Sunday, September 18, 2005

TIFF 2005: "HOSTEL" (Review)

(Midnight Madness) USA, 95 minutes (work in progress)
Written & directed by: Eli Roth
Cast: Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eythor Gudjonsson, Barbara Nedeljakova, Jana Kaderabkova

After a meandering first act, Roth's long-waited followup to his remarkable--if scattershot--debut "Cabin Fever" becomes a more mature, controlled, and emotionally devastating work. "Hostel" is no less fun, especially in its first half, which Roth kneels at the altar of 80s slasher cinema the way Tarantino flashes his jones for the Shaw Bros. All that's missing from the freewheeling, episodic orgy of drugs, booze, fratboy banter and many exposed breasts is bad synth pop and the bleeding colours of a Super 16mm blowup. But an amiable cast makes these Forum Letter wannabees nuanced and oddly likeable--but lordie knows I wouldn't want to be seated next to these walking erections on a long train ride (remember, the cast of "Vamp" didn't have cell phone cameras, either!).

American college buddies Josh (Richardson) and Paxton (Hernandez) arrive in Amsterdam, the latest stop on their backpacking tour through Europe in which they hope for one last testosterone-fueled blowout before committing to studies and responsibility. They've hooked up with Icelandic alpha-viking Oli (Gudjonsson), who knows which cobblestone back alleys lead to forbidden thrills of the chemical and erotic varieties. The travellers learn of a secret hostel in Slovakia and its surplus of perfect and uninhibited women. When they arrive at the surprisingly lavish retreat, their wildest dreams are fulfilled--their roommates turn out to be a pair of impossibly beautiful women (Nedeljakova and Kaderabkova), who engage in the boys' every whim. Then Oli goes missing.

Another backpacker, a shy Asian girl, has evidence that Oli has left the country with her friend. This doesn't sit well with Pax, who is now convinced something's rotten this-close-to-Denmark when they glimpse Oli's fleeting form amidst the locals and mobilized street urchins. Then Josh vanishes, too. Josh awakens naked and bound in a carnage-strewn dungeon, where he is tortured and killed by a silent sadist sporting a variety of blades.

Pax's search for Josh reveals that he and countless others have been masterfully duped from their arrival at the hostel by a cabal of hedonistic extremists who prey upon the amoral appetites of foreigners to satisfy urges far more sinister. He's been lured into all-too-human hell that's definitely not in The Rough Guide.

It's to Roth's credit as a director--and one with an encyclopedic knowledge of genre cinema--that violence seems much worse than it is. When compared to the body count of vintage slasher swill like "Happy Birthday To Me" or last year's hit "Saw", "Hostel" is positively restrained. Roth has been vocal in his admiration of Takashi Miike (who cameos here), and takes a cue from "Audition" by making sure he's put a human face on his victims before submitting them to the most excruciating, graphic mutilations since Nacho Cerda's "Aftermath" (during the Q&A, Roth mentioned that Miike found it all a little "too much"--something they should put on the poster!)

Despite the depressingly plausible third-act explanation for the slaughter, "Hostel", perhaps because of its richly detailed and atmospheric locations, embodies something of the quality of European folk tales. It could be ready as a "tale from the Black Forest" updated to incorporate such timely urban legends as body traffickers and snuff websites.

TIFF audiences were treated to a "work in progress" print, digitally projected, with changes to colour timing, temp music tracks, and screen credits forthcoming, hopefully in time to ensure the planned November 2005 release. The first act could be tightened up a bit, but "Hostel" is otherwise a superb shocker as-is. Roth has promised several alternate endings for the "director's cut" DVD--without encroaching too much on "spoiler" territory here, the current climax relies a bit too heavily on coincidence and fails to take advantage of a key bit of character detail that would make for a much more satisfying, and savage, solution.

John Carpenter has taken credit for destroying "The Sexual Revolution" with his end-of-the-70s horror classic "Halloween". With "Hostel", Eric Roth might have done the same for European sex tourism. The next time I find myself in the old country, I'm sticking to the seniors' bus tour.

Robert J. Lewis