Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy
This one’s got a bunch of spoilers, kids. Just so ya know.
So, despite my attempts to convince myself otherwise, I’ve come to the conclusion that beneath the gore, the sadism, and a veritable avalanche of boobies, Eli Roth’s Hostel carries a troubling and genre-defying queer subtext that is at once both strikingly progressive and horribly dated. Because while the story features a provocative and completely unexpected gay-vague subplot and spends an inordinate amount of time stoking the homo-baiting coals – which might serve as a point of entry for discussion of the whole gay issue, or could just serve to alienate gay audiences and feed homophobes’ appetites – the gayish characters still end up grist for the mill, as usual. Is a potentially gay character who is cruelly butchered by another potentially gay character, who is himself cruelly butchered, better or worse than no potentially gay character at all? And more importantly – given that this is a mainstream horror flick more targeted toward giggly teens and their dates than anyone else – if a potentially gay character is potentially gay in the forest and no one is there to see it, does it matter if his belt matches his shoes?
There is certainly something very queer afoot here. Even if you pooh-pooh the potential gay "romance", the protracted scenes of these men being humiliated in their underpants is certainly a bit left-of-center. Notice how sexual the encounters between the male victims and their male tormenters are -- this is porn, only instead of a writhing girl on a bed it's a writhing man in a ballgag that gets these fellas excited. And just look at the poster -- even Hellbent's one-sheet wasn't THAT gay...
All of this of course is an overdrawn discussion of one aspect of what on the whole is a surprisingly solid popcorn horror flick from enfant mediocre Eli Roth, whose agonizingly juvenile Cabin Fever should have won an Ad Age award for convincing millions of unsuspecting viewers that it was a horror film, instead of a crudely compiled bunch of unfunny jokes with some stage blood thrown in. Here Roth is thankfully much more in check in terms of his narrative and handling of characters, and the distracting slapstick and atmosphere-bursting fratboy humor that ruined Fever is toned down considerably, and when appearing appears for good reason. While Fever featured a ridiculous (and no doubt hotbox-inspired) 8-year-old white trash ninja screaming “Pancakes” for no reason whatsoever, Hostel features a ridiculous (and similarly hotbox-inspired) band of 8-year-old Slovakian street toughs who demand “Bubblegum” – but at least the plot justifies it. In fact, one of the only things that’s entirely consistent between the two films is Roth’s apparent loathing of all things rural or non-cosmopolitan. Actually, he seems to loathe the people from the city, too – whatever, he probably hates everybody.
Paxton (Bill?), played by the criminally porkable Jay Hernandez, and Josh (Derek Richardson, probably best known for playing a young Jeff Daniels in Dumb and Dumberer) are two Americans backpacking through Europe for a last fling before grad school, hoping to score as much poonanny, drugs, and good memories as they can along the way. They’ve met up with the requisite loony Euro drifter, an Icelander named Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson – these names are about to get reeeeally interesting, folks) who seems to live for bouncing from party to party and sex club to sex club. But as they drink and paw their way through the touristy DisneySexyLand of Amsterdam, it becomes clear that while Paxton can easily dive into the hedonistic world of casual encounters and paid sex, Josh (who has recently broken up with his girlfriend) isn’t made of the same mettle. In fact, it seems that he hasn’t gotten the nerve – or felt the desire – to sleep with anyone yet, much to the considerably looser Paxton and Oli’s dismay. When the trio – who are all around pretty much as piggish, sexist, homophobic, and stupid as you can really find anymore – get locked out of their hostel, a friendly European kid lets them in his window and weaves a tale of the greatest hostel in the world – kind of a Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, only the whores are free and willing and… well, it’s not in Texas, it’s in Slovakia.
The trio decide to abandon their plans for Barcelona and head out for the Great Pussypile of the East. On the train, they meet a Dutch businessman (Jan Vlasak), who oddly eats salad with his fingers and even more oddly makes a pass at Josh after showing the group a photo of his daughter. After the 4 or 5 instances of “fag” that have been thrown about already, the “creepy predatory gay dad” thing didn’t really surprise me – I chalked it up to more lowest-common-fratboy-denominator “atmosphere” building (the specter of gayness is apparently the most terrifying thing in the world to these men – worse than venereal disease, getting lost in the middle of nowhere, beaten up, anything). But this isn’t, ultimately, the whole story. Anyway…
The trio show up at the hostel in question and are amazed at what they’ve found – it’s huge, beautiful, and is populated with the hottest travelers they’ve ever seen. Their roommates are a couple of knockouts from Italy (the smoky Natalya, played by Barbara Nedeljakova) and Prague (blonde Svetlana, played by Jana Kaderabkova), who seem to share their ideas of sexual freeness – within hours they’re taking ecstasy and dancing with the girls, which of course leads to group sex back at the hostel. As usual, Josh isn’t really as excited about the whole situation as Pax and Oli – but goaded by the guys and encouraged by the girl’s advances (and the E), he sleeps with her. But something rather odd happens during the scene where the 4 lovers go at it in their room (Oli has gone home with the desk clerk) – Josh’s eye seems to wander toward Pax and his date more than it should, his attention apparently more on his friend’s meaty flanks than the gorgeous girl riding his knob. Thing is, it’s not telegraphed – most people who weren’t looking for this kind of thing (ahem!) likely wouldn’t even notice it. But there’s certainly something going on here.
Something that recurs several times. Remember the creepy gay dad who hit on Josh on the train? Surprise, he’s back (any minor character given that many character elements is bound to return), and their encounter is even echoed when Josh apologizes to the man (after the man saves Josh from a band of 8-year-old thugs), buys him a drink, and touches his leg in the manner that the man touched his. The man says something akin to, “I had a family because it was important to me. But you do what you need to do”, which to me is everything short of bursting into a refrain of “Go West!” Again with the gay-vague thing, but so vague that the casual viewer would likely not even realize what’s going on.
Anyway, things get weird – Oli vanishes (along with an Asian girl) and the hostel is obviously covering for the disappearance, while we know that his head is sitting on a toolbench in some dingy dungeon. The two guys decide to hang out with the hotties another night, but Josh isn’t into it and heads back to the hostel, light-headed and sick. He passes out on his bed while the desk clerk and a strange man look on. Pax, meanwhile, goes through the wrong door at the club and ends up passing out, sick, in a storage room, where he is locked in overnight. Josh wakes up chained to a chair in a grubby cement dungeon, and it’s clear that things are not gonna end well for him. But the extent to which they don’t end well is pretty awful, really – he’s drilled, slashed, and humiliated beyond belief – as fate should have it, by the Dutch businessman that he has befriended. Finally, in what can almost be considered an embrace, the businessman tells Josh that he paid good money for him and slashes his throat.
Okay. Now this is complicated. We’ve now kicked into another gear here – but unfortunately, what to me is the most interesting subplot of the film has just come to a close. As Pax tries to find his friends and comes closer and closer to the horrifying truth (and becoming a victim of the hostel himself), we actually learn little else about what in God’s name was going on with Josh and the Dutchman. Sure, it’s just one thread in the fabric here (and as Pax’s character arc crosses Josh’s, as he becomes more sensitive than he began, we at least have another person to attach to), but it was actually the most intriguing game in town – Pax’s subsequent discovery of the evil truth behind the hostel (it’s essentially a Penis Flytrap – luring dumb backpackers with promises of carnal paradise and luxury, only to sell them to rich men who pay heaps of money to torture and dismember them) and afterthought search-and-destroy mission is really all quite predictable, and tips into silly once the film hits its stride.
But in this case, silly isn’t all that bad – the thing with Hostel is, you have to go in expecting an accessible, crowd-pleasing horror thriller, not a total mindfuck. Sure, the idea of such an establishment existing is pretty nasty (and apparently they do – probably most of them in Brooklyn), and the torture scenes are far more intense than you’ll find in any other studio horror flick, but it’s really all in good fun. Even in the Josh murder, easily the most intense and disturbing segment of the movie, the camera cuts away for every hack – we never see a blade or drill bit actually touch him. I give Roth huge props for managing to make a movie that has loads of sex, nudity, drugs, and gore, and yet doesn’t really feel dirty. A few of the gross-out moments are fantastic (the eyeball-snip is grand guignol delicious, despite making absolutely NO SENSE), but overall it’s actually played fairly light. Even Pax’s revenge on the 3 Euro kids who set them up is hilariously understated and ridiculous (and probably my favorite moment in the film). There are a few bodies – living and otherwise – thrown in for pure spectacle (particularly poor Kana, who gets to re-enact the opening scene of Suicide Club all by her very self), but they’re not developed enough to garner much emotional reaction when they get either naked or splattered across the screen.
Roth is also tinkering with “ideas” here, to varied effect. The implicit nationalism and racism involved in implicating an entire Eastern European city in the snuff trade is brazen and completely indefensible, but he makes no attempt to defend it, so the discussion ends there. The “haves versus the have-nots” concept (Pax even has to dress as a businessman and has a creepy encounter with an American client of the torture ring in the locker room) concept would have been a nice one to dig into a little deeper, but it’s only obliquely referenced. For example, Pax is on his way to being a lawyer (which, if I’m not mistaken, is also what the American asshole is), which will put him on the other team in the economic dodgeball game in a number of years. Does money and the ability to make this kind of harrowing transaction have any impact on your desire to cash in on your financial power? Or do you really already need to be a psychopath to seek out this kind of thing? Pax starts out a rather shallow guy who has no problems buying flesh, but his experience as a victim of the same industry (albeit a more intense area of it) could really send him in either direction going forward – and although he does kill a few men and women on his way to freedom (including the protracted assassination of the Dutchman – which echoes his murder of Josh – in a train station toilet), it’s impossible to tell the motivation behind his actions and if he took any enjoyment from his revenge. There are a lot of interesting ideas introduced here (the queer aspect included), but none are carried anywhere near fruition. And while this does keep the film from seeming preachy or too contrived, it also leaves it oddly without much impact. If vagueness was the intention, it’s been achieved. But to me it feels too much like a lack of follow-through (or muddy rewrites) to have been intentional. Besides, if Josh really is a closeted young guy who falls victim to a middle-aged closeted man who slaughters him as a means of release, that's only interesting as a concept -- in the context of this film, where the only rule is kill-or-be-killed, it ultimately means nothing. Just consider the fact that Pax's going through the wrong door at a club is the only thing that ultimately saved his life -- this is no morality play, and the "themes" at hand play out only superficially.
Sure, the predictability and slow buildup might be a little boring for some. But overall, though, there’s a lot of good stuff here. Even if you don’t pick up what could potentially be the oddest repressed gay love story in recent horror film history (imagine Brokeback Mountain with a psychopathic sadist and a closeted twentysomething), the clean direction, nice performances, and gallons of blood are certainly better-than-average on their own. While it’s not nearly as intense as the ads might lead you to believe, I don’t really think it’s trying to be – it plays like a carefully-made wide-audience pleaser that manages to pack in lots of thrills without crossing the line – something that more intense flicks like High Tension and Wolf Creek would never claim to do, but which certainly has its place in the horror spectrum. All in all, I think Eli’s done good – maybe even good enough for me to stop picking on him so much. But where’s the fun in that?