Falling somewhere between fratboy porno wish fulfillment and Europhobic sex-tourism scare flick, Eli Roth’s taut, wily, but ultimately pointless shocker Hostel is neither as transgressive nor as grueling as it aims to be. The setup is pure urban legend: While backpacking through Europe, obnoxiously American lads Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson) get wind of a former Soviet bloc backwater pension where easy sex is as assured as lukewarm coffee, stale croissants, and mattress cooties. Once there, however, they discover that their cooz nirvana is actually bait for potential victims of an international snuff ring. Creative butchery ensues.
Hostel is more sophisticated than Roth’s jokey, derivative Cabin Fever (2002), and plays keenly on Yank xenophobia via queasy allusions to Hammer’s ’60s pop-gothic potboilers, their harsher Italian and German kin, and such real-life horrors as the Holocaust and, briefly, post-A-bomb Hiroshima. (Cinematographer Milan Chadima and production designer Franco-Giacomo Carbone deserve credit here.) But the film is too casually misanthropic and enamored of its expulsive prosthetic virtuosity to be politically relevant, and it’s not clear what response—shame? outrage? titillation?—Roth is after. He’s not assured enough a satirist to provide a piercing or timely indictment of Americans abroad, and the result is a near-standard stalk-and-slash movie with virtually nothing to say about the commodified cruelty in which it wallows. Maybe Roth should direct somebody else’s screenplay next time around, although it’s far from certain that he’d resist his bodily-fluid gimmickry even then.