UNFORTUNATE TRAVELLERS : a longer tour of Eli Roth’s ‘Hostel’

Principalities were nothing but great piracies, which, gotten by violence and murder, were maintained by private undermining and bloodshed, that in the chiefest flourishing kingdoms there was no equal or well divided wealth one with another, but a manifest conspiracy of rich men against poor men.

               Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller
(1594; spelling and punctuation updated)


"It's rough! This is film for adults! Not for children! Lot of blood! I like very much!!!!"
Dario Argento

That the above (Argento) quote appears on Eli Roth's own web-diary should come as no surprise to anyone who's followed this particular writer-director's career. He's (a) very well-connected, (b) a fine (and hysterically funny) publicist for his own projects and (c) an engagingly shameless name-dropper. Having worked as David Lynch's assistant for several years, his debut Cabin Fever was made with help and guidance from his former boss. Roth's followup Hostel now arrives "presented" by no less an eminence than Quentin Tarantino.

You can see why QT wanted to attach his name to the project: it's full of intriguing, sharp-edged ideas, as well as intriguing, sharp-edged torture implements. But it's also a bit of a mess, with very little developed in a particularly satisfactory manner. This is maybe due to the speed with which it was made: from concept to premiere in less than a year. Not exactly a Roger Corman workrate, but quick by the standards of most multiplex releases – and a timeframe that suggests 'topical' readings of the content are justified.

It isn't taking things too far, for example, so describe Hostel (as some have done) as the first 'post-Abu-Ghraib' shocker. You wouldn't exactly call Roth a savvy Middle East commentator, however. As a fully paid-up movie-geek, he'll know more about Jack Fisk (noted art-director and 'Mr' Sissy Spacek) than Robert Fisk (The Independent's 'man in Baghdad.') Hostel rather opportunistically takes as a starting point the fact that Americans are currently wildly unpopular abroad – and uses it as a springboard into a full-tilt charnel-house of in-your-face, grand guignol nastiness.

Despite being played by camera-friendly Jay Hernandez and Derek Richardson, Roth's protagonists Paxton and Josh are thuddingly unsympathetic jackasses – the first words we hear are "Amsterdam, motherfuckers!" as they explore the Dutch capital. Though accompanied by older Icelandic pal Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson – a little of whom goes a very long way) the Americans know little about Europe, which they regard as a continent-sized playground: a zone of cheap beer and knockout women. Acting on a tip-off, the trio head off to Slovakia where a certain establishment near Bratislava is said to feature especially shapely and up-for-it women. "You von't find dis hostel in any guidebook," confides the shady Yuri (Vladimir Silhavecky), who says that "because of the war there are no guys."

This geographical/historical 'gaffe' (exactly which 'war' was Slovakia involved in recently?) should alert our heroes that all may not be as it seems 'out east'. Arriving in a picturesque 'Slovak' town (actually Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic), they soon 'befriend' the stunning locals Natalya (Barbara Nedeljakova) and Svetlana (Jana Kaderabkova). Too good to be true? Of course: the ladies (predictably) turn out to be working for a sinister Russian (Mafia?) organisation. 'Elite Hunting' provides a special kind of service to the right kind of high-paying customer – and Oli, Paxton and Josh are ideal 'raw material'…

For all its grimness, Hostel's premise is essentially comic: a culture-clash of caricatures. In many ways Paxton and Josh represent the boorish, short-sighted, culturally-ignorant Ugly American – although Paxton does let the side down a little by being fluent in German (a life-saving talent). Conversely the 'Elite Hunting' gang represent how many in the west may view post-Communist Eastern Europe: a sinister, poverty-stricken land, evil cradle of Vlad the Impaler (and the Butcher of Bosnia), now stalked by murderous Bunuelian street-kids, and where nakedly cruel neo-capitalism allows (demands?) all manner of amoral brutalities.

Some viewers have been offended by Roth's naivety and myopia – the way he so blithely 'slanders' the entire Slovak nation – but Hostel is actually a parody of such naive myopia. The Mafia-style operation is so deliriously vicious that it's impossible to take seriously: indeed, so alluring does Cesky Krumlov appear that, if anything, tourism to this region may receive a boost rather than a knock. And while Roth really should have identified his filming locations in the credits, a quick visit to IMDb will point potential tourists in the right direction.

More troubling is the half-baked nature of Roth's screenplay: the story (a grindhouse cousin of 13/Tzameti?) seems primarily an excuse for him to indulge his love of splatter-gory cinema, dotted with in-jokes for his fellow geeks and buffs (Miike Takashi dazedly wanders out of the Elite Hunting HQ with the warning "Be careful!"). The most effective of these references is the most restrained – the use of a chart-friendly cover-version of a Wicker Man track during a seduction sequence (another warning-bell to which the lads are bovinely oblivious). Roth doesn't hide his respect and love for The Wicker Man – and Hostel is of course partly a tribute to Robin Hardy's eerie, blackly comic 1973 original. But whereas The Wicker Man was all about restraint and insinuation (it's effectively a horror film without a single 'violent' act), Hostel explodes into a bloodbath during its second half. Roth is very much the child of several, very different, horror traditions, and they make pretty uncomfortable bedfellows here.

The biggest "yeuch" moment comes when Paxton saves Japanese girl Kana (Jennifer Lim) from a blowtorch-wielding American businessman (Rick Hoffman). The fact that this torturer is American doesn't make much sense in the context of the film – it seems like Roth was simply keen to get Hoffman in his cast, presumably having seen his phenomenal turn in Cellular. But whereas Hoffman stole the show there, he's surprisingly so-so here (perhaps because you have to think long and hard before his nationality makes much sense in the context). The climactic scenes – in which Paxton and Kana (her ethnicity primarily an excuse for Roth to briefly hommage J-horror) make a break for freedom – are disappointingly underwhelming, and it's not a surprise to hear that the final train-station-set sequence was the result of late-in-the-day reshoots.

As it is, the 'new' denouement does promisingly hint at a cycle of violence and degradation which the surviving protagonist may struggle to escape. But the original ending (involving the young daughter of an Elite Hunting client) seemingly had much more ambiguity: too much, it would seem, for test audiences. It's slightly ironic then that Hostel (though it's done sufficiently well at the box office to trigger plans for a Hostel 2) seems to have pleased critics, who've delighted in teasing out the subtexts among all the gristle, more than audiences.

Many of the latter have fumed at the ramshackle story, the supposed 'goofs', the 'irresponsible' depiction of Eastern Europe, and/or Roth's 'misogyny' ('misanthropy' would be only slightly more accurate). Whatever he is, Roth isn't stupid: he does know what he's doing, and if anything he's trying to be a little too clever, trying to cram too much into a single, somewhat thin story. Cabin Fever and Hostel are promisingly witty starting-points, but Roth isn't quite the finished article as a film-maker: these are the works of a wayward, immature talent, who should perhaps now spend just little longer in the august company of Messrs Argento, Lynch, Tarantino and Miike.

Neil Young
3rd April, 2006

HOSTEL : [6/10] : USA (US/Cz) 2005 : Eli ROTH : 93 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at Odeon cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK), 20th March 2006 – press show