Writer/director/producer/hack Eli Roth is a 33-year-old adolescent who loves to ogle titties but distrusts women and suspects deep down that there’s something kinda icky about them; menstruation in particular freaks him out. To him, as to an infant, the teat is where it’s at; the vagina, conversely, is a scary, mysterious wound — why don’t girls have pee-pees, too? In his first film, Cabin Fever, a schoolyard game of tag writ large, it was the womenfolk who first succumbed to the deadly cooties, leading to a scene in which our hero (the perennial adolescent Rider Strong) thought he was manually pleasuring a girl only to find that he was in fact digging around in a gaping sore on her upper thigh. Subtle. Later, after Strong’s character inexplicably has sex with another girl as his beloved lies dying, he seeks to prevent infection by dousing his member in Listerine. Yucky, dirty vaginas. But, squeamish as he is about girl-parts, Roth wants to make it clear that he thinks homosexuality is really grody; in Cabin Fever as in his new film, Hostel, the only insults his characters can ever think of are variations on the words “gay” and “faggot.”
With genre tropes like cross-dressing killers, sacrificial virgins, and victims put to death for the crime of seeking sexual gratification, horror movies often provide an interesting arena for the filmmakers’ ideas of sex and gender to play out, but few writers or directors put their own neuroses on the screen as baldly as Roth — the son of a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist — or with as much reflexive self-defensiveness. There are three types of people in a Roth film: the alluring but dangerous possessors of breasts and vaginas, the Men, and the Faggots, and Roth’s protagonists — male and female — work hard to reassure us that they’re no homos. The man doth protest too much, methinks.
The characters in Cabin Fever were so stupid, selfish, and amoral that no one could really get worked up over whether they lived or died; when they did expire, ripped apart by a feral dog or spontaneously gushing fountains of blood, the audience had the choice of two reactions: relief and mirth. In Hostel, Roth cranks both the stupidity and the gore up to 11. If the characters in Cabin Fever were annoying and unlikable, these are downright repulsive. No movie has ever made me so look forward to seeing its characters tortured and killed; within five minutes I was ready to skip to their deaths. But Roth — who’s probably a really swell guy if you get to know him — doesn’t seem to realize how vile they are, or else maybe he gets off on it; maybe he thinks their boorish behavior is cool. Could it be that, like many in the entertainment industry, he’s spent too much time in a place where vulgarity, insipidity, and egocentrism are survival skills to remember which personality traits are and aren’t appalling in the wider world? Certainly something has skewed his ability to predict audience reactions, because here the most loathsome character is the only one who survives.
The misogyny is more rampant here, too — the opening half-hour is wall-to-wall breasts, seemingly hundreds of them, and the camera leers at each set lingeringly, making sure — as if Roth’s script hadn’t already — that none of the women in the film are more than the sum of their parts. They aren’t even that; they’re just parts, and those parts are designed solely to get men into trouble. And the homophobia is such a major element that it’s a character in its own right. The one gay man in the film is a creepy, lecherous old fruit who turns out to be such a sadist that Sade himself would be freaked out, and the putative hero can’t complete a sentence without using the word “faggot.” And the gore … well, there’s a decapitation, torture with a power drill, torture with a propane torch, an eye dangling from its socket, severed Achilles tendons, fingers and toes chopped off, a leg severed by a chainsaw, three characters repeatedly run over by a car, a character drowned in a toilet, another vaporized by an oncoming train, and small children who crush men’s skulls — in close-up — in exchange for a bag of candy. Roth plays that last part for comedy. Funny guy.
The setup is for the gore is Eurotrip-goes-to-the-charnel-house: Two dumbass, ugly-American types, recent college graduates Paxton (Jay Hernandez from Crazy/Beautiful) and Josh (Derek Richardson from Dumb and Dumberer, sinking even lower), are vacationing in Amsterdam, hanging out with a horny Icelandic guy, Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), and looking for pot and pussy. (How did they graduate college? How did they get into college? They don’t seem smart enough to pass kindergarten on the first try.) When a friendly pimp tells them that the hottest and loosest girls in Europe are in Slovakia, they take his advice and head to a hostel he recommends in a small town near Bratislava. Once there, the boys get laid and then picked off one by one, as we gradually see that the entire town is a front for an operation that allows the wealthy to torture and kill gullible tourists — for a reasonable fee. The sexy girls are bait to lure them into this cross between a sports fantasy camp and the ultimate S&M club, a sort of theme park for sick, jaded people seeking the ultimate rush. Kind of like the filmmakers who make these movies and the audiences who enjoy them, expecting Hostel to be an improvement over Cabin Fever because they read that Roth used three times as much fake blood.
The film’s marketing has been using tactics borrowed from William Castle, director of the original House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler and king of cheesy horror-movie promotion. The TV commercials offer the following proclamations: “If you scare easily … if blood makes you queasy … if you’re afraid of the dark … go see something else,” and “Warning: The producers of Hostel warn you that there are brutally violent scenes of murder and torture in this movie. You’ve been warned.” (Nice repetition.) It’s the cheapest, most obvious sort of reverse-psychology manipulation, but it’s not really misleading; the violence in Hostel is indeed brutal, and there’s plenty here that might make a person puke — if not the torture, then perhaps the scenes in which the actors themselves puke, one of them sputtering out his stomach’s contents past a ball-gag. But the movie isn’t involving enough to actually scare you; all it has are those gross-outs and a few sick jokes. (One actually made me laugh; the rest made me … well, sick.) Like Castle, Roth depends on cheap gimmicks for all his effects, but I’d like to think that even Castle, were he alive today, wouldn’t stoop to this level. This is some depraved shit.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Hostel / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()