Wednesday 20 December 2006

Wednesday 20 December 2006
CAST: Jay Hernandez (Paxton), Derek Richardson (Josh), Eythor Gudjonsson (Oli), Barbara Nedeljakova (Natalya), Jan Vlasak (The Dutch Businessman), Jana Kaderabkova (Svetlana), Jennifer Lim (Kana), Keiko Seiko (Yuki), Lubomir Bukovy (Alex), Jana Havlickova (Vala), Rick Hoffman (The American Client) & Petr Janis (The German Surgeon)

Three hedonistic backpackers travel to Bratislava and become victims of a sinister international trade in human torture...

Writer-director Eli Roth has been quick to proclaim himself horror's saving grace -- the Wes Craven for the 00s. Roth's confidence stems from the success of his low-budget debut Cabin Fever, an effective throwback to 80s shlock. Since then, Roth has been taken under the wing of Quentin Tarantino and snubbed post-Fever studio offers to get Hostel off the ground based on a spec script.

Hostel is apparently based on an unsubstantiated Thai website, discovered by Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News, that offered the chance to torture and kill people for $10,000. Roth supplants the idea to Eastern Europe and stretches this thin idea into a workable script that's laborious with set-up and snappy with the pay-off.

The movie begins in Amsterdam, where three backpackers, Hispanic Yank Paxton (Hernandez), shy aspiring writer Josh (Richardson) and Icelandic party animal Oli (Gudjonsson), are busy frequenting ganja bars and the notorious Red Light District. After getting locked out of their hostel, the trio are advised by a Russian samaritan to head for Bratislava, where all their sexual dreams will come true.

Arriving in the crumbling Slovakian town (the tourist board must hate Roth), the friends find refuge in a hostel and are taken under the voluptuous wings of sexy goodtime girls Natalya (Nedeljakova) and Svetlana (Kaderabkova). It appears all their fantasies are indeed being fulfilled, but they're unaware the girls are being paid to deliver them to businessmen who want to torture and kill for kicks.

Hostel desperately wants to be a gruelling and nightmarish benchmark in sadistic horror cinema, but ultimately it fails to achieve these lofty aims. The idea is simple and should spark interest in audiences minds, but the execution (no pun intended) is too haphazard to be effective...

The build up to the film's raison d'etre is long, but nevertheless interesting and involving thanks to the lead actors' chemistry. But after such a slow burn the film's torture sequences aren't particularly worthwhile. As with all horror, nothing can beat your imagination, so despite a few in-your-face glimpses at drills in flesh and sliced ankles, it's all more distasteful than horrific. The first torture is the most successful, as the situation is so bewildering and performed with relish by victim Richardson and torturor Jan Vlasak as a creepy Dutch Businessman.

By the time the film's other tortures take place, the movie is beginning to lose its chilly mystique, but manages to work by focusing on survival and revenge. Roth's script isn't very good, particularly in Act III when the number of contrivances for Hernandez to exact his escape and revenge is almost comical. A scene where three villains neatly gather together just asking to be run over is particularly unlikely, as is Vlasak's eventual comeuppance.

Roth's ability as a writer is definitely in question, but his directorial skills are much better. For the most part Roth knows how to build tension and how often to show graphic shots. Hostel works best when events are left to the imagination, best exemplified by decapitated head sitting on a table and some mutilations done off-camera. Eventually, Roth gives in and shows a burned-out eyeball and chain saw dismemberment, but for the most part the balance between seen and unseen is good. Of course, those actually hoping for an orgy of no-holds-barred violence will be disappointed.

The subtext to the film isn't too bad: the fact three horny college kids spend their vacation treating women as sex objects, only to become objectified themselves as meat to be slaughtered, isn't too shabby. But Hostel doesn't do anything within its genre to become anything more than a gory oddity. The best thing about the film is its ugly premise, but while Roth occassionally hits the right note and delivers some chills, it's all a bit underwhelming, disappointing and very contrived.

Only threee sequences are worth your time: the first torture scene because of its performances and directorial skill, a moment when Herndandez pleads for his life in a German torturor's native tongue and a brash US businessman debating how best to kill his victim.

The rest? Entertaining but forgettable nonsense that struggles to achieve the shock-horror verve of Japanese director Takashi Miike (who even cameos), but provides enough tits, blood and violence to please horror fans for the short-term. Also nice to spot the injokes: Pulp Fiction on TV as homage to producer Tarantino, while a sex scene takes place to the song "How Do" from The Wicker Man, Room 237 from The Shining appears, and the search for orange-jacketed Oli reminds of a similar pursuit for Don't Look Now's red-coated ghost...

Eli Roth may think he's the saviour of horror cinema, but he's not on the evidence of this. The fact he's already stuck filming an unnecessary sequel seems to prove this...


This Unseen Edition contains 27 seconds of extra "eye goo" which is disappointing for those expecting a more gruelling DVD experience than in the theatre, but there you go.

PICTURE: The 2.35:1 widescreen image is very good, with crisp exterior daylight scenes and smooth blacks.

SOUND: The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is effective, particularly when people or vehicles make noises from the rear speakers. There's plenty of opportunity for atmospheric screams, rattling and water dripping, and it all helps to place you in the film's nihilistic mindspace. English and French subtitles.


Commentary Track 1: Director Eli Roth is joined by executive producer Quentin Tarantino, Boza Yakin and Scott Spiegel. Great fun, as you'd expect with movie-junkie Tarantino's involvement.

Commentary Track 2: Eli Roth is joined by actors Barbara Nedeljakova and Eyethor Gudjonsson, editor George Folsey Jr and web critic Harry Knowles. This is a patchwork track, with commentators dropping in for short intervals, sometimes via phone. Roth does well interviewing his colleagues.

Commentary Track 3: Roth is joined by producer Chris Briggs and documentarian brother Gabriel Roth. A more relaxed commentary that focuses on production. Good stuff.

Commentary Track 4: Roth's own commentary that gives advice to aspiring filmmakers, anecdotes, pre-production inspirations and other goodness. Despite being the fouth yack-track, it's amazing to find Roth still has things to talk about!

Hostel Dissected Documentary: An excellent feature split into three parts, recounting the making of the film in Prague -- full of special effects, interviews and a cheeky vibe throughout.

Kill The Car! Multi-Angle: A strange extra that allows you to watch a gang of Czech kids destroy a car, from three alternative angles. Okay, but pointless.

Rounding out the disc are theatrical trailers for When A Stranger Calls, Silent Hill, The Cave, Underworld: Evolution, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, Boogeyman, The Fog and Ring Around The Rosie.

A great disc for filmmakers interested in horror, primarily via the entertaining commentary tracks and the documentary. For everyone else, a solid disc that should provide some additional entertainment. Most importantly, the video and audio transfer is excellent. Recommended.