This week’s Monday Movie won’t be an attempt to shine light on an underseen gem or a semi-forgotten classic. No, this time around I’m using this space to advocate for a well-known film that is nonetheless mostly maligned or dismissed. To some extent, it’s easy to understand the lack of passion for Eli Roth’s Hostel. The years have not been kind to it, largely because the reputation of Roth himself has taken him out of the favor of the genre geek camp and aligned him more with the spring break bros who make up the victims and heroes in this movie. But taken on its own merits, Hostel is both an engrossingly nasty bit of exploitation/horror but also a pretty stark appraisal of post-Bush Doctrine America’s standing in the world at large.
Before we brush on geopolitics, though, let’s taken a second to appreciate the craftsmanship of Hostel. His only previous feature being the shaggy but sickly funny Cabin Fever, Roth tightened up everything in this sophomore outing. He sets up his characters with efficiency and economy, letting us know we’re dealing with relatable archetypes the nice guy (Derek Richardson), the obnoxious horndog (Jay Hernandez) and the goofy comic relief (Eythor Gudjonsson). Then he wastes no time introducing menace, sex and, finally, gore. The screenplay, direction and editing are all simple and confident. We know exactly where we’re going but we can’t resist the pull. Then, without any fanfare, Roth changes it up. Be warned. We’re about to get into spoilers. Roth proves that his influences go further back than the extreme cinema of Takasha Miike, who shows up in a brief cameo, all the way to Hitchcock, when he kills off the main character a little more than halfway through. Hostel then becomes a prison escape movie with a horror twist, focused on the guy we were sure was gonna get killed but who’s been made sympathetic when we weren’t looking.
It’s this twist that makes Hostel so politically interesting. Sure, it’s observant to point out the animosity of anti-Americanism in the mid-oughts. And it’s fitting to include a character like Hernandez’s Paxton, who exhibits exactly the kind of arrogant swagger that earned that enmity in the first place. But to make that same character our final guy? To suggest that the attitude that made us so hated is the only thing that can allow us to weather that hatred? It’s not a point of view I can get behind but Roth more than shows the chutzpah needed to argue it.