Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Cinema 2005: Europe as sick playground

With yet another “Hostel” due for release in 2013, I offer a scathing review of the original 2005 film that started a cult franchise.

The premise of writer/director Eli Roth's "Hostel" from 2005 is the European party tour of two All-American college boys, beginning in Amsterdam, where they get high but not happy.

Paxton (Jay Hernandez) is a law school grad with no qualms about paying for whatever the market offers, which in Amsterdam covers a lot. He tries to cheer up his friend Josh (Derek Richardson), an aspiring author, by reminding him that "life experience" is grist for the writer's mill. Josh wants badly to hook up with exotic women, but his sensibilities won't permit him to patronize the world’s oldest profession, unlike his coarser compadre. Resulting frustration fuels Josh’s "ugly American" ethos of entitlement and hamstrings his chick-cruising moves.

Enter Alex, who gives the Americans one of those tips that must be urban legend by now: a hostel full of loose ladies in a country squirming with lonely beautiful women who are turned on by the American accent. How perfect is that? All a guy has to do is speak, what he says is not important.

The young Americans leave for Bratislava, in a Slovakia which, according to Alex, is bereft of men because of "the war." Of course there has not been a war in that region since the Cold War ended with the falling of the Iron Curtain 15 years before the movie was made. As it is, they disembark at Poricany, a town in the middle of the Czech Republic, closer to Prague than Bratislava, where our college educated youth fall victim to their own blinkered view of the world. Seeking frivolity in foreign streets, they end up being exploited to an unimaginable extreme and on a level that is unbelievable even in today’s real world of sex tourism, pirates and child predators.

The mindset that permits you to act however you like when you are away from home may work as a slogan for Las Vegas, but in this era of globalism it becomes increasingly hard to refute the moral bankruptcy of such a philosophy.

Still, Paxton doesn’t care about anything except making memories to sustain him through the upcoming busy months of cramming for the bar exam. Perhaps there is a global perception that his selfish attitudes are especially emblematic of Americans, and that is why, in "Hostel," freelance torturers pay more to vivisect bearers of our passport than persons of any other nationality.

When the boys finally enter the hostel midway through the film, a small TV in the lobby is showing an overdubbed version of "Pulp Fiction," the breakout film directed by “Hostel” producer Quentin Tarantino. The claustrophobic tension in that film added excruciating horror to the anticipated violence. Whereas in "Hostel" much of the violence is so non sequitur that you never quite believe in these silly butchers or their cadre of bored chauffeurs. The upshot is much less horror, more disgust and, one can only hope, no sick arousal.

When a victim does cry out "Why?" he might be speaking for the audience: Why make this movie? And when the pay-as-you-torture psychos pause to bare their souls to their bound and bleeding victims, “Hostel” visits real torture upon moviegoers in the form of pathetic acting and dumb dialog.

In this movie sadists have ceded their place to wealthy psychopaths, especially German-speaking men, who pay to "get their medieval freak on," if by definition one can get medieval with a chainsaw or an acetylene torch. During an uninspired escape attempt sequence, Paxton is cornered by an American businessman (Rick Hoffman), whose years of global sex tourism have left him unsatisfied and obviously insane. He is now ready to graduate to torture and murder in order to gratify his libido.

Judging by "Hostel," there certainly is a surfeit of silicone in this surrogate Slovakia. We are shown plenty of gratuitous female nudity, but only between rounds of bloodletting: Roth carefully segregates titillation from torture.

What’s in a name? Throughout this film "Josh" never quite appreciates the jokes while "Pax" never finds the peace that comes from exorcising one's own demons -- he just cuts his vacation short, so to speak.

One can only hope that the success of “Hostel” and its sequels is simply due to the popularity of the slasher genre and not because there exists an audience of Americans willing to exchange their ignorance of Europe for the warped fantasy offered here: a Sybaris for bored backpackers, where women resemble lingerie models, preschoolers gang bang, and the occasional ex-Nazi still hobbles about his same unspeakable errands, if more circumspect in his depravity than six decades earlier.

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