While Cabin Fever demonstrated that Eli Roth was a fan of 1980s horror, Hostel shows him putting his enthusiasm to more use than merely being an eager fanboy. In this sense, Hostel is a maturation upon Roths part. The earlier parts of the film follows, with some sarcastic amusement on Roths part, a trio of guys who could have been uplifted from a teen makeout film like Road Trip (2000) or EuroTrip (2004) in their quest to get laid. (Indeed, Eli Roth packs the film with so many undressed women with well-endowed chests that one wonders if he is not servicing some kind of fantasy of his own at times). Here Roth makes a number of sly backpacker in-jokes the guys complaining about not being able to understand the Slovak-dubbed version of American movies without subtitles, jokes about trying to pick someone up in a nightclub while wearing a fanny pack. Soon however this Eurotrip fantasy segues into something altogether grim.
Hostel joins a host of films in recent years that seem determined to push the boundaries in terms of onscreen sadism, something that was nicknamed Torture Porn by journalist David Edelstein in 2006. Other among this fad include the likes of Anatomie (2000), House of 1000 Corpses (2003), Oldboy (2003), Saw (2004) and sequels, The Devils Rejects (2005) and Wolf Creek (2005). Although the progenitor of these is Japanese director Takashi Miiike who made squirm-inducing films like Audition (1999) and Ichi the Killer (2001), which still put most of these to shame. (In fact, Eli Roth includes a cameo from Takashi Miike in Hostel as a Japanese client who exits the torture chamber warning Jay Hernandez to be careful, he could lose all his money). Hostel is also executive produced (and was according to Roth uncreditedly co-conceived) by Quentin Tarantino, another director who attained a degree of notoriety for pushing a line of violence to extremes in his films.
Hostel is a film where Eli Roth goes for broke and determines to push boundaries. It is one of the most brutal films that one has ever seen in mainstream multiplex release. As the box-office cashier warned me before going in, Its not a film for someone with a weak constitution. There are numerous scenes throughout with various fingers and toes being cut off. There is a very nasty scene where Jan Vlasak starts jabbing a power drill into Derek Richardsons body and then lets him try to escape with the heels of his feet half sawn off. There is an unnerving sequence with a genuinely creepy and quite deranged German client (Petr Janis) torturing Jay Hernandez, jabbing scissors into his face, impaling him with a clawed hook and then chopping his fingers off with a chainsaw. The one scene that made nearly lose my lunch altogether was where Jay Hernandez must sever the stalk of Jennifer Lims gouged-out eyeball with a pair of scissors. In contrast to the jocular humour of the early scenes, the mood throughout this half of the film is unrelentingly grim. Quite whether you could say such a bleak film as Hostel is entertaining is another question a number of critics slammed the film as being repulsive and nasty but as to whether Eli Roth delivers the goods and heads to a genuine extreme there is no question at all.
Hostels weaknesses might be Eli Roths failure to fully engage with the characters as rounded individuals in the early scenes. These scenes have a humour that intermittently connects but there are times that Roths camera set-ups seem standoffish and distant. By contrast, the similar frat rat types in Cabin Fever were much more likeable and engaging characters, even in their crassness. The point that Hostel starts to engage is when people start getting tortured, which may say worrying things about where Eli Roths focus lies. These middle scenes are harrowing. The climax less effectively heads for classic movie hero cliché set-ups the hero making the choice to go back for the girl, the kids turning up as last minute cavalry, the hero conveniently bumping into various conspirators in the scheme wherever he goes and being allowed to obtain just desserts revenge, and a car chase and suspense getaway at the railway station.
The film goes out on a sting with the hero resorting to ultra-violent revenge that is almost as nasty as that exacted by his tormentors. Eli Roth never goes as far as Wes Craven did in The Last House on the Left (1972), which showed with scathing irony a family seeking justice for the torture of those close to them by resorting to even more extreme violence. While Eli Roth goes a long way to make our stomachs churn at what is enacted on the innocent characters throughout, the ending seems to put such acts of extreme torture and the heros aggrieved trauma on the same footing. The torture of the victims, the heros justly angry response, even the tragic suicide of one of the victims, eventually seem like part of the same exhibition of atrocities that Eli Roth is putting on for us. What we end with is a film where you are not entirely sure if Eli Roth is making some point about how violent extremes breed a hunger for violent vengeance, or if he is just serving up ultra-violence and sadism for our delectation without any kind of a moral compass to it.
Eli Roth subsequently directed a disappointing sequel Hostel Part II (2007), which retold the same plot but with a trio of girls instead of guys. The dull Hostel Part III (2011) was a further sequel made without Eli Roth that relocated the operation to Las Vegas.
(Nominee for Best Makeup Effects at this sites Best of 2005 Awards).