|Written by Darren Gross|
|Saturday, 01 March 2008|
After a wild night at a local brothel, the three find themselves locked out of their local hostel because of the curfew but are let in through the fire escape by Alex (Lubomir Silhavecky), who tells them about a hostel in Slovakia that is frequented by bevies of gorgeous young women who are crazy about Americans. Seduced by the story, Josh, Oli, and Paxton jump on the nearest train. Arriving in Slovakia, the three find that the local town is a bit isolated and backward, but the hostel is everything they could want. The three are forced to share their room with two seductive women, Natalya (Barbara Nedeljakova) and Svetlana (Jana Kaderabkova) who express an instant attraction to the three and take them out to experience the local nightlife. The next morning, Oli is nowhere to be found and according to the hostel’s desk clerk (Milda Havlas), he checked out early without leaving a note. Concerned by Oli’s disappearance, Paxton and Josh begin to look for him and receive a message saying he went home attached to an odd looking photo of him with an Asian girl, both sent via his mobile phone. While something about the message doesn’t feel right, it reduces Josh and Paxton’s apprehensions somewhat and the two go out for another night at a local bar with Natalya and Svetlana. Josh starts to feel ill and heads back to the hostel, where he passes out, while a drunken Paxton unwittingly locks himself in a storeroom on the way to the bathroom. When Josh awakes, he has been stripped to his underwear and is handcuffed to a chair in a filthy, bloodstained room full of power tools and surgical instruments, presided over by a man (Jan Vlasek) dressed in a butcher’s apron, rubber gloves and a surgical mask.
“Hostel” is Eli Roth’s second film, following 2002’s “Cabin Fever.” This time, Roth worked closely with advisors Quentin Tarantino, Scott Spiegel and Boaz Yakin in constructing the script. The central idea of “Hostel” — wealthy businessmen paying large amounts of money to torture and kill people of different nationalities as a vacation thrill — is highly disturbing, made more unsettling as it is based on fact. The script originated when Roth was shown a website, where, in Thailand, you could pay to go into a room and shoot a person in the head. It was an arrangement set up by organized crime in the area, and half the money would go to the victim’s family and the rest to the organization. No such compensation or profit-sharing occurs in “Hostel.” The idea of hedonistic decadence reaching depths far below that of prostitution is frightening partly because it would be hard to deny that something similar to this most likely does occur somewhere in the world.
The film and its marketing depicted such a tone of sadistic nastiness, hinting at a film so disturbing, graphic and abhorrent, that it’s doubtful it could really live up to an audience’s imagination. Unfortunately, the central concept is the most effective element in the movie. The execution of the idea is somewhat lacking and the film is far less nerve-wracking and upsetting than one might expect. The early sections are supposed to be light and enjoyable, with an atmosphere of ugly-American frat boy humor and female objectification, but they’re only mildly amusing and are never as funny or as sexy as intended. The cast is rather bland, overall. Non-actor Eythor Gujonsson plays Oli to the heights of wackiness and is the most memorable of the three, but he’s offed fairly early; it’s hard to be interested in Josh and Paxton. Jan Vlasek (who genre fans might recognize from the miniseries version of “Dune”), with his piercing blue-gray eyes makes a creepy, effective impression as the Dutch businessman, despite the hurdle of having to learn all his lines phonetically.
KNB’s effects are well-done and appropriately grisly, but the film itself should be better. It seems content to be interesting when it should be gripping, gross when it should be disturbing, and mildly suspenseful when it should be nerve-shredding. It’s difficult to conceive that one would want a film with this storyline to be nastier or more unpleasant, but there’s a matter-of-fact quality to the gore. Roth seems to take for granted that the violence itself will generate suspense and misses a few opportunities to crank up the tension to more intense levels. Director of photography Milan Chadima has created a slick, polished film on a small budget, but whether the material calls out for such bright, sunny-looking imagery is debatable. It would seem more appropriate if it had an edgier, grainier look. The polished lighting subconsciously conveys a sense of normalcy, of conventional, “safe” film-making to the audience, and as a result, reassures the audience that everything will turn out fine, which is not something that a film aiming for a dangerous, hardcore vibe should probably be doing.
The last section features the attack on Paxton, his escape attempt and his acts of revenge and is appreciably suspenseful. The last half hour gives the film three memorable scenes; all are unsettling without featuring a drop of gore. When Paxton returns to the hostel after waking up in the store-room, the front desk clerk tells him he thought he’d checked out. Paxton then returns to his room, where he finds two attractive women, using the exact same come-hither lines and approach that Natalya and Svetlana used, as if it’s a regular routine, like hotel maid service. Another highlight is Paxton’s disturbing encounter with an American businessman (Rick Hoffman) in the prep room, getting ready for his first kill and excitedly asking Paxton’s advice on his murder technique. It’s a gripping, memorable scene, frightening in its cold believability. Hoffman is no stranger to playing memorably scummy businessmen (see “Cellular” amongst others) and he’s both repellent and disturbing here. Another excellent touch is in the depiction of Natalya and Svetlana after Josh’s disappearance. When Paxton tracks them down to a local bar, the two no longer appear as the sexy sirens seen in the first part of the film. Without the benefit of Paxton’s rose-colored glasses, they look like the haggard, grungy, strung-out whores they are, and while they try to adopt their earlier come-hither attitude, it’s clearly a put-on this time, and the calculating coldness beneath the surface is chilling.
Technically, the Blu-ray disc is a solid release, boasting both high definition audio and video. Given the huge amount of bonus material and audio tracks present on the disc, the inclusion of a TrueHD audio track is a surprising and highly welcome inclusion. The track is a clean and crisply presented rendition of a fairly undistinguished sound effects mix. The mix itself feels a bit lacking in intensity and it could use a greater level of attack and volume to heighten the more intense sequences. Surround effects are minimal, but the dialogue is clear and the audio level is consistent throughout. The image is crisp, pleasing, and well-defined, though not to an eye-popping degree. The predominantly bright photography is accurately conveyed, with darker scenes offering solid blacks. The source element is nearly pristine, though bits of negative dirt (which appear as white spots) are occasionally visible. Facial close-ups, reflections on glass and water are particularly tight and crisp.
The Blu-ray release is a dual-layered BD-50, which has allowed Sony to include all of the bonus features from the 2-disc standard definition DVD. It’s a voluminous amount of material and certainly contains more than enough content for admirers of the film. There are four commentaries and a radio interview with Roth, which seems like overkill. On the solo commentary, Roth states that the reason there are so many commentaries on his DVDs is because they are not meant to be listened to all at once. His thought is, that as a person who buys the DVD will own it for many years, allowing the fan to return to the DVD a few years down the line, listen to a different commentary track, and find out even more about the film. It’s a thoughtful rationale, but for the highly compulsive (or for the DVD reviewer), listening to them one after the other is a bit of a chore. The commentary with Quentin Tarantino, Scott Spiegel, Boaz Yakin and Roth is worthwhile. It’s a convivial chat, which focuses on the genesis of the film, the script, and the ideas. Roth and company are candid about attributing the sources for certain scenes and ideas. The Roth solo commentary is targeted at up-and-coming horror directors and he discusses the strategy required in career-building between the finish of “Cabin Fever” and “Hostel,” his introduction to Quentin Tarantino and his meetings with studio executives for other horror projects, as well. One commentary features Roth and the cast, and the final commentary has Roth, editor George Folsey Jr. and guest appearances that pop-up throughout, some via phone. Each of the commentaries have enough differences in perspective, though, to justify listening to them all, eventually.
None of the featurettes and production documentaries can be described as promotional puffery. They were all produced by Eli Roth’s brother, Gabriel, who clearly had full access, so the behind-the-scenes footage is all-inclusive and shows all of the performers and the various technical departments at work on the upbeat set. The deleted scenes are not violent in nature— they’re mostly dialogue scene trims and a suspenseful montage or two. The disc should have included a play-all option for these, as watching them all one-by-one becomes a bit laborious. The KNB effects featurette is revealing-- the behind-the-scenes footage on the severed Achilles tendon prop is even nastier than the scene in the film is.
The “director’s cut” ending isn’t quite what the title would seem to indicate. It’s an alternate ending, that was the one originally scripted and shot, but as pointed out on the commentary track, Roth’s preferred ending is the theatrical one, which has more impact and is far more satisfying than the alternate ending. The packaging doesn’t make note of this additional feature, but the disc provides viewers with the option of watching the entire film with the theatrical ending or the “director’s cut” ending via seamless branching, which makes this Blu-ray presentation nearly definitive. Unfortunately, the theatrical teasers and trailers are not included. For a film like “Hostel,” the ability to view the trailers and TV spots is crucial to understanding how a film like “Hostel” is sold, and how it gains a reputation before the film is released. The rest of the package of bonus materials, though, along with the image and sound quality, make this a sterling presentation of the film.