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Dustin's Review
Learn more about this film on IMDb!Hostel  (2006)
3 Stars
Directed by Eli Roth
Cast: Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eythor Gudjonsson, Barbara Nedeljakova, Jana Kaderabkova, Jan Vlasak, Jennifer Lim, Rick Hoffman, Petr Janis, Takashi Miike
2006 – 95 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for graphic violence, strong sexual content, nudity, language and drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 7, 2006.
Seeing "Hostel" less than twenty-four hours after "BloodRayne" really puts things in perspective. "BloodRayne" director Uwe Boll is a talentless hack, one whose passion for the art form is left null and void once he is put in front of a camera. Boll has no sense of timing, of how to handle actors, or of how to create the barest emotion within the viewer, and the other crew members he chooses to surround himself with are of the same level of ineptitude. In comparison, "Hostel" director Eli Roth is a true filmmaker in every sense; unlike Boll, he has a razor-sharp eye for texture, detail and character, not to mention how each scene should be carried out to reach its maximum possible effect. Roth, a die-hard horror fan since childhood, doesn't steal from better artists like Boll does, but uses his keen knowledge of the genre in exciting and original ways that pay respect to films and directors of the past—including Takashi Miike (2001's "Audition") and Nicolas Roeg (1973's "Don't Look Now")—without trying to mimic them.

With "Hostel," a masterfully orchestrated, horrifically plausible terror show that ranks among the best of the Grand Guignol style, Eli Roth has only improved as a cinematic artist since his debut effort, 2003's flawed but auspicious "Cabin Fever." Now comfortable enough to lay down his very own style and free of any remaining signs that he is still a novice at his craft, writer-director Roth details a novel premise based on a foreign organization he once read about on the Internet that may or may not have been a sham. In using this dirty business as the central conceit—a Slovakian mafia whom everyday citizens pay thousands of dollars to in order to know what it feels like to murder someone—it really makes no difference if it ever truly existed or not. The fact of the matter is that it very well could, its grim reality and underlying themes concerning severed foreign relations and the fear of the unknown making an unshakably haunting imprint.

The opening forty-five minutes are sumptuously deceptive. Just-out-of-college American tourists Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson), along with Icelandic drifter Oli (Eythor Gudjonssen), are feverishly backpacking across the seedier, wilder side of Europe. On a mission to have as much fun—and as much sex—as possible, they move from nightclub to brothel to hostel and back again, surrounded by the most beautiful women they've ever seen. It is this hedonistic search for carnal pleasure that leads them to the Slovakian city of Bratislava, where the girls are promised to be as gorgeous and easy as they come. So far, the picture is in the vein of a crudely funny fratboy comedy one step away from being the sequel to 2004's "Eurotrip." If Paxton and Oli are chauvinistic in their conversations and actions, they are lewd in a lovable sort of way that suggests they just want to have a great time. As for Josh, he is the so-called "responsible" one of the group, a sensitive nice guy not as skilled with women as his pals and possibly even grappling with his own sexuality.

Upon reaching the Slovakian hostel, they end up sharing a room with Natalya (Barbara Nedeljakova) and Svetlana (Jana Kaderabkova), knock-out gals who instantly take a liking to Paxton and Josh. A damper is put on their trip, until now free of worries, when Oli suddenly disappears. The clerk at the front desk claims he already checked out, and Paxton receives a photo message on his cell phone telling him that he left for home, but something doesn't sit right about the situation. What is really going on—something that Paxton and Josh are soon involuntarily embroiled in—zooms safely past the average person's worst nightmares and onto a plane all their own.

"Hostel" is a disturbing, uncompromising descent into the blackest corners of human nature, where people are capable of shutting down their consciences in the face of strangers—strangers from other countries, no less—who they see solely as subjects to torture, slaughter and dissect. It's a horrifying notion, indeed, and one with some thought-provoking sociological elements that deepen its purpose beyond being a cheap thrill out to shock and nauseate viewers. "Hostel" is violent, gruesome and graphic, testing the limits of its R rating (beware scenes involving Achilles heels and vivisected eyeballs), but there isn't a moment that goes too far or feels exploitative. In the midst of its mounting tension is a truthful statement about how some people—not all, or even the majority, but some—classify foreigners as being almost of a different breed of human, or inferior to themselves. This xenophobia—the fear or contempt of that which is foreign—goes both ways, stemming from a sense of the unfamiliar. So, while Paxton, Josh and Oli parade around in surroundings different from what they know, merrily unaware that one wrong move could leave them hopelessly lost or in danger, the involved citizens in this Eastern European town take advantage of their Ugly Americanism—in Oli's case, Ugly Icelandicism—using them and their vulnerability for financial gain, culminating in extreme acts of brutality. Think of it as a gorier "Dogville" replacing race with nationality.

Writer-director Eli Roth treats each scene like a symphony, conducting it such a way that shows just enough of what needs to be shown and leaves the imagination to wander about the rest. The further toward the end Roth gets, the more he lies bare, courageous in overstepping questionable taste in favor of how things might really play out and how people would really react if put in the same unthinkable situation as Paxton, Josh and Oli. For the first time in memory, these movie characters, being faced with an infinite fear they have never known, their torture drawn out as death hangs over their heads, don't just cry and scream in reaction—they also puke all over themselves and no doubt shit their pants.

Jay Hernandez, without a role worthy of his capabilities since his breakthrough in 2001's "crazy/beautiful," and Derek Richardson (2003's "Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd") are credible best friends and strongly charismatic presences as Paxton and Josh, their unrelenting path toward make-or-break, life-or-death fates absolutely riveting because of their likability. That they feel like normal guys in their early twenties, on the verge of jobs and dreams and a whole future open wide to them, is crucial in following them as real people instead of scripted creations, and allows for a more powerful emotional impact. Hernandez is superb throughout, but especially good in a scene where he tells the traumatic childhood story of witnessing a helpless little girl's drowning—a creepy, savvy subtext that is counterbalance to Paxton's own helplessness in later scenes.

There will be audiences who will be offended by "Hostel," both in content and context, and those who will be sickened by its explicit nature. They are the same people who will have preconceived judgments from the start and have no business seeing it in the first place. For everyone else (weak stomachs need not apply), "Hostel" is an extraordinary low-budget triumph that adeptly studies the threshold of one's own fear and endurance, and the fine line that makes up the boundaries between right and wrong, acquaintance and stranger. Additionally intriguing is the early picturesque cinematography by Milan Chadima, painting the European countryside in an exquisite, idealized light that gets turned on its head midway through when the settings and camera's stock become more grainy and threatening.

"Hostel" is an unapologetic, taut, brave thriller that puts the horror back in horror film, while simultaneously digging beneath the surface and into even grimmer areas of the human condition. If the ending seems a little too easy, it's only because what has come before has been so hard and despairing; the climactic moments are devilishly clever and logical in their inference. Finally, in Eli Roth is a stirring talent with the natural, invigorating filmmaking ability to become one of the horror genre's most reliable masters—a bloodier Alfred Hitchcock or a radical version of old-school John Carpenter if you will. The equally smart and hair-raising "Hostel," even more so than "Cabin Fever," is our first unadulterated proof of this.
© 2006 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman