Hostel (2006)

Starring: Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eythor Gudjonsson, Barbara Nedeljakova, Jana Kaderabkova, Jan Vlasák, Lubomir Bukovy, Keiko Seiko

Directed by: Eli Roth

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Oh boy. I can see why the Slovakian tourist board were not happy with Hostel, the new horror flick from Eli (Cabin Fever) Roth, 'presented by' Quentin Tarantino, no less.

Josh (Derek Richardson_ and Pax (Jay Hernandez) check in at the hostel

American frat boys Paxton (Jay Hernandez - Latino looking, thinks he's cool) and Josh (Derek Richardson - blond, gormless innocent abroad) are backpacking around Europe. We catch up with them cavorting among the bongs, bums and boobs of Amsterdam, where they've hooked up with hyper, crass, Icelandic idiot Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson). The next stop on their itinerary is Barcelona, but a chance encounter with a mysterious, Eastern European, would-be pimp called Alex (Lubomir Bukovy) inspires them to change their plans and head into the heart of darkness that is Slovakia, in search of 'pussy'.

So far so cheap and fairly tasteless and tedious - and at this juncture you're inclined to think that this daft trio of goons deserve everything they get. But the pace and our involvement in and enjoyment of the film soon pick up once our heroes cross the border into Slovakia and realise they ain't in Kansas - or indeed, nice, comfy, English speaking, tourist friendly Western Europe - any more.

Fellow residents at Eli Roth's Hostel

But when they find the hostel recommended by Alex - located in a picture perfect Eastern European village, complete with pitched terracotta roofs, narrow cobbled streets and church spire - they're in heaven. Carlsberg don't run hostels, but if they did, this is probably what they would be like - opulent old world palaces, with unisex dorms inhabited by wall-to-wall FHM-style totty, mostly in a semi-clad state.

Josh and Pax soon pair up with two impossibly hot Eastern European babes called Natalya and Svetlana (what else?) and next thing they know they're enjoying mind blowing sex in the dorm - ominously enough, to a techno version of 'Willow's Song' from The Wicker Man - as if we weren't already suspicious that things must be too good to be true.

Next morning, Oli has disappeared - checked out, apparently, which his friends find hard to believe - and an unconvincing photo message only serves to unsettle them further. Suddenly, the hostel doesn't seem quite as appealing as it did the night before, and so they plan to bail out the following day, taking with them nervy Japanese girl Yuki, whose friend has also inexplicably disappeared over night.

That evening, Josh returns to his dorm drunk and passes out. When he wakes up, he's chained to a chair in a dungeon. Five minutes later, he's dead.

And then - well, I'll leave it to you to find out what happens next - or perhaps just to let your imagination fill in the gaps, which is what Roth generously allows us to do through much of this film, expertly judging how much is enough and turning the camera away just in time. Like the seminal hack and slash classic that started it all, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hostel doesn't actually contain that much visceral, in-yer-face nastiness on screen - we see a drill, a blowtorch, a chainsaw or an evil, twisted hook; we hear the scream; we see, fleetingly, the blood and gut spattered evidence. and the mind fills in the rest. In fact, for a film billed as being 'about torture', there isn't really that much here to see - if that's really what floats your boat (and if it is, go away, you're scaring me) you'd be better off heading to the Edinburgh Dungeon. (Although, having said that, if you couldn't take the ear slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs, this film probably isn't for you.)

And talking of Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino may only 'present' this film, but his shady influence is clearly stamped across what is by far its most chilling scene, when, in an intense monologue reminiscent of Christopher Walken's terrifying interrogation of Dennis Hopper in True Romance, a brash, rich American explains why he's prepared to pay a small fortune to fly to Slovakia and put a human being to death in a seedy, run down warehouse just outside Bratislava.

Can you tell why the tourist board didn't like it yet?

Lunch time at Eli Roth's Hostel

Possibly they weren't too keen on the portrayal of their country as fuelled by a horrific trade in pay as you go(re) torture, a conspiracy in which everyone, from taxi drivers to top brass in the police force, seems to be implicit. Worst of all for the poor bods at is the fact that the whole thing seems so horribly plausible. A thousand apologies to Eastern Europeans everywhere for this appalling acceptance of stereotypes, but anyone who's been east of Austria in the last ten years will recognise the gangs of sallow faced youths smoking on street corners, sporting baggy leather jackets and dodgy '80s haircuts and the packs of feral children demanding money with menaces, who, the film implies, will kill a man for a pack of bubblegum.

True, Hostel is not by any means 'the scariest film in a decade' as the poster proclaims (unless, of course, you work for the Slovakian tourist board) but it's far more deft, twisted, involving and gripping than I expected, full of clever and occasionally brilliant moments of suspense. The scene in which Pax confronts Natalya and Svetlana after Josh's disappearance is particularly fine - in the cold light of day, the pin-up perfect babes don't look nearly as hot, their flawed skin and hollow eyes revealing how the gloss has slipped from the boy's big adventure - while the final, shocking showdown almost rivals a History of Violence for coruscating comment on the contagious nature of brutality.

So not the scariest horror film out there, but this Hounds of Zaroff for the splatter generation is definitely one of the best. Smart, funny, horrible, (literally) eye-popping and stuffed with in-jokes for the horror-literate, Hostel is well worth a visit.

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