In March 2003, Xavier Mendik wrote one of the first UK reviews of an unseen new horror film entitled Cabin Fever, exclusively for Kamera. In his account, Mendik praised the stark vision of first time director Eli Roth, claiming him to be "an innovative young filmmaker dedicated to disturbing his audience." Following the film’s release, Cabin Fever became one of the most successful terror titles of the year, establishing Roth as a hot and hip new horror visionary. With his latest movie Hostel due for release in the UK later this month, Kamera checks into Roth’s new house of horrors to see if his work still claims the title of being "terrifying, brilliant and original."
There is a line in the opening segment of Hostel, when a group of European nightclub revellers turn on a pair of young tourists, condemning their Stateside origins with the claim that "Everyone hates Americans." While Anti-American verbal abuse is an indignity frequently endured by the vacationing college majors, it is overshadowed by the extreme acts of torture, amputation and eventual annihilation that the central protagonists come to experience. The visceral visualisations of suffering that ensue can only mean one thing: Eli Roth is back. Roth’s first film (detailing a group of college kids struck down by a flesh-eating virus after drinking contaminated water in a backwoods town) has been read as signalling a new wave of post 9/11 horror, which sees an over twitchy American populous violently turning on each other in the futile search to uncover an ‘enemy within.’ (The pertinence of such readings seems confirmed by the fact that the film’s production coincided with FBI plans to segregate sections of the American water supply for fears of an al-Qaida plot to contaminate it.)
With its theme of US backpackers being tortured in foreign territories by an East European based snuff collective, Hostel takes such Stateside concerns one step further by drawing on current anxieties of America’s increasingly degraded status overseas. And while the Bush administration’s failure to apprehend high profile terrorists such as Osama bin Laden or quell the violence inherent in oversees campaigns such as Iraq can be read as wider signs of a neoconservative malaise, they have undoubtedly generated a widespread anti-American hostility that Eli Roth’s pulp horror narrative cleverly taps into.
In Hostel, Jay Hernandez and Derek Richardson are cast as Paxton and Josh, the two ill-fated college majors cynically using the locations on their European summer vacation as backdrops for an endless series of sexual conquests. The opening sequence depicts them in Amsterdam via a typical teen movie montage that sees the pair attempting to overload on pot and prostitutes along with the fair-weather Icelandic fratpacker Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson). However, the narrative action soon shifts to Slovakia, where the protagonists seek out the ultimate mythical teenage male paradise: a low budget hostel populated by East European beauties eager for US based boyfriends. Roth initially shoots Paxton and Josh’s encounters at the hostel in the form of a North American male fantasy, with soft focus lighting and soft porn imagery fulfilling such dominant conceptions of Europe as a space of unproblematic sexual discovery. However, it is only when Josh suddenly disappears and the female locals are revealed as anything but friendly and flirtatious that Paxton discovers the backpacking brutality behind Hostel.
For the casual viewer of Eli Roth’s cinema, what remains most memorable about a film like Hostel, is just the level of sheer sadism packed into its seminal scenes. With graphic images of victims being disembowelled, having their faces melted with blowtorches and even being forced to rummage for their own missing limbs amongst the debris of former victims bodies, this is clearly not a movie for the faint hearted. As with Cabin Fever, Roth remains committed to an uncompromising vision of the genre, and as the film was produced through his own company Raw Nerve, Hostel clearly represents a successful example of the director’s desire to produce "balls to the wall horror."
However, beyond its manifest images of gore and sadism, Hostel does advance some important themes contained in Roth’s earlier work. Firstly, it extends the director’s interest in the self-reflexive examination of horror film myths and motifs that he initiated with Cabin Fever. Here, it was the most nihilistic themes of 1970s American horror (such as the moral ambiguity between rival lawful/criminal groups and/or the violent clash of city and country cultures) that the director re-formulated for contemporary horror audiences. While the downbeat tone to Cabin Fever made clear that Roth was taking his lead from controversial seventies classics such Last House on the Left (1972) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), his debut feature went beyond mere thematics to include a near identical emulation of the visual style and soundtracks associated with these such works. Given Eli Roth’s interest in such methods of pop culture presentation, it comes as little surprise that fellow cine-literate connoisseur Quentin Tarantino took on the role of producer for Hostel, and here the pair reference a far wider set of cinematic tropes than just 1970s American horror. These include the controversial and mythical cycle of the death film (with key torture scenes from Hostel even emulating the shock on-screen tactics employed in exploitation notorieties such as Snuff ), while the film’s emphasis on male suffering owes a good deal to the gender subversions contained in contemporary Japanese terror texts such as the 1999 film Audition. (This link being confirmed by director Takashi Miike’s cameo in Hostel as a paying participant to the most extreme scenarios of suffering that Slovakia has to offer.)
While Hostel contains enough in-text quotation to keep the attention of both genre buffs and film theorists, it also advances a geographical construction of terror that appears to permeate Roth’s cinema. In the case of Cabin Fever, it was the city-dwellers violent exposure to a diseased rural landscape and its inhabitants that gave the film such shock impact. With Hostel, Roth replaces the monstrous rural American Other with an even more terrifying East European counterpart, amercing his American tourists in a threatening foreign landscape, which harbours gangs of deadly and dispossessed Slovakian street urchins as well as morbid medical figures with a penchant for sexual sadism. In this respect, it is interesting to note that for all its touted on-screen sadism, one of the most unsettling aspects of Hostel emerges from Paxton’s increasing sense of isolation at the alien landscape that confronts him. (Roth cleverly uses the motif of verbal miscommunication and multiple language barriers to accentuate his male protagonist’s inability to convey his growing sense of unease to fellow hostel-dwellers.)
As with his first feature, Hostel extends Roth’s reputation as a director willing to push the boundaries of horror cinema by recycling and manipulating genre imagery with unsettling and disturbing effect. However, beyond any obvious shock value, it is his ability to combine celluloid carnage with a canny eye for contemporary events that confirms Eli Roth as one of contemporary cinema’s cutting-edge cult auteurs.
Xavier Mendik is Director of the Cult Film Archive and Co-Convenor of the MA in Cult Film and TV at Brunel University. He produced the documentary Cabin Fever: Fear Today, Horror Tomorrow and the films of Eli Roth are examined in his new book Fear Theory (forthcoming from Wallflower Press). Hostel opens in the UK on 22 March 2006.