Hostel (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Sometimes, calling something "cheesy" and "B-grade" can be construed as a compliment. But not in Hostel's case. A thrill-less thriller that uses gore to obfuscate its inability to generate tension, this motion picture has the profile one might expect from a direct-to-video release. But because of the popularity of the horror genre and the fact that writer/director Eli Roth developed some notoriety for his previous feature, Cabin Fever, Lion's Gate has elected to give Hostel a theatrical bow. If nothing else, that will raise its profile when it reaches DVD, which shouldn't be far off.

Hostel starts out like a sex comedy. Three friends - Americans Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson), and Icelander Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) - are backpacking their way across Europe. In Amsterdam, they find everything they're looking for: hash, booze, and sex. They also get a tip too good to pass up - go to a hostel near Bratislava where the women are so easy they'll have sex with anyone sporting a foreign accent. Needing little extra encouragement, the three take a train east. Initially, what they find meets their expectations. But then bad things start happening. Oli disappears, apparently having run off with a Japanese girl. Then Josh vanishes, along with another Japanese woman (Jennifer Lim). Paxton, seeking to find his friends, stumbles upon a fiendish plot that puts his life and limbs in danger. The hostel isn't a paradise; it's a front for a living nightmare.

The first third of Hostel plays exactly as you expect a European road trip movie to play when the main characters are hormone-drenched guys in their 20s. There's lots of sex and nudity, including a couple of full-frontal shots and breasts of all shapes and sizes. This part of the movie is enjoyable in a campy sort of way. The characters and their stories are not well developed, but it's not painful to sit through. Then the horror elements creep in. It's at this point that the story runs into trouble. Roth writes himself into a dead-end. He figures a way out of it, but that involves a lot of pointless running around, copious gratuitous gore, and not enough excitement. Horror/thriller movies of this sort are supposed to generate a visceral reaction, but Hostel fails the litmus test. The gore is too substandard to horrify. The action is too banal to electrify. And the last 15 minutes are so packed with implausibilities and coincidences that even the most generous viewer will be shaking his/her head in dismay.

The cast is comprised of actors I don't recall seeing before and may never see again. The exceptions are the two American leads. Jay Hernandez is developing a nice career - he had supporting parts in Ladder 49 and Friday Night Lights before graduating to the lead in the direct-to-DVD Carlito's Way: Rise to Power. Derek Richardson can make the ignoble claim of having a major role in one of the decade's worst films: Dumb and Dumberer. The other males don't leave an impression. And, other than Jennifer Lim (who remains clothed), the woman appear to have been chosen more for their physical attributes than their ability to act.

There is a group of horror fans - those who embrace cheesiness and revel in gore - who will appreciate what Roth delivers in Hostel. I'm not one of those. I prefer my horror to be served on a knife's edge. I don't mind the blood and viscera if there are genuine shocks and a high level of suspense. Those qualities are absent here. Even the big revelation of what the hostel is hiding is an anti-climax, and the lack of a single villain dilutes the film's potency. Let's hope 2006's first horror film isn't an indication of where the genre is going this year.

Hostel (United States, 2006)

Director: Eli Roth
Cast: Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eythor Gudjonsson, Barbara Nedeljakova, Jana Kaderabkova, Jan Vlasák, Jennifer Lim
Screenplay: Eli Roth
Cinematography: Milan Chadima
Music: Nathan Barr
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2006-01-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1