Hello and Hallo-welcome to Hallowfest Octobfilm, and our first instalment of Straight-up Scary Saturdays, where we look at a wide variety of films from lots of different sub-genres. You join your bloggers, Andy and Lilly, who recommend always checking your hostels out on Tripadvisor.
Today’s film offerings: Hostel and Hostel Part II
Andy: Horror gets a bad press, and nothing gets a worse press than so-called Torture Porn. When we horror fans try to explain that horror is interesting, thematically rich, and often reflects the fears of the time, albeit distorted, detractors will often turn around and point at these sorts of films as a counter balance. Checkmate, they say, you’re just sick.
Lilly: A frustrating stance to take, especially when they more than likely have not seen the films they are condemning–which, hey, it’s not everyone’s bag, but don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it, is all I’m sayin’.
Andy: Never one to shirk a challenge, and having largely avoided them last year, we decided to meet this challenge head on, by taking on two of the most infamous examples of the ‘torture porn’ sub-genre – Hostel and its sequel.
Now, suffice to say that these will never be considered great movies – they will never have the thematic resonance of Alien or The Shining, or the social commentary of the Dead movies. However, one must not judge movies by that to which they do not aspire, and taken on their own merits, these two films are actually, surprisingly good.
Lilly: There’s a box quote for you, Eli Roth! ‘Actually, surprisingly good’. ‘You know what, not bad’ would also work in this situation. Or ‘Hey, why not?’
Andy: The plots to both are very similar. Both feature a group of young backpackers who are enticed to a remote youth hostel somewhere in Slovakia (I wonder what their tourist board makes of these movies).
Lilly: Probably nothing, because no one takes horror seriously, not even the Slovak tourist board. Especially the Slovak tourist board. (Actually, that’s not true, loads of people take horror seriously and think it affects the minds of youths who watch it for the worse and so on, etc., etc., but I digress.)
Andy: (Also, the Slovak Tourist Board is called the Slovenská agentúra pre cestovný ruch, in case you ever want to go).
Anyway, Unbeknownst to them, the hostel is a front for a shadowy organisation whose clients pay exorbitant sums to murder young backpackers in a variety of gruesome ways. With the advent of the dark web, this scenario doesn’t seem particularly implausible.
Lilly: And young backpackers being convinced to go stay at random hostels by strangers also isn’t particularly implausible. Anyone who has done the backpacking thing knows this to be a fact–it’s crazy, it’s spontaneous, it’s a teensy bit dangerous, but that’s part of the experience. You live, you learn. Unless you don’t live, that is.
As we are doing two films, we are going to be covering a lot of ground in this review, so hold onto your hats, people. Here we go.
In Hostel, we meet three young gentleman, two of which are long-time dude-bros, and the third being an Icelandic drifter type who keeps saying ‘of course, my horse’ (haha seriously though). As you might have picked up on already, I love a bit of good characterisation, and the writing of these guys was great. Loud, obnoxious, mildly-to-very homophobic, they are actually guys you meet when on the road. They were on a hunt for ladies, and wouldn’t you know it, they meet a creepy guy with a creepy lip mole who can hook them up. They just needed to go to some random town in Slovakia to get it.
Andy: Random Icelandic guy gets my vote for MVP.
Lilly: Seriously? Okay, if you go, listening to the guy you just met who has people who are awkwardly having sex in the corner because they are too high to notice other people are in the room, then fine. Fine. You do you, but I am not going to be surprised when it turns out to be a murder hostel you end up at.
Spoiler alert: it’s a murder hostel they end up at.
That decision, however, was one I’ve actually seen made–not to go to a murder hostel, because I feel like that would be a bit extreme to reveal in a horror review blog, but rather the sudden change in plans when travelling because you heard of some place good. In fact, a lot of the writing in both these films came off as reasonably legit. And I am counting the murder hostel itself in this. Not okay, no no, but definitely a possible, horrible thing, especially with what we learn about the organization’s business practices as they unfold in the second instalment.
Hostel is a tense film after only twenty minutes, the characters you get to know quickly starting to disappear just as quickly. Hints to what is happening start coming at you fast and hot, and all of a sudden, you realize that it’s not just the hostel that is involved in this shadiness. And that is brilliant.
Andy: One of the greatest strengths in this film is the implications behind the set up. One character remarks “I’ll get lots of money for you”, which implies an actual economy behind the thing. Not to mention the fact that this character is a woman. Far too often women are passive victims or unwilling accomplices in these sort of schemes. To this lady, it’s just her day job. Which, to me, is way more terrifying than her being brutalised.
Lilly: That is the oddly impressive thing about these films, actually. Women are in positions of power in both films, with Natalya and Svetlana in Hostel and Inya and Axelle in Hostel II just working for that money. And, Hostel II features a lady killer! Not a ladykiller, like a man who makes the ladies swoon, but a woman who kills, and I love that. You get the impression, really, that while a man is clearly the one in charge at Elite Hunting, women are a very important part of the whole process. I mean, they got some guy doing the office work and all. I love it.
There are a lot of chilling moments in Hostel, and actually, not as much violence as I was expecting. Of course there is a lot, as it is a film about an organization that arranges the torture and death of backpackers, but actually, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be, hearing about it over the years. In fact, it was up there with most other films touched by Quentin Tarantino. There was even a bit of torture seen in Kill Bill done (which was one of the more cringe-worthy moments).
Andy: As for Hostel Part II, we have a very similar setup. Three young travellers are encouraged to go on a retreat at the infamous hostel (after a few ‘loose ends’ from the first movie are ‘tied up’, heh heh heh) and seem destined for the same fate. There are two interesting twists, however. The first is that we see the other side of the coin, as two of the clients are shown travelling to Slovakia to partake in the very, very exclusive, er, ‘sport’.
Lilly: This includes a super creepy scene where a text is sent out to all the creeps on the mailing list for this business, featuring the passport photos and prices of the three women. Blech.
Andy: …The second is that the victims this time are three women. Thanks for stealing my thunder. Although I agree. That scene is one of the most effective in either film.
We have three very different characters here. One is a homesick, very naive art student who obsessively journals her experiences and has that brilliant sense of being based on people who actually exist. The second wants to get laid. The third seems a little bit too into their new ‘friend’, a glamorous Eastern European lady who keeps insisting that they will totally dig this place in Slovakia, guys.
Lilly: And they met her in Rome! This place and it’s far reaching connections! Either you are a co-ed or work for the hostel, apparently. How do you even get a job there? Do you apply? If you don’t get it, do you get a rejection letter? Or murdered? I imagine murdered.
Andy: Anyway, the thread about the clients is oddly, equally compelling. These two men, who have come all this way to do some murdering, have one very, very enthusiastic and the other kind of disgusted with what he’s going to do. The way that the former pumps him up, cajoles and prods him, and basically gives him no way out, is one of the most raw and brutally realistic depictions of masculine peer pressure I have ever seen. This is an extreme example, but all men have done stupid shit they didn’t want to do, out of fear of being called a whatever. The pay off, after everything we see, is extremely satisfying to both men’s character arcs. That’s right, Hostel Part II has actual character arcs. Bet you didn’t see that one coming.
Lilly: Also, one of the men is played by Roger Bart. Roger Bart, Roger Bart, Roger Bart! Love him.
Andy: And if Lilly’s comment about the (lack of) violence in Hostel surprised you, there is even less in Hostel Part II. Obviously what we do see is pretty grim, but even then, considering these film’s awesome reputations, the actual experience is surprisingly muted.
Lilly: We find out a lot more about the company that arranges these play dates in this film, and it almost gets to a point where their business model actually seems smart–for instance, everyone needs to get a tattoo as part of the contract. That way, if someone were to identify one killer with said tattoo, they’d all go down. Like. It’s great. Great business plan, crazy murderers! And the control they had on text marketing, I mean…they are clearly putting some of their money into advertising in the right ways, you know? And that’s terrifying.
Andy: So then, what do we think?
Lilly: Oooooh see. That’s the hard one. I liked them. I was surprised by how much I liked them, but I really liked them. They had great stories, great characters, great plot devices…if it wasn’t for all the gore, I’d be all about telling people to watch them. They aren’t for the weak stomached, I’ll say, but are definitely worth a watch if you are into horror.
Andy: Yeah, these are for the hardcore fans only, really. One thing I would say is if you saw them as a teenager, like I did, it’s definitely worth going back and giving them a second look. You’ll be surprised by how much substance there is to them. Plus on the gore front, there’s nothing here that will worry people who can cope with things like 28 Days Later or The Descent.
It is worth bearing in mind, however, that these films are still about an organisation that helps people murder for fun. It’s an interesting concept, but a disturbing one. Proceed with caution, but also with our blessing.