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In defense of... Hostel and Hostel: Part II

There’s an unrealistic expectation around film criticism that critics should approach every film from an objective perspective, regardless of its genre or subject matter. No doubt there are critics out there who love every kind of film equally, but most of us have some kind of bias. That’s only really a problem if reviewers are dishonest about their preferences; I mean, I’m generally anti-musicals, but I do my best to be upfront about it!

So it always frustrates me when I see critics who clearly not enamoured of horror – particularly its trashier, gorier offshoots – dismissing the genre out of hand. Such critics tend to fall back to a resonant insult: “torture porn.” The title has a very particular connotation, suggesting audiences drawing sadistic pleasure from the gruesome plights of its victims. The mental image formed when you hear torture porn is that of a camera lingering on protracted, gory suffering. And perhaps there are films out there that deserve the descriptor – Martyrs comes to mind, as does a mid-film scene in Wrong Turn 4: Bloody Beginnings – but the linchpin of this imagined sub-genre is undeniably Eli Roth’s Hostel series, which inspired David Edelstein to coin the term in New York magazine.

I’m not here to defend Hostel as a masterpiece (though I’d argue Hostel: Part II comes closer than it has any right to, but we’ll get to that). But it’s not the film its detractors imagine it to be. It demonstrates restraint and a hint of artistry – well, as much restraint as you can expect from a film including a shot of a melted eyeball dangling from a single bloody filament.

The real fear that Hostel exploits is not the fear of being strapped to a chair and being vivisected by some psychopath in a mask and black rubber gloves. Rather, it leverages the tourist’s fear of wandering into the wrong area, of trusting the wrong person. The protagonists of Hostel are a pair of Americans, Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson), and a Finnish tagalong, Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson). The objective of their excursion through Europe is not to soak in its centuries of culture but to get drunk, get stoned and get laid. These oblivious tourists aren’t the most likeable bunch, but Roth ensures that we maintain some sympathy for their uncouth antics as they travel from the coffee shops of Amsterdam to Slovakia. Well, a fictional version of Slovakia, one that’s steeped in poverty and unemployment. The film’s best section is its first forty minutes; absent any on-screen torture scenes, Hostel accumulates a sense of unease through the increasingly mysterious behaviour of the Slovakian locals, exaggerated by the unexplained disappearance of Oli.

The torture sequences – when the first of only a couple arrives about halfway through the film – aren’t as gruesome as you’d expect. Yes, there’s gore, but Josh’s murder at the hands of “the Dutch Businessman” (Jan Vlasák) is remarkably brief; despite the film’s reputation, there’s no sense of lingering or revelling in Josh’s pain. Roth understands that horror stems from anticipation rather than the payoff.

That shouldn’t come as surprise. Roth made a name for himself with 2002’s gorefest Cabin Fever, which caught the attention of Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino’s name is one of the first you’ll see watching Hostel, which commences with a “Quentin Tarantino presents” title card, and there’s even a cameo appearance from Pulp Fiction in both Hostel and its first sequel. And why wouldn’t Tarantino latch onto Roth (who since starred in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds)? Roth is, in many ways, a baser version of Tarantino – not quite as smart, a little more sexist. But like Tarantino, Roth knows his genre cinema. That knowledge is on full display in Hostel – not just in its technique, but in its many references to classic horror films – The Shining, Don’t Look Now, The Wicker Man – and Japanese genre flicks (The Suicide Club is referenced and Takashi Miike makes a brief cameo).

Granted, Hostel loses its thread a little in its final act, which shifts into an overlong chase sequence when Paxton manages to escape his chainsaw-wielding captor. But up until this point it’s more thoughtful and better executed than you would assume from its position in the cultural canon. That thoughtfulness is particularly evident in the torture-ecosystem it elucidates; the real villains, you see, aren’t the nubile young girls who bed the three boys then lure them to their grisly ends, but the exceedingly wealthy capitalists who keep the torture mill in business, while casually exploiting the people of Slovakia.

That subtext is fleshed out in Roth’s far superior follow-up, Hostel: Part II. Opening with a decidedly creepy pair of alternate endings for Paxton – who makes it out of the first film alive only to be instantly dispatched in the sequel, in true horror tradition – Part II shifts its focus to a trio of female travellers: Beth (Lauren German), Whitney (Bijou Phillips) and Lorna (Heather Matarazzo). It also expands its scope to include the other side of the torture equation, introducing a pair of wealthy businessmen, Stuart (Roger Bart) and Todd (Richard Burgi).

The implicit anti-capitalist criticism of Hostel becomes very much explicit in its sequel; Stuart and Todd are introduced at the culmination of a montage of super-rich folks bidding increasingly absurd amounts for the opportunity to slaughter Beth. It’s a little silly – remember, Roth is a less subtle Tarantino – but that’s part-and-parcel of a film that ramps up the black comedy quotient. There was a hint of humour to the first film – think the torturer slipping over on the fingers he’d just severed – but its front-and-centre here.

The emphasis on comedy makes Hostel: Part II less frightening, but far more interesting. The climax sees Beth get the upper hand on Stuart, whose initial reluctance to torture her is subsumed by full-blown toxic misogyny. She assuages his male ego to gain the upper hand, and finishes the deal not through another disappointing chase sequence (the security has been substantially increased since the first film) but with her chequebook, using her immense inherited wealth to buy membership herself. As in the first film, money is the real villain; torture is merely its symptom.

Hostel: Part II bombed at the box office, but it demonstrates a craft – and occasional artistry – that eclipses its predecessor. The same can’t be said of Hostel: Part III, a cheap direct-to-DVD cash-in directed by Scott Spiegel. There’s a germ of a good idea in the choice to shift the setting from Slovakia to Las Vegas – what better way to critique unthinking capitalism than find an even darker underbelly than expected beneath the crown jewel of crude capitalist excess – but it’s almost entirely squandered with dumb plot twists, terrible acting and yet another drawn-out chase sequence. The only real pleasures here are of the so-bad-it’s-good variety, such as when we cut to one of the chief architects of the torture complex idly motorboating a stripper. So if lazy critics want to dismiss horror out of hand, maybe point to Hostel: Part III rather than its unfairly maligned prequels.

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