If you haven't seen Hostel, don't bother with a long, detailed runthrough of the plot; you probably already know more than you should, and Hostel works best the less you know about it. The short version, though...? A couple of twentysomethings fresh out of college -- a horndog named Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and his pal Josh (Derek Richardson) who's still reeling from a broken heart -- are wiling away their last days of freedom backpacking across Europe. They somehow snared the Icelandic king of the swing Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) along the way, and the three of 'em have landed in Amsterdam, toking it up in hash bars and scouring the Red Light District for cheap tail. They catch wind of a hostel outside Bratislava -- one that's not in any of the usual guides -- that's teeming with sex-starved local girls who'll straddle anyone with an American accent. The three of them leap on the next train to Slovakia, only to find that...well, they're not the only ones willing to throw a few bucks around to have a good, depraved time.
Writer/director Eli Roth notes in one of the extras on this disc that audiences' reaction to Hostel varied wildly depending on what they went in expecting. Some people had heard that it was an eerie, unsettling horror flick, only to have vomit dribbling out of the corners of their mouths upon seeing just how gruesome and graphic the movie really is. Some gorehounds responded with more of an indifferent shrug when they realized that the torture sequences are a fairly small part of Hostel; the grue is devastatingly realistic, but a good bit of it is also implied or obscured, and the film really doesn't revel in its gore.
I'll admit that I went in expecting a mindless splatter flick drenched in stage blood from the first frame to the last, but the 'torture porn' label that's so frequently slapped on Roth's films is a gross mischaracterization. Hostel doesn't glorify torture; yes, that's the driving force of the plot, but it's a very small portion of the movie's overall runtime. Much of the brutality is seen in fleeting glimpses, with only two torture sequences lingering for any length of time, and even then, a fair amount of that is either obscured or happens just outside of the frame. Make no mistake: there's a hell of a lot of disturbing, graphic imagery, courtesy of KNB's wizards of gore, but quite a bit of the torture is implied rather than explicitly shown.
Hostel doesn't just half-assedly slap together a plot just to have something to loosely connect the torture scenes. If you missed the opening sequence, you could watch almost a full half hour without ever realizing that this is a horror movie. The characters aren't exactly deep -- they're supposed to be exploitative, ignorant American stereotypes, after all -- but they still have clear, distinct personalities. Unlike some other flicks like Wolf Creek that coast on early characterization and leave their bloodied victims pretty much indistinguishable from one another once the sadism kicks in, there's something much more genuine to the characters in Hostel. It also has the sort of moral sensibility ripped out of a vintage slasher; the main victims aren't doe-eyed, innocent kids caught up in something dark and depraved but are having their own exploitative tendencies turned back on them a hundredfold. If they hadn't stuck around to keep screwing a couple of girls that meant absolutely nothing to them, there wouldn't have even been a movie. There's a tremendous amount of intelligence bubbling beneath the surface too, indicting bored capitalists, xenophobia, and the arrogance and ignorance of too many Americans as they travel overseas.
After suffering through waves and waves of tame, bloodless PG-13 horror flicks, it's refreshing to see a movie as brutal as Hostel. Every exploitation angle is covered: sex, drugs, unflinchingly graphic violence, and a hell of a lot of nudity. As bleak as the tone is for so much of the film, though, Hostel isn't unrelentingly grim. This is a movie with a cacklingly dark wit, and it's more of a thrill ride than just trying to make the audience squirm in their chairs for an hour and a half. Roth sets out to coax a wide array of reactions from viewers -- terror, arousal, laughter -- and he unerringly hits the mark each and every time.
Even if it wasn't filmed on these shores, Hostel is one of the most interesting horror movies to come out of this country in quite a long time, and Roth continues to show a hell of a lot of promise as a filmmaker. Hostel is a lean, brutal movie, leaving a deep impression even if it doesn't have a sprawling cast and prefers to use a fairly simple skeleton of a plot. It's a film I'd say I respect more than I enjoy, although I think the inescapable hype swirling around Hostel is more to blame for that than the movie itself. Hostel is certain to evoke a strong reaction from anyone who sees it -- either total adoration or complete revulsion -- and I'd rather see a movie that gets that sort of intense response than something that doesn't take any chances and sticks to safe, well-trodden roads. Recommended.
This Blu-ray release of Hostel includes both the unrated version from the original DVD along with Eli Roth's director's cut. The two are identical up until its final scene -- Roth's preferred ending is more ambiguous and not at all graphic (and fans of Spoorloos will quickly recognize that the name of one character isn't coincidental), while the unrated ending is much closer to what was seen theatrically, with a bloodier, more visceral revenge angle.
Video: Hostel arrives on Blu-ray in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1 in a high bitrate AVC encode. It's a marked step up from the original DVD, which suffered from an overly soft, smeary appearance and was riddled with edge enhancement. There is still ringing around some edges on this Blu-ray disc, but it's much less pronounced this time around. The image is generally well defined, although contrast tends to be somewhat flat, and fine detail really isn't ever all that eye-popping. The image looks like it's been smoothened out somewhat to dial down the presence of film grain, and detail may have taken a hit in the process. Film grain is understandably pervasive in low light, and that darker style of photography occurs more and more as the movie progresses, with the vibrant colors of Amsterdam gradually draining away into an ashen gray in Slovakia. I didn't spot any issues with the compression, although there is some light speckling, exhibiting a bit more wear than expected for something just a couple of years out of theaters. There's also an odd jitter when Paxton begins telling his story about once seeing a kid drown. The same problem was present on the initial DVD release, so I'm not sure if it's an issue with the master or some sort of hiccup during photography.
Hostel is a gritty movie with a deliberate visual style, and it doesn't -- and shouldn't -- have the same sort of sparkling sheen as an overbudgeted studio flick. The light speckling and seemingly smoothened appearance of the image are a bit of a drag, but it's an otherwise strong presentation of the film, and the Blu-ray disc is a worthy upgrade over the initial DVD release.
Audio: Hostel's lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack shrugs off the aggressive sound design of most genre films, instead preferring to focus more on atmosphere. The multichannel mix is at its most unsettling in the decrepit abandoned factory. Even when there aren't any bloodcurdling screams or whirling power drills, the slow, persistent dripping of water from every direction instantly sets the mood. Its most violent sequences are even more immersive, and the anguished cries and the sounds of metal piercing flesh can be more disturbing than the unflinchingly graphic visuals. There are a good number of pans across the soundscape, from the frenzied chase near the climax to the maniacal rugrats darting from one end of the screen to the other. The bombastic orchestral score and Nathan Barr's exotic instrumentation come through exceptionally well, and the film's dialogue is rendered clearly and never struggles to find a comfortable spot in the mix. Very well done.
The disc also includes 5.1 dubs in French and Portuguese along with subtitles in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and both traditional English and English SDH.
Extras: This director's cut of Hostel is a hell of a special edition, sporting close to ten hours of extras.
19 minutes' worth of extended and deleted scenes have been included, presented in high definition and even in Dolby Digital 5.1. Most of them further flesh out the characters and are set while Hostel is still upbeat and kinda baked, before the movie's tone shifts into bleak despair. Gorehounds should cackle when they hear that there's a death scene on here that was completely cut out of the movie, and there's also an extension to one of the existing torture sequences with a search for the mark of the devil. Each scene is preceded by a card explaining why it was trimmed out. There isn't a gag reel anywhere on the disc, so a hysterical montage of a toothless, sauced-up, completely incoherent Czech cab driver as he keeps glancing down at his script during filming is tossed on here instead.
Also included in high definition -- this time with lossless TrueHD audio -- is the seven and a half minute director's cut ending, available separately here if you don't want to wade through the rest of the movie to get to it. The only other high-def extras are trailers for Hostel Part II, Vacancy, and Blood and Chocolate.
The disc's photo galleries are divided into four sections: behind the scenes pictures, promotional stills, Hostel artwork, and some very glamorous shots of Barbara Nedeljakova. The couple hundred photos can be navigated manually or left to cycle automatically. In total, the four montages run around 25 minutes.
Carried over from the very first DVD edition is the multi-angle "Kill the Car!" feature, showing three separate angles of a demented army of rugrats as they maim, murder, and smash everything in sight...and not always with the fake bricks the prop department put together. Each angle is presented individually and clocks in at two and a half minutes a pop.
Takashi Miike -- one of the directors who greatly influenced Hostel and has a memorable cameo in the film -- is featured in a ten minute interview. Conducted in Japanese and subtitled in English, it's a very detailed discussion, touching on Miike's willingness to tackle anything and everything, graphically violent or otherwise, being compelled by the idea of one day working on a film in America while acknowledging the difficulty inherent to working with other cultures, his perception of sex and violence as both being an inexorable part of love, his cult status on these shores, and what motivated him to want to work with Eli Roth on Hostel.
Also included are a set of four short featurettes. "Music and Sound" spends most of its twelve minutes with composer Nathan Barr as he shows off his home studio and his extensive collection of exotic instruments, turning later to the recording of the orchestral score in Prague, the mixing process in Sony's most decked-out stage, and even a quick chat about some of the Foley work. Franco-Giacomo Carbone opens "Set Design" (5 min.) by discussing his design techniques with markers and watercolors before moving to the construction of several sets: the sterile, space-age brothel in Amsterdam, the Eastbound-'n-down train, and the rundown factory outside Bratislava. Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger -- the 'N' and the 'B' of KNB EFX -- touch on their team's gruesome makeup effects work in an 11 minute featurette. After noting their background working with Scott Spiegel on a movie whose title no one seems to be able to agree on, the two of them talk about they got sucked into Hostel and how quickly the project got off the ground. Berger rattles off the many, many different types of blood they drenched the cast with throughout the course of the shoot, and the KNB crew also delves into the makeup effects in several key sequences: graphic torture, an autopsy, finger-slicing, and a dangling eye in a condom. Finally, "An Icelandic Meal with Eythor Gudjonsson" is a three minute look at Roth's pal devouring a sheep's head, a sight that's about as cringingly fucked up as anything in the movie.
A couple of those featurettes are culled from outtakes from the half-hour doc "Hostel Dismembered", which features writer/director Eli Roth, editor George Folsey, Jr., Harry Knowles, Quentin Tarantino, Takashi Miike, actors Jennifer Lim and Jay Hernandez, and composer Nathan Barr. It's an overview more than anything else, touching on how the project came together, its interest in establishing an unsettling atmosphere rather than going for lazy jump scares, reflecting the bleak tone of the movie's second half by subtly changing the visual style, and explaining why Hostel is a movie about exploitation rather than an exploitation movie. There's a good bit of footage from the set on here, showing the making of one of the torture sequences, the filming of Miike's cameo, and the entire crew on the verge of retching while shooting one gruesome scene in a decrepit industrial kitchen. The composition and recording of the film's score is also touched on, though not in as much detail as the "Music and Sound" featurette, and it closes by pointing out the crowds' vomit-spattered response to the movie in early screenings. "Hostel Dismembered" is a solid featurette taken on its own, but so much of this material is covered elsewhere on the disc that it's not essential viewing.
My favorite of the disc's extras is "Hostel Dissected", a three part documentary that runs just shy of an hour in total. Extremely candid and frequently flat-out hysterical, the doc has more of a fly-on-the-wall bent instead of some meticulously framed talking head piece. "Dissected" opens during pre-production in Prague, running through set design, last minute casting changes, location scouting, and ensuring there's a proper setlist for the pre-shoot party. From there, pretty much every sequence in the movie gets at least a little screentime, including a brief look at the filming of Hostel's original ending. The list of highlights is kinda long and rambling, but there's a bit with Roth freestyling with a gaggle of Eastern European kids, a nightmare about a paintball game gone horribly awry, a string quartet on the set playing Vivaldi while extras sopping with stage blood are strung up from the ceiling in a dark, dank, decrepit one-time sugar factory, tons of shameless nudity, a devoted Jedi knight leaving the Academy aside to step in for a bit part, Barbara Nedeljakova acting as a Slovakian apologist, a self-inflicted headbutt with a prop gun, spraying extras on a train platform with gallons of blood... It's just a hell of a lot of fun, and out of all of the extras on the dozens and dozens of HD DVDs and Blu-ray discs I've reviewed so far this year, "Hostel Dissected" easily stands out as one of my absolute favorites.
Hostel sports a set of four audio commentaries, but if you'd kinda just like the Cliff's Notes version, the disc also includes a 27 minute radio interview with Eli Roth from Elvis Mitchell's show on KCRW. It's a strikingly thoughtful discussion rather than just a self-congratulatory plug for the DVD release, with Roth noting the many disturbing elements that inspired Hostel, the twisted sensibility that makes a European getaway such an ideal scenario for a horror film, how much the twentysomething kids and the butchers have in common, and the underlying cultural intrusion and ignorance that makes the movie work. Roth also talks about his approach as a filmmaker, preferring a sort of primalcy over a deliberate, meticulously crafted style and dealing with the sophomore jinx expected from coming off a movie as immensely successful as Cabin Fever. This is a fantastic interview and well worth setting aside the time to give a listen. The audio plays over a single static image in the menu, by the way.
...and then there are those four commentary tracks. The first -- and the best -- of them teams Roth with executive producers Quentin Tarantino, Boaz Yakin, and Scott Spiegel. It's an energetic, chatty track with the four of 'em constantly cracking each other up, mixing detailed notes about the production with completely random stories about how several of them had unexpectedly bumped into Roman Polanski, mulling over whether or not to give Tarantino a cameo as a torturer, and wincing at those dark days when the 'horror' label carried such a stigma that genre flicks preferred to call themselves 'supernatural thrillers'. The construction of the story is touched on in great detail, such as shrugging off the usual formula that sets up the premise in the first reel, trying to make sure no "bullshit movie contrivances" crept into the script, and drastically changing the ending from what was originally written. Other highlights include KNB being responsible for giving Tarantino his first paying gig as a writer, one actor genuinely screaming mid-torture after a mishap with his toe, casting a regional actor as the Dutch businessman instead of an established international star, and even pointing out a nod to The Shining that I somehow managed to overlook.
The disc's second commentary isn't screen-specific the way the other tracks are. It starts off with Roth essentially interviewing seasoned editor George Folsey, Jr. for a half hour, discussing Folsey's background in Hollywood, his cutting of one torture sequence at night while shepherding the cutesy mermaid flick Aquamarine during the day, and debating the merits of Hollywood's testing process. It gets intensely technical at times, something I personally really dig, running through everything from Folsey's approach to editing to Hostel's unconventional mix of a digital intermediate with traditional color timing in a lab. After Folsey signs off, Roth chats with Ain't It Cool News webmaster Harry Knowles on the phone for twenty minutes, discussing the Thai website that inspired Hostel's core premise as well as the state of horror cinema today. Actress Barbara Nedeljakova follows for another twenty minutes, noting her response to the script having grown up in Slovakia and dealing with the uncomfortable nudity and not altogether glamorous appearance her character is saddled with as the movie goes along. Finally, Eythor Gudjonsson rounds out the rest of the commentary, bowing out with Roth around the time the movie's final scene begins. Gudjonsson notes that he didn't bother with any acting classes before stepping in front of the camera for the first time, and he and Roth joke about how the local news misinterpreted a Tarantino joke about Eythor becoming the Icelandic equivalent of Jackie Chan.
The commentary with producer Chris Briggs, Eli Roth, and his documentarian brother Gabriel is the weakest of the four tracks just because so much of it tackles material covered elsewhere on the disc. There are still some highlights, though, such as the sex scene marking the most stressful day of shooting, the costume design masking Roth's original idea for a sadomasochistic erection, the push to use local talent on both sides of the camera, shooting on the same stage where some of Hitler's propaganda had been filmed, piss-poor hair continuity, Briggs turning down his own show on network TV to produce Hostel, and even some meticulously technical notes about the sound mix.
The fourth and final commentary is a solo track that Roth introduces as a sort of mini-film school. It's not about the nuts and bolts of production so much as Roth speaking for just over an hour and a half about filmmaking. He sets the stage by discussing Cabin Fever's success and the contacts he made through that movie, running through Hollywood's newly-sparked interest in him and what gave him the drive to work on Hostel rather than helm some faceless remake or sequel. Roth discusses how swiftly the first draft was written and how the project came together so quickly, and he takes particular glee in noting the differences between working in the U.S. and filming overseas. There's a lengthy rant about the hyperaggressive unions in Hollywood that prompted Roth to insist on only shooting in Prague going forward, lavishing the Czech crew with an incredible amount of praise and pointing out why he's disinterested in the "a film by Eli Roth" vanity credit. Other topics include Roth's interest in someday shooting on HD video instead of film, the MPAA's unexpectedly indifferent reaction to the movie's gore, an even more detailed rant about the homogeneity of Hollywood's testing system, his suggestions to budding filmmakers, and where he'd like to take his career from here. This and the executive producer track stand out as the best of the disc's commentaries.
Conclusion: I have to admit that being subjected to a couple of years' worth of gushing fanboy posts on message boards and an inhuman amount of hype skewed my expectations once I got around to watching Hostel. No movie could ever realistically hope to live up to that, but Hostel is still a hell of a horror flick, with the slow burn and moral bent of a vintage slasher flick coupled with the gruesome bent of this latest wave of horror. Hostel's release on Blu-ray may not be showcase material, but it boasts a reasonably strong video and audio presentation, and the nine hours and change of extras -- a couple of which are even in high-def -- should more than give fans of the film their money's worth. Recommended.
The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.