Mild spoilers, be mildly careful.
Eli Roth, late of "Cabin Fever," still wants to be the next big thing in American horror. Here's his latest stab, better than the first but still a bit short of the Tarrantino-esque film geek godhood Roth continues to aspire toward. (Tarrantino, appropriately, "presents" this offering.)
"Cabin Fever" was a re-staging of American horror's most enduring setup: College-aged city kids trapped in a paranoid nightmare vision of rural Hell-on-Earth. "Hostel" works the same mojo, substituting Old Europe for the Deep South. Thus does the standard thematically-troubling morality play of dopey, sex-crazed urbanites versus de-evolved backwoodsers morph into a NEW thematically-troubling angle of naive, innocent Americans versus slick, life-devaluing Europeans. Oh well, unique is unique.
Our heroes are a polite, slightly-nerdy American, his sex-crazed "dude, have some FUN!" pal and a French drifter along for the ride. Their on an anonymous-nookie tour of Europe, stopping only to rest in the various hostels (cheap, communal lodgings) on the way. One such hostel in Slovakia is promised to them as a veritable bacchanalia of sexual availability which, of course, the audience will realize is never a good sign in such films. After some nice (if unsubtle) building of suspense and "strangers in a strange land" atompshere, we get down to business: the Slovakian hostel is a booby-trap to ensnare new victims for an underground operation selling the joy of free-form torture to wealthy patrons.
Yes, it's "The Most Dangerous Game" once again, here tricked-out for the age of convenience, but oh well. The premise gives Roth freedom to do exactly what he wants to: stage sequences of elaborate, makeup FX-driven, I-dare-you-to-look, I-can't-believe-they-didn't-cut-away-from-that carnage and depravity, preceded by a first act that provides the gratuitous nudity Roth so vocally believes has been missing from the genre. He's certainly improved since "Cabin Fever," as his tone is now much more consistent and his overall sense of style and composition is solid. He's good at this.
The trouble is, while "Hostel" is a solid gorehound offering in it's own right, it falls short of it's own occasionally-visible betterness. "The Most Dangerous Game" routine carries with it a certain level of artistic commentary just via the human-as-deathsport-target premise, but Roth doesn't appear interested in pushing it any deeper or developing it any further. It's content to sit comfortably on the nastier side of escapist entertainment, so the audience is never made to endure too much without a breather or a touch of gallows humor.
And he can't quite resist the eventual complete transformation of the film into a big crowd-pleaser with a (overlong) "shoot the bad guy, save the girl" final sequence where a survivor turns the tables on the baddies; a shrewd but bluntly-executed move to allow the audience the fun of now cheering on the bloodshed entirely guilt-free. Thing is, slight thematic cop-out though it may be, it WORKS, and I was right there with the rest of the audience cheering the film on as each successive bad guy got their overdue payback.
"Hostel" has the makings of a masterpiece, but settles on just being enjoyable. In an era in horror that has forced fans to endure "White Noise," "Ring 2" and the remake of "The Fog," that's not really such a bad thing.
FINAL RATING: 7/10