I have to admit that I struggled with this a little, a four or a five, but when I thought about how it made me feel and how I've felt since seeing it over three hours ago, I couldn't fail to give it a five. This film is like watching a journey into hell, and then back again, and you're with the characters for every step of the way.
What did heighten this experience for me was that I was in the lucky\unlucky*delete as appropriate position of watching this in a totally empty cinema. Yes, believe me that's freakier than you can imagine, especially when a character is handcuffed to a chair and locked in a darkened room awaiting god only knows what fate. Yes, I was crapping myself, and I loved it.
Okay, perhaps crapping myself is a bit strong, but my level of unease grew throughout the film until I was very unsettled. At times in the film I was groaning to myself and at one point said out loud, "Oh no...no..." When I left the cinema I felt shaken, and almost quite nervous. This film is good. Eli Roth has just single handedly massacred the European backpacking scene.
Before I go any further, a big thanks again to Edinburgh's Ocean Terminal Vue Cinema. Another excellent cinema experience.
The setup is great in the film, you know what you're coming to the cinema to get and you're ready for it, yet the film does something surprising. It totally disarms you, pulls away your expectations and settles you into another frame of mind. That is, after the opening sequence is done with. The introduction is well done and immediately puts some horrific thoughts into your head before you even meet the main characters. It has some images which slowly become more and more unsettling mixed with the gentle whistling of a contented man at work.
The first section of the film is about two American friends on their backpacking trip who have encountered a fellow minded Icelandic traveller commonly known as "The King of Swing", who is an hilarious character. Together they have been backpacking, drinking, partying and picking up women for unattached sex. Doesn't sound like my Inter-railing experience!
Yet this is the thing that grabs you and takes you to these characters, particularly if you have been backpacking across Europe. They have similar attitudes to you and your friends, they do and say the same things, they behave quite badly on the way, and they find they don't get laid as much as their backpacking friend The King. Yes, that's pretty much how I remember my trip!
Then there's the promise of the Eastern European Hostel that offers mixed facilities (something I have experienced), filled with beautiful and like minded ladies. On the way there's fun, comedy and pretty soon you'll find yourself laughing with the characters. It's a very well orchestrated piece, because before long you've identified with the characters and you're empathising with them as they let anything but their brains make the travelling decisions. Well, if you're a guy that is!
As this seemingly out of place section of the film continues, it's not long before things start looking a little off kilter, but by this point you've seen enough and connected enough with the characters to forget that you're actually waiting for something pretty bad to get started. So when the uneasiness of the score slowly raises and certain events happen, you find that you're on edge and beginning to get concerned without actually anything really happening.
The second half of the film is where you really understand what this film is about, and it does it so well. There are a few moments of shock value, but what Roth has managed to do is keep the camera away from most of it and still build up a response of shock and revulsion from the audience. In fact this is done very cleverly by showing you some events immediately and letting you know, Hitchcock style, what will happen. Then slowly building the tension and playing out events to let your imagination take over and build the tension and unease.
There were times when some of the setups and imagery were so strong I was struggling to get through the scene, but in a good and enjoyable way, if that makes sense! You see, I love being scared by a film, in fact I love it when a film makes me feel anything, and the second half delivers that in buckets.
Nowhere is this more apparent than Paxton's journey where Roth stretches out events, but paces them perfectly well. It's here that the tension and unease hit the roof for me and I found myself shifting position in my chair so I wasn't comfortable at all...and also so I wasn't sitting right back in it should anyone try to attack me from behind. Yes, I am a mature adult, but I was scared!
Although some of the underlying story was quite predictable its the way Roth has portrayed them onscreen that wins out for me, and there's not a real concern about realising what might happen as you're too caught up in the moment and what is happening to these characters that you've started to feel for.
The look of horror and blind terror on the characters faces during some of these scenes was so real that at times it was hard to stay detached and just watch the film. These scenes are particularly well written and brought to the screen, and not forgetting how well acted they are. You will find yourself totally drawn into these performances and scenes. They are truly terrifying.
There are probably two moments that didn't quite work for me, one was Paxton's story that pops up in the first half of the film which will explain some of his later actions. This seemed out of place and particularly forced into the story. Then there's a scene which really makes me feel as though someone pushed for more retribution and payback in the story, it again seems forced into the script, being both too contrived and far too easy.
There are some excellent characters in this film, even ones who are not onscreen for long. Apart from The King, the American and German torturer were very well portrayed, with the American leaving me cold and as shaken as Paxton was after his encounter with him. These are crazy and manic performances.
The main characters are also superbly played by Jay Hernandez and Derek Richardson, and the wonderful performances by the ladies were particularly appreciated. There's also a great cameo from Takashi Miike which is nice to watch out for, if by that point you can stand being toyed with for that long!
The final scenes of the film are entirely satisfying, and were all the explanation and conclusion to the story that I needed. It doesn't go Hollywood and keeps true to the overall feeling of the film, it doesn't let you leave in a happy frame of mind, which is a good thing for a horror film to do.
Full appreciation goes out to Roth who has produced a fantastic film and I'm more than excited to see what comes out of his current projects, Box, Bad Seed, Cell and Hostel 2. It'll be very interesting to see what he does with Hostel 2.
In the meantime, go and get the crap scared out of you by Hostel. Just don't watch it too late at night...and cancel that Eastern European backpacking trip.