Thursday, May 20, 2010

Hostel: Not (Not) Another Teen Movie

I caught the last bit of Hostel II on SyFy (I hate even typing it) tonight, and as was the case the first time I saw it, all I could think was "well, that was pointless."

I'm inherently distrustful of sequels in pretty much any genre of film unless they were planned out ahead of time (e.g., the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Night/Day/Dusk Watch, etc.). Especially when it follows an originally unknown quantity. It seems like it's more and more the case - especially with horror films - that if a movie ends up being successful, the initial reaction is not "oh, well done", but "okay, let's make another." Every time the word "franchise" gets thrown around, I get a headache and can do nothing but mutter "goddamnit" for about a minute or two.

Hostel II
was pointless because it didn't add any new fillips to the first's storyline (except now it's girls getting killed), it provided us with unnecessary detail about how the bad guys worked (telling us more about the bad guy almost always makes the bad guy less scary - the Hellraiser movies are a great example of this in action), and it ostensibly told us a story from the point of view of the victimizers as well (which, again, dilutes the impact of the story if handled poorly. I don't think they handled it poorly, but they didn't really do anything surprising with it, either.)

But this isn't about what I didn't like about Hostel II, it's about what I liked about Hostel.

Hostel was marketed as a disturbing movie about a group of college-age guys who are busy partying their way across Europe when they fall afoul of a human-trafficking murder-for-pay racket. The first half of the movie is practically a teen sex comedy, and the second half is when shit gets ill. The advertising emphasized grim Eastern Bloc basements, outfitted with chairs with built-in restraints and horrible stains. Bad things happen here, it said. In retrospect, that's too bad, because I think that tips the film's hand a little. I recognize that it's really hard to market a movie successfully without giving the game away a little (except for Muriel's Wedding, which was decidedly not the feel-good Abba-filled romp the box cover made it out to be), but, well, maybe I'll eventually try my hand at a "how I would have marketed it" post or two.

So, anyway, Hostel. I know you have to give up a little about what the movie's going to be if you're going to get the audience you're trying to get, but I would have much rather preferred that we didn't know going in just how awful things were going to get in Hostel, because the contrast between the first half and the second half in terms of mood is incredible, while continuing the basic themes of the first half in the second.

Start to finish, Hostel is a spring break movie.

Or, at least, it's a movie consistently concerned with consumption, tourism, and the industries that spring up to satisfy both. Josh and Paxton are pretty much your basic all-American fratboys, products of privilege who make their way from country to country doing pretty much the same thing they'd do back home - drink and fuck a lot - and do so supremely confident of their place in the world. They've come to Europe the same way college students come to Daytona or Padre Island or Fort Lauderdale - they're just visiting, they aren't from around here, and just want to know where to find the cheapest drinks and prettiest girls. They'll trash the place and then leave. In that sense, Europe isn't that different from any other spring break location in the U.S.. There's a whole industry built up around spring break - alcohol suppliers, bars, party promoters, travel agencies - all focusing on a very specific market: College students looking for release, debauchery, an excuse to behave in ways they would never behave at home and the resources with which to accomplish that goal.

Josh and Paxton make friends with Oli, an Icelandic backpacker on a similar adventure. Oli tells them about a place in Eastern Europe where everything is even cheaper and the girls are absolutely gorgeous. It's a hostel - one of many catering to young people on holiday. As is often the case with summertime/vacation friendships (see: Grease, "Summer Lovin'"), they don't really know Oli that well (the revelation that he has a kid surprises them and us), and when he eventually disappears, they're mildly concerned but not much else. They have no idea what's happened to him, because as far as they know, everything's fine. Oli will be back, or not. With these sort of transitory relationships, people sometimes just disappear.

Josh and Paxton end up in a really bad situation the same way that most people end up in bad situations on spring break - they have entirely too much to drink and aren't paying attention to their surroundings. The only real difference is scale. Usually these sort of slip-ups lead to comedy in spring break movies - waking up next to an ugly girl, a guy, or some sort of farm animal. In Hostel, it leads to something much worse, and this is why I wish they hadn't given this part away in the ad campaign.  I think it would have been much more effective if we'd discovered just how horrible things had gotten at the same time they did. As it is, we know what's coming. It's just a matter of when.

And this is where attention shifts from one spring break to another.

Just like Josh & Paxton, the people who have come to the unnamed building in Eastern Europe have come looking for the opportunity to behave in ways they could never behave at home in an environment free of guilt or consequence. There is a whole industry built up around the desires these people have, and although the scale of guilt-free behavior and the cost to indulge in it is much, much higher than for Josh & Paxton's, it's the same impulse, and there are people making money from catering to that impulse. One spring break even feeds the other, as teens who have come looking for cheap, easy fun become the cheap easy fun for an entirely different population. On spring break, people sometimes just disappear. Our protagonists and one antagonist even meet on the train, mirroring the sort of loose affiliation between college students from all over the country arriving at a single destination.

The idea of this parallel is driven home by the American businessman at the end, whose raw enthusiasm and anticipation for doing something naughty and forbidden would be as at home at a wet t-shirt contest or strip club as a murder holiday. And just like someone has to come along behind the kids at Padre Island or Lake Havasu to clean up the empty beer cans, go-cups, used condoms and garbage, there are people cleaning up the limbs, the blood, and the personal effects of the unfortunates taken from the hostel. The human wreckage of spring break.

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  1. I completely sympathize with your dream of being truly surprised when a movie shifts from one genre to another half way through. The jarring effect can be quite exhilarating.

    I was fortunate enough to experience this very thing while watching From Dusk Till Dawn for the first time. I watched that movie on VHS the same day I heard about it, therefore I had never seen a trailer or a peep about it anywhere. (How I achieved that state of complete cultural ignorance is another story...) All I needed to know was that Clooney, Tarintino and Rodriguez were involved. Of course I was expecting a crime/action movie with really great dialogue and that's what I got. It was violent, disturbing, funny and effective for that genre. I was very entertained.

    But when the tone shifted abruptly to horror, I was completely blindsided. I've heard many people complain about that over the years and I could not disagree with that more. I wanted to be shocked by these creators. I expected it. But I could not have been shocked by anything in that movie nearly as much as I was shocked by the tonal shift. There was no way for me to expect it. My shock was utterly genuine. It was one of the great cinematic experiences of my life and one I do not expect to replicate or better it.

    Hostel could have done it, had I never heard a peep about it.

  2. If a movie becomes dull for me I often wonder "where is the *From Dusk till Dawn* moment?"

    I completely agree about *Hostel*: being told that it would get bad, the picture of the torture chair on the movie poster, prepared us for what was to come. There was no FDTD moment. But I think that the violence was the selling point of *Hostel* and that is why we were sold the violence.

  3. It's frustrating, because I understand the logic behind it - you want to bring in the people who are most going to appreciate what you've done. On the other hand, a really well-done twist halfway into the movie can be awesome - From Dusk 'Til Dawn is a great example, so is The Terminator (which really should have just been a murder mystery about some guy killing women named Sarah Connor until the reveal), but then I look at movies like Vanilla Sky and I know why more studios don't do that - if you're expecting one movie and get another, lots of people aren't willing to along for the ride.

    On the other hand, you've got media outlets that lay the whole thing out and spoil the crap out of Martyrs for me, but that's another story.