Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Sick and the Dead: Staying Alive in Hostel Territory

If you prefer more blech for your buck, check out this week's latest theatrical frightfest, Eli Roth's Hostel. The movie follows two American males, Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson), on a European vacation packed with sex, drugs, and alcohol.  After finding a kindred spirit in fellow wanderer and Euro-native Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), the two trek to a Slovakian hostel where, local rumor has it, the women will fulfill their every desire. At first glance, everything lives up to expectation--the beer is always flowing, the atmosphere is inviting, and the women are unbelievably gorgeous, and willing. Eyebrows and questions alike are raised, however, when Oli leaves without a "fare-thee-well" and winds up missing. Little do the others realize their newfound friend is being tortured by one of the oldest rules of horror films: the most "sexually liberated" or "obviously ethnic" character is first to die. Too bad for Oli, he's both.

Oli's sudden absence is eventually explained by the presence of an underground gaming company. "Elite Hunting," as a business card advertises, caters to the rich and privileged, offering those with gilded pockets opportunity to act out their darkest fantasies on human abductees. It's obvious these fantasies are of the S&M kind, as each room is arrayed with a variety of mostly sharp, mostly metallic instruments--from dental picks to chainsaws--which can inflict nothing less than pain on the unfortunate. After Josh goes missing too, it's up to Paxton to make the connection between his buddies' disappearance and Elite Hunting. As for the ensuing gore...I'll let you fill in the gaps.

As far as horror films go, Roth's second feature (his first was Cabin Fever) is something of letdown. The characters are marginally developed, just enough to be recognizably above "sub-human." Josh is the closet homosexual, whose precoital fear is mistaken for virginal shyness; Paxton has been blessed with a backstory (as a teen, he witnessed a child drown; its mother's scream still haunts him), endowing him with the movie's only altruistic moment: after narrowly escaping Elite's hunting grounds, he returns, risking life and what's left of his limbs to save a screaming woman from her tormentor. The scene recalls Pulp Fiction when Butch returns to save Marcellus Wallus from his homosexual captors, and hints at the degree of originality at work in Hostel.

In fact, most of the movie's better moments are cinematic regurgitations. Roth tries to slice beneath the surface, playing with familiar themes of voyeurism, fantasy, and wish-fulfillment, but forgetting to say something original of his own. Sensing the vacuous nature of his own subject, Roth falls back on the oldest trick in the book: pointing the finger at the audience and implicating them in the violence. More offensive than extreme close-ups of human gristle on a drill bit is the assumption that viewers are just as morally corrupt as the members of Elite Hunting (even if it may be true); there is a great deal of black and white between watching a Hollywood simulation of violence and violating the human rights of another, no matter how grey Roth wants to make it.  By the movie's end, this feels like a weak attempt to ascribe meaning to a story short on substance.  

When it works, Hostel suggests the events could happen to you. When it fails, the movie offers nothing more than gross-out gags and telephoto gore. I suspect, despite its failings, many youngsters will be drawn to this movie on account of Quentin Tarantino, who gave Roth his seal of approval. Too bad it's not a more worthy product.