Putting “Hostel” in Context

Hostel (2005)
Dir. Eli Roth
Starring Jay Hernandez (Paxton), Derek Richardson (Joshua), Eyþór Guðjónsson (Oli)

“Hostel” was a 2005 film, written and directed by Eli Roth and executive produced by Quentin Tarantino. It was Roth’s second major feature, following his 2002 film “Cabin Fever”, which was a smash hit made on a small budget. Roth is also a member of the so-called “Splat Pack” (a term coined by Alan Jones of Total Film magazine), along with other filmmakers Alexandre Aja (“High Tension”, “The Hills Have Eyes” 2006 remake, “Mirrors”), Neil Marshall (“Dog Soldiers”, “The Descent”, “Doomsday”), Rob Zombie (“House of 1000 Corpses”, “The Devil’s Rejects” and the remake of “Halloween”), Leigh Whannell and James Wan (the original “Saw” film) and Greg Mclean (“Wolf Creek”).

“Hostel” stars Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson and Eyþór Guðjónsson as a trio of tourists (the former two Americans, the latter an Icelander) who, frustrated at the lack of single foreign women in Amsterdam, head to a hostel in Slovakia that they’ve heard about that is supposedly full of hot, exotic, foreign ladies. Once they arrive, the girls they fall in with give them drugs, have sex with them, and then sell them to a torture ring.

Paxton, Oli and Josh

Paxton, Oli and Josh

At the time of “Hostel”s release, these actors were all relatively unknown. Jay Hernandez had performed roles in films such as “Friday Night Lights”, “Crazy/Beautiful” and “Torque”, Derek Richardson’s best known role up until this point was probably “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd”. This was Eyþór Guðjónsson’s first film role.

Some notes on the production of the film:
The film was billed as “inspired by true events”; Eli Roth claimed to have read about poverty stricken individuals in Thailand who would sell “members of their family to organized crime, then American and European businessmen would pay $10,000 to walk in a room and shoot them in the head.“ Some sites, such as IMDb, also say that Roth was inspired by websites he had seen advertising similar torture services as the ones in the film. The sites were most likely hoaxes.
The film is often cited as the first of the “torture porn” or “gorno” genre of horror movies, which bombard the audience with disgusting, gory violence designed to titillate and give (sick) thrills in much the same way as pornographic images do.
None of it was actually filmed in Slovakia.

Upon its release, critics were divided. Many either loved or hated it, and the following quote and factoid provide a sense of the spectrum of different criticisms:
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian said that “Hostel” was “…actually silly, crass and queasy. And not in a good way.“ Whereas Jean Francois Rauger, film critic for Le Monde, listed Hostel as the best American film of 2006, calling it an example of modern consumerism.
On film rating websites such as IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, “Hostel” averages around 57-58%, showing that the majority of people enjoy it, but the slim majority. Slovakia, however, was not impressed.
Slovak officials were appalled by the way “Hostel” portrays Slovakia as an impoverish country filled with crime and prostitution. They even invited Roth to visit in an attempt to show him what a nice place it is. Tomas Galbavy, a Slovak Member of Parliament, commented: “I am offended by this film. I think that all Slovaks should feel offended.”

At the time of the film’s release, the world was in a state of extreme turmoil. Among the significant events of the year are:
– January 20 – George W. Bush is inaugurated in Washington, D.C. for his second term as the 43rd President of the United States.
– February 14 – A massive suicide bomb blast in central Beirut kills former Prime Minister of Lebanon Rafik Hariri and at least 15 other people. At least 135 other people are also hurt.
– May 4 – In one of the largest insurgent attacks in Iraq, at least 60 people are killed and dozens wounded in a suicide bombing at a Kurdish police recruitment center in Irbil, northern Iraq.
– July 7 – Four explosions (3 on the London Underground and 1 on a bus) rock the transport network in London, killing 56 and injuring over 700.
– July 21 – A terrorist attack on London, similar to the July 7 attacks, includes 4 attempted bomb attacks on 3 underground trains and a London bus. The bombs fail to explode properly.
– August 29 – At least 1,836 are killed, and severe damage is caused along the U.S. Gulf Coast, as Hurricane Katrina strikes coastal areas from Louisiana to Alabama, and travels up the entire state of Mississippi (flooding coast 31 feet/10 m), affecting most of eastern North America.
– September 30 – Controversial drawings of Muhammad are printed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.
– October 19 – The Trials of Saddam Hussein begin.
– November 9 – At least 50 people are killed and more than 120 injured in a series of coordinated suicide bombings in Amman, Jordan
– The U.S. death toll in Iraq reaches 2,000
In other words, 2005 was a truly chaotic year. The United States, under the leadership of George W. Bush, was heavily involved in the war in Iraq, which many believed to be a brash move following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The US was paranoid and extremely suspicious of any foreign countries that didn’t support their war, and the rest of the world was becoming increasingly unimpressed with the way the US government was handling things.

Getting back to “Hostel”, we can identify two major themes prevalent in the film: xenophobia and consumerism.
The theme of xenophobia, meaning a fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign (taken from Webster’s dictionary), is reflective of the paranoia felt by the United States at this point in time. Following 9/11, the US was extremely suspicious of foreigners.
Eli Roth, in defending the film in response to the statements from Slovak officials, said “Americans do not even know that this country (Slovakia) exists. My film is not a geographical work but aims to show Americans’ ignorance of the world around them.”
It should also be noted that the Czech pop songs used in the film highlight this disconnect because they were hits in Czechoslovakia between 1982 and 1989 but the movie was set in 2005. Roth said he did this intentionally, meaning to show American stereotypes of Eastern Europe, while the Americans in the film are portrayed accurately (I would debate that the Americans are portrayed as stereotypes as well).
The theme of consumerism is presented very obviously in the film: teens are a product , bought by rich businessmen the same way they would buy the newest gadget or a popular kind of car. Killing teens is seen as the latest trendy thrill-seeking activity, instead of activities like sky-diving or bungee-jumping.
The theme of consumerism is made clearer in the sequel, where we get to see two rich, white, American businessmen purchasing girls to torture through the “Elite Hunting” torture ring. There is even an exchange between the two American businessmen characters played by Roger Bart and Richard Burgi where they mention that they’ve gone hunting and skydiving, but they’ve never killed another human being.

Two guys looking for a thrill

Two guys looking for a thrill

“Hostel” had a major influence on the horror genre, creating an entire sub-genre (“Gorno”) and also setting off a cascade of movies concerned with xenophobia, featuring young travellers exploring foreign locales, only to be tormented by the locals. Some examples from around the same time that “Hostel” came out include:
“Wolf Creek”: came out the same year as “Hostel”, director Greg Mclean is also a member of the “Splat Pack”. About backpackers in Australia who are hunted and killed by a psychopath who lives in the outback.
“Turistas”: came out the year after “Hostel” and is practically an exact copy of “Hostel”. Three American tourists on vacation in Brazil are drugged by the locals and held captive. They are sedated and their organs are removed and sold on the black market.

Some more recent examples (all from last year) include:
“The Ruins”: About a group of American teens who visit some forbidden ruins only to be attacked by not only the locals but also the plantlife growing in the ruins. An unusual case.
“Taken”: Not a horror movie, but still about xenophobia. An American ex-spy’s daughter goes to Paris and is kidnapped almost immediately after stepping off the plane. She is then drugged and sold as a sex slave.
“Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay”: The two lovable stoners from the first movie are confused for terrorists because of their racial backgrounds and thrown in Guantanamo Bay prison. Also features a paranoid FBI stooge character who totally believes that Harold and Kumar are terrorists even though they obviously aren’t. “Harold and Kumar” also shows that this xenophobia has gone on for so long that people are actually starting to make fun of it.

To wrap things up, I think it speaks to the fact that, even though it’s horrifically violent, “Hostel” has an enduring quality to it. In 2007, a sequel was made, this time focusing on a group of teen girls who are travelling, as well as two rich businessmen who have decided to purchase and torture two of the girls. We get to see both sides of the torture ring business, whereas the first film only showed us the torture ring through the eyes of the victims.
Also, it was recently announced that “Hostel Part 3” is set to be made. Eli Roth isn’t involved this time, and it looks as though the film will go straight to DVD. Scott Spiegel, one of the producers of the first two films, is likely to direct.

Hopefully this post has given some people an idea of the time and place in which “Hostel” was made, and in doing so give anyone who has seen the movie some insight into the film’s themes and messages.

I’ll conclude here by posting the trailer for “Hostel Part 2”, in which the themes of xenophobia and consumerism are directly address. Enjoy!

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~ by sosayeththewatcher on June 17, 2009.

One Response to “Putting “Hostel” in Context”

  1. Eli Roth was invited to Slovakia. He would never have returned. Seriously though. I hated Hostel when I first saw it. I was too young (and Canadian) to understand the subtext. Now I think of it as a masterpiece.

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