Greetings loved ones! Liu is the name, and views are my game.
And welcome to the third, and final, installment in my What A Bloody Mess series.
There is a place, at the edge of the Earth, where all one’s darkest, sickest fantasies are possible. It is a place where the wealthy pay to watch the weak suffer. A place where the words “mercy” and “restraint” have no meaning. It is a place whose true name has never been uttered, but one that will, to those who were lucky enough to return from it, forever be known as “that cinema where they showed Eli Roth’s Hostel.” Bwa-ha-ha-ha!
Okay, I admit, that was a weird way to start off the essay, but actually quite appropriate given the subject of today’s review. Hostel, a 2005 film widely considered to have created the “gorno” sub-genre of horror, deals exclusively with the subject of paying to watch others feel pain. A gruesome tale of death and destruction, the film tells the story of a group of American backpackers who, after being lured to a remote Slovakian hostel by the promise of sex, are kidnapped by an organization known as Elite Hunting, which sells people to wealthy clients to be tortured. Easily one of the most unpleasant, and naively simplistic pictures to have hit the big screen in a while, Hostel was nevertheless hugely financially successful, raking in some $80 million worldwide from its modest $4.8 million budget. It even garnered critical acclaim, with many people seeing it as a biting critique of excessive consumerism. It won the 2006 Empire Award for “Best Horror Film,” and was even debated by a panel at Rider University’s 2010 Film Symposium. Yup! A movie who’s plot, characters and themes are about as sophisticated as the one sentence summary I gave earlier, was debated (DEBATED) by, not one, not two, but THREE doctors (Barry Seldes, Robert Good, and James Morgart). And what aspects of the film, you might be wondering, did the panel discuss? It’s Marxist and Nietzschean undertones. (Sigh)
I suppose that this just goes to show you how low our sensibilities have sunk, that three highly-educated individuals actually have to debate, on a University platform, no less, the moral and philosophical implications of torture porn. Now, don’t get me wrong, people have gone on far larger platforms, and discussed far stupider subjects than this, but its a little more disheartening here because colleges are supposed to be centers of higher learning and elevated conversation. But what, you might be wondering, is so appalling about this picture that I hate it to this level? Why, and please forgive the pun, am I so hostile towards Hostel? Several reasons, actually, and if you will do me the great pleasure of reading further, I will share them all.
Firstly, the story is just plain preposterous. To say that the plot is simple would be an understatement. The film opens with three backpackers, two Americans and an Icelandic, on holiday in Amsterdam. The trio doesn’t appear to have any interest in the art or culture of their Dutch surroundings, and instead looks only to smoke weed and sleep with prostitutes, both of which they are shown doing. In the middle of all this debauchery, they are approached by a mysterious stranger, who tells them about a hostel in Slovakia where all they’re wildest sexual fantasies are possible. The trio, being the horny idiots that they are, agree to go with the man, and set off for a place so obviously evil that it’s a wonder that it doesn’t have 666 written all over it. As you can imagine, things take a sharp turn for the worse after they arrive. One by one, the three get axed off, and in some of the nastiest, gnarliest ways imaginable–decapitation, slicing of achilles tendons, chainsawing of limbs, drilling of holes into ones chest and legs, etc. But, of course, in keeping with the “lone survivor” horror cliche, one of the protagonists, Paxton, does manage to escape, and he even tries to rescue another victim, a Japanese girl named Kana, but she decides she would rather die than live deformed, proving, once and for all, that if you’re not beautiful, you have nothing to live for. (Sigh). Where the hell do I begin? First off, who the hell goes all the way from the Netherlands to Slovakia just to get some booty? I mean, its 1,444 kilometers. That’s a 13 hour trip. You have to go through all of Germany and the Czech Republic just to get there. And as someone who’s actually been to that part of Europe myself, I can tell you, its not worth the trouble. Amsterdam is a much funner place to visit, especially if all your interested in doing is getting stoned and banging hookers. Prostitution and pot are legal there, and the movie even shows the protagonists taking full advantage of this fact. So, why the hell would they go all the way to Slovakia? Why couldn’t they just stay where they were and have all the fun they wanted? That would be the logical thing to do. But, then again, this is the horror universe we’re talking about here. It’s inhabitants aren’t exactly famed for they’re critical thinking. Also, how on Earth could a global human trafficking organization like Elite Hunting possibly go unnoticed by the UN? The film establishes that the group’s cliental are wealthy individuals from all over the world–we see Dutch, American, and German businessmen all taking part in the carnage–so tell me, if pretty much everyone who’s got cash knows about this company, how the hell has the US, or any other government, for that matter, not heard about it and done everything in their power to shut it down? I mean, in both the real and fictional world, the UN has signed numerous resolutions, and spent millions of dollars, trying to stop human trafficking in developing nations like Mexico and Cambodia, so why wouldn’t they extend that same courtesy to their own countries. In fact, I’ll bet you anything that they’d put more time, energy and resources into stopping an organization like Elite Hunting if they knew about it. After all, it’s operating within their borders and presents a more immediate threat. (Groan). But, once again, that would be far too logical for a horror movie. You can’t have governments and police forces that actually get involved on their citizens behalf. Better to have them turn a blind eye to all the illegal activities happening right under their noses, or else have them be so totally incompetent that they wouldn’t be much help if they did get involved. Either way, the bad guys get free range, and the victims have no one to rely on but themselves. (Rolls eyes). Anyway, on to the next area of weakness in this movie.
The “heroes” of Hostel are anything but fully developed. I stated in an earlier review that, if there’s anything more important to the success of a movie than having a good hero, its having a good villain. And while I still stand by that previous assertion, I would like to add that having only an interesting antagonist is not enough to carry the weight of a story. After all, it is the heroes who’s eyes we see this fictional world through, and they whom we are supposed to sympathize with. True, a well-rounded villain can also be sympathetic, but its the heroes who are supposed to win in the end, so you can’t have the bad guys be too likable. In Hostel, however, as it is in most horror films, the protagonists lack any depth or backstory. And unlike other movies, which at least have recognizable cliche characters–the whore, the virgin, the jock, the nerd, the token black guy–Hostel’s protagonists don’t really have any distinguishing characteristics. They’re all young. They’re all horny. They all just want to get stoned. There’s only two “good guys” who even slightly stand out–Kana, the Japanese girl, and Oli, the American backpacker’s Icelandic friend–and the only reason they’re even remotely memorable is because they’re just that; a japanese girl and an Icelandic friend. It’s not like they’re given unique, quirky personalities. You never learn how any of these people met each other or what their interests are–beyond booty and bongs, of course. Hell, the villains are given a lot more back story than the heroes. The Dutch bad guy wanted to be a surgeon, but could never pass the board’s tests, and so now is searching for a body to experiment on. The American bad guy has gotten bored with plain old drugs and hookers, and is now looking for some newer, more intense stimulation. True, these simplistic desires can’t form an entire personality, but they sure as hell are more than what our heroes have been given.
But, as a friend of mine once said, it’s easy to say what you didn’t like about a work of art without actually giving any suggestions of your own, so, without further ado, here are some changes that the director could have made to improve the quality of the movie. First of all, flesh out the characters. No, not literally! Emotionally. Personality-wise, I mean. Have one of the trio of backpackers be interested in Rembrandt or Van Gogh, as opposed to smoking pot and popping cherries. This more intellectually and culturally-grounded person could stay in Amsterdam when the other two leave for the hostel. Then, when his companions don’t return, he can do some research on the existence of said hostel, discover that its a front for a human trafficking organization, and then alert the Dutch authorities and the representatives at the Slovakian Embassy. These people, in turn, could send in police to bust up the operation. Also, explain why Kana and Yuki, a pair of Japanese tourists, are in a remote corner of Slovakia. Yes, they’re relatively minor characters, and yes, It’s not unusual to see large groups of Japanese in Europe these days but, seeing as they’re the only female protagonists, they deserve to be given a little more depth, and plus, you generally only find Asian travelers in pretty on-the-beaten-track-type places like Paris or Prague, and Slovakia is a relatively obscure country in the former Soviet block. Actually, that’s probably what happened. Kana and Yuki were taking a train through Slovakia to Prague, when their ride broke down, and they found themselves, completely, or not at all by accident, in the very town where Elite Hunting operates. Then Yuki, a more adventurous spirit, went out to explore this strange new environment, while Kana, a shallow soul obsessed with her appearance, stayed indoors to do her nails. This explains why Yuki was captured first, and why Kana would rather kill herself than live with a less than perfect face. These changes I’ve listed are small, I admit, but they’re all that’s necessary to give these naively simple characters in this naively simple story some three-dimensionality, and let me tell you, if either party had some of that, Hostel would be a much more enjoyable film to watch.
And that, dear friends, is what draws a curtain on my What A Bloody Mess series. I hope that, whether you’re a hardcore fan of horror, or simply someone who’s too terrified to see the movies I’m reviewing yourself, you had as much fun reading these essays as I had writing them. Good night and god bless!