Director: Eli Roth
Studios: Next Entertainment, Raw Nerve, Lionsgate, Screen Gems
Starring: Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eypór Gu∂jónsson
Tagline: Welcome To Your Worst Nightmare.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, thriller, psychological horror, body horror, torture, drama
Scare score: C+/B-
Plot overview: Three friends are traveling Europe in search of forgettable girls and unforgettable adventure. When they're promised the best parties and hottest women, they travel farther east on their hunt for hookups. When they arrive to Slovakia, however, they unwillingly wind up in an international scheme where they become the hunted.
Who hasn't seen or heard of Hostel? This was released a year after Saw and in many ways the two films heralded in a new era of body horror and, more specifically, torture porn, which I feel many modern audiences most heavily associate with the horror genre today. Eli Roth made a name for himself several years earlier with the enjoyably bloody Cabin Fever— a movie which perhaps better bridges the gap from early 2000s horror into more body-centric terror. I would argue it's also no coincidence that the teen comedy EuroTrip was released in 2004, because in many ways Hostel is a perverted and nightmarish version of that film, complete with Josh (Richardson) moping over an ex-girlfriend, Amsterdam nightclubs, feisty strangers on a train, and winding up in Bratislava. Tell me that's a coincidence. Which leads me to my next point...
Above all else, Hostel is an exploration of the role of America (and Americans) in a post-9/11 world. The Bush era was a time when American backpackers were not welcome many places, when Americans abroad posed as Canadians to avoid the recently-marred reputation on the world stage. While it exploits some of the stereotypically obtuse nature of American tourists, it also serves as a commentary of American violence when we meet the fantastically creepy Rick Hoffman as the American client later in the film. In general, setting the majority of the film in an impoverished and third-world-looking version of the Slovakian capital of Bratislava drew major backlash from government and audiences in that country, which went on to invite Roth for an all-expenses-paid trip to show him their true beauty and culture. Roth explained that the film was not meant as an insult to the country or its people, but rather to make a point that most Americans wouldn't know Slovakia was a country, or at least that they wouldn't be able to place it on a map. While our main characters are fairly bright, this ignorance and the ensuing loss of innocence are explored in the film.
It's not a coincidence that the victims we see explicitly in the film are American and Japanese, or that German plays a large role, because I feel that this, too, is a commentary on power: Taking citizens of the world's most powerful and industrialized nations and subverting them into victims in a nightmarish pay-per-victim business in what is clearly portrayed as a developing country. Since the Cold War, Eastern Europe has long been viewed in the American imagination as some broken down and eternally foreign place lost in the past. I can see how this film certainly would have perpetuated those feelings. A major moment in the film comes when the formerly cocky and ignorant Paxton (Hernandez) begins speaking in fluent German to his torturer, thus tapping into the masked butcher's humane side and allowing Paxton to buy himself some more time to formulate a plan. To me, this represented the importance of culture and multicultural/ multilingual education as a path to salvation for Americans, who are stereotypically monolingual and ignorant of cultures other than their own state/ city/ family.
I really enjoy this film. I remember the first time I rented it with a friend back in high school and we just sat there half laughing half terrified at what was happening before us. The first half of the movie plays almost as an adult film until we are ushered into a dark transition. I absolutely adore the juxtaposition of these young men looking for sex and speaking poorly of sex workers, only to then find themselves as the meat or merchandise being sold to wealthy international clients. Natalya (Barbara Nedeljáková) explicitly points this out with a great line to Paxton later on: "I get a lot of money for you, and that makes you my bitch." There is something so crucial to the genre about this subversion of independence and agency into total obedience— and then enter the body horror as their physical forms get slowly mutilated. I think that is what differentiates body horror from splatter films: There is a larger focus on the physical mutilation than simply on the bodily fluids to follow. Hostel offers plenty of that as well, and if there was one scene most representative of the movie, it would probably be the infamous bit with the eyeball. Another great sequence is when Paxton is being dragged past the doors of different rooms in the factory (why are the doors open?) and we get brief glimpses into various snapshots of torture. My favorite scene may have been when Paxton is in his torture room and his vomit starts erupting around the ball gag that has just been put into his mouth. So excellent.
Another interesting theme the movie touches on not-so-shyly is that of a gay subtext. I recently listened to the Hostel episode of the usually fun and insightful Horror Queers podcast that brought this back to my attention since I had not seen the movie in years. Going back to American relations, I think another major stereotype/ reality we have is that European men are more "feminine," as we have come to understand that word in Western societies, meaning they are more openly sensual or comfortable with their bodies or in expressing themselves. Óli (Gu∂jónsson) shows off his butt more times than I can count and is openly interested in heterosexual couples copulating, as well as other kinks. Horror movies in the early 2000s are usually ripe with overt homophobia, and Hostel is no different. Our three brochachos are galavanting around Europe looking for "poosay," and it's primarily Josh who becomes a target for Paxton and Óli's homophobic remarks regarding Josh's use of a fanny pack (trendsetter!) or his reluctance to try and sleep with every single girl they encounter. One of the most interesting bits from the film is when the Dutch Businessman (Jan Vlasák) places his hand on Josh's thigh during the train ride, and Josh immediately freaks out. When they meet each other again, Josh tries to atone for his outburst by buying the businessman a drink at a bar, and he reciprocates the man's original gesture by placing his own hand on the man's thigh. This prompts the man to admit that he had to ignore his urges and start a family, but that Josh still has time to do what is right for him. There is really no other way to read this except that the man is admitting he is not heterosexual, but was forced into a heteronormative lifestyle, and that he acknowledges homosexual feelings in Josh and wants the adolescent to follow his own path (AKA telling Josh 'Gay is okay.') Josh seems confused by this exchange, and we don't really see too much more of it because at that point it's already too late for him anyway. While Paxton starts off the film as a pretty unrepentant homophobe, part of his arc is to get more in touch with his feelings as becomes more human and tries to survive his ordeal. The idea of these men tied up and made subservient is one aspect of that, as well as some of the general torture/ BDSM equipment we see in the factory, including the ball gag used on Paxton. At the end of the film, the bathroom kill scene is also heavy on the gay allusions as cruising in bathrooms was historically (and still remains) a way to rendezvous with or meet other men. (We have seen this touched upon in other horror movies, such as the 2007 Halloween remake or even the latest installment from 2018.)
In general, I think the acting is pretty solid in this movie, more so in specific scenes than in general. I do like the hunky Hernandez as our final boy Paxton— bet you didn't see that coming when the movie started. Surviving the ordeal becomes fairly ridiculous, especially when he's an inch away from escape and hears screams coming from inside the factory (how?), triggering him to rescue Kana (Jennifer Lim) as redemption for the little girl he didn't stop from drowning in that minor backstory you might have missed in the first place. Facing the trauma of the moment, it's wild that his brain even allowed him to process that, whereas most of us would be in full-on flight, fight, or freeze. I feel so-so about Derek Richardson as the more empathetic Josh, but he has perhaps the biggest standout moment of the movie when he first comes to in his torture cell. This is our first introduction to the reality of the movie as well, and his realization/ begging for mercy/ suffering is one of the best sequences in the entire film.
Overall, this movie is not very scary. Violence and gore are very separate from actual scares to me, so while they are certainly heavy in those departments, the film itself is more terrifying psychologically in the reality of what is happening with the Elite Hunting organization. That name also cracked me up, what with an ego-boosting suggestion that these butchers were "hunters," when in reality their prey is being handed to them. Maybe some commentary on big game hunting there as well. The first half of the movie is all setting us up for the second half, and there is really very little horror in the beginning at all, which is interesting. A few scenes end up fairly silly, like the most dramatic low-speed hit and run we've ever witnessed (RIP Eastern European accomplices) or that other classic scene on the train platform at the end. (AMAZING blood splatter on random women. LOVE that.) The movie also ends on a really weird note, I was almost surprised that that was it.
I also picked up on some great Shining references throughout the movie, from the presence of the number 237, to the camera angles approaching the factory (similar to approaching the Overlook), even to the string-heavy music in some scenes. That was fun to see throughout. The music, however, is pretty corny, and I think that hurts the scares in otherwise dark scenes. There is a great soundtrack in the beginning of the movie, but by the time the terror kicks in, the score sounds very outdated and overdramatic. Was a bit turned off by that as well.
Final critique: This movie is a wild ride that many audiences are sure to enjoy. This came early on in the years of modern body horror and torture porn, with just a few explicit scenes but plenty of special effects, makeup, props, and bodily fluids to add to the overall feel. If you can't do gore, there is no reason why you should even attempt this movie. Otherwise, it's quirky in its own ways, but mostly a quick and enjoyable watch with plenty of deeper subtexts that helped boost Eli Roth to major fame in the genre.