Girl Meets Context: This month is Brutality Month on Girl Meets Freak, where we’ll watch some of the most recent examples of ultraviolence in horror movies. First up, Eli Roth’s infamous exercise in bad taste. Along with Saw, Hostel popularized the trend of so-called “torture porn” movies in the 2000s. Often cited as one of the most debased and morally ugly horror movies of the last few decades, Hostel nonetheless was popular enough to both make Eli Roth a household name AND spawn two sequels. The movie concerns American backpackers Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson) who travel to Slovakia and find themselves the unwitting victims of an international torture ring during their search for girls willing to “fuck any American.” It turns out the hostel they were told to go to is populated by girls who drug tourists and deliver them to the ringleaders of the torture syndicate. Infamous for its “grueling” scenes of torture and sadism, the film sparked both critical condemnation and praise. Kristine and I sat down to discuss the movie in-depth. If you haven’t seen Hostel, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Kristine: I want you to try and predict my feelings about Hostel.
Sean: I don’t know! This is stressful. Can I say that I have a ton to say about the movie, however?
Kristine: I want you to guess.
Sean: You hated it?
Kristine: I was… I felt… I was like… Yawn.
Sean: Was it better than Saw?
Sean: I agree. I didn’t expect “it was boring” to be your reaction to one of the most notorious movies of the 2000s. Or was it because of its reputation that you were underwhelmed?
Kristine: Maybe “numbing” is a better descriptor than “boring.” I feel like Hostel does engage with some interesting ideas about xenophobia and commodification and the exploitation of humans, but it glances upon them so superficially that it is hard to care. And the actual violence was no big shakes, not after Wolf Creek and Martyrs and I Saw the Devil. And I was preparing myself to be completely traumatized. There were only two good things about the movie that I can point to: 1) When Natalya says, “…and that makes you my bitch” and 2) the bubblegum gang! Both those moments were actually scary, emotionally charged, exciting, and addressed the politics of the movie in a natural way. So that is how I feel.
Sean: I can agree with both those moments. But I will say this… I haven’t watched this movie since 2005 when it came out, and I was much more impressed with it than I had remembered. I kind of think it was this far away from being a true masterpiece.
Kristine: Wow, really? Tell me everything.
Sean: Well, the thing that keeps it from being truly great is Roth himself and the third-act choices he makes. He essentially turns what could have been a truly moral movie into a degraded, misanthropic one. One of Roth’s biggest flaws is his misanthropy and part of failure of the movie is how, ultimately, Roth just hates everyone. He hates the college dudebro rapists that serve as our protagonists. He hates the twisted torture junkies at the end of the movie. He hates the Slovak girls who have managed to make a living feeding frat rapists to the torture ring. He is so full of hate. But despite all that, I have to rate it: Pop perfection.
Kristine: Wow. I don’t see it. That reminds me: we need a new rating. Something along the lines of “this movie underscores how truly shitty Saw is.” I would apply that to both Hostel and I Saw the Devil. But just because Hostel is a million times better than Saw - a very low bar to clear – that doesn’t bring it anywhere even close to being a masterpiece for me.
Sean: I get that, and I respect that point of view. I just think the premise of the movie is truly excellent and imaginative. Don’t you agree that the movie’s sick joke is amazing? The joke being: Take these guys who represent the ultimate in misogyny and homophobia and asinine American privilege and flip the script on them – make THEM into pure commodities the way they treat women in the first part of the movie. And the tables are turned on Josh and Paxton as soon as they get to Slovakia. The first girls they see in the hostel are the two Japanese girls who say something (presumably crude) about them and run away giggling – now Josh and Paxton are the ones being objectified and talked about right to their face, like they treated Isabella in Amsterdam. It’s almost feminist, but then it loses its way (Hint: Natalya’s ultimate fate is the least feminist thing about the movie and I hated it).
Kristine: Yeah, I said to my boyfriend (who watched the first half with me and then went to bed), ‘I hope this ends up being a feminist revenge story.’ But somehow it doesn’t. I’m not quite sure how to explain it, but the “sick joke” of the movie is both under-utilized and ham-fisted. It’s like, I get it, the movie is very explicit that these guys are totally willing to “pay to play” and exploit their privilege when it comes to women’s bodies, and the tables are turned and it’s a slippery slope into a world where everything can be had for a price. But then where does it take that concept? Nowhere, really. Other than an unlikely “hero” getting revenge and Natalya getting run over – twice (which I imagine led to Glenn-Close-getting-shot-to-death-in-Fatal Attraction-type cheers in movie theaters across America).
Sean: I agree completely that the movie fucks up the joke and the critique it tries to make. Not just with Natalya’s fate, but by sending Kana in front of the train in order to let Paxton escape, which I also hated.
Sean: But I don’t think that detracts from the brilliance of the set-up itself. I love how that (disgusting) weirdo they meet in Amsterdam gets them to abandon their plans to go to Barcelona and sends them to Slovakia by playing to their own vanity and their understanding of women as nothing but fantasy objects who are not people. He tells them, “They hear your American accent and they fuck you. There is so much pussy and because of the war there are no guys – they go crazy for any foreigner – you just take them…” That idea – a land full of women who look like models and porn stars just waiting to pounce on anyone with an American accent – is such an obvious fantasy, and I think the movie wants us to see the absurdity in Paxton and Josh believing the story so easily. Also that little detail about how war has stripped the country of its male population really links this movie to the post-9/11 era. Despite Roth’s best efforts to undercut his own critique, I still find that scene between Paxton and the American businessman to be amazing and smart and the ultimate fuck you to every frat boy rapist in the world.
Kristine: That I will agree with. You mean in the locker room? Yeah. I like how Paxton is shaken, not only because he is “undercover” but also because he (hopefully) recognizes himself in that man. Who was the most disgusting person in the world, by the way.
Sean: Yes – that moment of recognition is amazing. Remember that the businessman asks him, “How is it?” and Paxton has to (despite his disgust) answer, “Good.” The parallel is to how Josh felt in the brothel, but the lie here is different – Josh lied that he’d fucked the hooker but said it wasn’t that great; Paxton lies that he tortured someone but says, “It was great.” My favorite thing about the movie is how it contrasts the bordello the guys visit in Amsterdam to the torture complex in Slovakia. That hallway of sexual silhouettes prefigures the torturer’s chambers… Remember how Josh heard what he thought was a woman being slapped around in one of the rooms? That connects to the torture that comes later. It’s the closest this movie may come to making an overt critique of the objectification of women. Remember that Josh barges in (in a lame act of “chivalry”) but the story is the opposite of what he’d assumed – She’s the one doling out punishment to her male client (Note how Óli and Paxton ignore the woman’s authority and invade the room just after that). Óli’s mantra at the sex club of “I’ll pay!” echoes the American businessman at the torture complex who disfigures Kana. That idea that the ability to pay for something gives you ultimate agency and allows you to commodify bodies and turn people into objects for consumption – both sexually and through violence – is one of the main ideas the movie is playing with. Also, remember when they violate curfew at their Amsterdam hostel and raise a huge stink about it? And Paxton is yelling, “Let us the fuck in we’re freezing our balls off! We paid to stay here! They can’t just lock us out that’s bullshit!” Again, if I pay the money, I make the rules, I should have ultimate control.
Kristine: Yeah. Like I said, all that is good, but it’s very obvious and then I feel like it’s abandoned as soon as Paxton embarks on his escape and “rescue” of Kana. I just can’t give the movie points for it.
Sean: I understand that, but I disagree about one thing: Paxton’s initial decision to rescue Kana is one of the feminist moments in the movie. He hears a woman screaming and decides to go back for her. Now he and the girls he was exploiting at the beginning of the movie are on the same level. He identifies with her, rather than only seeing her as a commodity. But everything from there on out is basically bullshit.
Kristine: I don’t know about feminist – maybe humanist.
Sean: Kristine, you’re missing the point! The whole point is that Paxton once thought of women as nothing but commodities. Remember in Amsterdam when Paxton says about the character of Isabella, “She’s cute but we can’t rail a girl who’s in a coma. I think that’s illegal even in Amsterdam,” talking about her as if she isn’t sitting right there. He doesn’t see women as people until the end of the movie. His decision to go back for the screaming woman shows us that he’s finally seen the error of his ways (through that scene of self-recognition with the American businessman).
Kristine: I’m not missing the point. I am just not impressed. And I think his decision can also be read as the movie’s ham-fisted way of rewriting Paxton’s character as a “hero” for the last act of the movie, and I don’t like that.
Sean: Just fyi, the scene where Paxton has to snip Kana’s dislodged eyeball is the scene that sent my boyfriend into a rage, storming around slamming cabinets and ranting about how the filmmakers should be arrested.
Kristine: Ha!! It was gross. I was wondering what his breaking point was.
Sean: I do hate that the movie tries to turn Paxton into a “hero” at the end, the most disgusting example of which is when he runs down Natalya with the car. Something I also hated was how the movie tries to establish Paxton as heroic by having him give that ridiculous, cringe-inducing monologue about not being able to save the drowning girl in Lake Michigan. “We made eye contact,” he says, like he recognized the humanity of this little girl, and he also tells us that the scream of the girl’s mother haunted him for years. Which was so dumb! And did you also catch the little detail in that story that the lifeguard who failed to rescue the drowning child was a woman who was “too busy talking to her boyfriend.” Little ugly details like that undercut some of the bigger points the movie is trying to make about how sexism works. I just hated Paxton and didn’t care about his emo drowning story. It didn’t humanize him. I literally cheered when Natalya turned the tables on him and said, “I get a lot of money for you, and I make you MY bitch.” She is sort of my hero. “You’re so serious, Mr. Serious American.” And I thought that moment when the girls exchange a look as they’re fucking Josh and Paxton to be a genuinely subversive moment.
Kristine: Actually, my favorite detail of Paxton’s adventure was how he was so determined to hold onto his severed fingers. Like, he couldn’t accept that part of him was gone and lost to ‘the other.’ I liked that. It showed a connection to his original character archetype of the privileged American male. Remember when he says to Josh, “Because when I’m studying for the bar, and you’re writing your fucking thesis, this is the shit that we’re gonna think about,” referring to all the women they’re going to fuck. That connects to the American businessman’s speech about the act of torture, which he argues is more profound than the objectification of women. He says, “The bottom line is: pussy’s pussy. Every strip club, every whorehouse, every… It’s all the same shit. You know, I just fucked a girl two days ago and I don’t even remember the color of her tits. But THIS… This is something you never forget.” The movie is pretty clear that seeing women as objects and not people is the start of a natural progression than ends at the torture complex, where the thrill of conquering/consuming women gives way – through repetition – to the desire for a new and better thrill.
Sean: That fact that Josh wants to be writer made me want to die. Yeah right! Also yeah right that Dudebro Paxton McFrattington is a vegetarian. That moment when he says, about eating meat, “Well, I’m human and it’s not in my nature” might be the most heavy-handed moment in the movie. But I loved Paxton vomiting around his ball gag during his torture scene (the ball gag being another link between the bondage scene at the brothel and the torture chamber).
Kristine: Oh, me, too! The ball gag vomit was really good. The movie did a lot of smaller details very well. I was impressed with how Natalya and Svetlana morph from being these nymph-like porno dream girls to looking hard and rough… I wish that kind of attention was paid on a grander scale.
Sean: One of the clearly feminist sick jokes of the movie I also loved: Natalya and her friend capture Josh (and almost get Paxton) by putting roofies in their drinks.
Kristine: Sure. Fine.
Sean: And not only that, but how Paxton is just sitting there looking pretty and bored while Natalya and her friend talk to each other in a foreign language, like he doesn’t even count as a person. I love the tables being turned like that. Did you feel bad for Josh during his torture scene? Because I didn’t.
Kristine: No, not really. Josh is… he’s a nothing.
Sean: That torture scene is really aesthetically important to the overall ideas in the movie, I think. I made a list of everything Josh sees through his torture-hood-peephole:
1) industrial caged lightbulbs
2) surgical instruments
3) concrete walls/floor
4) Some kind of medieval spiked glaive or helmet
5) A workbench/surface scattered with assorted tools (chainsaw, pliers, wirecutters, hacksaws, drills)
6) A bolted iron door
7) A pair of goggles on a hook on the wall
8) His torturer – a man in a leather apron, gloves, surgical mask, rubber boots (hybrid of slaughterhouse butcher, medical surgeon, handyman)
For me, the simple aesthetics are one of the most powerful things about the movie, and how effortlessly the aesthetics make a series of references – to slaughterhouses, to the Holocaust, to places like Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, to a historical medieval past that hangs like a specter over Western culture. Remember the insane horned mask Paxton has to wear to sneak out of the torture complex? I just find the series of symbols and signs in the movie to be powerful, despite Roth’s ham-fistedness in some places.
Sean: Well, I had wanted to talk about the gesture of the thigh grab that happens three times between the Dutch businessman and Josh…
Kristine: It’s interesting because it gets into the motivations of the exploiters… but here again, I feel like the movie is at once trying to do too much and not doing any of it well enough or completely. The Dutch businessman/thigh grab/Josh ambivalence is another tiresome example.
Sean: Can I make a brief, impassioned defense against your dismissal of this movie?
Kristine: Sure, go ahead. But for the record, I think you are being defensive because I haven’t outright dismissed anything. I acknowledge what you are saying, I am just not that impressed with the whole ‘turning the tables’ thing. Like, I get it. And? Does that make sense?
Sean: Okay maybe I am being defensive! But I just want to remind you that this movie was a huge hit, and just remember the egregious, disgusting gender politics of all the other huge hit movies we’ve watched, Paranormal Activity being the foremost example. When we discussed Paranormal Activity, I walked away so depressed at the thought of all these audiences soaking up that movie’s ideas without questioning them. Hostel at least tries to make a genuinely subversive argument directed at its audience.
Kristine: Okay, you really think this was a huge hit because it was a giant fuck you to rapist frat boys and audiences got that? Because I don’t… I think it was a huge hit because it features lots of boobies in the first third and then gore and then a hero to root for (and a “bitch” who gets mowed down).
Sean: I agree that Roth tries to have his cake and eat it too with all the boobs. And when Natalya turns the tables on Paxton, he screams that she’s a “bitch” and a “whore” and I admit that when he later mows her down I was like, ‘Oh so I guess Eli Roth agrees with Paxton about her’… and I hated it.
Kristine: If a movie has subversive ideas but most of the audience misses the point, we can admire the movie itself but I don’t know if we can be cheered that people are “getting it.” Right? I mean, did most of the critics even get it? I don’t know, all I remember hearing about this movie was the “torture porn” label. I don’t remember hearing about subversive ideas and a takedown of frat boy rape culture.
Sean: I am furious right now.
Kristine: That is weird. Stop it.
Sean: The movie was labelled “torture porn” by a fuddy-duddy Brooklynite intellectual dickface Harvard grad named David Edelstein, whose mushroom-voice plagues the airwaves of NPR.
Sean: Many (mostly European critics) loved the movie. The critic for Le Monde named it one of the best movies of the year. It’s Marxist/Nietzschean ideas have been the subject of panel debates at film symposiums. It’s not like I’m alone is suggesting the movie has more going on than meet the eye.
Kristine: Okay. I didn’t know one way or the other. I am telling you my impressions as someone who was pop-culturally aware but not interested/watching horror movies in 2005.
Sean: No I know…. But again the basic premise of the movie brings up some much interesting shit…
Kristine: Like for example?
Sean: Remember that the movie opens with images of tools, the industrial space, blood circling down a drain, images of the abbatoir… Right away, the movie seems to be about fantasizing ourselves into the position of animals in the industrial meat complex, asking ‘What if our deaths were mechanized, if we were dispatched dispassionately by anonymous workers using frightening looking tools?’ Obviously there’s a hint of Holocaust sick fantasy/horror to this (and Roth is a notorious Jew – I say notorious because he was… The Bear Jew!) And also obviously the movie can really easily be seen as an artifact of a post-9/11, post-Abu Ghraib universe. Little things let us know that movie has a historical context that is aware of, like that (maybe a bit too) meta trip to the Museum of Torture.
Sean: The Holocaust/Abu Ghraib stuff is also, to me, really interesting and makes this movie into a fascinating pop culture artifact. Especially because a Jewish filmmaker made it, for what that’s worth. And lots of people in the media made the Abu Ghraib connections the year the movie came out….
Sean: Well, what do you think about all that?
Kristine: I agree, but again I think it boils down to: here’s a big idea, I’m going to introduce it and do nothing with it. And that is frustrating and, like I said at the beginning of our discussion, led to a numbing experience for me.
Sean: I think I’ve run out of things to say…
Kristine: I feel bad!!
Sean: You’re being apathetic!
Kristine: The movie made me that way!
Sean: Why? What about it made you so apathetic?
Kristine: And you ignored my point one of the rare things that Roth did in a subtle but effective way was to shift the aesthetics of the girls and the entire town from dreamlike fairy tale to gritty reality.
Sean: Oh I missed that. I’m sorry.
Sean: But I agree! From my notes: “The town in Slovakia is – vaguely Gothic, quaint, medieval, storybook.”
Kristine: And I explained why the movie made me apathetic – it brings up ideas and wastes them.
Sean: Well, I guess my only response is, it may waste them and fuck them up, but it is more ambitious than 97% of most Hollywood horror movies by actually bringing up and proposing subversive ideas…
Kristine: I can accept that.
Sean: Ok. My other rating is Better than I remembered. Yours?
Kristine: Serves as a testament to why Saw is such a shitty movie AND This movie either has too many ideas or not enough – I don’t know which and I am too depressed to figure it out AND This film is America.
Sean: I don’t think I’d be doing my job if I didn’t ask you about the torture sequences – did any of them rattle you? Was there any toe-grabbing squirming?
Kristine: There was some physical discomfort for me, yes. I did some eye shielding. But there was no post-viewing traumatic flashbacks, which usually happens to me… Though it is becoming less frequent as I become a perfect horror-movie watching machine
Sean: What made you shield your eyes? The only thing I squirmed at was the eyeball-snipping scene.
Kristine: For me it was both the eyeball snip and the thigh drill.
Sean: I thought the skeletal, hyperventilating freak who tortures Paxton was sort of scary.
Kristine: Yes, the huffing German freak was awful!! Can I add that all the drivers hanging out in the lot while their clients are inside “the art exhibition” is a perfect Eastern European detail? When I was in Poland (OMG in 2004/5 – right around the filming of this movie) one of the most bizarre things to me was all the for-hire drivers that would basically stalk foreigners to get you to hire them to take you to Auschwitz or other death camp sites. Death camp tours are big tourist biz in Poland. And in the parking lots of the destinations, all the drivers hang out and smoke while the tourists do their thing, and the whole thing is surreal.
Sean: Hahahaha! I was so relieved that rape wasn’t on the menu in the torture chambers.
Kristine: Me, too.
Sean: Another indication that Roth was at least trying to make a point by contrasting Josh and Paxton’s sexual commodification of women in the first half to the torture chambers of the second.
Kristine: I guess…
Sean: I thought it was purposeful, too, that several characters – both Óli and the Dutch businessman – were revealed to have daughters (that is, people who will grow up into women who will be objectified as commodities by people like Paxton and Josh). I guess the idea is, becoming a husband and father changes nothing about the essential DNA of the male persona. This movie has a lot in common with THIS amazing Onion article. It really is almost feminist. Almost.
Kristine: Hmph. Am I overreaching when I say that Kana’s suicide was another example of Paxton using a disposable female body for his own purposes? Even though it wasn’t intentional?
Sean: Oh the Kana thing is terrible and you’re dead right about that. Especially because her suicide allows Paxton to get away! Can I tell you the worst, most unpleasant thing about the experience of watching Hostel for me?
Kristine: That once again homos = deviant freaks?
Sean: No, but I almost felt that way. But when Josh returns the Dutch businessman’s weird thigh grope in the bar – remember that? – I was like, wait a second, something weirder is going on here than just gay panic.
Kristine: Yes, I agree. But was it explored? No! Fucking Roth.
Sean: It was like Josh was propositioning him or something? Josh was terrible and I do think probably a closet case. Or at least, he is having a crisis of masculinity that makes him more susceptible to being homophobic, but also gay-curious. We learn that Josh used to be fat. We learn that he’s mooning over an ex (he’s sensitive and emotional, and therefore not very masculine). We see how he has to go outside to use his inhaler when Natalya smokes in front of him. I don’t think its any accident that he’s the character with the most outbursts of gay panic. He shouts gay slurs at that guy in the Dutch dance club, and he freaks out on the businessman on the train who touches his leg. When he and Paxton are hooking up with Natalya and her friend, Josh keeps looking over at Paxton and his date, like he’s uncomfortable or preoccupied with Paxton’s naked body. Óli targets Josh again and again, pushing his bare ass into his face on the train and in the spa, and jumping on top of Josh to mock-buttfuck him after they bring the girls back to their room. I mean, the movie is obsessed with homosexuality. Paxton’s reaction to learning that they’ll be sharing a room at the hostel is, “Roommates, huh? That’s gay.”
Kristine: Oh, I know.
Sean: One of the main topics of conversation between Paxton and Josh, besides finding women, is gay sex. When Paxton says, “Why don’t you go over and have gay fucking fannypack sex with him and you can jizz all over each other’s storage compartments?” Then Josh calls the Dutch guy who pushes him in the club a “fucking fairy-ass elf.” After they’re kicked out of the club, Paxton screams, “It’s a fagfest in there – wall-to-wall fucking cocks!”
Kristine: I don’t know whether Josh’s thighgrab was a proposition or him just trying to be cool and less of an ugly American and going about it all wrong? I don’t know. But I did think the movie explicitly eroticized the torture scene between Josh and the Dutch businessman in a way it doesn’t do with Paxton’s torture scene – Josh is in his underwear, getting his thigh “drilled,” etc. It also makes a connection back to the dominatrix’s lair in the brothel where a man was bound in pure kink fashion… Remember when Josh enters the room at the whorehouse with the fantasy woman but when she starts talking he can’t go through with it? That is echoed later when the German freak has Paxton ball-gagged when he starts speaking German. These men don’t want their commodities to be humanized in anyway.
Sean: Yes! Though I would argue that Paxton’s torture scene also has homoerotic/rape elements – like when his torturer is shoving his big, phallic chainsaw in Paxton’s horrified face. But the homoeroticism of the three guys was another “sick” joke that I found to be funny and finger-pointing. Like after they fuck the girls, Paxton and Josh wake up alone together and are like “Mission accomplished!” – fucking women has always been more about them and their gay-panic bonding than actual women.
Kristine: Also, the King of the Swing sending them photos of him fucking that chick in the bathroom. It’s all about male bonding, not actually enjoying sex with women. And what about Óli and Paxton fist-bumping each other while fucking whores together?
Sean: See that’s the thing. This movie takes the position that young men possess puerile adolescent sexualities. These men are probably 22 or 23? And they behave like they’re 12. One of the most embarrassing examples of that is how Paxton, upon entering the hostel’s spa, exclaims, “Jugs!” Kristine, do you think any man you’ve ever had sex with has then gone home to a male friend and screamed “Mission accomplished!” and done a high five?
Kristine: I do not wish to ponder your question.
Sean: “Mission accomplished” takes on a totally new meaning if you think about this as a post/9-11 movie.
Kristine: Georgie Porgie, ugh ugh ugh!
Sean: Ok, well, the worst thing about Hostel was….. being attracted to Paxton when he was naked despite hating him so much.
Kristine: I was going to ask if you thought he was hot! I knew it. He is your type – short and dark and stocky. I knew it!!!
Sean: I hate myself.
Kristine: I admire you for speaking your truth, even though it is obscene. I love how that is the most uncomfortable thing about Hostel for you.
Sean: It was!
The Girl’s Rating: Serves as a testament to why Saw is such a shitty movie AND This movie either has too many ideas or not enough – I don’t know which and I am too depressed to figure it out AND This film is America.
The Freak’s Rating: Pop perfection AND Better than I remembered.