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Hostel
Director: Eli Roth
Screenplay: Eli Roth
Stars: Jay Hernandez (Paxton), Derek Richardson (Josh), Eythor Gudjonsson (Oli), Barbara Nedeljakova (Natalya), Jana Kaderabkova (Svetlana), Jan Vlasák (The Dutch Businessman), Jennifer Lim (Kana), Lubomir Silhavecky (Alex), Paula Wild (Monique), Lubomir Bukovy (Alex), Petr Janis (The German Surgeon), Jana Havlickova (Vala), Vanessa Jungova (Saskia)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2006
Country: U.S.
Hostel
Hostel [Spoiler warning: This review reveals and discusses several plot points that viewers may want to experience for themselves first. Proceed at your own risk if you haven't already seen the film.]

About a year before I saw Hostel in theaters, I was lamenting in my review of White Noise (2005) what I called “the PG-13ization” of the horror genre. Simply put, far too many horror movies were watering down the very characteristics of the genre that make it disturbing, subversive, and challenging in order to make themselves more palatable to mass audiences. However, as we have seen, there has since been a substantial revitalization of the kind of grimy, grisly horror endurance tests that characterized the horror heyday of the 1970s and early 1980s, which suggests an interesting split in the genre.

Led by neo-exploitation grinders like Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects (2005) and James Wan's Saw (2004) and its many sequels, gory horror made a comeback (aided and abetted by a surprisingly permissive MPAA, which is sure to clamp down again soon). The capstone of this revitalization may very well have been the one-two shot Grindhouse cowritten and codirected by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, but the gruesome pinnacle is surely Eli Roth's Hostel, which boasts Tarantino as an executive producer.

Roth's sophomore effort after 2003's Cabin Fever is a grisly reworking of The Most Dangerous Game that does the geographical opposite of what American horror did in the 1970s: Instead of bringing the source of horror back into the American heartland, as films like Psycho (1960) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973) did, it relocates it back into the foreign terrain of Eastern Europe, albeit with far different overtones. Rather than the scary wilds of Victorian-era Transylvania, the terrors of Hostel unspool in the bleak and politically unstable industrial backwaters of Slovakia, where a trio of twentysomething travelers are promised a secret realm of hedonistic delights, but instead find themselves trapped in a nightmare of depravity that reflects in exaggerated form their own carnal abuses.

Whether purposefully or not, Roth creates some of the most unappealing characters imaginable, which puts the audience in the weird position of rooting for at least one of them to survive by the end. Taking “ugly Americanism” to the extreme, Roth presents us with two self-centered cads named Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson), who are first seen bounding out of a hostel in Amsterdam. Backpacking their way through Europe, their only goals seem to be sleeping with as many girls as possible and taking as many drugs as possible, both of which they do with a similar kind of reckless enthusiasm and wanton lack of both style and restraint (to be fair, Roth does paint Josh as a somewhat introverted character who is not entirely comfortable with his hedonism; Paxton, on the other hand, is just an unmitigated horndog with no sense of consequence). They hook up with an Icelandic traveler named Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), a self-described “king of swing” who is no different from his ugly American compatriots, especially once they hear of the fabled Slovakian hostel that promises beautiful and, most importantly, easy girls who happen to love foreigners.

The small Slovakian town (actually shot in decaying parts of Prague) that houses the infamous hostel is a grim backwater of gray buildings, gangs of dangerous children, and people who never look quite right; they are the Eastern European versions of the inbred hillbillies of so many Southern-gothic horror movies. It is an effectively uneasy, frightening portrait of a crumbling corner of the world where you get the dreadful sense that anything can happen.

Paxton, Josh, and Oli find that the hostel is all it's cracked up to be and more, until they start disappearing one by one and waking up inside a dank, industrial horror chamber comprised of rows of torture rooms that are a dark, nightmarish mirror of the brothel they visited in Amsterdam at the beginning of the film (a crucial visual connection with important thematic underpinnings). Roth gives us scalpels and drills and chainsaws and endless trays of surgical devices turned revoltingly nasty, and he doesn't shy away from the ensuing torture and all its grisly details.

As it turns out, the hostel is just a front to lure unsuspecting travelers (shades of fairy tale horrors involving greedy children lured by candy houses), and the town's real trade is a secret business involving human slaughter for big money. While it seems for long stretches of the film that Roth is simply throwing liberal doses of blood and suffering on the screen for its own perverse pleasures, the gradual revelation of the whole truth casts the film's horrors in a new light that aligns Paxton, Josh, and Oli's hedonistic delights with the eventual suffering they endure at the hands of others. Despite its ruthless drive-in shocks, Hostel actually makes an intriguing point about the nature of pleasure for its own sake and the constant desire to increase sensory intake, whose forced escalation can only lead to the kinds of depravity that require a human slaughterhouse.

Of course, in its own way, Hostel puts the brakes on its own nightmarish moral descent, allowing for a ridiculously unbelievable escape and then a convenient bout of retribution in the last five minutes that feels like a tacked-on footnote from a focus group meeting. Had Roth had the conviction to follow his story to a really horrific conclusion, one that didn't try to reassure the audience with gratifying vengeance, it might have been a truly memorable shocker.

Hostel Unrated Director's Cut DVD

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AnamorphicYes
Audio
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish, Portuguese
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary with director Eli Roth and executive producers Quentin Tarantino, Boaz Yakin, and Scott Spiegel
  • Audio commentary with director Eli Roth, actors Barbara Nedeljakova and Eythor Judjonsson, editor George Folsey Jr., and special guest Harry Knowles
  • Audio commentary with director Eli Roth, producer Chris Briggs, and documentarian Gabriel Roth
  • Audio commentary with director Eli Roth
  • Director's Cut Ending
  • Hostel Dissected” three-part making-of documentary
  • “Kill the Car!” Multi-Angle Feature
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • “Music & Sound” featurette
  • “Set Design” featurette
  • Hostel Dismembered” featurette
  • “An Icelandic Meal with Eythor Gudjonsson” featurette
  • “KNB EFX” featurette
  • Deleted Scenes
  • “The Treatment” radio interview with Eli Roth
  • Photo Galleries
  • Takashi Miike Interview
  • DistributorSony Pictures Home Entertainment
    SRP$19.95
    Release DateOctober 23, 2007

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    The anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer of Hostel is about as good as one could expect. The image is clean, sharp, and extremely well detailed, giving us every bit of nuance in the film's decaying locations. Colors are strong and well-saturated, which emphasizes the purposeful move from bright, gaudy colors in the film's opening passages to the gradual loss of hues as we descend into the nightmare. Blacks are solid and shadow detail is rich. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is likewise excellent, giving full range to Nathan Barr's inventive musical score and surrounding us with the unnerving ambient sounds of the torture dungeon. Clanking metal and dripping liquids never sounded so sinister.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    This new Director's Cut DVD keeps all of the same supplements that was originally available on the Uncut DVD, but also adds a second disc of all-new material.

    The first disc recycles the supplements that were available on Hostel's initial DVD release, and they're nothing to sneeze at. There are four--count 'em, four--feature-length audio commentaries. So, if you can say anything about Eli Roth, one thing you can't say is that he doesn't love talking about his own movie. Roth provides a solo commentary and then joins others for three additional yak tracks. On the best of the bunch he joins executive producers Quentin Tarantino, Boaz Yakin, and Scott Spiegel. He also joins actors Barbara Nedeljakova and Eythor Judjonsson, editor George Folsey Jr., and Internet guru Harry Knowles on a third track, and on the fourth track he talks with producer Chris Briggs and documentarian Gabriel Roth (who also happens to be his brother). I'd be lying if I said I'd listened to all four tracks from beginning to end (I can think of few films I admire enough to want to know that much about them), but my spot-checking showed all them to be interesting, energetic, and worth the time for those interested. As mentioned earlier, the executive producers track is definitely worth checking out, if only for the nearly combustible film-geek energy that is unavoidable when putting Roth and Tarantino in the same room together and giving their mouths free reign.

    The other major supplement on the first disc is the three-part “Hostel Dissected” making-of documentary by Gabriel Roth. Running 55 minutes in length, it is an unapologetically in-your-face behind-the-scenes look at the film, starting with casting and preproduction and going all the way through the end of principal photography (with plenty of time spent on the creation of the various make-up special effects) and the film's premiere at the Iceland International Film Festival. There aren't any traditional talking-head interviews, but at various points we hear from just about everyone involved in the production, from the producers on down to the prop master. Also on the first disc is the multi-angle feature “Kill the Car!,” in which you can watch the urchin kids bashing a BMW from one of three different camera angles. You can also watch the director's cut ending separately. Unfortunately, this ending, while a significant variation on the theatrical ending, still weakens the overall impact of the film with its revenge scenario.

    The second disc contains five new featurettes, which seem to have been constructed largely out of outtakes and material not used in the hour-length documentary on the first disc (all of the interviews appear to have been done during production, rather than recently), and some of the material is repeated across the featurettes. “Music & Sound” (12 min.) features interviews with composer Nathan Barr (who takes us on a tour of his home studio and the wide variety of extremely cool and exotic instruments therein, including a glass harmonica, which was invented by Benjamin Franklin), sound mixer Bob Beemer, and sound designer Brian Best. In “Set Design” (5 min.), set designer Franco-Giacomo Carbone talks about his design techniques and we see several of the film's sets being constructed (the neon brothel set and the dungeon). “Hostel Dismembered” (30 min.) digs into the urban legends behind the movie's plot, with Eli Roth, Jay Hernandez, Harry Knowles, George Folsey Jr., and others discussing the various inspirations for the movie's pay-to-kill scenario (in it, Roth essentially makes the exact argument that I have made about what the film means, suggesting that it is not so much an “exploitation movie” as it is a movie about exploitation). In “An Icelandic Meal with Eythor Gudjonsson” (3 min.) the actor shows us how to properly enjoy eating a sheep's head, which was almost revolting enough to make me turn vegan. Luckily, all the nastiness cooked by Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero in the “KNB EFX” featurette (11 min.) is pure movie magic.

    There are 10 deleted scenes presented in anamorphic widescreen, which together run about 18 minutes (each is preceded by a text explanation by Roth as to why it was cut). Other supplements include a 26-minute radio interview with Roth and a 10-minute on-set interview with Japanese director Takashi Miike, who makes a memorable cameo in the film. There are also four photo galleries: Behind the Scenes, On Set, Hostel Artwork (which includes various poster designs), and Barbara Nedeljakova.

    Overall Rating: (3)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © Sony Pictures


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