LONG READ – Spoiler Alert
Last week, I was perusing through my friend’s Amazon Prime account (since she has been so lovely to let me use it during lockdown) focusing mainly on the horror section. I scrolled through the many cheesy low budgets looking movies such as “The Sand” “Poseidon Rex” “No Tell Motel” and stumbled across the torture porn classic that was “Hostel”.
Directed by Eli Roth, who also directed Cabin Fever, and produced by Quentin Tarantino, “Hostel” was released in 2005 following the immediate rise in popularity in the torture-porn horror genre after “Saw” shocked and grossed out audiences the year before with its close-ups on boldly gore, emphasis torture and mutilation. Hostel follows three backpackers heading to a Slovak city under false promises of a mega lads holiday of drugs and sex. They have no idea they are being lured into a deadly game where the rich take out their sadism on the naive hostel residents.
While I had always been a fan of the Saw series because of it’s a mixture of soap opera storytelling, the crazy slashy editing, it’s a philosophical mentality and of course the gore, I had not seen Hostel before.
The main reason why I avoided it was because Saw was easier to watch when it was the mechanical traps that were the methods causing gruesome killings, while Hostel was brutally depicting people hurting others for pleasure. It was not something I wanted to watch for 90 minutes, even if the villain gets what they deserve by the end. It’s the same reason why I’ve avoided watching Human Centipede and The Hills Have Eyes.
However on this day, when I found myself crossing paths with this film, (and seeing it was free!) I thought I would give it a chance. Surely by now in the 15 years since it’s release, it can’t be as bad as its reputation.
It was … it was bad, containing some truly horrific scenes giving me physical reactions to wince away from the screen, including snipped toes, sliced ankles, blowtorched and pulled eyeballs, Hostel does contain a lot of graphic body horror. However, … it was not as bad as I had thought. Yes, the violence gets worse, but with its low production under $5 million, the movie clearly takes shortcuts with its practical effects to keep costs low but reactions still visceral. The movie takes a similar visual look to Saw, going with a very dark, slaughterhouse theme with congealed dirt over the walls looking like a sewer and no shortage of blood. Often the assailant holds a sharp implement to their victim, but before the damage is done the scene cuts to their reaction and blood-curdling screams. There is a lot of blood and close up shots shown in the aftermath but 80% of the violent deeds are subtly off-screen or have an obstacle blocking the audience’s view.
The first half of the movie also takes a lot of patience to get through, with the three backpackers Josh (Derek Richardson), Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) wandering through the red light districts of Amsterdam and do not hide their desires to indulge in as much sex as they can find. Paxton and Oli especially are shown to be very shallow, openly homophobic and grossly sexist, while Josh appears more hesitant and but goes along with his friends’ antics. The movie is filled with nudity, with a lot of shots of naked women casually walking around brothels and hostels, and scenes of sex and prostitution are blatant for all to see.
I was ready to really hate these characters and looked forward to seeing them die until a scene on the train piqued my interest that this movie was more than an imitation of Saw.
As the three friends travel on a train to the Slovakian city, they encounter an older Dutch businessman who likes to eat food with his trembling hands and talks about the relationship of food with human nature. When they tell the stranger of their reason why they are travelling to the city, he gives them a very knowing look, confirming that there are plenty of girls there for them. In the exchange, he looks at Josh and calls him handsome, a comment that makes the rest of them very uncomfortable and laugh uncomfortably. The conversation leads to the businessman touching Josh’s thigh, and a freaked out Josh, over exaggeratedly yells at him not to touch him and calls him a freak, leading to the man hastily apologising and leaving.
At first, I thought this scene was only to confirm the lie they are told while adding to the outdated homophobic humour that was displayed many times previously. Josh being more uncertain than his friends lead to them often calling him homophobic slurs including f****t for carrying a fanny pack, not wanting to pay for sex and not wanting to smoke. The train scene though does come back into play in a way I was not expecting.
Later after the trio are settled into the hostel and easily seduced by three beautiful, overly sexual women, Josh temporarily leaves to use his inhaler without being seen. He is cornered by a gang of thieving kids but is saved by the businessman (whose name is never given) from the train. Josh thanks him and apologises for his outburst in the train and offers to buy the man a drink.
In the bar, as Josh sits with the man, his friends observe and once again holler another gay insult. Josh awkwardly laughs it off and apologises to the man once again and touches his thigh in a symbol of solidarity. The man gives Josh a very knowing look and offers a piece of advice.
“It’s not easy……but from my experience……choosing to have a family was the right choice for me. Now I have my little girl……who means more to me than anything in the world. But you should do……whatever’s right for you.”
Josh returns a look holding back his surprise, but before the conversation can continue he is dragged away quickly by his date. This one scene made me realise that this movie wasn’t so surfaced level as I thought. Here were two characters on their second scene together who found an understanding of each other without explicitly vocalising it. The extent of blatant homophobic insults and overcompensating of being heterosexual was leading to the reveal that Josh is a closeted homosexual and is too afraid to come out to his friends. But he was recognised by another much older closeted homosexual who has remained in the closet for the sake of having a family but gives the encouragement that Josh do whatever he wants to do, not what others tell him to do, which up to this point in the film Josh has constantly been following in Paxton and Oli’s footprints. This moment of depth for the character does not come into play for the rest of the film, even when Josh is captured and horrifically tortured by (spoilers) the businessman.
I actually don’t mind that their moment of connection does not go any further or resolute to anything more. It was a clever technique from Eli Roth to make the audience think that Josh is the main character who will in the future overcome his capturer, when in fact, Josh is brutally tortured and killed soon after this, leaving Paxton as the main character to root for (as Oli was actually the first out of the three to go missing).
The scene did make me reevaluate the movie so far and see that the writing and character traits were fewer cliches and more deliberate to throw off the audience’s expectations. The film also paid homage to other famous films, including a scene of Pulp Fiction playing on the hotel’s TV, a nod to Tarantino as the producer, and scene including the song “How Do” by the Sneaker Pimps, a remake of the song Willow sings to seduce Sergeant Howie in The Wicker Man (1973), which is also a film about townspeople conspiring against an outsider.
One thing that really made me laugh was how Paxton, once finally getting laid, did he begin to act more logically and begin to realise the danger he was in. Paxton ended up an unexpected hero in the movie, acting smartly and carefully despite clearly traumatised by his own torture he goes through. He endures a lot of pain, physically and mentally in order to escape, including losing his fingers, pretending to be dead on a cart of corpses and finds the body of Josh, even disgusting himself as a rich sadistic player and having to advise another on the best ways to kill. He even manages to rescue a fellow kidnapped girl he befriended in the hostel.
Hostel absolutely lives up to its reputation as a torture porn movie, with grotesque violence, a lot of nudity and disfiguring, But there is a lot more at play here, with subtle character motivations and traits explored in what feels like pointless lines of dialogue and extra scenes that serve little purpose. The movie isn’t perfect by any standards and I still prefer the Saw Series overall, but Hostel surprised me and at times impressed me. Practical makeup and body gore take a lot of work and credit is due when gelatin and fake blood can look like the real thing. There is a lot more to this movie that I did not mention to leave audiences with a lot of surprises, and a lot more insight to discover. But this movie does deserve to be seen and congratulated on what it was able to accomplish.