In October 2003, the remake of 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' turned into the surprise sleeper hit of the season, earning a tidy $86 million domestic gross on a budget of less than $9 million. More than just another example of how a well-made (if derivative) horror flick can still hit it big if the timing is right, the 'Chainsaw' redux now carries, unfairly or not, the distinction of having unleashed the era of "torture porn" upon the genre. Thumbing its noise at the slick, humorous milieu of the 'Scream' flicks, 'Texas Chainsaw' and the rash of flicks that followed -- the 'Saw' series, 'The Hills Have Eyes,' 'Hostel' -- returned to the take-no-prisoners, ultra-realistic tone of '70s grindhouse cinema, where raw brutality (instead of suspense or funhouse thrills) was the most valuable commodity.
Although "torture porn" appears to be waning at the box office (as I write this, both 'Hostel Part II' and 'Captivity' recently bombed), 'Hostel' will likely go down as the most notorious (and most divisive) of the wave, as this is the one film of the bunch that makes torture itself the very subject of the movie. While 'Texas Chainsaw' was essentially a slasher movie with a "hardcore" veneer, the marketing hook that sold 'Hostel' to the horror-loving masses was the promise of seeing the most relentless, brutal and uncompromising scenes of suffering ever committed to celluloid. In fact, on the eve of the film's release, writer/director Eli Roth even boasted of pre-release screenings where "somebody puked, somebody passed out, and somebody went to the hospital... when I heard of people doing that in theaters, I was pretty psyched."
The story is fairly straight-forward. Loudmouth, boorish (and relentlessly homophobic) college frat boys Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson) are looking for a good time while on spring break in Slovakia. After nearly an hour of on-screen beer-drinkin' and babe-sniffin', these two dolts get enticed to visit the pleasure palace of their dreams -- which turns out to be the nightmare of the film's title. Awakening to find themselves bound and gagged, they discover that they are pawns in an elaborate game of human trafficking, with victims sold to the highest bidders with murder on their minds.
Personally, I've always found 'Hostel' to be disappointing, first and foremost as a horror film but also in its missed opportunities as social commentary. Roth is quite adept when it comes to tightening the screws -- in fact, there is a real flair to the way he creates an air of unease and palpable dread throughout the first two-thirds of the film. We know something awful is in store for these tourists (however insufferable they may be), and Roth exploits this to the hilt without resorting to any overt violence or bloodshed. It's the sign of, if not a truly inspired auteur, then at least a skilled craftsman in the making. Unfortunately, during the final act, where Roth must "deliver the goods" and give us the exploitation payoff, the film degenerates into grindhouse excess, gore for gore's sake and, ultimately, utter silliness.
Following the hour of 'Porky's'-lite that precedes it, it's pretty hard to take the over-the-top grand guignol of 'Hostel's last 30 minutes seriously. Yes, it's mean-spirited, but the much-touted gore looks rather fake, and the hostel of the film's title is just plain absurd. First off, this is another one of those moodily-lit torture dungeons that seem to only exist in movies. It's not scary -- it's an exercise in art direction. Disappointingly, Roth pays little mind to the mechanics of the organization. It's unclear how they go about keeping a lid on their covert operations or how they advertise themselves to clients. A film that at least touched on the moral implications of such a business could have been fascinating, and even more disturbing. However, none of that is addressed by Roth's screenplay. Instead, what we get is yet another horror flick where unlikable characters wake up to find themselves in a bloodbath, and must fight to the death to escape the Gothic Old Mansion (or torture dungeon in this case) to thwart evildoers.
Of course, 'Hostel' is not the first film to sell out an interesting premise in favor of a gross-out show. But because 'Hostel' came only a few years after 9/11 and as daily atrocities around the world are beamed into our homes for easy viewing, the wasted opportunity inherent is rather dispiriting. The idea of selling suffering to the highest bidder has the makings of a genuinely thought-provoking (albeit disturbing) modern-day genre classic, but Roth simply uses it as an excuse to serve up a smorgasbord of envelope-pushing on-screen mayhem.
Make no mistake, as a proud child of '70s grindhouse cinema myself, I am a fan of the stock-in-trade Roth so gleefully parrots in 'Hostel.' Still, even the grimmest, most controversial shockers of that era ('Last House on the Left,' 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre,' 'The Hills Have Eyes') had a subversive, political bent as well as themes that disturbed as much as their images. Since 'Hostel' isn't about anything, Roth's schlocky, drive-in conventions pack surprisingly little punch.
In the end, if 'Hostel' is to have any legacy in the horror pantheon in the years to come, then it may only be to illustrate just how increasingly-permissive the MPAA has become in terms of on-screen violence, and how much money you can make marketing brutality. This is a shame, because 'Hostel' is not a badly made movie, and Roth is clearly a talented writer/director. I just wish that he would focus his developing talents on material that actually means something.
(Note that this new Blu-ray edition of 'Hostel' includes two versions of the film -- the "Unrated Cut" and a new "Director's Cut," which includes the original ending used for the movie's test screenings. Interestingly, the newly unearthed ending is actually not gory or violent like the resolution of the theatrical cut, and leaves the story a bit more open-ended. Although I think the theatrical version is ultimately more effective, this alternate ending should definitely be watched by fans of the film.)
I first checked out 'Hostel' on high-def for my review of the UK Blu-ray edition, posted earlier this year. Released in October 2006, that version featured a 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer of the film's Unrated cut. This new US edition has been re-encoded in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4, and as mentioned above includes two versions of the film. (This is accomplished via the Blu-ray format's branching functionality and the effect is seamless). Though the master seems more or less consistent with the U.K. version, I did notice some slight but perceptible changes that lead me to give this domestic edition the edge.
As I wrote in my earlier review, the film has what I like to call the "designer gloom" style of cinematography, which recalls the dirty aesthetic of '70s grindhouse flicks in the context of a very slick, medium-budgeted horror flick. The film itself is divided into two stylistic halves, with the final 45-minute descent into horror film territory darker and grimmer than the film's earlier scenes. Colors vary, but only in relation to intent -- the "party hearty" segments are more vivid and plastic, while hues become desaturated and darker as we enter the hostel and the nightmare begins. Color reproduction is excellent, with no overt bleeding, noise, or smearing. 'Hostel' is also surprisingly free from excessive tweaking, so though punchy, colors remain natural, as do fleshtones.
The print is just about pristine, although there are a few (minor) instances of dirt and white speckles.
Comparing this new Blu-ray edition to the previously-released import, overall I felt this version has a smoother, less-grainy feel. The other key area where I noted a difference is in contrast. Blacks remain nice and solid, but brightness seems boosted a tad. As such, shadow delineation is a hair sharper in sequences such as the opening nightclub scenes, where I could make out fine textures in the shadows just a little more. Despite these differences, I didn't find enough of an improvement to adjust the overall Video rating -- this one remains a solid four-star transfer.
In another change from the UK version of 'Hostel,' Sony has dropped that disc's uncompressed PCM 5.1 Surround track and substituted a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround mix instead. Both are 48kHz/16-bit encodes, and this is a case where even after a direct comparison of multiple scenes, I found no discernible differences. 'Hostel' is a relatively subdued film when it comes to sound design, but whether PCM or TrueHD, it still sounds plenty scary.
Eli Roth is certainly attuned to the conventional tricks of the horror movie trade. As such, the use of atmosphere is well done, with plenty of creepiness. Sonically speaking, the most effective sequences in the film are when the characters get to the hostel and slowly realize their predicament. Roth makes good use of the surrounds here, as the mix of various harsh sound effects (revving chainsaws, scraping instruments of torture, etc.) and Nathan Barr's jarring score is quite unnerving. The clarity and accuracy of discrete sounds is particularly well done.
Dynamics also impress. Output from the subwoofer is palpable and tight, with the strong use of unsettling low bass tones particularly effective. Dialogue is also very clear and distinct, especially for what could have easily been just another poorly-done exploitation flick. Granted, 'Hostel' doesn't deliver a consistently aggressive soundfield, but when it works, it works.
When 'Hostel' hit Blu-ray in the UK, it was a completely bare bones release, save for a few trailers. That's not a problem here, as Sony has pulled out all the stops for the film's domestic Blu-ray debut. Being released concurrently with a standard-def DVD double dip, there is no bloody stump, er, stone left unturned on this Blu-ray disc. I can't imagine any fan being disappointed by this fully-loaded special edition.
First up, there are four -- four! -- full-length audio commentaries, but it's arguably too much. Although the four tracks are less redundant than you might think, I just don't know if 'Hostel' is deserving of over six hours of yapping.
In any case, Roth's solo track is the only commentary I got all the way through without losing steam, or just plain being bored. He's enthusiastic, talking almost non-stop, and I can only assume this track was recorded before any of the others, as he covers all the bases and doesn't assume the listener has any prior knowledge. Most of the focus is on pre-production, starting with the first kernel of the idea for the film, through the writing and eventually casting and shooting. The location and the sometimes harsh weather conditions were apparently quite a challenge, but by the time we get to all the bloody stuff, Roth sounds like a kid in the candy store. I liked this commentary the best.
The remaining three tracks start to blur together. Roth is joined by executive producers Quentin Tarantino, Boaz Yakin, and Scott Spiegel for track two, but as you might expect, Roth and Tarantino dominate. They talk incessantly, and we get even more detail about their love of '70s flicks and the grindhouse aesthetic (which, of course, is on grand display in Tarantino's 'Grindhouse,' for which Roth contributed a "fake" slasher movie trailer). The discussion gets mostly technical on track three, with Roth, producer Chris Briggs and documentarian Gabriel Roth. This is the calmest of the commentaries and will probably only be of interest to aspiring low-budget filmmakers. It's like film school on a disc, dissecting everything from schedules to budgeting to other nitty gritty details. Finally, the fourth track is a bit of three-ring circus with Roth, the cast and crew and various "special guests." For the first 30 minutes or so, editor George Folsey, Jr. lends his thoughts; then, Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News shows up for the next 20 minutes (by phone); finally, the director gets a call from actors Barbara Nedeljakova and Eyethor Gudjonsson. Predictably, this one is all over the place, starting with some interesting discussion of the editing (including some juicy stuff about dealing with the MPAA). It then descends into a pretentious love-fest with Knowles (who Roth credits for giving him the original idea for the flick). Finally, the acors don't contribute much that we haven't already learned elsewhere.
Now we move on to the video-based goodies. Though the original DVD version of 'Hostel' released by Sony back in 2005 was pretty substantial, Roth has gone back and added a sizable amount of new material for this new edition. (Which, it seems, wasn't originally conceived with high-def in mind, as it's all presented here in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video.)
The centerpiece is the 62-minute, three-part documentary "'Hostel' Dissected." This is the kind of video diary I love -- free of cheesy narration, lame on-set EPK interviews and extended plot recap. Instead, we get to be a fly on the wall throughout production, and it's fascinating to see how incongruously lighthearted the shoot was, considering the film's subject matter. Fans of gore, and T&A, take note -- this doc is full of both, and is probably more titillating than anything in the movie. This one's a must-see for any 'Hostel' fan.
Compared to the new hour-long doc, the film's original 30-minute EPK "'Hostel' Dismembered" feels dated and promotional. On its own terms, it's an above-average extended commercial, with plenty of cast/crew interviews and some meaty (ahem) behind-the-scenes footage. However, if you view "Dissected" and the other new featurettes on this disc, then you really don't need to watch this one.
Four featurettes are new to the Blu-ray and DVD re-issue. "Sight & Sound" (12 minutes) pays a visit to the film's composer Nathan Barr. He scored the film entirely from his home studio, and seemed to have a good deal of fun bringing an almost atonal feel to the music.. "Set Design" (5 minutes) is just that, highlighting the work of production designer Franco-Giacomo Carbone, who did a fine job of creating believable locations on very limited money. The throw-away "An Icelandic Meal with Eythor Gundjonsson" (3 minutes) is just what its title implies.
"KNB EFX" (11 minutes) is the last featurette, but it's the one most likely to appeal to fans of torture porn. There is a ton of gore here, and the ins and outs of how it's all done are graphically displayed. As a child of Fangoria, I'm fairly immune to the sight of bloody latex at this point, but for a whole new generation just now getting into horror flicks, this is where you start.
Also new is a collection of nine Deleted Scenes. Running about 20 minutes total, gore fans may be disappointed as Roth got to put all the best bits back into his Unrated cut. Most of these scenes are just short pre-hostel arrival scenes with our backpacking heroes, all wisely cut. Roth did not contribute any optional commentary, but he does provide short title cards for each scene to give some context. Also a nice bonus is that these are the only video extras on the disc presented in 1080i/MPEG-2 video.
Carried over from the old DVD is the "Kill the Car! (Multi-Angle)" vignette. I personally found this one entirely useless. It's just three different views of the scene with a bunch of kids smashing a car. Yawn. Finally, the last video extra is a 10-minute interview with famed Japanese exploitation filmmaker Takashi Miike, who has been cited as a huge influence on Roth, Tarantino and a host of other genre filmmakers.
Other extras include a series of Still Galleries, four in all: "Behind the Scenes," "On Set," "Barbara Nedeljakova" and "Hostel Artwork." All of the material is presented nicely if blandly, with no underscore or snazzy graphics. The manual controls are simple, and you can sit and view any still for as long as you want. I counted about 175 in all.
Finally, there are a trio of trailers, all in full HD, for 'Hostel Part II,' 'Vacancy' and 'Blood & Chocolate.' ' Once again, Sony has not included a trailer for the main feature itself. Don't the studios realize that, with exploitation flicks in particular, trailers are often better than the movies they advertise?
Despite Eli Roth's protestations, 'Hostel' effortlessly slides under the "torture porn" label. It's brutal and gross, but for a generation that can now download any atrocity on YouTube, I guess it works. This new Blu-ray version from Sony is certainly everything a fan could want; it's got sharp video and audio as well as a ton of supplements. Prepare yourself for one bloody feast of high-def gruesomeness.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.