Two Americans and their Icelandic traveling partner take a trip through Eastern Europe to party it up in a remote hostel in Slovakia, where they are drugged and kidnapped only to be sold off to an elite hunting organization that specialized in human torture. After a mediocre debut with CABIN FEVER, Eli Roth burst onto the scene in his sophomore effort HOSTEL, a filthy throwback to the Exploitation films of the 1970's that solidified his name in Horror.
HOSTEL, along with other so-called 'torture porn' titles like SAW or THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, has uniformly split Horror audiences based on its use of torture as a main form of entertainment. To say that Roth simply looks to shock and disgust is to grossly misread the entire film in the same way that many critics have dismissed TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE for being too violent. HOSTEL is far more reserved than any of the films that it is most often compared to, and Roth uses implied violence and terror much more often than he does gratuitous gore. Most of the torture sequences are shot off-camera or in cut-aways, leaving the viewer with the victim's twisted facial expressions or screams of anguish. That isn't to say that there isn't gore, because there is, but the gore is only used to accentuate the scenes, and not to define them. True horror always falls secondary to terror in HOSTEL, though this fact is commonly overlooked.
The characters of HOSTEL are another brilliant selling point. These are teens that anyone can relate to, and by working outside of the studio system, Roth is able to write his own fluid and naturalistic dialog without the fear of self-censoring himself for political-correctness. This may lead to some questionable vocabulary, but it lends credibility to his characters. In an interesting twist, Roth has given his male leads distinctly effeminate qualities while he victimizes them in the same ways that most female characters are typically treated in this type of picture. People who appear on the side seem inconspicuous and harmless, which allows the audience to let their guard down along with Paxton, Josh, and Oli as they are lured deeper into the lion's den. Jay Hernandez and Derek Richardson are two fun, energetic, and utterly believable characters that draw out a purely empathetic response from viewers that have fully invested in them from early on in the film.
Perhaps its greatest strength lies in the mystery behind the sinister organization, itself. Virtually no information is ever revealed about the group or the men that support it, which makes the entire situation that much more intriguing and terrifying. In a genius move, Roth would go back and fully expose the Elite Hunting Group in the film's sequel, even if the attempt was unable to recapture the success of the original.
On top of everything else, HOSTEL is a huge crowd-pleasure. Roth caters to a very specific audience, one that revels in gorgeous naked girls and bloody set-pieces. He delivers on every intended level, with a script that is both hilarious at times and painfully excruciating at others. The greatest payoff comes during the revenge sequences, where Roth creates genuinely out-of-your-seat excitement as his characters get their payback against the people that betrayed them.
Eli Roth is a Horror fan at heart, and it shows. Though he may have trouble topping this second film, it is obvious that he has a clear control over the genre, and that he has the potential to become one of the next generation Masters of Horror.
If you liked HOSTEL, check out:
THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, WOLF CREEK, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.