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Reviews » Theatrical Reviews » Hostel
Lionsgate Home Entertainment // R // January 6, 2006
Review by Jose Hilario Ponce | posted January 7, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." -Charles Caleb Colton

Horror auteur Eli Roth might benefit by considering a paraphrasing of Samuel Johnson and ask himself if his flattery is worth the having. The latest film by Cabin Fever writer/director Eli Roth is nothing if not a second serving of homages and attributions to his cinematic idols. Where Cabin Fever paid respect to the directors of his childhood, namely Hooper and Rami, Hostel ardently strives to seat himself among his contemporaries.

Hostel's story is intricate but the plot is simple. Two American college students, Paxton and Josh (Jay Hernandez and Derek Richardson, respectively), take a break from their studies and backpack across Europe where they cross paths with Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) an Icelandic chap with similar intentions. The three become a pact, prowling from country to country in search of all things euphoric, mainly women and weed. On one bong-binged night in Amsterdam, they meet Alex (Lubomir Silhavecky) a scrawny local who looks more suited to a paper route than as a liaison for the information he holds. Alex tells the group of a hostel in Bratislava, overrun with beautiful girls craving to satisfy the needs of young men, especially ones with American accents.

"You won't find this in any travel guide," he tells them, flipping through a slideshow of photos of himself and numerous naked women on his digital camera.

By the next evening the three drifters have made a cross country commute into Bratislava and checked into Alex's aforementioned hostel which is both conveniently vacant and rid of other male travelers. At times the boarding house is ominous and unsettling. Mostly it's just quirky, filled with transients and playful sirens. The three young men stumble upon their female roommates while the women are dressing down for their spa visit. The men are invited, they accept and after a good deal of boob reel, the five go drinking and dancing that night. Sex soon follows and by morning it's learned that the funny talking one, Oli, is now missing. The hotel clerk, a four-eye kid with greasy black hair and a terrific knack at delivering lines, informs Josh and Paxton that their friend checked out early that morning with an Asian girl seen around the hotel. As the film turns from a campy, boob-laden Euro-romp into its more sinister expectation, one cannot help notice that the movie is about half over.

Josh and Paxton go in search for their friend, but when their attempts fail, they are faced with the decision of continuing their hunt or giving up and enjoying themselves with their lady friends. They choose the later, but by next morning, it is Josh who is missing and Paxton, friendless and confused, goes in search of answers.

The occasional hint of what Paxton might find has been spliced into the film ever since Oli's disappearance. There is the quick and teasing shot of a girl's toe being lopped off. A power drill and some sort of gardening rake are put to ill use. But these moments do not serve as a sufficient buffer for what exists beneath the surface. Paxton's discovery goes beyond Oli and Josh's captor. It is something far more menacing and widespread than a single, sick individual. What he unearths is referred to by those associated as "art." Its participants are "artists."

The lethargic build to the "artists" and the shocking revelation of their "work" is clearly reminiscent of Takashi Miike's Audition (made painfully and embarrassingly obvious by the director's walk-on appearance as one of the film's "artists"). But whereas Miike's approach is incomparable--his characters breathe with normalcy and good intent--Roth's are the opposite. They are the gunk of Japanese remakes, flash-fright sequences, and mainstream horror.

The exception to this will be Derek Richardson's portrayal of Josh, who is not only the most commanding individual on screen but also the only one who garners our pity; he is the lone carrier of emotion, the others are simply devoid or express themselves through exposition. From the beginning, Josh is the third wheel. He is the smaller of the group, the more sexually inhibited and less outspoken. When, on the train ride to Bratislava, he is accosted by an older seemingly perverse man, his friends laugh and ridicule him. And although Josh's fate is met early, the film's first half seems to gravitate around his character. We latch onto him because he is real and when he dies his death is both horrific and heartbreaking. For the others, it is near impossible to see them as anything more than another bumbling American in a foreign country—a Michael Peter Fay bent at the waist and feeling the Singaporean sting of justice. We almost root against them.

If there is some genius buried within Hostel, it lies in Roth's sadistic concept. What breeds in the "artist's" world is more terrifying than the acts we witness (none of which truly come to life due to the film's overall, dark depiction of the tortures). The real terror lies in the abandoned factory where the artists come to work, the true horror is in the potential of their palette of tools and instruments. The very idea of this world is frightening. Unfortunately, with Roth to guide us through it, the steps along the path are unsteady and uncertain. He seems too preoccupied with imitating and idolizing the masters and would better serve himself—and his audience—by loosening his grip on their ankles and allowing his original ideas to give birth to original moments.

When the horrors within the walls of the factory are unmasked, they are just shy of laughable. The artists neither meet our expectation, much less our fears. They come across as bumbling and foolish. The finalizing descent into graphic violence seems like an attempt to replace our growing disbelief with shocking moments of gore. On the other hand, perhaps this is simply another nod toward Miike. Miike is a master of shock and gore, but one recalls that the multiple images of the writhing canvas bag in Audition are more terrifying than what crawls out.

Eli Roth may be a greater visionary than he is a director. He's on his way to becoming a director with rock star status and after two mediocre efforts, it's unclear how he's pulling it off. He has an ability to develop concepts, a fair enough storyline and some decent atmosphere. But, like Cabin Fever, it seems that the audience he is creating his movies for is nothing more than a theater full of his closest friends. There's the rocking soundtrack, the gratuitous boobs and an ample amount of blood. It's enough to make you and your buddy smile. But what about the aficionados salivating because your film is one of the few horror flicks released that year? What about those looking up to you ever since your first effort because that one was an homage? Do you really think they were looking for a second tribute? That this was going to be an encore? It's more likely they were hoping your first film was to get some attention, pay credit were credit was due and get your foot through the door. And now that it's inside, they're ready for you to kick some shit. But, instead, you step in it, smear it across the carpet and stink up the room.

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