Friday, October 09, 2009

Hey. Hostel's, um, er, Pretty Damn Good Some of the Time...

The Crotchety Contrarian in me usually avoids movies that generate a lot of hubbub and brouhaha until said hubbub dies down. So when Hostel burst into theaters in early 2006 replete with a thumbs-up from Quentin Tarantino and enough controversy to give thirteen states full of bluenoses massive coronaries, I stayed away for awhile.

Time passed. The movie made a mint. Its champions trumpeted it as a horror masterpiece, and its detractors channelled their inner knock-kneed-old-ladies and clucked on about the movie's amorality and violence. In  the three years between its original theatrical release and my viewing of it on late-night cable, the so-called 'Torture Horror' sub-genre it helped birth came into and out of vogue, as fads often do. Some great movies (The Devil's Rejects) and some lousy ones (almost all of the rest) surfaced from the trend.

So what does this boundary-breaking, notorious socio-cultural zeitgeist of a movie look like today with hindsight? Honestly, better than I thought it would.

In case you've been living under a pop-culture rock, Hostel covers the story of Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson), two American college boys backpacking across Europe with their horny oaf of an Icelandic buddy Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson). After a wild night in Amsterdam the trio gets a tip from a local about a hostel in Slovakia packed stem to stern with gorgeous single women. They hop a train to the area and find the bacchanalian stories to be gloriously true...But with one helluva catch.

A sex-filled first night at the Hostel ends up with Oli disappearing mysteriously. Paxton and Josh try to piece together their pal's fate, but get politely stonewalled by the Hostel's females. Both guys are drugged, and Josh ends up chained to a chair in a dank concrete room, torture implements staring back at him menacingly...

Of course (SPOILER ALERT!) the Hostel's a ruse, designed to lure naive tourists into becoming human game for wealthy sadists. And no quarter's given, to the characters or the viewer.

Make no mistake, there is some major, jaw-droppingly brutal violence on display at times, and director Eli Roth torments the audience with sadistic glee (even hard-core gorehounds will have a hard time watching some of it without crying 'Uncle').  But for almost half of its run-time, Hostel is...good. Really good.

Roth sets the whole thing up masterfully, getting us well-acquainted with the two Americans and creating a brief-but-memorable scene-stealer in the carefree Oli. Pax and Josh come off as the most numbingly routine of stereotypes (jock and nerd, respectively) at first, but Roth's screenplay builds layers of complexity on these guys: Paxton may be an agressive prick, but it all comes from some seriously damaged familial stuff (confessed to Josh in one of the movie's best--and few gore-free--scenes), and when his homophobic distrust of a predatory Dutch traveller surfaces early on, it's as revealing as it is ugly. Best of all, the writer/director takes his time mounting the unease: His grey and foreboding Slovakia (Prague actually stands in) is a truly spooky alien world, peopled by folks whose Everyperson exteriors barely conceal contempt, distrust, and worse for the clueless Americans in their wake. It's Bush-era xenophobia taken to a richly chilling zenith and it's so sharply-realized that it'd arguably work just as well without a drop of the gore.

Sadly, Roth decides to broaden the scope of absurdity in Hostel's last third, and it becomes a rather dumb, over-the-top action movie in the end. It's still briskly-paced and executed with polish, but the atmosphere Roth so carefully crafts--mysterious and unpredictable--deflates under the weight of the horror movie director's worst enemy: Telling and showing the audience too damned much about the threat. That descent into the obvious hits the movie's kneecaps harder than any of the torture instruments on display ever could.

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