Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Eli Roth - Hostel (2005)

Presenting the second, and possibly final, instalment in my grumpy-underculture-snob-meets-horror-of-the-noughties series... this film really had no redeeming features whatsoever, and I don't mean that in a good way.

We follow the story, such as it is, of American backpackers Josh and Paxton, and the Icelandic Oli, who are hanging around Europe doing what backpackers do (drinking, taking drugs and looking to get laid) when they find themselves in a whole passel o' trouble when they fall prey to an organisation 'sourcing' subjects for the snuff play of the rich and perverted. There is a skerrick of character development in the juxtaposition of uninhibited Pax with the supposedly more bookish Josh (I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief when he mentioned Kafka), but overall there's little here in the way of character or plot: boys meet psychos, boys get tortured, boys try to escape from psychos.

What's interesting, though not, I think, intended, is what this film says and doesn't say about the relationship between the USA and Europe. Made by Eli Roth (I quite enjoyed his Cabin Fever, which had a shadow more of the original, and of the b-grade, about it than Hostel) with the support of a cinematic bete noir of mine, Quentin Tarantino (did you know that in France they call it 'bete noir'? Leaves 'Royale with Cheese' in the shade anyday - I think I'm freaking out!), this film plays very heavily on stereotypes of Europe in general, and Eastern Europe in particular, as an old and evil place where a thin veneer of civilisation overlies a deeply cynical barbarism. In this world, the young and naive Americans (along with the hapless party animal Oli) find themselves entirely out of their depth and easy prey.

But the film doesn't seem sure what it wants to say. Are we to view the protagonists, who are a typical amalgam of the privileged (they're studying law and English) and the boozing party animal, as stereotypical idiot, ignorant American tourists who are only concerned with the gratification of their own desires on whatever object presents itself, and deserve all they get? Are we to see them as understandably hedonistic, carefree young men indulging a last bender, for whom we should feel sympathy? Given the lack of character development or emotional involvement, this seems unlikely... What isn't in doubt in terms of perception is that Eastern Europeans themselves (and indeed all Europeans, with the exception of Oli) are seen as black-and-white figures of evil. There's a long tradition of the Anglo colonies holding this view, of Europe as corrupt and corrupting of the youthful, naive and innocent colonial, from the works of Henry James through to David Cronenberg's latest, Eastern Promises. But I wouldn't call this Oedipal stereotype a proud pedigree.

Hostel has been both highly praised and highly damned; but I don't particularly think it merits either. Despite the plaudits given to the film as a horror film, I didn't find it scary at all - even the usual chase-scene-shrieking-violins-suspense, which most modern slasher flicks have on tap (because it's an easily achievable emotional trick), don't really work in this film, where they're let down by a soundtrack that goes beyond the standard 'noticeable violin cheese' into the realm of fondue.

On the other hand, accusations that the film has led to a new genre of 'torture porn' or 'gorno' also seem overblown; certainly as a one-time gore aficionado I didn't find it particularly confronting, and we might think both of historical predecessors such as Bloodsucking Freaks, the Troma films, or Mexican and Italian horror exploitation films, all of which are much more interesting than this little work. Indeed, perhaps the novelty was that this film brought splatter-gore out of the cult underground and into the popular mainstream; but even then I don't think this argument would hold, given the popularity of big-budget movies like the recent ...of the Dead films, or House of 1000 Corpses. Or perhaps (I can't speak for Corpses here, as I haven't seen it) the novelty is that the only thing about Hostel which makes an impact is the gore. I suspect the latter...

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