Maggie McMuffin has complicated feelings about Eli Roth and his second film, Hostel, but that’s not going to stop her from giving it a second chance.

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Let me tell you about disappointment.I was 16. At this point in my life I had been watching horror movies for, oh, five years. Aside from the Scary Movie franchise, I was pretty much permitted by my parents to watch anything: werewolf movies, vampire flicks, Stephen King adaptations, and slashers for days. I had strong opinions on Freddy Krueger and my love of Elm Street had fostered a need for greater, more creative onscreen deaths. Saw fit the bill but I was getting really desensitized. (I would give up horror binges by the time I was 17.) So imagine my joy when a movie came along that was advertised as being so hardcore people were fainting in the theaters. Full of graphic violence that was sure to leave my innocent self traumatized.

Then imagine my anger when my local theater decided its permission slip policy didn’t apply for their showing of Hostel.

Not only that, but they wouldn’t even permit anyone under 17 to see the film unless a legal guardian accompanied them. My mother was not for horror and so I was forced to wait. The movie came out while I was visiting my father, who had watched many horror films with me throughout the years, covering my eyes if sex happened but letting me watch each bloody moment. I talked up the film, the expectations, how I had been denied my right as a mature young woman to decide this movie was okay for me. We rented it, settled in for some bonding time, and were subsequently disappointed by every point of the film.

They just kill the mysterious Icelandic dude? There’s no twist about him? The douchebag lives? It takes halfway through the film to get to violence? There are more topless women than there are deaths? My dad was busy criticizing the torture scenes because people were trying too hard to cut off toes and I laughed along with him because I didn’t realize there’s a difference between someone viewing inaccurate violence vs someone viewing fantasy violence. It’s funny! I’m being so worldly and mature right now because I don’t take torture seriously! I’m hardcore! Because I could be more creative than these rich clods!  Because violence is always entertaining when it’s hypothetical and the people aren’t real!

I’ve grown less blood-lusty. I can watch violence now but I don’t seek it out. I ask if it’s necessary because often it isn’t. Violence in media is usually cheap and it tends to either hit me hard and make me mad because it reminds me of real life and how violence has consequences in real life, or I just shake it off because I’ve seen it all before. That’s me now. At 16 I was pissed at this film for not being a sensationalist torture fest. There were cutaways from nearly everything. There was no humor. It was just people being cut up. Where’s the enjoyment? I was so enraged I spent five years carrying a grudge against Eli Roth and even thought up an elaborate plan to make him fall in love with me so that I could punch him in the face, yell, “THAT WAS FOR HOSTEL,” and then sex him on the hood of the nearest car. I have complicated feelings about Eli Roth that can, ironically, probably only be resolved through gratuitous sex and violence.

But on my rewatch (which I went into expecting to still be bored) I realized that the movie isn’t bad because it wasn’t more violent. It’s plenty violent. But gratuitous violence isn’t the point, so I can’t fault it for the lack thereof.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a not-good movie but 16-year-old me was too focused on getting her gore-rocks off to realize why this movie is bad. This movie is bad because it’s trying really, really hard to say something. It’s bad because it’s pretentious. It’s bad because I cannot figure out what the message is.

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The movie starts with blood but the opening credits are very subtle and admittedly one of the best parts of the movie. (This is something I will always fault directors and writers for. If your credits upstage your film you need to try harder.) We get water dripping and scrubbing. We get dirty soap. We get something that could be blood dripping. It’s a slow unfold to shots of bloody tools being washed and someone whistling and sets the mood.We cut to three guys; two friends, Paxton and Josh from America, and an Icelandic dude they picked up named Oli. They are in Amsterdam, which we know because the first line of this film is “AMSTERDAM MOTHERFUCKERS!” They want pot and just after I say, “Ah, remember when we had to go all the way to Europe to get pot?” one of the boys says, “Did we come all the way to Amsterdam just to smoke pot?” Yes, you did, because you are in the past.

But they didn’t just come for pot! They came to get laid. Oli is just a boundary-less machine who manages to pick up chicks left and right and even text pictures to his American buddies of his bathroom stall conquests. Paxton is doing alright but Josh…Josh just doesn’t go for it. He just broke up with his girlfriend. He doesn’t want a sex tour of Europe. He doesn’t want to bang a girl who seems so high she’s “in a coma” (which, granted, is cool of him). He doesn’t want to go to one of Amsterdam’s many sex workers. Josh is presented as being the ‘good guy’ of the group but he’s also presented as being a massive downer.

(Side note: The Amsterdam workers are the least sexualized women in the film. They are either covered up in windows, shown as silhouettes, the one very nice sex worker it’s implied Josh does bang after she smoothly puts him at ease and then shows her boobs, or the domme who shouts, “You watch, you pay!” to anyone who walks into her sessions. I do have to give Roth points for this.)

While in Amsterdam, we see Josh start a fight with someone and Paxton join in. They and Oli are kicked out of a club and shout about how it’s full of faggots and everything is gay. They continue being loud when they can’t get into their hostel and get into a shouting match with the owner. This continues an ever-present theme of everyone hating the boys for being American. But they are saved just as the cops arrive! A sweet guy named Alex lets them climb into his window where he tells them that “not everyone wants to kill Americans” and that if they really want to get laid they should go to Slovakia, which is apparently full of hot, American-loving sluts who will fuck any foreigner who speaks to them. “There are no men because of the war,” he says, and all the poor babes are mourning with their vaginas apparently.

The boys are sold and off they go. They take a train ride and encounter a kindly German man who has odd opinions about eating meat with his hands because “I like to have connection with something that died for me.” Paxton is a vegetarian and says he’s not down with this. 

If you think we’re going straight to murder camo you are wrong. We get more of Oli waving his naked ass, we get Paxton refusing to speak the German he knows and being a willful dick about everything. We get Josh doing…whatever he does. They meet some girls, go to a spa and a disco, and everyone hooks up. Josh takes a break to get attacked by a fucking gang of children who demand bubblegum and dollars. Josh is saved by the dude from the train who tells him that “Here, children commit the most crime. They don’t care. They attack anyone.” He gives Josh some life lessons about choosing to have a family and then Josh is taken away. 

Here’s where this goes from road trip to horror film. In the next 24 hours Oli disappears and we learn he’s dead. Kana, a Japanese girl staying at the same hostel, says her friend disappeared with him. All we get is a shot of Oli’s decapitated head and Kana’s friend screaming and a pre-shot of her toe being cut off. We get Paxton giving Josh a speech about enjoying their lives before going back to school. We get Paxton bringing up out of the blue “Did I ever tell you I saw a girl drown when I was eight?” THE FUCK PAXTON. “We made eye contact which was weird you know and she yelled at me to help her.” FUCK. AND THEN THE LIFEGUARD DIDN’T BELIEVE HE SAW SOMEONE DROWNING AND IGNORED IT. “I just feel like I could have done more to save her.” 

“But what made you think of that now?”

Uh…shoehorned character development for later, Josh. God, I thought you wanted to be a writer.

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So now that Oli has ditched them, so they think, they decide to party on their last night. Unfortunately Josh gets drugged and wakes up shackled to a chair in nothing but his underwear and what follows is a scene that, yes, disappointed me as a child. But now it freaks me out. Josh is at the mercy of that dude from the train who I will just call Surgeon because he gives a speech about how he always wanted to be a surgeon because holding life and death in your hands blah blah blah. Josh is crying in this. Like really crying. These are not manly tears. Josh is screaming, bribing, bargaining, and covered in snot. It’s disgusting and a level of realistic emotion never really seen in horror films. Surgeon drills through his shoulders and then hacks at something on Josh’s legs. When that’s done he saunters over to the door and opens it, telling Josh he’s free to go. Josh, not thinking he should check his limbs, stands up and immediately keels over because that’s what happens when your Achilles tendons get cut. He crawls to the door and gets stopped by Surgeon and you know what, THAT is cruelty. THAT is torture. The point here isn’t getting to see the knife go in, it’s seeing the aftermath. It’s seeing Surgeon toy with Josh and offer him an exit. It’s Josh screaming in pain but determined to take that offer and then getting told NOPE.Onto Act 3 of this film which has Paxton playing a pretty convincing detective. After getting drugged and passing out not where he was supposed to, he wakes up and is told Josh is gone. He doesn’t believe it and proceeds to use Oli’s last pictures (staged and sent by the murder camp) and hearsay to find out what happened. The child gang shows up a couple more times. Paxton is still an arrogant American but now he’s on a mission and that mission allows him to further yell at the hot girls who lured them in. They play dumb, they play like Josh told them he ran off, and Paxton is too genre-savvy for that. So he gets dropped off at murder camp where he is shown a dead body and then immediately gets shackled and then sold because he’s an American and people love killing Americans! And the hot murder chick gets the best line in the movie: When Paxton calls her a bitch she laughs and says, “I get a lot of money for you. That makes you my bitch.”

And you know, I bet being a murder camp counselor pays pretty well. What do you think the benefits are? Is it just the joy of partying and getting free drinks? How much money is a lot of money in this country? Do all these people just get free board at the hostels where they pick guys up or do they have secret houses full of cool stuff? Do they travel at all? Is Elite Hunting run by a specific person who enlisted the town for help or did the town hold a meeting and decide this was the way to go? I really want to know more about these people. I couldn’t give a fuck about the people paying to torture people but the people who get paid to do it are another story.

I still don’t know what the lesson of the film is exactly, but if you watch it, it is clear that there is one. Maybe Roth is trying too hard. Maybe he thought he was being cerebral. Maybe he was trying to impress a chick with some pseudo-feminist possibly anti-violence dialogue. I don’t know. I don’t. What I do know is that, again, very little actual violence. This dude breathes funny and snips scissors menacingly while Paxton cries. Then Paxton appeals to his murder camp buddy by speaking German (Paxton knows German fluently; he just refuses to speak it) and is then gagged. It’s only through throwing up around his gag after losing some fingers that his captor slips and chainsaws himself. Paxton kills the guard, hides under dead bodies, kills another dude, spots people in the throes of torture but can’t stop, makes it to the locker rooms, and steals a suit and uses gloves to hide his finger situation.

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And then gets stopped in the locker room by a first timer; another American who wants to know what it’s like; who has travelled the world banging chicks but now feels that “Pussy’s pussy. Been all over the world, every whorehouse. It’s all the same… But this. This is something you’ll never forget.” HEY LOOK IT’S LIKE EARLY PAXTON ON COCAINE. He asks for tips, he says he spent 50,000 bucks on this special treat for himself. (Spoiler: it’s Kana, Japanese girl, and also there’s a menu at some point and it has Americans listed as the most expensive at $25,000. Apparently Asian girls are so rare that they just don’t list them.) Paxton, who has gone through a gamut of emotions and is just numb at this point, is trying really hard to put up with this guy so he can leave. But guy won’t let him and asks if he should do it quick or slow. Paxton grunts out “quick” and the guy says that’s “too American, I’m going old school” and goes off shouting “WHO WANTS THIS SHIT!” over and over again.Esteemed readers, we have our lesson. And that lesson is that…Americans suck? That the world rightfully hates us? That we deserve torture? That we are desensitized to sex and so we move onto violence? Because there are so many tits in this movie but we never see any at murder camp. Hell, we only see the two women there at all. So you get sex or you get violence. And maybe it’s that we as Americans need to try to see beyond our culture, our language, our needs? Because, as my viewing partner Randi Simmons pointed out, this was a film made for a mono-lingual audience. Any non-English language isn’t translated. There are no subtitles. Even with captions on it’ll just say (foreign language spoken) or (German shouted). So it’s intentionally saying something about language (and getting meta since Josh asks earlier how he’s supposed to understand a movie playing in the hostel lobby if it doesn’t have subtitles), but is it that language connects us? Is that why Josh needed to be gagged? Because speaking the same language as his captor humanized him?

ELI ROTH IS TRYING TO TELL ME SOMETHING, I KNOW IT.

Anyway, Paxton makes it to a car with keys but hears a woman screaming. I mean, fuck all those men he passed earlier, this harkens back to his need to save that drowned girl when he was eight! He finds Kana being face-flamed by the locker room douche. Paxton kills him and assesses Kana’s damage which honestly is a shit show makeup job. It is. Her face is burned and her eye is hanging out by a nerve and it looks like ketchup and a cat toy. Then in his most confusing move, Paxton screams that he can’t understand what she is saying (DID YOU LEARN NOTHING ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF LANGUAGE?) and grabs some scissors. Kana starts screaming NO, which is a word I think Paxton should know, and then he does her a favor by cutting her eye off. DUDE. THE FUCK. HOW IS THAT HELPING? WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?

They escape, they get to a car, they are chased by another car. They run into the child gang and give them ALL the gum (because it’s all stockpiled in the cars because the people in this town steal everything from tourists) and the gang later kills the pursuers and their car. Just smash everything and everyone to bits with rocks. Paxton also gets to run down the two hot girls and Alex from Amsterdam. Paxton’s violence is righteous because it’s vengeance. I think? Again, I’m not sure what Roth is saying here.

At the train station, Kana gets a look at her ruined face and jumps in front of a train. Just like that. So, sorry Paxton, but you don’t get to save anyone ever. But you do get to overhear train dude giving his food speech and then corner him in a bathroom stall and kill him. Yay!

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So that’s Hostel. A pretty well-paced 90-minute film about how Americans are shit. But they can learn. Through being tortured. But then surviving. But not saving anyone from other countries. And also killing people in violent ways. Which is okay because they’re Americans. I think. Or it might all be meta for American film audiences and our relationship with sex and violence. I mean, what’s worse, the fact that this film has violence or that a 16-year-old girl was disappointed that it wasn’t more graphic?You know, Hostel isn’t a poorly told story. It has good set up for the murder camp, for Paxton’s growth and also his specific brand of asshole. It has good world-building for the town around the murder camp, with stolen clothing immediately being worn by townspeople and everyone in town clearly having a system of lies set up. The fucking child gang (who Randi speculated are children of the murder victims who are just angry and roaming). The fact that this movie is low-key hilarious? It lampshades stuff and the whole thing with the gum and just how much the hot girls drop liking Paxton once they’re done with him. This isn’t a near-comedy like Hostel 2, it’s just got some laughs thrown in for good measure.

And the violence is eased into. It isn’t gratuitous. In fact, it’s barely on screen at all. The more gruesome something is, the more likely it is to be shown as a blink and you’ll miss it moment or done as a cutaway or shown right as it’s being wrapped up. It’s like how the ass-to-mouth aspects of Human Centipede are what got people through the door but it’s only like ten seconds of the film. The violence in Hostel drew people in, but it’s Paxton’s journey that is meant to keep us here. And honestly Jay Hernandez, who plays Paxton, does a good job of carrying that. The amount of emotions he goes through feels real and there are many reaction shots of him seeing violence, or experiencing it. We see him letting out pain and we see him holding it in because he’s playing dead to survive. The moment where he’s on the body cart and looks up to see Josh’s face hanging over his is stirring. You can see Paxton wanting to feel something, wanting to react, but not being able to because he’s gotta swallow everything down to get through this. Which, again, might be some meta commentary on how we all have to cut out our sympathy for characters in order to revel in their deaths or get through the carnage, but it is, like everything else, very unclear.

This movie isn’t told poorly, it just isn’t told clearly. So while I will admit that 16-year-old me was wrong and missed the point of the film, I will state in her defense that the point is really hard to see anyway.

Notes

— I was pissed about Kana’s suicide ten year ago and I am pissed now. She just kills herself over vanity. Like, wow, how feminist of you Eli Roth. Way to balance the scales back to zero after the goodwill you accrued in Amsterdam.

— The head child is credited as Bubble Gum Gang Leader and every time I think about that I smile.

— The first half of this film is kind of boring. Like I get that it lays the groundwork and it pays off but there’s this layer of bleh over it that I can’t quite describe.

— Oli knows a song in every language they encounter and it’s how he tries to endear himself to locals. He sings very loudly.

— Ten years ago I thought that Paxton’s captor was the best part of the film because dude is just creepy in such a specific understated way. Just the way he mouth breathes and moves his arms in a semi-jerky way is really unsettling but also interesting from a performance standpoint. I don’t think he outshines the whole film but he still stood out to me.

— The suit Paxton steals to run away fits him really well and I think he should keep it as a souvenir of his time at murder camp. Especially since he tries really hard to hold onto his amputated fingers only to lose them to an incinerator.

— I think rewatching this film lessened my grudge against Eli Roth for wasting 90 minutes of my time but I still want to shame-bang him. I just won’t punch him first. Or I might because he seems into that.

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