I figured it’d be best to get that out of the way in the beginning because it inevitably comes up any time the movie Hostel and/or its creator Eli Roth are brought up during a serious genre discussion. Roth’s Hostel, released in January of 2006, was dubbed “torture porn” by critics alongside other popular genre films of the decade like James Wan’s breakthrough feature SAW in 2004, as well as Alexandre Aja’s American debut, the remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes in 2006. For the record, I don’t believe that Hostel or the other two films I just mentioned deserved that label as “torture porn” is a mostly ignorant term that is used in all of the wrong places and will most likely cause a thoughtful horror fan to see red faster than you can say “Greg Nicotero.”
As a lady fan of horror, I am often met with raised eyebrows when I reveal that I am a genre nerd and those eyebrows arch even further north when I say loud and proud that I love the first Hostel movie. “You do? How can you watch people getting cut up for two hours! That’s pretty sick.” Well Greg, I would never argue that films that are purely exploitative do not exist because they do and they span all genres from horror to action and even comedy. What I would argue is that Eli Roth’s Hostel is not one of them. In fact, I sincerely believe that Hostel is one of the most thoughtful and intelligent critiques of the fear and xenophobia that was pervasive in a post-9/11 America.
Hostel was released in January 2006 while the United States found itself involved in a war in Iraq that was allegedly connected to the terrorism that occurred in New York City on September 11, 2001. “Freedom Fries” and “Freedom Toast” were a thing because France wasn’t on board with what we called “The War on Terror.” There were color-coded threat levels and you were “either with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” Yeah, America wasn’t making too many friends in the international community in the early part of the 2000’s. So it makes perfect sense for a filmmaker to send a bunch of entitled douchebag Americans on a trip to Europe on a quest for sex, drugs and booze! What could go wrong? A lot (obvs) and torture ensued. Torture, that was on the minds of a lot of people, like when in the spring of 2004 photos were released of the US military torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib or like the beheadings of journalists that were being uploaded onto YouTube. Now, these were all things that informed the cultural zeitgeist surrounding the time Hostel was made and released. So lets talk about the actual movie.
Remember how I said the characters are douchebags? They are. Much like Roth’s feature Cabin Fever before it, Hostel requires its characters to fight an uphill battle in order for the audience to eventually sympathize with them and I honestly don’t blame an audience if they ultimately never can. There’s actually a long line of horror filmmakers who want you to want the characters to meet a nasty end. Think of the annoying children singing in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds or of the obnoxious teenagers peppered thoughout 80s slasher movies that cause you to actually root for the bad guy. Hostel is no exception and the things that the Americans say are so ignorant that you should want the score to be settled a bit. In one scene a European man is eating with his hands and one of the Americans comments, “Use a fork.” The Americans think that everything in Europe is “gay” and have an over the top, entitled “ours for the taking” mentality.
The dynamics between the characters in Hostel are very important and not accidental. This includes not just the way the Americans relate to everyone else but the way the men relate to the women. The camera lingers on all of the naked bodies of the ladies a little too long and the girls laugh at the Americans stupid jokes a little too hard. Because they’re American, dammit! Why wouldn’t the super hot European ladies love them? When it comes to objectifying the women in the film and making use of Amsterdam’s legal sex trade, two of the three main characters (Jay Hernandez’s Pax and Eythor Gudjonsson’s Oli) have no problem justifying their actions. And yet, when it comes to turning the tables and having the mens bodies be up for sale if the price is right, that’s when things take a turn. Hostel sees the women sell the men into the torture trade (Hello, human trafficking!) going as far as to tell them, “I got a lot of money for you and that makes you my bitch.” The point is that everything has a price and no one, not even the all powerful American man, is above that. Nor are they above consequences and in this film, much like in real life, the characters careless and somewhat entitled actions have big ones.
I’m not saying that Hostel is an easy watch, it can be hard to take from the somewhat offensive way the characters talk to the physical gore and violence, but it would be a mistake to write the film off on the uninformed perception of what the movie might be. There is a place for political commentary in horror and some of the time, the genre has a brave and bold voice where other forms of entertainment are quiet. Almost ten years later, Hostel still feels timely and I believe still has a lot to say about gender dynamics, cultural divides and international relationships.