, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake have been painted with a rather dismissive paint-brush by the unimpressed, as if graphic gore is something brand-new to the genre and patently reprehensible in any case. Well, I'll tell you what I think is pretty damn pathetic: the act of watering down a film that's supposed to be scary, unsettling, or shocking just to earn a PG-13 rating and pull in a teenage audience that'll, frankly, go see any random movie on a Friday night. So dismiss Eli Roth's latest, Hostel, as gruesome nastiness if you like. At least it delivers the goods.
Hostel is not a "boo!" sort of movie. It's not about stalkers in dark corners or monsters under the bed. It's about the evil that men often do, if not necessarily in real life, then certainly within really nasty horror flicks like Hostel. It's the kind of movie that leaves you walking out of the theater on a horror-high, but also quietly thrilled that you're still safe, sound, and on your way home from a fun time at the multiplex. This is a grim, gory, and unapologetically grungy piece of "survival horror," and if the flick takes its good, sweet time getting to the meat of the matter, it's because Roth is having such a good time teasing you with the promise of inevitable unpleasantries.
Story in a nutshell: Three horny young guys travel to a hostel in the middle of Slovakia, a location they're sure is just swarming with mega-hot babes with mega-loose morals. Turns out that this hostel is sort of like a human-sized roach motel. Horny bastards check in, but they rarely check out. Precisely who is doing the torturing and murdering to whom and why I shall not say, as Hostel's second half doles out a few worthwhile surprises that, if you kept yourself spoiler-free, will come off as unsettlingly entertaining. Suffice to say it involves things like drills, pliers, saws, and massive torture chambers filled with former tourists strapped to metal chairs and nailed into place.
Yeah, it's that kind of movie, which means that if you go see it and you get all offended, you've nobody to blame but yourself.
If the second half of Hostel is laden with grimy gore, sleazy slashers, and disturbing dispatches, then the first is more or less a mild remake of An American Werewolf in London, mixed with liberal doses of Porky's-style boobiness. It's during this stretch that we get to know our three semi-heroes: Josh is the sensitive guy, Oli is the goofy horn-dog, and Paxton is the petulant leader. Some might argue that the "non-horror" section of Hostel (which runs about 40-some minutes) is too long, leering, and indulgent, but I found that this section lulled me into somewhat of a "comedy" vibe, so when the gristle really started hitting the grills, many in the audience simply weren't prepared for it. (Suckers!)
And if you bother to look for it, Hostel actually contains some fairly nifty subtextual themes. The three young men are ruled by their libidos to an almost satirical degree, and all they're interested in is getting their hands (and other parts) on some fine female flesh. But there's a satisfying turnabout that occurs when Hostel gets darker, because our three horny heroes are now the "meat" -- and the way their own flesh is utilized by others is pretty damn alarming. In addition to being "about" nasty jolts, bare breasts, and goopy gore, Hostel is also about the ways in which we use the bodies of other people, and how it's often not in a wholesome or unselfish fashion.
As he proved with his first effort, 2003's Cabin Fever, writer/director Eli Roth has a real passion for fratboy humor and hardcore splatter, and Hostel balances both components quite effectively. While the movie's never fall-down funny or terrifyingly scary, Roth combines the ingredients with enough of a balance to keep you off-kilter. The film is made for people who like "extreme" horror, and while that's obviously not a guarantee that all gorehounds will dig the Hostel menu, I'm of the opinion that this flick is a whole lot better than most of what passes for "horror" these days. Frankly I'd take the last 40 minutes of Hostel over just about any genre film with a big-studio label on it, because, great movie or not, Hostel exhibits a real affection for the old-school grindhouse horror flicks.
This is not to say that all a horror flick needs is a grungy atmosphere, a palpable affection for the genre, and some graphic dispatches to be successful. Last year's The Devil's Rejects bored, numbed, and irritated me with its over-the-top garishness, so it's not like anything with more than three quarts of spilled blood earns a free pass from yours truly. But Hostel sucked me in pretty effectively from the word go, and while I was more than ready for it when the nasty bits finally showed up, I was never bored or irritated by Roth's slow-burn set-up.
I suspect that Hostel will, as many horror flicks do, divide moviegoers right down the middle, regardless of whether they're hardcore horror-heads or not. Some will see a simplistic and transparent take on concepts cribbed from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, while others will see some familiar conceits dressed with a nasty new coat of paint. Me, I think it's a pretty darn fine piece of horror-making ... although obviously stuff like this is not for everyone.
(Review reprinted from eFilmCritic.com, because I felt like it!)