I have an interesting relationship with horror movies. When I was a kid, I couldn't see that many, because a)our family didn't have a lot of money to go see any movies, and b)my dad was a preacher (and a decided un-fan of scary movies), so I was very rarely exposed to them. I'm kind of a wuss about them, even now. But I can't help being fascinated by them, and trying them out to see how far I can go and how much I can take.
So it was with equal parts excitement and terror that I stepped into a darkened theater to see Eli Roth's Hostel. I'd heard all kinds of things about it. Guys on Ain't It Cool News were calling it "the scariest film in a decade." There were the William Castle-esque marketing gimmicks where paramedics had supposedly been called in because audience members were vomiting, going into cardiac arrest, or otherwise freaking out. And I'd had one of my favorite Christmas carols ruined by the latest TV ads. I had been pumped up about seeing this movie for months, but on the morning I had intended to see it, I started to get cold feet.
I'm not sure how much of the plot to give away. On the one hand, most of you are probably not likely to see this film unless under extreme duress. On the other, the movie does have quite a sucker punch that I was bummed had been ruined for me (and it was ruined in one of the first trailers).
Paxton and Josh are American college students who are backpacking through Europe. They meet up with their Icelandic friend Oli in Paris and the three of them go looking for adventure. They go to Amsterdam, but get bored with it pretty quickly, as it's "tourist"-y and there are too many Americans. They meet Alex, who tells them of a small town in Slovakia where there are lots of sex-starved girls and, because of the war, no men.
So the three horny college guys hop a train for Slovakia, and on the way they meet a strange guy who, because he's in a horror movie, is bound to reappear later. The guys arrive in this picture-perfect Eastern European village and check into the recommended hostel, which looks way too nice to be a hostel. They're bummed to learn that they will have roommates, but when these roommates turn out to be hot European chicks, it's all good.
All goes well for the next few hours. The guys head down to the spa, where they sit and talk to several beautiful undressed girls. They drink and dance at a disco and go back to their room to ... well, you can guess the rest. The next morning they wake up and discover that Oli never made it back to the room. They go to the front desk and find that he has checked out. They get a text message saying that he's gone home, with a picture he's apparently taken of himself via cell phone. We zoom in on Oli's face in the photo and transition to where he really is. The camera then pulls back to reveal Oli's severed head, sitting on a table, and his cell phone in the hand of a stranger. Welcome to hell.
What follows is a nightmare of trying to figure out what exactly is going on and trying to get out of a situation that's completely beyond the characters' comprehension. There are several scenes of brutal torture, most notably the "eye-gasm", but the real horror comes from the film's twist. If you've seen The Game or The Wicker Man, you can probably guess what this is without much difficulty. But it doesn't make it any less powerful, I don't think.
I've read lots of complaints about the film. Some people think it's over the top, but I disagree. I don't think it's as bloody as Re-Animator, for example. As much gore as there is, Roth still leaves a lot to your imagination. I've read one review that thinks the movie is homophobic, to which I say "Whaaaat?" There are those who think it's xenophobic - a stereotypical "stranger in a strange land" fable where all foreigners are evil. And there have been several complaints that the horror just isn't real enough, because you have the safety of thinking "Well, I'd never do what these characters did to get themselves into that situation, so it could never actually happen to me." There are two problems with this, though. First is that there are characters who end up being tortured who - as far as we know - did not come to the hostel for the same reasons our heroes, which raises the question "why are they being 'punished'?" Second, I think it's just as scary to think that this kind of thing could be happening right under your nose, even if it doesn't happen to you personally.
Like all films by and for film geeks, there are lots of influences from other great horror directors and films in Hostel. In style, it's very much like Italian horror from greats like Lucio Fulci (Zombie) and Dario Argento (Suspiria & Demons) - full-on gore and lots of nudity. In tone, it takes a lot from Takashi Miike (Audition), who incidentally has a short cameo in the film. It's definitely not for those who get literally and physically ill at the sight of blood. But if you think you can stand it, it's worth checking out.