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Baity feels some hostility toward Hostel

by Glen Baity

Are you one of the 15 people nationwide who saw Eurotrip on opening night? Are you among the 14 of those people who, 3.5 minutes into the film, thought: ‘“I wish someone would just tie these kids to a chair and start clipping off their toes with pruning shears?’”

Have I got a movie for you.

Eli Roth, the questionable mind behind Cabin Fever ‘— either the best horror movie in years or the worst movie of all time period, depending on your perspective ‘— returns with Hostel, a punishing ick-fest that thrives on Saw logic (to wit, torture is its own reward).

Roth’s films, for better or worse, are aimed at the middle third of the human body ‘— the reaction he wants will come from the gut or just slightly below. To name just one example: much like Cabin Fever, the beginning of Hostel is an ingratiatingly stupid, lighthearted sex romp replete with gratuitous nudity and frat-boy humor, and for the first half-hour it’s strangely unlike a horror movie at all. A trio of backpackers ‘— smarmy Paxton (Jay Hernandez), bookish Josh (Derek Richardson) and insatiably horny Icelander Oli (Eythor Gudjohnsson) ‘— stumble through Amsterdam, smoking dope, banging prostitutes, and being generally Ugly Americans (or Ugly Icelanders, as the case may be). Bored and disappointed with the number of other tourists chasing a cheap buzz, they’re delighted to learn of a secluded hostel in Slovakia where the women are as plentiful as they are beautiful and willing.

When the group relocates to the hostel, they find slowly that they’ve been roped into an elaborate ring of super rich tourists who pay top dollar for the chance to torture and kill witless backpackers. After members of the group start disappearing, the gore is ratcheted up well beyond levels of good taste, though in its defense, it at least functions as a graphic cautionary tale for college kids about to embark on a semester abroad.

Like Cabin Fever, it’s this excess that defines the film, and audiences of a certain temperament will lap it up. I loved Cabin Fever because, for all its extremity, it never lost its dopey sense of humor. Hostel strikes the same tough, elusive balance of simultaneously repulsing the viewer and drawing him into the story, ridiculous as it is, but when it comes to a certain point, it becomes almost too serious for its own good.

While I’ll never begrudge a movie for taking itself seriously, it doesn’t sit right coming from the hardly-innovative Roth, who always seems aware that his films are just silly, enjoyable trips down familiar paths. Call me crazy, but a little self-awareness goes a long way, and I’ll forgive a knowing idiot just about anything.

But without Roth’s obvious smirk, it’s hard to judge Hostel any differently than one would any other sub-par splatter flick (though this film is better than Saw, I suppose you could consider that ‘damning with faint praise’). There’s a segment in which Paxton, increasingly worried about his friends’ sudden disappearances, is scrambling around the city, looking for answers. It’s not really suspenseful, and the film makes no pretense toward being a mystery (indeed, the only surprise is seeing just how far Roth is willing to go visually), but Hernandez’s performance is strong enough to make it interesting.

After this portion, the torture scenes take center stage. The film’s major selling point, these scenes aren’t unique in their depravity, but they are disturbing. Surprisingly early on, the film gets bogged down in pointless excess. I know you can show a person getting their eyeball cut out, but does that mean you should?

Roth seems to think so, but the purpose never crystallizes for the audience. It’s less scary than just plain gross, and none of the nightmares are new. This highlights the already-obvious fact that the film is bursting with cliché. The expansive, dilapidated warehouse in which the tourists are dismembered is the same mundane, dilapidated warehouse used in every film where people are senselessly tortured ‘— here the familiar chair bolted to the ground, there the same old meat hooks hanging from the ceiling, everywhere the soporific screams of the uncreatively flayed. There might be more than one way to skin a tourist, but there can’t realistically be more than a half dozen, and I daresay we’ve seen most of them, not that we really need to.

Hostel is occasionally fun, in a psychologically unhealthy way. And if you’re going to see one of the hundreds of movies that are essentially snuff films ‘— as always, no judgement ‘— by all means, see this one. But if you’re either disgusted by that sort of thing (as any respectable person should be), or you’re just bored having seen it too many times (like I am), there might be a better use for your eight dollars, like, say, renting Cabin Fever three times.

Glen Baity wonders how the family who brought their 9-year-old to the 2:30 Sunday showing of the reasonably R-rated Hostel is coping with their child’s latest round of night terrors. If this is you, e-mail him at egothelivingplanet@excite.com and tell him how it’s going.

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