Work sucks. Anyone who has to suffer the daily routine of heading out the door to a place of employment to go through the routine of performing tasks you don’t care about knows what I mean. The drudgery, the people you hate the sight of, the jumped up gobshites who think they’re great, not to mention the fucking customers! Even thinking about it now is a pain in the hole. Work is a terrible, terrible thing. However, as bad as it is and while it may occasionally feel like it, it’s not literally torture.
There are many things in life, like work, that feel torturous. Certain obligations we have like attending an event where you know you’ll run into that doddery old aunt you’ve been avoiding for twenty years, or certain television programmes (Glee, I’m looking at you!), and basically anything feature that little bastard Justin Bieber all feel torturous but pale in comparison to being tied to a chair and having some stranger going at you with a pliers and a blow torch.
Hostel (2005) starts off in Amsterdam where we encounter three likely lads out looking for a good time, the kind of good time only that particular city can offer. Two of the boys, Josh and Paxton, are American friends who have met up with an Icelandic geezer, Oli, as they backpacked around Europe. After a big night out the lads try to get back into the hostel they are staying in only to discover the place locked up tight as it’s mad late. Making quite the ruckus out on the street, the lads are attacked with bottles and other projectiles by local residents trying to get some kip. They flee into the hostel via a window when they’re offered sanctuary by an odd Eastern European type. He tells them that the kind of good times they’re looking for are better found in a certain part of Slovakia where the women are all keen on American’s and there’s bugger all men about. He even knows of a handy hostel they can stay in.
The three boys make tracks to Slovakia by train and along the way they encounter an odd Dutch businessman who makes an unwelcome pass at Josh. They get to their destination which turns out to be an old world Slovakian village the far side of nowhere and check into the hostel which is more like a grand old hotel. Unfortunately, they have to share a room. Fortunately, it’s with some girls who aren’t keen on keeping their clothes on and who drag the lads to the hostels spa and then out on the town.
While out, Josh runs afoul of a roaming gang of native children who are responsible for most of the crime in the area. He’s saved by the same businessman who took a fancy to him on the train and who Josh buys a drink by way of apology for his behaviour.
The next morning, Josh and Pax awake to find Oli never came home so they set out to find him. Having no luck, they return only to discover that another guest is missing, and is allegedly with Oli. The two boys decide to stay one more night and then leave, and head out with the girls for a farewell piss-up. Josh takes ill after a few pints and returns home, leaving Pax, who is also feel a bit under the weather, to pass out in a store room.
When Josh wakes up, he finds himself chained to a chair, half-naked, with the weirdo businessman standing over him with an array of nasty tools and a naughty look in his eye…
Hostel is held up as the current leader in the word of torture based horror (AKA: Torture Porn), due in no small part to the fact that it’s literally about torture, but in reality the torture scenes are few and far between and perhaps not as graphic as you might expect. Like the best horror, Hostel spends most of its time setting the scene and building up the sense of dread. Early on, when you see how the main characters are carrying on and how easily influenced they are, you realise that things can’t end well. When you see them get to the hostel you instantly feel that it’s all too good to be true and you’re right, the frustrating part is that the poor fools in the film don’t cop on until it’s far too late and in that it’s just like the slasher flicks of the seventies during which you shout yourself hoarse shouting at the characters to just get the hell out of there!
When things do get nasty there are one or two troubling moments but there’s nothing really extreme, or more accurately, there’s nothing that would really bother a modern audience. This is definitely desensitisation to violence taking its toll and sadly this type of material can only get more graphic or, and I think this is more likely, it’ll turn more sexual in nature in a return to films like Last House on the Left which features sexual violence and rape to horrify the viewer. That prospect saddens me, especially as there is, perhaps surprisingly, a lot to like about Hostel.
The storyline is decent, using an old urban legend/potentially true story as its basis and in an odd way it’s believable. You can easily imagine that in remote parts of the world all sorts of touristy types get lured to sticky ends for the enjoyment of others, as I’m sure anyone who’s visited Leitrim will tell you.*
The characters are likeable enough too; the two American guys seem alright, just regular blokes out for a few laughs. Mentioning that Pax plans on becoming a lawyer and that Josh intends to study for an advanced degree is a nice touch as it establishes them as being more than the usual dumb kids. The fact that Paxton can speak German, even under extreme stress, is a brilliant piece of character development. Making the third man in the group, Oli, Icelandic was also clever, as was bringing in the Japanese tourists, though how they got to the Hostel in the arse-end of nowhere deserved some explanation. There are several villains in the movie but the main one, the businessman, makes for a good baddie as his motivations are touched on and he’s human, though mental in the extreme.
The effects are excellent, though the wound the Japanese girl sustains is definitely the weakest make-up effect and the cuts Josh receives at the beginning of his ordeal seem strangely lacking in blood, which wasn’t exactly in short supply on the set of this film.
I want to hate Hostel, I really do. I like intelligent horror; the creeping dread of The Exorcist, the thoughtful approach of The Mothman Prophecies, and the alarming terror of Rosemary’s Baby, so the horror snob in me wants to look down on Hostel as another excuse of a Torture Porn movie, but I can’t help but to enjoy it. It’s grim to be sure, but there’s definite humour present and you cheer for the characters, even though you find the set-up they fall for a little obvious, as they’re for the most part well acted and, more importantly, well written. The DVD extras reveal a lot more about the film in terms of how much enjoyment the cast and crew got out of the experience and that shines through in the finished movie.
I’ve railed against films like Hostel in the past, and the sub-genre it fits into concerns me in how it influences horror films, but Hostel actually deserves some praise for being entertaining, holding onto its sense of humour, and for being a well made film.
Two Thumbs Up for Hostel.
*I have family from Leitrim so I can say what I want about the place!
Check out our fine links for ideas on where to stay when you’re backpacking across Europe:
Bord Failte: http://www.discoverireland.ie/Accommodation.aspx