Hostel (2005)

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*. “Like it or not,” Kim Newman tells us, Hostel was “the most significant horror film of 2005.” But in what way?
*. More than any other film, this is the one that launched the genre, real or imagined, of “torture porn,” which is itself a subject worthy of a brief digression.
*. “Torture porn” comes to us from a New York Magazine piece by David Edelstein It’s not a great essay, mixing bloody chunks of various disparate films (including The Passion of the Christ) and reaching no real conclusion. (It also never uses the words “torture porn,” which may have been the invention of a headline writer.) But the label has stuck.
*. I can see where Edelstein was coming from, but much can be said in defence of Hostel and (a movie it is frequently paired with in this regard) Saw. Saw in particular is not a gory film (they couldn’t afford the effects), and is actually quite an intelligent low-budget thriller. Hostel does a bit less with more (I think) but is still an effective flick that makes the most out of its creepy premise.
*. As for the franchises these two films spawned I will, for the moment, reserve comment.
*. Where I think the “torture porn” label sticks is with Roth’s leering penchant for merging sex and violence, something already abundantly evident in Cabin Fever.
*. Now some of this is clever, like the way the hallway in the factory mirrors the one in the brothel, with the close echo of the two scenes where the S&M “action” gets interrupted. In other places, however, the linkage is more conventional. The nubile Natashas, for example, are a breed of honey trap with a long pedigree. And the sex is also, at times, clumsily introduced as a throwaway, like when the guard is watching a porno on his small screen TV. . . and the scene actually cuts back to show us more of this movie. Granted this is an in-joke (the movie is Sex Fever, a take-off of Cabin Fever), but it’s not a very interesting one.

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*. Unlike with real porn, however, the violence here has a purpose beyond mere sensation. But it still raises the question, old and familiar now, of why we watch such horrible things, and if there’s a connection between our fascination with blood and the prurience of voyeurism. What does it mean to “like” or “enjoy” horror films?
*. It’s also interesting how both Hostel and Saw employ violence as a way of exploring the theme of the value (or as Roth puts it) the “price” of life. While torture porn reduces the human body to meat, these two movies challenge that assumption. What value do we put on life, either our own or the lives of others? This seems to be a very contemporary anxiety in a hypercapitalist age, and one that clearly struck a chord with audiences.

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*. Speaking of contemporary anxieties, in this movie, as with The Ruins and Turistas, we have Americans visiting foreign countries they don’t understand and taking with them feelings of superiority and invulnerability that will be sorely tested. The world is no longer a safe place.
*. Relating to that same point, in all of these movies the value of knowing a foreign language (or, conversely, the cost of not knowing a foreign language) is emphasized. His facility with German is what, indirectly, saves Paxton’s life. So there you go: a public service announcement slipped in with your entertainment.
*. The political angle isn’t very profound, but is perhaps a bit more complex than it’s given credit for. I don’t see how Abu Ghraib is really in play, but I like the obnoxious Americans who are seen by the Europeans they meet as naive and obnoxious because they really are. If this movie had been made in Europe one can only imagine the howls of protest. And yet when it came out the only howls we heard came from Slovakia.
*. Flag that word “obnoxious.” Are there any reviews of this film that don’t mention the obnoxiousness of the leads? To some extent the early presentation of Paxton and Oli (who isn’t American) works against the film, frustrating our sympathy. But then a lot of the “meat” in most dead-teenager movies (and that’s still essentially where we are here) is like this. It’s a sort of splatter existentialism that takes for granted the fact that hell is other people. From here it’s just a short step to the zombie genre.
*. On a first viewing the early material seems a drag, but on repeated viewings I find the whole film pretty well structured, and the escape sequences manage to be both quick and suspenseful. But I was also wondering if I just wanted it to end. This kind of movie does have that effect.
*. Wow. Amazing enough that the DVD comes with four full-length audio commentaries, but all four of them include Eli Roth! Introducing himself on his solo effort he says “It’s hard to shut me up.” No kidding. He barely takes a breath. Plus the featurettes all have him in the leading role. Bit of ego there? Well, it’s his movie.
*. For the record, I didn’t listen to all of the commentaries. Our culture suffers from information overload and while I appreciate all the extras DVDs have given us you do have to draw the line somewhere.
*. I don’t think the bubblegum gang stuff works. Perhaps the kids are just too cute (which was apparently a concern Roth had). I think they need to be more threatening and sinister from the get go. Here, even when they’re crushing heads they come off as comic relief.
*. Is Josh gay? On one of the commentaries he’s described as being “presented as really sensitive but not quite gay.” Hm. Not sure I like the sound of that. And not that it matters much, but it does cast his relationship with the Dutch businessman into a strange psychological light. Is this then how we kill the ones we love?

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