Lions Gate Films, a Canadian based subsidiary of Lions Gate Entertainment, is getting quite the reputation of producing and distributing low-budget blockbusters for the North American audience as well as for the overseas market. Its knack of taking educated risks with controversial films has paid off handsomely. Most recently, Crash won Best Picture at the Oscars, adding to its many other accolades. Among some of Lions Gates other films are the Saw franchise. Reigniting audiences craving for copious sanguinary fury, the film pushed boundaries in acceptable violence in even R-rated feature releases.
Now, a similarly themed film has been released in Hostel, a Quentin Tarantino signature film. The US$5 million production has gone on to make over US$60 million in its domestic box office (prior to DVD sales), while debuting at No. 1 in a crowded and heavily vied January period. To put its appeal into perspective, Hostel debuted at the top spot in the box office while out-earning both Chronicles of Narnia and King Kong. Both movies had a total budget that was 100 times the amount Hostel was made on.
The plot plays out like an urban legend told to ward off youths from succumbing to debauchery and misogyny. 3 young men travel to red-light districts in Europe with the simple intentions of anonymous sexcapades and rampant drug use. 2 of these men are obnoxious American fratboys and the other, an Icelandic lout named Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) whose insufferable attitude towards the opposite sex pays off more often than not. They jump from brothel to nightclub sowing their wild oats. Their foray into decadence takes a turn for the worst when they get locked out of their hostel after a wild night in Amsterdam.
While finding a way to safe quarters, they happen upon a local who tells them of a hostel in Eastern Europe with the cheapest, easiest and most beautiful girls from all over the continent who go crazy for Americans. This promise land lies in Bratislava, Slovakia. En route, they meet a Dutch businessman (Jan Vlask) who also regales them with stories about the girls and the assured depravity that abounds in Slovakia. Imagine a much more explicit version of Eurotrip without the comedy or the likable characters and youll be able to picture the films first act.
Sufficiently enticed they make their way to the hostel that houses their every fantasy. Just as soon as they are greeted with nudity, sex and alcohol, things start to go wrong when Oli disappears. Both Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson) are left dumbfounded by his abrupt departure as they are led to believe. As they solemnly party on their final night, they are separated and Paxton finds himself alone. He makes his way through town, alone and very far away from California.
After tracking down his date from the night before, he is led to a huge compound where he finds the Dutch businessman sewing up Joshs torso. Hes then forcibly handcuffed to a chair and wakes up unconscious in a room. A hesitant man with a chainsaw stands over him and in a series of comedic errors, Paxton loses 2 fingers but gains his freedom from the room. As he makes his way out of the veritable abattoir while being chased by burly bodyguards, he slowly realises that hes caught up in something more deviant and sinister than just murders. The compound is a business run by a charnel group of mobsters thats catered to wealthy foreign tourists who participate in torture and snuff rituals with kidnapped victims.
Any film carrying Quentin Tarantinos imprimatur is not to be taken lightly and not to be overlooked when it appears no less than 5 times in the credits. His recent and most mainstream films, Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 as well as earlier classics such as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction redefined executions and torture situations for the modern audience. A stamp of approval from Tarantino demands overly wrought death scenes and plenty of cosmetic blood spurting from dangling limps. Although popular, they bear the nebulous distinction among some critics of popularising tasteless substance wrapped within stylised gloss.
However, the real mastermind of Hostel is writer-director, Eli Roth. His previous film, Cabin Fever was the highest earning horror movie of 2002. Roths penchant for horror and violence had Premiere Magazine calling him the future of horror. Slowly fulfilling that promise, Roth has followed up from his auspicious debut and has crafted Hostel into an unhinged showcase of gore and suspense thats refreshing and actually quite scary. The matter-of-fact disemboweling and unflinching looks at newly made crevices in a human body is typical of the man. The graphic expulsion of fluids after the vivisecting and eviscerating of body parts is just part of his charm.
Roth unquestionably refuses to compromise as he finds unique and unapologetic ways to torture his characters while digging through their exterior shell (quite literally in some scenes) and into their inner psyche of fear and helplessness. It borders on Roths unstated objective of pushing boundaries and forcing a reaction from his audience when a scene reaches its gruesome payoff.
Quite possibly an indictment on humanitys venal nature, we see dirty cops turning away from the house of horrors, locals leading unsuspecting backpackers into certain doom and most prominently, bored and wealthy men that relinquish both money and their conscience to act out their sadistic fantasies. Perhaps it also points to xenophobia and cultural elitism when we see Americanism in all its arrogance through the parochial and over-sexed mentality of the leads towards the locals in the opening act. Maybe thats why they fetched the highest price?
Although not as much a psychological horror flick, the 1-dimensional and unlikable characters presented never fully lets us root for them even when sweet retribution is expectedly dished out to the men that murdered without distinction. Sure, we feel suspense and a sense of empathy when the backpackers face impending agony but thats because nobody should have to be tortured in the manner depicted.
There are 2 great cameos in the film in a space of 5 minutes. Both are masters of horror and both inspirations as well as fans of Roth. In the bar scene when Paxton finds his date, a hardly recognisable Quentin Tarantino sits in front of her. For Asian horror enthusiasts, Takashi Miike plays a caricature of himself an ardent patron of the slaughterhouse, when Paxton first reaches the compound. Not quite overt, but both cameos pay tribute to Roths inspiration for the films concept.
While pushing censors to their limits is commendable on its own merits, Hostel manages to inject valid subtexts, albeit flawed and mishandled. It lives up to early expectation of being 1 of the most visceral experiences in cinema for the past few years. Its premise is frighteningly plausible, as paralleled in films like 8MM where exploitation of desperate human beings for the rich and willing is kept hidden away from society.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars