End of Winter 2006: Year-in-Review  
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RS's Year in Review

Ten Best

10: Junebug
9: Grizzly Man
8: The Squid and the Whale
7: Tropical Malady
6: The Intruder
5: 2046
4: A History of Violence
3: Caché
2: Kings and Queen
1: The New World

But What About
-Darwin's Nightmare
-Happy Here and Now
-A Hole in My Heart
-The Holy Girl
-Look at Me
-Oliver Twist
-Turtles Can Fly
-Just Friends

Get Over It
-Brokeback Mountain
-The 40-Year-Old Virgin
-Funny Ha Ha
-Park Chanwook
-Sin City

-Grizzly Man
-History of Violence

Our Two Cents


-Breakfast on Pluto
-Danny Boy/Angel
-The Butcher Boy
-Mona Lisa
-High Spirits
-The Miracle
-The Crying Game
-Interview with the Vampire
-Michael Collins take one
-Michael Collins take two
-In Dreams
-The End of the Affair
-The Good Thief
-The Company of Wolves
-We're No Angels/Not I
-The Picture of a Woman:
 Sexuality in Mona Lisa,
 The Miracle
and The Crying Game

Shot/Reverse Shot: Munich
Wisniewski vs. Koresky

-Emile de Antonio,
 director of Point of Order and Year of the Pig

-Rachel Boynton,
 director of Our Brand Is Crisis

New Releases

DVD Reviews

the Reverse Shot Blog

  House of Whorers
By Eric Kohn

Dir. Eli Roth, U.S., Lion’s Gate

An adventuresome gaggle of young American backpackers embark on a thrill-seeking journey into territory untouched by their spoiled suburban standards. They treat the foreign environment ruthlessly, seeking nothing more than a temporary hedonistic playground. In time their fantasies lose steam, and their reckless behavior comes back to haunt them in vulgar fashion. When the horrors finally come to an end, everything the single-minded, self-centered survivors once believed will have been dashed—if there are any survivors at all.

The scenario has provided an underlying mechanism for countless scare fare throughout the Seventies and Eighties in films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. As a neophyte genre filmmaker, Eli Roth’s admittedly derivative tactics hinge on predictable narrative rhetoric. His 2003 debut, Cabin Fever, crammed pastiche into its shocks at every available opportunity, serving up a clever (if hefty) wink to horror conventions: Five horny teens with party ambitions head to remote backcountry woods, where they are sequentially devoured by a mysterious flesh-eating virus. Aiming to be a muscular exercise in style rather than invention, Cabin Fever hardly reaches beyond its initial premise—the result was plain, unpretentious storytelling. An elbow-nudging gag at the film’s conclusion, revealing that an eerie, local, hicksville storekeeper is not the bigot suggested at the beginning (the rifle he was keeping “for the niggers” is actually a sales item on reserve for his African American pals), plays out with the semantically simple effect of a knock-knock joke.

Now invert that joke and stretch it to 93 minutes; the result is Hostel, Roth’s sophomore sketch. Its three young, straight, male adventurers, who aim to exploit their rampant consumerism to its free-for-all fringes, lose their cynical edge when the whorehouse and the horror house become synonymous. Driven by a hot tip from an Amsterdam stoner, the gang travels to Bratislava, seeking out the story’s eponymous centerpiece, a supposed sexual paradise. The establishment is actually a front: Visitors are lured in, drugged, and kidnapped as sales items for traveling sadists. Chained up in a warehouse, these helpless victims are gradually tortured to death any number of ways by anyone willing to shell out the substantial dough.

Thus, about half an hour in, Roth delivers his punchline, a mock affirmation of Euro-tripper paranoia. Surprise! Nobody fucks with the Bratislavans. Hostel is a two-way mirror funhouse that gleefully propels stereotypes even as it scorns them. Among the variety of accented Europeans in the film, none comes across in a positive light; it seems as though the entire town is in on the murderous ruse that befalls the three ill-fated travelers. He axes two-thirds of his leading men fairly quickly: The interminably awkward (and deceptively likable) Josh (Derek Richardson), hesitant to join in his companions’ rampant partying, is whisked away to a chamber of horrors and gradually chiseled apart—although his death occurs off-screen. Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), the one non-American in the bunch, purports to be the Icelandic “king of swing,” until his head literally swings—from a stick. This grisly end also occurs behind the scenes. In short order, the focus of attention becomes Paxton (Jay Hernandez), whose unwavering machismo seems destined to deteriorate once he is dragged down to the sadist’s den. That perceived inevitability, however, rings false. In an extended crowd-rousing payback sequence, Paxton manages to escape his tormentors and inflict similarly gory attacks on those responsible for the chaos. Intriguingly, Paxton as a torturer is much easier to watch than his predecessors in the film. “It’s a great release watching the bad guy get it,” Roth told one interviewer, and as Hostel testifies, he’s right.

Unfortunately, this sudden role-reversal, which dominates the last act of Hostel, trumps the possibility, suggested in earlier scenes, of the film functioning as an indictment of rampant globalization. Young American tourists are notorious for going abroad to treat other lands as dumping grounds for their base desires, but Roth is ultimately indifferent to national stereotypes, more interested in gruesome effects than sending up economic phenomena.

With Quentin Tarantino’s stamp of approval, Roth’s film is unquestionably the work of a genre enthusiast, primarily interested in taking horror conventions to their excessive ends. Undoubtedly, the “Quentin Tarantino Presents” moniker prefacing Roth’s film is more appropriate than it was when plastered on advertisements for the Miramax release of Hero. Tarantino delights in restaging his favorite film moments within his own maddened framework, less geared towards distinct social commentary than cinema’s most primal existence as an attraction. Roth followed that tradition in a controlled fashion with Cabin Fever; his latest work is sloppier, but it carries the same sense of excitement. He is the rare filmmaker to establish himself as an auteur with only two features to his name, but he has yet to offer insight beyond the atrocities committed onscreen This is primarily because Roth taps into the innate delight in proverbial campfire spine-tingling tales. Behind every trite sociopolitical or psychoanalytical musing on the nature of horror cinema is a struggle between politically justifying intense imagery (aka, seeing Vietnam in Seventies-era horror carnage, etc.) and allowing it to play out as purely aesthetic. Roth falls on the latter side of the fence. If the medium is the message, then in Hostel, the medium gets mutilated. Take it for what it is. While not poised to replace Night of the Living Dead in the horror hall of fame, Hostel, due to its stunning opening box-office gross, might just give George Romero a nostalgic shudder.

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