Movie Review: Ugly Americans get their comeuppance; babes buff

Director: Eli Roth
Starring: Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eythor Gudjonsson

The Americans in Eli Roth's second horror movie, Hostel, aren't your thoughtful café latte-sipping, Schopenhauer-reading types on a journey of self-discovery. They're in Europe primarily for the poontang and the bong hits. The museums can wait.

House of horror flicks are back. Hollywood is falling over itself to remake any vaguely successful horror movie from the last 40 years - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, House Of Wax. Roth's film isn't a remake, but with its passable - but largely unimaginative - take on the genre, it might as well as be.

Set mainly in Slovakia (but filmed in the Czech Republic), the movie starts as a kind of Eurotrip, with two Americans, Paxton (Hernandez) and Josh (Richardson), hooking up with an Icelander, Oli (Gudjonsson).

And boy are the Americans ugly. After fighting in an Amsterdam night club, Josh and Paxton tell the patrons waiting outside that the place is a "fag fest." Paxton, noticing a TV set in a hostel reception, says: "How the fuck are we supposed to understand without subtitles? Fucking gay." Not exactly your model Lonely Planet types.

After sampling some pleasures in a local knocking shop, the two Americans and the token European meet a shady, stoned hostel-rat called Alex who tells them about a place in Slovakia where, "because of the war, there are no guys." In such a place, Alex assures them, just being there - and being American - is enough to get laid.

So off they go to deep, dark Slovakia, confident that all those leggy Eastern European chicks - emotionally scarred by the "war" and without menfolk - will be all too willing to be plundered once again by cocksure Americans in North Face clobber.

The hostel lives up to Alex's billing. It's a kind of cross between a drop-in center for the MTV generation and a Playboy mansion. Like the opening gambit in any number of porn flicks, the guys have to share their room with two hot Euro-babes. When the ladies aren't dressing together, buffing each other up in the shower, or relaxing naked in the spa, they're listening to the boys drone on about ex-girlfriends.

So far, so far good - if you like that sort of thing (and I do). Then, of course, things start going wrong. Oli and then Josh go missing, and we find out that the hostel is a front for a torture business, where warped execs - seemingly a little tired of corporate bonding weekends - can pay tens of thousands of dollars to torture and kill a backpacker. Americans carry the biggest price tag, the hunting equivalent, one would assume, of going after a elephant rather than an elk. Bring on the gore. Fingers are cut off, tendons severed, a sadist blowtorches a Japanese girl's face. The brothel-happy exploiters become the exploited. And then some.

Roth probably won't be getting the keys to the city of Bratislava any time soon. Slovaks were complaining even before the film's release about their country's depiction. The Communist-era cars, the antique television sets, the complete lack of modern dentistry all doesn't quite jive. In Hostel, the police - who in real life seem to spend most of their time checking that motorists have their safety triangles in their boots - set up road blocks, apparently to help the torturers, and beat up a man, Rodney King-style, in front of his family. There isn't a shopping mall, a multiplex, or an IKEA in sight. No one watches Pop Idol.

Roth is certainly better at slash than satire, but there is a strand of the latter running through the movie. "After the war," Alex says in Amsterdam - which war, you may ask - and of course Roth knows very well there was no war in Slovakia.

Those prickly Slovaks should take note: The film is not so much poking fun at Slovakia, but lampooning Americans' take on the rest of the world. It might be giving the director too much credit (after all, it's just a dumb horror movie), but Roth's Slovakia is an amalgam of stereotypes and perceptions about Eastern Europe, a self-conscious and deliberate patchwork, which serves largely as a metaphor for his protagonists' ignorance. Roth's Slovakia is not meant to be any more real than Sam Peckinpah's Cornwall in Straw Dogs or Robin Hardy's Scottish Isles in The Wicker Man.

Dodgy characterization and pedestrian acting aside (not that you have to be Philip Seymour Hoffman to scream as a power drill is administered to your leg), the movie is let down by its failure to create a sense of dread. In the 2005 Australian horror Wolf Creek, the landscape, the outback, is an integral part of the fear - a chilling, forsaken emptiness where no one can hear your screams. But in Hostel the backdrop is merely artifice. The street kids, presumably in place to ramp up the fear quotient, look more like extras from Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist (which was also shot in the Czech Republic). It's hard to take the little munchkins seriously, with their bobble-hats and demands for bubblegum. The skinheads in the street and the locals in the smalltown bar look more bemused than intimidating - as if they just walked onto the wrong film set. Hell, House of Wax was scarier than this. And that had Paris Hilton in it.

Czech Premiere: February 23rd, 2006
Runtime: 1 hour, 35 minutes

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