Eli Roth takes the state of commerce to its most disgusting conclusion in his new horror flick “Hostel.” A variation on Richard Connel’s classic short story of a wealthy hunter who chases down men for sport (“The Most Dangerous Game”), Roth’s film gives the rich the purchasing power to snuff out another human being. Although the filming itself is frequently sloppy and Roth doesn’t always seem to know what messages he is trying to convey amidst the gore, “Hostel” hits several cultural nerves and manages to be quite disturbing in the process.
Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson) are a couple of post-college partiers hitting up Europe on a summer backpacking trip. Moving from club to bordello with an Icelandic acquaintance named Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) in tow, the boys are living the American dream. One drunken night they meet Alex (Lubimor Bukovy), a pimp with a Cheshire grin, who tells them about a fairy-tale hostel in Slovakia where the women are loose and plentiful. The boys book it to the town near Bratislava where braless supermodels await them in the hostel’s spacious Victorian rooms. But when Josh and Paxton wake up after a night of Ecstasy and sex, Oli is nowhere to be found. As is already apparent to the audience, but not the hapless boys, he has been taken to custom-built torture chambers in an abandoned factory outside of town where a wealthy clientele pays to kill the hostel’s guests for a thrill.
“Hostel” plays out like a slightly more fatal version of “EuroTrip,” hitting the camp factor squarely. Roth refuses to write the clumsy, ironic horror-film banter established since Wes Craven. Instead, his dialogue rings nicely in the ear, developing characters who actually have some illuminating conversations that have nothing to do with missing fingers.
What makes “Hostel” scary is not the gore — Roth’s clumsy attempts to gross us out never come close to the artistry of the genre’s epitome, Peter Jackson’s gore-classic “Dead Alive.”
Despite its Slovakian setting, the fears peppering “Hostel” are distinctly American. Rather than werewolves or vampires, the horror here is capitalism. Roth points to a growing fear in American culture of the immorality of our own economic system, one that has thrown the political spectrum into tumult in recent years. The capitalist marketplace, set up by our culture and spread around the world, seems consistently more interested in taking bills than asking questions. The wealthy shopper, no longer regulated by moral boundaries, has his or her choice of any forbidden fruit. Under the rules of this unrestricted capitalism, if there is demand, a supply must be found. The Slovakians are not at fault; they have simply cornered a niche market. Ironically, the “supply” here happens to be Paxton and Josh, two sons of America dressed in red and blue. Completing a tragicomic circle, America has birthed a monster which, at least in Roth’s universe, has begun grinding up American young.
Two other ideas seem to be cycling through “Hostel,” but Roth never figures out how to connect them to any finished whole. He repeatedly parodies American vigilantism, sending Paxton on a ludicrous revenge spree near the film’s end that is not only pointless but also alienating. Over the course of this sequence, Paxton ultimately becomes more violent than the torturers themselves.
Far more interesting, however, is Roth’s deliberate muddying of the waters shared by sex and violence; American cinema has always had trouble separating the two. Running underneath the entire film is the disturbing notion that Josh and Paxton’s innocent sexcapades lead to the same lust for killing that the wealthy businessmen share and, moreover, that each of us is capable of crossing over. After all, Paxton, the sex fiend of the group, easily makes the switch to violence. A horror movie is all about a glimpse into the dark side within, and “Hostel” delivers in spades.
The film’s best sequence, which occurs between a German torturer and his American victim, exhibits both a keen sense of American sexual terror and a wicked sense of humor. The torturer is unsure, a virgin to killing, and can’t figure out quite how to do it; the American doesn’t behave as expected, leading to unforeseen complications. In the horrific slapstick that ensues, an echo of that uncomfortable first time, the trauma and the bliss of our own experience play out on the screen. We can’t help but empathize with the killer, despite knowing all that he represents.
Even more, the naivety of Paxton and Josh’s exchange of money for sex earlier in the film is twisted into this abominable purchase of flesh. “Hostel” suggests that beneath the illusion of society, beneath the cold efficiency of our capitalist system, lies something festering and primal from which we cannot escape.