Written and directed by Eli Roth
A Screen Gems/Lionsgate Picture
Starring: Jay Hernandez (Paxton); Derek Richardson (Josh); Eypor Guojonsson (Oli); Barbara Nedeljakova (Natalya); Jan Vlasak (The Dutch Businessman); Jana Kaderabkova (Svetlana); Jennifer Lim (Kana); Keiko Seiko (Yuki); Lubomir Bukovy (Alexei); Rick Hoffman (The American Client); Petr Janis (The German Client); Takashi Miike (The Japanese Client); Patrik Zigo (the Bubblegum Gang Leader); Josef Bradna (The Butcher)
“Objection, your honor!”
“Yes, Mr. O’Connor, what is it?”
“Your honor, I object to the term ‘torture-porn’ as it is a misleading and prejudicial term, with the intention of coloring the perception of the jury.”
“Mr. O’Connor, do you deny that certain horror films, such as Mr. Roth’s Hostel, use sequences of torture of innocent people?”
“Characters, your honor, not people. The characters were tortured; the people playing them were just fine. Guantanamo Bay, on the other hand…”
“Don’t be impertinent, Mr. O’Connor, or I will cite you for contempt. Is it your contention that there is no torture in this sub-genre of horror films?”
“It is not, your honor. I was objecting to the second part of the term.”
The judge sits back for a moment and ponders before saying, “Sustained, Mr. O’Connor; make your case.”
For a start, it is important to point out that the term “torture-porn” which has been affixed to films like Hostel, Saw (2004) and their sequels, is not a term that the producers themselves embrace. Makers of slasher or splatter-punk are proud to have their films thus labeled, glad to be included in a genre of movies that are loved and make money. But those filmmakers who have delved into the world of torture in order to achieve their scare scenes and not amused to hear that, as a matter of form, their films are described in part as pornography. I have not seen all these films – I don’t find them fun to watch as a rule – but those I have seen are not out to arouse their audience. While I can’t deny that there might those who might find the scenes of torture in Hostel titillating (Hell, there’s probably someone out there who needs to visit the privacy of his bedroom after watching The Teletubbies), this is not something I, given my own reaction to the film, can lay at Mr. Roth’s doorstep: Hostel is a horrifying film. For those who got their rocks off while watching kids getting butchered in the Friday the 13th franchise and whooped while Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) made yet another terrorist spill the beans on 24 (2001-2010), Hostel was an eye-opening cold shower of an experience.
Josh (Derek Richardson) and Paxton (Jay Hernandez) are two American students traveling the hot spots of Europe (along with Icelandic tagalong Oli (Eypor Guojonsson) guiding them along), currently enjoying the pleasures of Amsterdam (i.e. legal weed and prostitution). They meet Alexei (Lubomir Bukovy), who gives them a hot tip on the type of girls they can meet if they check into a hostel in Slovakia. The three happy-go-lucky hornballs do just that and, after a slightly disturbing incident on the train with a Dutch businessman (Jan Vlasak) who may have made a pass at Josh, they find that Alexei was not lying (about the girls, that is). They immediately meet Natalya (Barbara Nedeljakova) and Svetlana (Jana Kaderabkova), two hot babes who show them a good time, which is good news for Josh, who is nursing a broken heart in the wake of a breakup. But then Oli (the self-appointed “King of Swing”) disappears, leaving a vague text message “I go home.” As the two search the city for their friend, it becomes clear that the hostel is actually a front for “Elite Hunting,” a dark corporation that lures foreign students to the hostel where they are kidnapped and held prisoner in an abandoned factory so rich businessmen pay for the privilege of torturing them to death.
The thing that disturbs most viewers about Hostel is not particularly the torture itself (although it is hideous and monstrous, make no doubt about it) but who the torture is happening to. A country that allowed Jack Bauer to become a post-9/11 hero on national prime-time television cannot truly be said to have any real qualms with the concept of torture (true, 24 was never as graphic as some of the sequences in Hostel, but there are thousands of “dead-teenager” horror films that are as graphic and have not received the condemnation that Roth’s film has). In an action film (or television series like 24) the hero is the guy pointing the gun; in horror, the hero tends to be looking down its barrel. It is no great observation that horror films scare an audience that can identify with those being threatened (to repeat a statement I made in my introductory article “Boo,” published on this blog on September 30th, for those of you who haven’t read it), and Hostel removes every last vestige of fantasy from its villains; the monsters of Hostel are not incinerated serial killers who can invade your dreams or vengeful Japanese ghosts, they are real men (notice there are no female hunters) with real families that they expect to go back to when this pit stop at thrill-land is done with. “Be careful in there,” Paxton is told by a Japanese client (Takashi Miike the director of Audition (1999)) who mistakes him for a fellow client, “You could spend all your money in there.” The Dutch businessman proudly shows off his daughter to the three young travelers like he’s a regular family man and not a hiding beast (truthfully, it’s not impossible to be both) believing that he’s the only one in that compartment who’ll be seeing his family again (he’s almost right). These men who pay to have young people brought to them so that can experience the real power that a sadist has over a victim are monsters, but they are also men; you couldn’t pick any of them out in a lineup. They are as human as their victims, but their money and their status makes them believe that they are something more: a demigod, as crazy as Victor von Frankenstein but the opposite of him in a chief respect; Frankenstein usurps God’s power to create life. These men do not aim so high (only as high as their money holds out); they are the gods who take life away.
And what of their victims? The film seems to have the same type of morality trip that films like Halloween (1998) and the Friday the 13th franchise had before it; sexual promiscuity can lead to disaster. Although both genders in Friday the 13th learn this lesson, horror films of this sort usually focus on the female victims. Hostel’s three protagonists are male and they are all out looking for a good time, even Josh (although he has to be pushed into it). One of the themes of horror films featuring young folk in danger is that they crave to leave the society that they know of (to a Summer camp, to a cabin in the woods, or to a neighbor’s house where they can pretend to be babysitting) to experience things that their authority figures would disapprove of. Annie and Laurie (Nancy Loomis and Jamie Lee Curtis) sneaking a quick smoke in Halloween has given way to Paxton and Josh going all the way to Amsterdam to enjoy legal grass and state-sponsored prostitution. Josh has absolutely no problem with getting legally stoned, but his all-American cherubic face cringes at the thought of sex with a prostitute (legal though it may be). Although obviously not a virgin (he is on the rebound), Josh is obviously used to a different kind of physical relationship with women, one that doesn’t include dance music, flashing lights and another guy waiting his turn, and in a traditional horror film he would be equivalent to Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie in Halloween, the lonely wallflower who prevails when Evil comes-a-callin’.
But Hostel is not a traditional horror film. The first frightening sequence finds Josh chained to a chair in a dark room, wondering how the Hell he got there, when in walks a masked man who looks vaguely familiar. During the next few minutes, in the parlance of old network news anchors, you may want to tell your children to step out of the room. The shots are oblique; we don’t see much, but a drill and a scalpel are used and Josh’s screaming lets our imagination fill in what we haven’t seen. And then the monster unmasks himself, it is the Dutch Businessman from the train who took a special liking to Josh, but not a sexual one as it turns out. He always wanted to be a surgeon, but shaky hands kept him from his dream (but maybe the medical board saw something else in him that made them withhold the license). Now he is realizing his dream and Josh, who never did any harm to anybody, is to be his experimental cadaver. It isn’t fair, but this is the 21st century where bored men with lots of money who have experienced every other thrill can find one more.
The rest of the film follows Paxton, and he proves to be a much more interesting character than at first glance. Although as big a party-guy as Oli, he is genuinely concerned for his friends and even risks his life later in the film to save a girl he barely knows. For an audience (particularly an American audience), Paxton personifies the everyman left adrift in a land not his own, where the rules have changed. When Josh disappears, he makes a police report (“he [Josh] is the responsible one,” he tells the policeman), only to find later that the police are in league with Elite Hunters. With Josh, he seeks out the missing Oli, someone he barely knows (he’s surprised that “King of Swing” has a six year-old daughter in Iceland), and when Josh disappears, he allows himself to be duped by Natalia to be led to the Elite Hunting factory, despite the fact that she and Svetlana look strung out when he finds them, not at all like the hot chicks he first met. One look at their pale faces and exhausted eyes must tell him that these are not the girls that he thought he knew, but Natalia is the key to finding Josh, so he lets himself be driven to his presumed destruction. It is difficult to gage his thoughts as he enters the factory: does he really not suspect that he is walking into a trap or is he ignoring his better impulse because he cannot leave without finding Josh?
When it becomes Paxton’s turn to be chained to the chair, he uses everything he can think of to live another day. Discovering that his torturer is German, Paxton pleads for his life in his torturer’s tongue; his plea is so touching that the tormentor is forced to gag him. Once free (this article won’t spoil every detail for those who haven’t seen it), Paxton takes on the guise of the last kid standing against the killer, doing the things we could never envision ourselves doing to stay alive but hoping we could if the going got tough. Paxton becomes the horror-hero-extraordinaire when, only steps away from freedom, he descends back into the factory to save Kana (British actress Jennifer Lim), the sweet-faced Japanese girl he met at the hostel. He and the now disfigured Kana escape through the streets of Slovakia and finally make it to the train station, where Kana’s realization at her own disfigurement wills her to make the ultimate sacrifice for the delivery of her savior: she throws herself in front of a train so that Paxton can board another train unobserved.
But there is a familiar voice on that train, a Dutch voice who talks of the joy of eating with his hands.
Hostel’s final act is a revenge fantasy; there is no way in the real world that Paxton could possibly conspire to find himself alone in a men’s public toilet with the Dutch businessman to do what he must do, but Roth abandoned realism around the time Paxton grabbed a pair of scissors and brought them towards Kana’s face. This film needs an ending and I, for one, am glad that Roth abandoned the one he originally thought up where Paxton made off with the Dutch businessman’s beloved daughter and went for his current ending instead; haven’t the innocent suffered enough over the course of this film?
Your Honor, can’t you see that the suffering that the characters go through isn’t meant to thrill, but to disgust?
To horrify, like any good horror film should?
If you doubt me, I must ask this one pertinent question: Your Honor, can you claim, in open court, that you were aroused by the violence displayed in Mr. Roth’s film?
The defense rests.