In the 2000s, films like Hostel, Saw and the like represented a tonal shift to torture, an ugly, bleak era somewhat analogous to the Italian cannibal genre period, one which we occasionally visit, but seldom revisit on this site for probably obvious reasons.
Tying someone to a chair or a pyre and abusing them is a cheap way to generate scares, as there’s seldom build up, and it feels icky gratuitous and unearned – a bit like a comedian resorting to f-bombs for laughs.
No doubt Hostel writer and director Eli Roth was highly influenced by that type of cinema, and long before doing an homage to it later in his career, the surprisingly capable but flawed, The Green Inferno.
And to his credit, unlike some of his compatriots in this genre, he shows a modicum of restraint and actually tries to gradually and incrementally build scares the way horror should be done.
The setting, Bratislava, Slovakia, was a bit of a nice choice whether by design or accident – as the city represents a kind of gateway between the wealth of Western Europe and the Soviet-influenced cities of Central Europe. As beautiful as it is (take it from me, as a backpacker who happily didn’t meet the same end as the duo in this one) there’s a donut of ugly commie blocks surrounding the pristine, prettily Medieval centre to add much needed rusty decrepit stylistic intrigue.
Our “heroes” are American backpackers availing themselves of freewheeling sybaritic spoils they can’t find at home, and get lured into a more obscure part of Europe than the Red Light District of Amsterdam by a fixer with a Slavic accent. He assures them, speaking of accents, that the women of this particular geography find American elocution enticing.
They meet a like-minded man-child traveller, from Iceland, and become a lecherous trio, eventually getting their comeuppance, if that’s how you want to think of it, in a dungeon. Is this subtext warning of the perils of Americans being myopic about cultural life outside their borders, a variation on the theme of sexual misadventures being met with strict retribution a la 80s horrors? There are several other explanations.
Roth is smart enough to have a Final Guy rather than Final Girl, as backpacking through foreign lands aren’t as fraught with the same perils for guys. It subverts expectations just enough and the film is better for it.
At the end of the day, the jolts are there, even if the characters are somewhat 2D.
*** (out of 5)