Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
January 2006

'Hostel' territory: Horror flick has the chops, but wastes them

Lions Gate Films
Director: Eli Roth
Screenplay: Eli Roth
Starring: Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eythor Gudjonsson, Barabara Nedeljakova, Jana Kaderabkova, Jan Vlasak and Lubomir Silhavecky
Rated R / 1 hour, 35 minutes
Opened January 13, 2006
(out of four)

Eli Roth's Hostel brings to the table the same kind of faux-edginess that made both of the Saw movies so unbearably bad. Although, that being said, Roth does so with considerably more skill.

And that's why Hostel is such an unfortunate failure. It's clear he has the stuff to make a good horror movie. Already, he doesn't take his material too seriously - a problem that singlehandedly ruined the aforementioned Saw films. And there are a handful of really well done scenes in Hostel. But Roth has also, unfortunately, fallen into an old trap, mistakenly thinking that the harder he tries to gross people out, the more successful the movie will be.

Let's just say his approach needs a little work.

For the first 30 minutes, Hostel seems to think it's a 1980s sex comedy. Two recent college graduates - Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson), along with their new pal, Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) - are backpacking their way across Europe, doing nothing but getting drunk and chasing skirt. Needless to say, there's the requisite number of boobs.

Intentional or not, Roth does a bang-up job making sure we couldn't care less what happens to these people. The expositional sequence gets really tiresome, really fast. The monotony is physically painful. Even the sex comedies Roth tries so hard to emulate aren't this redundant, and many of them at least try for some originality.

Near the tail end of the practically endless opening sequence, our three heroes happen upon a stoner, Alex (Lubomir Silhavecky) who tells them that the best place to fulfill their wildest adolescent dreams is Slovakia. Alex insists that, once the Slovakian girls hear those adorable American accents (are they really that adorable?), they'll sleep with anyone. Nice.

But that sets in motion the more interesting portion of the plot, as Paxton, Josh and Oli take up residence in a rather popular hostel. At first, it seems Alex's promises were spot-on (I learned that one from the British), as the guys all find attractive foreign seductresses to fool around with. Until, that is, Oli goes missing, and then Josh ... leaving Paxton as our protagonist, an unfortunate development because he is such a thoroughly uninteresting character. In fact, every other character in the film is more fleshed-out, but Roth chooses to stick us with this guy. And the misfires continue...

Needless to say, the hostel isn't all it appears to be. There are more elaborate details that I'll leave for the viewer to find, but suffice it to say that there is plenty of rather sadistic torture - including some quite lovely methods and techniques - awaiting anyone unfortunate enough to get stuck in its underbelly. Mutilation, anyone? Come on, Paxton, were you really going to use all five of those fingers anyway? Be reasonable.

For pure horror fans, Hostel may deliver the goods. There's plenty of blood, guts and gore - though early reports that this film really took it to the extreme were grossly exaggerated. I've seen worse.

I'll give Roth some credit, though: The details about the hostel/torture chamber itself - why it's there, how its inhabitants are brought there - are darkly comical in quite an ingenious way. Unfortunately, Roth still can't seem to get a handle on his material. There are excellent elements about Hostel - but what Roth doesn't seem to understand is that really great horror works because of the suspense factor. Yet that is the one thing Hostel is missing. It has the wit, it has the blood, it has the gratuitous boobs - but there's rarely that level of tension to keep us on the edge of our seats.

Further, Roth doesn't know quite what to do with his characters - in fact, doesn't seem to know how to write real characters at all - and at one point in Hostel, he throws in some phony sentimentality that just completely lost me.

Now with two feature films under his belt, Roth has promise, but needs to mature as a filmmaker. His work has caught the eyes of such esteemed directors as Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino, so he's got that going for him. But as of right now, he's relying on gross-out violence and shock value as too much of a crutch. He would be well-advised, next time, to focus a little less on freaking out the audience, and a little more on creating a story and characters we can actually wrap our teeth around.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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