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Entries in Hostel [2005] (1)


Hostel (2005)

Step into My (Massage) Parlor

[The] Supreme Court says pornography is anything without artistic merit that causes sexual thoughts. Hmmm . . . sounds like every commercial on television doesn't it?

--Bill Hicks, Arizona Bay

Here's the review where I defend Hostel. Look, I know some of you are getting concerned. By now, you're either convinced that I've gone completely around the bend, or that I'm in the back pocket of the celebrities with whom I'll be having dinner in eight days. While I can't say one way or the other if the former is true (real maniacs, after all, don't know that they're maniacs), I can assure you that my praise of widely panned and controversial films of late has everything to do with watching them with a fresh set of eyes, and nothing to do with my fear of Sid Haig.

Hostel became the poster-child of the last decade's "torture porn" craze--unfairly so, I think. I understand that knee-jerk label (because I'm guilty of having applied it myself), but writing off the movie as trash aimed at providing masturbation material to deranged audience members is a mistake. There's a lot more going on here than severed tendons and magnificent Czech breasts.

The film stars Jay Hernandez and Derek Richardson as Paxton and Josh--two college grads backpacking across Europe to let off steam before beginning their respective slogs through law school and Masters candidacy. Along with an Icelandic partier named Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), they scour clubs in several countries, scouting loose women, drugs, and wild times. They meet a young pimp named Alex (Lubomir Bukovy), who advises them to check out the hostels in Slovakia--which contain the planet's hottest, most willing sexpots.

Cut to our heroes chatting giddily on a train. A Dutch businessman (Jan Vlasak) joins them and assures them that they're in for a great time. He takes his enthusiasm one step too far by placing his hand on Josh's leg--leading to a homophobic reaction that is hilariously, datedly overzealous.

They arrive in a picturesque little village where everything is stone bridges and babbling brooks. Their hostel looks like a resort for hot twenty-somethings, replete with comely desk clerks and complimentary steam rooms and massages. Two local girls, Natalya (Barbara Nedeljakova) and Svetlana (Jana Kaderabkova), invite the boys out for drinks and dancing. Josh and Paxton pair off with them, while Oli disappears with a receptionist--never to be heard from again.

It turns out that people have a tendency to turn up missing at this hostel, and we soon learn that the whole operation is a giant trap, the first stage of a cash-for-torture business called Elite Hunting. Paxton and Josh realize too late that people all over the world will pay good money to be locked in a room with bound and helpless American tourists and an arsenal of weapons with which to experiment.

Okay, so we've got the torture and the (soft-core) porn. How is this not torture porn? Well, thanks to Mr. Hicks' reminder that pornography must contain "no artistic merit", I'd like to point out that Hostel is both full of beautiful imagery and an underlying social message that is as discomforting as its rampant displays of gore. Writer/director Eli Roth has created a deceptively complex horror movie that says a lot not only about the extremes to which capitalism will go--particularly in hard-hit, post-Cold-War countries, but also the danger in the American-exceptionalist attitude.

One of the biggest knocks on the film is that the characters are so annoying that it's impossible to care about them. I disagree. Sure, Paxton and Josh are hard to stomach, especially on first viewing, but their authenticity can't be denied. They're smart kids who act irresponsibly because they see the European party scene as the ultimate haven of anonymity. After their vacation, they think, they'll return to the boring, corporate safety of their homeland. They shrug off bar fights and treat everyone they meet as either a whore or an idiot--because, for them, all of Europe is a giant, adult amusement park.

Roth brilliantly rips that curtain away after Josh disappears. Left to his own devices, Paxton begins to take his situation seriously and actually pay attention to his surroundings. Instead of being an Eastern-Bloc Aspen, the town is overrun with gangs of feral children, gangsters, and steely eyed prostitutes who play on the naivete of their prey to make loads of cash. It is a perfect metaphor for that flaw in the American character that assumes danger, poverty, and desperation are things only other people in far away places have to worry about.

Nedeljakova plays a fetching devil, a temptress who gives the boys ample opportunity to pack their bags and leave safely. But their eagerness to score and inability to pick up on bold clues leaves them vulnerable when she finally sells them out to Elite Hunting. Her counterpart is the Dutch businessman, played with at first sympathy and then perversity by Vlasak. He's another mile marker on the boys' dark journey, warning them about the evils of a culture that perpetually seeks to remove emotion and sensation from everyday experience.

You may think this is high-falutin' talk for a movie about people paying to cut other people to ribbons. But that's my point: Hostel isn't an exploitation piece. It's a serious movie with a serious message that has the courage to follow through on its themes. Not once is the audience invited to revel in the sickness of the Elite torturers. Unlike the Saw franchise, which is steeped in its own "live every day to the fullest" morality, Roth makes no judgments about those caught in the web; good people and bad people alike are fair game.

Ultimately, artists can't be held responsible for the actions of their audience. A person who fantasizes--or worse--about dismembering helpless women does so out of pre-existing psychological issues; not because they watched Hostel. Even if there's an argument to be made about the cumulative effect of watching such movies, there's no just solution to the problem outside of subjecting everyone to a nanny state. Maybe the problem is that the violence in Hostel is so realistic (thanks to makeup effects gurus Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero). But since when is it acceptable for the creative community to be punished for doing its job too well?

And where to we draw these mythical lines of appropriateness, culturally? McRib commercials are probably just as offensive to animal lovers as the latest teen bloodbath is to the PTA. Hell, you could go further and have cable-TV providers block The Disney Channel on any household owned by a single man over the age of thirty--that is, if you want to eliminate the possibility that someone might get an inappropriate stirring from something they view as entertainment.

Whatever the case, I think Hostel gets a bad rap from people who either haven't seen it or who don't know how to watch it (look at me, with my grandiose proclamations!). This film is worth a look; it won't change anyone's lives, but it might change a few minds.