Released hot on the heels of the gruesome Australian horror hit Wolf Creek, Hostel is being sold as another entry in the "watch-at-your-own-risk" school of gory horror movies. In fact, the trailer consists of nothing but images of toes being chopped off, anonymous victims screaming in pain, and creepy men clad in butcher's aprons and surgical masks playing with sharp knives. Simply put, it's a minute-and-a-half-long money shot. Director Eli Roth and producer Quentin Tarantino want the audience to know that they'll get what they pay for-in this case, some good old-fashioned ultra-violence.
But those viewers who do pay to see Hostel (and that will probably be a sizeable number) may walk out of the theatre experiencing a case of buyer's remorse. While there are some cheap thrills to be had here, much of the movie is profoundly boring. Like Wolf Creek, Hostel bides its time before bringing the pain, but where Greg McLean established a believable atmosphere and sympathetic (if thinly sketched) characters, Roth shows little interest in fleshing out his movie's universe or the people who inhabit it. And when the blood finally starts to flow, the gore is disappointingly routine, particularly coming from a filmmaker who claims Tarantino, Takashi Miike and Peter Jackson as influences.
There are those (including Roth himself) who may argue that Hostel is actually satirizing bad splatter films, thus making the self-conscious dialogue and general air of silliness a conscious directorial decision rather than poor filmmaking. This explanation, however dubious, might also account for why the three ostensible heroes come across as such unlikable pricks. Apparently, we're meant to root for their demise.
Taking an extended break from college, rowdy Americans Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson) cross the pond to Europe in search of women, women and more women (not to mention the occasional reefer). During their tour of the Continent, they befriend a fellow party animal from Iceland named Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), who has a sixth sense for spotting where the girls are. Locked out of their lodgings in Amsterdam one evening, they encounter a local who tells them about a legendary hostel in a small Slovakian town that's filled with gorgeous women eager to please travelers with fat wallets.
Not the least bit concerned that this nirvana isn't mentioned in any reputable guidebook, the three horndogs immediately hop a train to Slovakia and are delighted to discover that the hostel is all they were promised and more. The first night passes in an alcohol-soaked haze, but when the sun comes up and Oli has mysteriously gone missing, Josh and Paxton start to get a bad feeling about this seemingly quaint small town. They have good reason to be scared: It turns out that the chief local industry is importing foreigners eager to pay top dollar for the opportunity to torture and kill another person. And where do these victims come from? The hostel, of course.
On a technical level, Hostel is a definite step up from Roth's debut film, the dire Cabin Fever. The visuals have an appropriately seedy look and the makeup effects are suitably gross, although there are a few effects (most notably an eyeball that's been melted out of its socket with a welding torch) that are too cartoonish to be very scary. Still, it's hard to escape the feeling that Roth remains more interested in advancing his own celebrity than in making a good movie. It's clear that the director desperately wants to be viewed as a rebel outsider a la Tarantino or Miike-someone who flouts the boundaries of decency and good taste just because he can. What he forgets, though, is that those two at least try to come up with some thematic purpose for their use of extreme violence-think of Uma Thurman's bloody mama in Kill Bill or the vengeful woman in Miike's chilling Audition. Beyond that, they simply have a knack for employing gore in enormously entertaining ways; you feel vaguely guilty for cheering on the bloodshed, but you do it anyway. Compared to his idols and even talented genre up-and-comers like McLean and the Pang Brothers, Roth remains an unimaginative amateur. By all means check into Hostel, but don't be surprised when the movie vanishes from your memory an hour after you leave the theatre.