Eli Roth is the greatest promoter the movies have ever seen. William Castle? David O Selznick? Tom Cruise? Pah. Those guys have nothing on Roth's prodigious talent for flapping his own gob. Noisily. Incessantly. Infectiously, the man's unstoppable enthusiasm yanking the start-cord on punters' adrenaline glands 'til their brains buzz like chainsaws, motoring them to splinter doors at the nearest multiplex.
It worked for Cabin Fever, an unremarkable debut that lured remarks all the same, Roth courting controversy by invoking the spirit of survivalist classics from the '70s and early '80s. "Blood! Guts! Sex!" - he shouted his movie's wares, loud and proud. "Chain Saw! Shivers! The Evil Dead!" - he regurgitated his staple movie-diet, gleefully and repeatedly.
Sophomore effort Hostel has seen the Roth hype-machine crank into overdrive. His gooey tale of backpackers coming undone (literally, their innards loosed on the floor) is, he assures us, the "most". As in the most bleak, most extreme, most sick movie we'll ever see. No more pussy-arsed twinkie horror aimed at all the family; Hostel will make butchers crash to their knees and blub into their bloodied aprons.
He's right. Kind of. Well, at least in the sense that this is a horror movie for adults, its fiendish concept birthing a handful of sequences that, if not painful to watch, are at least uncomfortable. Perhaps the choicest cut - a young woman's gouged eyeball resting on her cheek as Josh (Richardson), our nominal hero, scissor-snips the crimson stalk that attaches it - has been teasing the internet for some time. Other slippery slivers include slashed tendons, uncoiled intestines and severed stumps. Harsh? Certainly. The most distressing, distasteful movie ever made? Rubbish - and Roth, a massive genre fan, knows it.
If anything, gorehounds will come away from Hostel with their tails between their legs, much of the torture and dismemberment taking place off camera. Seemingly snatching his cue from the infamous ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs - Hostel is a 'Quentin Tarantino Presents' picture, after all - Roth squeezes most of his terror-juice from sound effects and reaction shots, with fleeting glimpses of the damage done to seal the deal. It works, much as it did for Wolf Creek, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and dozens of others. The most chilling scene in the entire movie, in fact, is the abstract opening: a dark, dank chamber reverberating with the dismaying sounds of an unseen killer going casually about his business, his tools clanking as rivulets of blood burble towards a drain. See nothing; feel everything.
Hostel is a long, long way from being a great horror movie. Like Cabin Fever, it's more workmanlike than inspired, Roth lacking the artistry of Carpenter, the panache of Romero or the cool intellect and visual aesthetic of Cronenberg. But while it's clear we're not in the hands of a craftsman, we are at the mercy of someone who knows his horror - which buttons to press and when. There's also evidence that he's at least developing his own voice, ditching the shot-steals that peppered his debut and instead settling for just the one homage, aural this time, as The Wicker Man's 'Willow's Song' plays over a sex scene.
It's a precise reference, for this terror vision echoes Robin Hardy's cult classic by having its outsider protagonist(s) lured into an especially nasty trap, an entire community casting the net. In fact, Hostel's concept is genius. Neat and nasty, it can't be divulged here for fear of unmasking the surprise third act - the movie's very reason to exist - but safe to say it's so unsavoury, so wrong, so fucked up, it'll stay with you for days.
It'll also have you reconsidering Hostel's first act, as Roth slyly exposes his characters' Eurotrip-style trawl of Amsterdam (Booze! Weed! Girls!) to be a trap of its own. Purpose? To ensnare leery, lechy viewers and implicate them in the pain that follows. That's right, folks: what appeared to be an obnoxious, salacious, frankly juvenile sick-flick is actually an admonition to the horrors of the sex industry. With lots of T&A.
There's plenty here, then, but ponder this: how much better would this have been if it had been made by, say, Takashi Miike (who pops up in a cameo)? Hostel works because the concept is so damn strong... but a more skilled director could have shaped it into something special, a genre masterpiece even. It is, ironically, the execution that lets it down.