Sunday, May 21, 2006

Hostel (2005)

Horror movies are a wacky breed. How many other movie genres can offer a wide range of sub-genres? There's zombies, cannibal rednecks, masked serial murderers, and all forms of the supernatural. However, there has been a recent trend heading towards darker, more misanthropic horror stories. With flicks like Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects, Alexandre Aja's High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes, Greg McLean's Wolf Creek, and the Saw franchise, horror has slowly been returning to the mid-'70s style of visceral, violent, blood-and-guts terror.

And one of the most evident of these films is Eli Roth's Hostel. A fan of notorious Japanese director Takashi Miike, Roth uses his sophomore project to craft a loving ode to Miike's style of filmmaking, an unrepentantly violent look into a world that I hope and pray does not truly exist. But is the movie actually worth seeking out?

Our story follows two Americans, Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson), as they backpack through Europe with their Icelandic friend Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson). After an evening of entertainment at various Amsterdam hotspots (e.g. a hash bar, a discotheque, a brothel), they return to their hostel to discover that it's past curfew and they've been locked out. They end up causing a commotion when they try to get back in, but before they can face the wrath of some hostile locals, another local calls them up to his apartment. They dash up the fire escape and into his window, where the local introduces himself as Alex (Lubomir Bukovy).

The trio strikes up a discussion with Alex about hooking up with as many women as possible while on their tour of Europe, and Alex tells them of a hostel outside of the Slovakian capital of Bratislava that is home to beautiful women that will have sex with any foreigner for little money. Alex looks more like a sewer rat than he does a man, but hey, he's offering nubile young women who are so uninterested in human interaction that the only thing they care about is engaging in lots and lots of freaky, nasty, unbridled eastern European carnality. Why not listen to the guy?

Naturally, they catch the next train to Slovakia. Once they arrive, the three backpackers check into the hostel Alex spoke of, finding that their semi-private room is already populated by a pair of Russian beauties, Natalya (Barbara Nedeljáková) and Svetlana (Jana Kaderábková). The five roommates hit it off quickly, hitting the town that evening at the local nightclub. But as the three male travelers enjoy all the sex, drugs, and rock and roll that they can handle, it soon becomes apparent that foul things are afoot in Slovakia. One by one, they discover the horrifying truth: that their hostel is merely a front for a group that allows rich tourists to sadistically torture and murder kidnapped innocents for a fee. They have entered a veritable Hell on Earth, where they will be maimed, tortured, mutilated, and discover their worst nightmares come to life.

Hostel could have been really, really good. It has respectable direction, wonderful music, inoffensive performances from its cast, and blood by the gallons. Unfortunately, the movie is bogged down by its lackluster script. The movie was billed as "inspired by true events," but that may be a bit of a stretch. Writer/director Eli Roth says he got the idea for Hostel when he was shown a Thai website that advertised a "murder vacation," where interested parties could pay 10,000 dollars to torture and kill innocent victims. He admittedly didn't know if it was real or a joke, but he was intrigued enough to write the movie.

It was written, produced, edited, and released in just short of a year, with the script apparently being finalized in right around a month (give or take a few weeks). I think that's really apparent, because it seems as if Roth didn't take his time when writing. It seems to me that he had so many ideas he wanted to include, that he forgot to give us anything meaningful. It's nothing that you couldn't see by renting either Faces of Death, Wolf Creek, one of the Saw movies, or something directed by Takashi Miike.

I think it's fitting that Takashi Miike has a cameo in Hostel, because Roth cites Miike's wonderful Audition as one of his major influences for the movie. While there is no middle-aged Japanese man looking for a new wife in Hostel, nor does it carry the same type of vibe as Audition, both movies involve characters falling deeper and deeper into a world they eventually regret ever getting involved with. (Though to that aspect, Hostel also bears a striking similarity to the far superior Wolf Creek.)

Though while Audition gives the appearance of a romance movie in its early going, Hostel initially comes across as a badly written teen sex comedy, and its very hard to actually identify with any of the three leads. They only really exist to get high, drunk, and laid. I understand that sort of character is somewhat of a cliché nowadays, especially in an era of movies like American Pie and Van Wilder. But what made the characters from those movies so endearing is that the have their own personality, charm, and charisma. Though there is some attempt to give Hostel's characters some dimension, it ultimately falls flat.

Though to be fair, the script wouldn't have been all that bad if the few bizarre leaps in logic had been excised, and the entire first act of the movie hadn't been spent making the three leads look like stupid, stoned, sex-crazed losers. On second thought, perhaps the characters being so unlikable is Roth's intention. The three leads are self-serving, narcissistic frat boys that do not connect on any level with any of the women they hook up with; to them, the women are just stories, or life experiences. We don't have any reason to feel bad for them (or we might outright dislike them), so when they are finally maimed, tortured, and finally killed, we may be cheering for the brutality. And how awful are we, for cheering on the cruelty? Ultra-violent movies like this are confusing, because any sort of entertainment or enjoyment derived from them could paint the viewer as being nearly as depraved as the movie's villains. That's something to think about.

As with Cabin Fever, Roth shows a lot of promise as a director, and I think that he could in time become a prime time player within the horror genre. The movie has quite a few brilliant pieces of filmmaking, believe it or not. There are gorgeous camera movements (thanks to cinematographer Milan Chadima), and the subtle changes in lighting and atmosphere before arriving in the torture chamber are excellent. When we first arrive, the hostel and its surrounding area are bright, cheery, and comfortable. But as we move along and the torture chamber begins to claim its victims, the hostel becomes drab and dreary, and the chirping birds outside are replaced by crows.

There is also some wonderful editing in the movie too. For example, there is a scene in which one character hides in what has been termed "the butcher shop." The butcher (played by Josef Bradna) is hacking up body parts to better dispose of them, and with every slow, agonizing chop of his meat cleaver, we cut to a stack of disembodied limbs, to the looking for an escape, to the lifeless face of one of the survivor's deceased compatriots. It was a very good choice in editing, as it makes the scene a very harrowing one. But thanks to Hostel, I think I've started to grow numb to nudity in films. The first half of the movie has so much nudity that I could have sworn it was a porno film. After a while, I just wanted to throw up my hands and say, "Okay, I think I've finally seen all the naked women I'll ever need to see in life." Thanks a lot, Roth, you jerk.

Moving on, there are also the viciously realistic makeup effects orchestrated by Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger from KNB EFX Group. As I've said in many of my reviews, I've been a fan of KNB for a long time, and they didn't let me down with Hostel. From the severed limbs to the especially disturbing eye scene (you'll know it when you see it), the movie is a tour de force in cinematic nastiness. There's also the astounding musical score composed by Nathan Barr. The orchestral music alternates between haunting and ferocious, and successfully added to the intended atmosphere. And let's not forget the film's cast. Practically everyone in the cast is either an anonymous nobody, or actors that only people in eastern Europe would know. And in all honesty, I think most of them will remain unknown in America.

However, I must acknowledge that there were a few performances that I really liked. Eythor Gudjonsson isn't around much past the first act of the movie, but I thought he was hilarious and I hope that more American productions will cast him. Jay Hernandez is really good, and both Barbara Nedeljáková and Jana Kaderábková are a lot better than I thought they would be. I also liked Jan Vlasák as an incredibly creepy Dutch businessman and Rick Hoffman as an ultra-intense client of the hunting club, but anybody could have played the other roles.

Hostel is like three different short movies put together to make one. The first act is a sex comedy with tales of ribaldry and women with loose morals, the second act is the horrific torture movie, and the third act is a chase/revenge movie. With a better script, the movie could have been something of a modern cult success, but unfortunately, its full potential was not realized. I should say, however, that the movie's mere concept is scary enough. The execution may have left something to be desired, but I really did think that the idea of people paying money to torture and murder someone else is terrifying. But when you boil it down, there doesn't really seem to be much of a point to Hostel, mainly because there is so little emotion outside of complete misanthropy. It's a modern-day geek show, just one step higher than the guy that bites the heads off chickens at the circus.

Hostel has the appearance of a softcore porno movie that turns into a disgusting snuff film halfway through, like a Faces of Death video with better production value. It serves no purpose other than to see how much senseless gore a theatrically released horror movie could get away with and still earn an R-rating, then making a killing on the home video market with an unrated DVD. But because there actually are some parts I liked, I'll give it a "thumbs in the middle" with two and a half stars. I didn't hate it, but it didn't give me much of a reason to recommend it to anyone but people who love torture horror.

Final Rating: **½

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Wolf Creek (2005)

Some of the most popular and intense horror films of the last several years have come from outside of the United States. Movies such as Alexandre Aja's French slasher High Tension, Danny Boyle's British zombie movie 28 Days Later, the Ginger Snaps trilogy from Canada, and the work of Asian filmmakers like Takashi Miike, Hideo Nakata, and Takashi Shimizu have all established that horror's strongest presence in this century perhaps lies beyond America's borders. With horror movies from the United Kingdom (e.g. 28 Days Later, Dog Soldiers, Shaun of the Dead) finding moderate success upon their importation to America, it was only a matter of time before horror movies from other English-speaking countries invaded the U.S. box offices.

One such film was Wolf Creek, an import from Australia that combined two recent trends in American entries in the genre: movies culling inspiration from supposedly true stories, and movies such as The Devil's Rejects, which hearken back to the gritty and extreme horror films of a bygone era of filmmaking. But does Wolf Creek succeed in being scary, or is it an import that should have stayed home?

Our tale of terror begins in the small coastal town of Broome in western Australia, circa 1999. It is here that we are quickly introduced to a pair of British tourists, Liz Hunter (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy Earl (Kestie Morassi), and their Aussie friend and tour guide Ben Mitchell (Nathan Phillips). The trio have set out on a road trip through the lonely and isolated outback to visit the enormous Wolf Creek meteorite crater. They arrive and ponder the origins of the crater, but upon returning to where they parked, they discover that both their watches and their car have mysteriously stopped working. The three stranded travelers are forced to call it a night and camp out in the car, but late that evening, they're stumbled upon by — of all things — a man driving a tow truck.

Introducing himself as Mick Taylor (John Jarratt), the trucker is charming in a Crocodile Dundee kind of way, but something about him is unsettling. But no matter, the travelers need their car fixed, and Mick offers to tow them back to his encampment so he can patch it up for them in the morning. After a ride that feels like it lasts for hours, they finally arrive at Mick's camp, an intimidating combination of an abandoned mine and a junkyard. Mick is ever the host as they settle in, offering food, water, and a place to stay for the night. After having a fun evening around the campfire, everyone decides to turn in for the night and get some shut-eye. But things take a turn for the worse the following morning, when the three tourists all discover that their road trip has led them into a world of cruelty and sadism, and that Mick is far from the helpful, amiable man they believed him to be.

The American marketing campaign for Wolf Creek is reminiscent of the one for Michael Bay's remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003. It is purportedly based on true events, yet both are fictional stories that spin true crimes into their narrative. While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre uses facts about Wisconsin cannibal Ed Gein for its story, Wolf Creek draws inspiration from various Australian murder cases, primarily the brutal "backpacker murders" committed by Ivan Milat between 1989 and 1992, the "Snowtown murders" committed between 1992 and 1999, and the disappearance of British tourist Peter Falconio.

Instead of following one particular incident, elements of them all are blended together to craft the story we are presented with. And what a story it is, too. Wolf Creek is relentlessly brutal, and sensitive viewers may just want to skip it. The movie utilizes an intensity that only makes the horrors depicted onscreen that much more terrifying, so even moments that may be tame seem as vicious as the worst.

I wouldn't go as far as to call the three protagonists memorable, but I didn't think they were awful. They have an enjoyable chemistry together, which the movie needed to make their friendship believable. Nathan Phillips is fun, but he disappears without a trace for nearly forty minutes in the third act. Until his reappearance for the final ten minutes, he's pretty much a non-factor for the entire thing. But when he's around, I thought he was very entertaining. I enjoyed Cassandra Magrath's charismatic, likable performance, and if Wolf Creek had gone the traditional route and made her the Final Girl that finally ends the killer's wrath at the end of the movie, I think she would have been up to task.

However, my favorite member of the ill-fated threesome was Kestie Morassi. I found her performance as a victim of both physical and psychological torture to be disturbingly believable, and she was so sympathetic that it made her final moments in the film even more heart-wrenching. But perhaps the hook of the whole movie is John Jarratt as our antagonist. When we meet him initially, he is very likable and has a winning personality, but he transforms into a sleazy, disgusting rapist and torturer. Jarratt is convincing as both, and although I'm sure he's a nice guy in real life, I don't think I'd want to be stuck with him on a lonely stretch of highway in the middle of nowhere. Especially if he had a Bowie knife and a sniper rifle.

Where the movie truly succeeds is Greg McLean's direction and writing, and Will Gibson's astounding cinematography. The shots of the horizon and various wildlife are nothing short of gorgeous, and it creates a surreal balance between the beauty of Australian nature and the hellish events depicted. Filmed on high-definition video, the movie has something of a gritty sheen that works to draw us in deeper to Mick's nasty, evil world.

The script, meanwhile, seemingly revels in misanthropy and misogyny. Even before things start going crazy, we're introduced to the idea that maybe people in the outback don't care much for women. In particular is a scene early in the movie where a biker (played by Andy McPhee) uncouthly tries to convince Ben to pimp out his two female companions. We also learn that Mick has no qualms with using his female victims as sex slaves, as evidenced by a bit of dialogue detailing the fate of a decaying corpse in a dark corner of the shack in which he has trapped Kristy.

And I believe it should be noted that outside of a party that opens the movie and the previously mentioned scene with the biker gang, nothing much happens for the first 35 minutes or so. While some may complain that the movie takes forever to get going, that wait actually works in the movie's favor, because it gives us a chance to get to know our three protagonists. That, combined with the documentary-style feeling, makes Wolf Creek just as similar to The Blair Witch Project as it is to movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Wrong Turn. The characters are not exactly three-dimensional, but after spending so much time with them, we feel like we know them and can sympathize with them, and it is that bond that makes their eventual fate all the more grueling to watch.

And then there's the character of Mick, who is an oddity. His role as something of a hunter could be seen as a nod to Richard Connell's classic short story The Most Dangerous Game. However, he is also strikingly similar to Rob Zombie's trio of killers from The Devil's Rejects. Mick is sadistic, brutal, and wholly unsympathetic, but he's such a captivating character that we can't help but like him a little. But unlike Zombie's characters, there is no catharsis for Mick. There is no grand sendoff set to a Lynyrd Skynyrd song. Mick merely disappears into the sunset, as if he were but one of a million urban legends and campfire ghost stories lost to the sands of time. His murders serve no larger purpose, and there is no real goal. He merely kills as if he were exterminating vermin, as if he were removing an annoying gopher that's been digging up his garden. There's no attempt to psychoanalyze him or explain why he kills, either; we just have to accept that things are the way they are for no reason and roll with it.

All this is enhanced by McLean's masterful direction. Many times during the movie, we know something bad is going to happen, but we have no idea when or how vicious it will be. That's suspense, folks, and Wolf Creek has it in spades. Take, for example, a scene in which a good Samaritan sits a thermos on the roof of his car while he fetches a blanket for a character. We hear a faint, nearly inaudible bang in the distance, and seconds later, we discover a bullet hole in the side of the thermos. What happens after that will send you ducking for cover. McLean also utilizes the vast emptiness of the outback to enhance the movie's feeling of loneliness and isolation, and it is assisted by the tense, moody musical score composed by François Tétaz. The music hit all the right notes (no pun intended), and helped to make the movie even more frightening.

Respected film critic Roger Ebert noted in a rare zero-star review that Wolf Creek gleefully lept across some imaginary line in the sand that separates the decent from the indecent, the well-adjusted from the depraved. He wrote, "There is a role for violence in film, but what the hell is the purpose of this sadistic celebration of pain and cruelty?" While his argument is certainly valid, and I agree that it is hard to justify cinematic violence when there's no real reason for it, I think Ebert should lighten up. Wolf Creek did serve a purpose in the long run, and that was to horrify its audience. That's what horror movies are supposed to do. To believe otherwise is to misunderstand how they work.

The moviegoing public sometimes needs a film to show the evil that hides in the shadows of the human heart and soul, and Wolf Creek is a reminder that there really are sick people out there getting their jollies from torturing and killing innocent people. I don't know if I would go as far as to call the movie a social commentary in that sense, since that would be a wee bit pretentious on my part, but it is most certainly a terrifying experience. And because it is both terrifying and excellently made, I'll give Wolf Creek a solid four stars. Check it out, if you have the stomach.

Final Rating: ****