“It frankly isn’t the barrage of barbarism it needs to be!”
Following Saw‘s 2003 release it seemed there would be a never ending tide of movies that themselves would unleash a never ending tide of gore. Admittedly this was mostly due to the rapidly re-spawning Saw franchise itself, but alongside WΔZ as an original property was Eli Roth’s Hostel, and it’s hard not to see the 2005 original as starting a game of one-upmanship with the Saw series.
Hostel tells the tale of American college students Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson), along with their older Icelandic travel companion Óli (Eyþór Guðjónsson) partying their way across Europe.
It’s during their initial merriment in Amsterdam that the trio are defined. Paxton is sex-obsessed and determined to be as wild as possible, and is eager to get his friend Josh laid. Josh on the other hand is far more reserved and set up as the sensible one of the group, but is clearly trying to embrace Paxton’s extremism. Óli is simply insane; throwing himself into situations in bizarre ways is completely first nature to him.
When the trio are informed of a barely known hostel near Bratislava filled with all the beautiful women they could want, their next destination is immediately set.
As they proceed to have the times of their lives at their destination by partying, drinking and doing drugs, Paxton and Josh finally get lucky with two attractive European girls Svetlana (Jana Kaderadbkova) and Natalya (Barbara Nedeljakova).
However, as their partying continues the situation turns unsettling when at first Óli, then Josh disappear. Paxton is soon lead on a journey to discover a sick syndicate that abducts locals and tourists alike for rich psychopaths to buy, torture and kill.
That’s one of the film’s fatal flaws; we spend a great deal of time with a trio of friends, getting to know their personalities and dynamics within each other, and then suddenly and decisively losing two thirds of the group. We invest all this time in getting to know the characters, only for it to mean nothing halfway through.
This could have been an advantage had the group not been entirely dislikeable characters to begin with; even Josh, the sensible one, is written as though ‘sensible’ is entirely synonymous with ‘achingly dull’. A sudden removal of two leads would have allowed us to really feel the isolation and loss of the remaining character had they been enjoyable to watch, but unfortunately they all come across as jerks.
You can see what writer/director Roth is attempting to do here, placing emphasis on Josh being the lead character before ripping him away to give an ‘anyone could go’ vibe. It’s an old horror trick, but it only works if you like any of the players.
The only character worth remembering is Óli, who’s played with great charm by Guðjónsson, managing to be both vulgar and completely charming. Had Roth chosen to leave Óli as the sole remaining character, this would turn the film on its head and make it something truly interesting. So rarely are we given the humorous man-child as the heroic lead in not only horror, but any genre of film, that to see it play out here would have really elevated the film, and it leaves a bitter taste as the viewer realises they were oh-so-close, given the small cast to start with.
But no, Roth has to go with Paxton, the most brash, least entertaining character of the bunch. Hernandez is a really under-par actor here, and isn’t at all convincing when it comes to his pleasure, pain, or supposed age.
This sudden loss of most of the main cast at once also leads to a massive unbalance in the film. The sudden change in tone and story from three friends farcically in search of fun and women across Europe to relentless violence feels like the cinematic equivalent of grinding gears.
The nature of the first half of the film raises suspicions that it’s taking a satirical look at American perspectives of central European countries and the people who hold them, but what follows soon makes you question whether it’s capable of that.
The extreme rear-loading of horror in Hostel results in the film needing to literally strap people to chairs and lay into them with tools just to deliver on the gore quotient promised in its buzz. As a result, it frankly isn’t the barrage of barbarism it needs to be to re-engage the audience after such a steep tonal shift of a speed bump.
The gore feels very perfunctory, and the fact there is no real central villain inflicting the pain denies us a character to latch on to. We despise a characterless institution in Hostel, not a character, and so it’s too abstract for us to attach any emotions to.
Hostel isn’t breathtakingly bad, but it is bad. There’s no characterisation and an apparently satirical opening is betrayed by a thick second half. The gore is uninventive and the lack of character behind it gives the impression it’s not really happening at all. Hostel might be a notorious name, but not wholly for the right reasons.
Director: Eli Roth
Screenplay: Eli Roth
Starring: Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eyþór Guðjónsson
Running time: 93 minutes
Release date: 6 January 2006
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