Friday, October 19, 2007

Hostel Reception

Next Tuesday, Eli Roth’s Hostel part II arrives on DVD and Blu-ray as one of 2007s more surprising flops. Though the film more than made back its relatively small budget, it grossed far below expectations and didn’t come close to its predecessors worldwide gross of over $80 million. Roth laid the blame at the feet of online pirating, stating that bootleg copies circulating across the internet stole its thunder (and audience) before it was even released. The expected critical drubbing arrived as expected, with the film set up as an easy strawman argument against so-called “torture porn” by major media critics inflated with phony outrage. But most puzzling of all was the abandonment of the film by its presumed core audience.

Confession of a Blogger – I’m a fan of Roth. He’s one of the few directors working in the genre that seems genuinely jazzed to be there. Both Hostel films, along with his debut, Cabin Fever, are visually arresting, darkly humorous, and refreshingly non post-modernistic. That humor, particularly in Cabin Fever, was of an absurdist vein (“Pancakes!”) that could strike as wonderfully original or low rent David Lynch-isms. But it was Hostel that divided the chat room fanboys into strict love and hate groups. The plot – seemingly designed for the ease of Blog regurgitation – is thus: Two American and one Icelandic teenager on a sex & drug tour of Europe who get directed to a youth hostel in a small Slovakian town on the promise of easy girls and cheap drugs. Once there, the movie switches gears from an obnoxious Eurotrip comedy to full-on horror when the boys find themselves tied to metal chairs in the basement of an enormous industrial building, where men of various national origins have paid big bucks to maim and torture them to their hearts content.

I admired Roth’s moxie right away when he set us up with the most arrogant “ugly American” clichés imaginable, but trusted his actors (Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, and Eythor Gudjonsson – guess the Icelander!) enough to turn the audience around in the second half of the film. It worked, at least, for me – Hernandez is a very engaging presence, particularly in a scene where he uses his college German (left un-translated) to plead for his life while in the dreaded torture chair. And gorehounds need not fear, as the various cutting, ripping, and burning are lovingly rendered for you viewing pleasure, leaving little to the imagination. But soon, just as it became acceptable to go back and decide that you really didn’t like Wes Craven’s Scream because of all the self-conscious crap that rode in its wake, Hostel (and also Saw from earlier that same year - another neat little picture that inferior sequels have all but robbed of it’s power) took most of the heat for giving us one horror picture after another that seemed to exist only to delight in dismemberment. But Roth’s films are held on the rails by the strain of odd-world humor that course through them. A particular highlight is a vicious gang of Nickelodeon-age tykes that appear in both films to great comic effect, with terrific payoff gags at their respective conclusions that I won’t reveal here.

Hostel part II flips genders, and begins as if repeating the same story from the perspective of a group of female students (Lauren German, Heather Matarazzo, and Bijou Phillips) lured to the same town with promises of a luxurious spa. This time, however, Roth spends time showing us the inner workings of the torture mini-conglomerate. We follow two American businessmen who have won a global bidding war to have a go at Beth (German); Todd, an Alpha Male-type who strong arms his family-man friend Stewart into coming along for the experience of a lifetime (the “twist” involving these two characters can be seen coming down 6th Avenue, but it’s still fun to watch). Watch for one scene in particular, where a woman enjoys TortureMart’s services in one of the more deliriously over the top bits of sexual violence that has ever made it into a mainstream American film. The wielder of the scythe is named “Bathroy” and thats all the spoilers you'll get. Hostel II also handily wins “best cameos of the year” honors with a still stunning Edwige French appearing as an art teacher and Cannibal Holocaust director himself, Ruggero Deodato, as….well, as an Italian cannibal.

The films play brilliantly off the xenophobia that Europeans have towards Americans, and that we have towards most everyone else. Some of us really do believe that evil men with strange accents and a full array of medical implements are lurking around dark corners in all the unfamiliar places of the world. These are nightmares for the Accidental Tourist in all of us!

With so much garbage being released on a monthly basis, I was really taken aback by the way my fellow internet nerds have ganged up on Roth and his movies. Some of it comes from being hit by the spray coming from the anti-Tarantino wave, with the increasingly wardrobe-challenged Emperor’s name appearing boldly on both Hostel films and Roth appearing as an actor in, and making a superb fake trailer for, Grindhouse (Oh, how I would have loved to have seen Thanksgiving instead of Death Proof!). I suspect that even more comes from plain old sour grapes. Roth is an old school fanboy himself, whose adoration of 70s & 80s horror is well documented on his DVD audio commentaries, and if he weren’t appearing to speak at horror conventions, he’d certainly be attending them. But instead of embracing that aspect of the man, there’s a tendency to begrudge his success with the notion that “I could do that – that should be me!”

But probably the most likely reason for the movie-going publics apathy was the trail of tears left by cheap imitators like Captivity and Turistas, films that embraced the idea of ‘torture porn’ instead of rising above it. Make no mistake – if you’ve seen the ad copy for Hostel II, and you don’t think it’s your cup of tea, you’re right and it should be avoided at all costs. But accepted as what it is, a black comedy of outrageous horror whose roots go back over a century to the original Grand Guignol theater in Paris, when, sadly, we seemed to be more emotionally equipped to deal with the role of violence in art, then the treats far outnumber the tricks.