Pop Culture Gadabout
Sunday, November 19, 2006
      ( 11/19/2006 08:45:00 AM ) Bill S.  

PERIL GREETS THE UNWARY TRAVELER – When you think about it, one of the messages of old-fashioned horror tales was that traveling beyond your own personal comfort zone is something you do at your own risk: think of Renfield visiting Dracula's castle in Transylvania and turning into a bug eater or those intrepid infidel tomb violators from the mummy movies. Yet ever since Brad Davis got slammed into a Turkish prison for ineptly trying to smuggle dope, the stakes have risen. In Hostel, for instance, a trio of doltish young men find themselves trapped in a hellish factory death 'n' torture chamber – all for the crime of being outsiders.

As written and directed by Eli (Cabin Fever) Roth, the movie's a grueling experience for both its characters and the audience. Though it takes a good forty minutes to spring its trap, once it does, Hostel refuses to let you go. Roth's set-up is simplicity itself: three tourists (two Americans plus a shiftless Icelander who has glommed onto the duo along the way) are traveling Europe for a last chance to go wile. In Amsterdam, they're told about a hostel located in Slovakia where the girls are all gorgeous and ready for anything. On the train to this stately pleasure dome, they encounter a creepy Dutch businessman (Jan Vlasák) who provides the foreshadowing much the same as that hitchhiker did in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Our heroes kick the creep out of their compartment, but we know we'll see him again.

The hostel proves to be everything as advertised, but visible in the distance is the smokestack to a large former plastics factory where all our horny Hansels and Gretels are taken to be tortured and killed for the sport of jaded wealthy business types. Cost of each victim, we learn, is dependent on their nationality – with Americans being the highest priced commodity. When one of our threesome escapes his businessman captor, we're treated to a long and lurid tour of this gruesome facility, and lemme tell you, it definitely put me off the idea of ever touring any former Soviet block countries.

Per this type of genre exercise, characterization is minimal – so much so that when one of our trio is given the tiniest patch of personal back story, we (wrongly) assume that he'll be the one to survive the excursion. When, early in the hostel visit, we see a dubbed version of Pulp Fiction being played in the background, we can't help wishing that Roth shared Quentin Tarantino's knack for sketching character. Still, the Pulp Fiction connection is an apt one: in a lotta ways, Hostel is an extended riff on the Bruce Willis story from that flick. As promised, the torture sequences are plenty intense, though the moment that most lingers for me involves two escapees and a dangling eye. There are plenty of moments of very black comedy – some involving an American customer (played by ever-ready character weasel Rick Hoffman) visiting the factory for the first time – but the primary tone is nowhere near as goofy or calculatedly low-budget as Roth's first feature Cabin Fever.

None too surprisingly, Roth's name shows up as a producer credit on 2001 Maniacs (currently running via Showtime-on-Demand), a broad sequel to Herschel Gordon Lewis' 1964 pioneering gore film about a southern American ghost town that appears once a year to trap and kill Yankee tourists. As written by Chris Kobin & Tim Sullivan (and directed by the latter), Maniacs works the same range of overly broad comedy and splattery fx that Roth's first film did (the producer even briefly reprises his role from Cabin as a hitchhiker), though to those who are familiar with Lewis' unsavory original, there's something disconcerting about seeing its sequel made with so slickly. In place of the totally inept acting and direction from the original, we get hammy Robert Englund in a confederate eye patch, Lin Shaye as a cannibalistic Granny, lotsa drawling yee-hawing from the secondaries and a passel of southern vixens in Victoria's Secret lingerie that you know wasn't around during the mid-1800’s. Body count is upped from Hostel – with eight young and largely unlikable young adults getting offed in progressively more inventive ways – but unlike the original, which was just badly enough made that it got you wondering about the mental health of all those involved in it, the follow-up proves to be little more than a disposable footnote. In certain types of exploitation fare, even a modicum of professionalism is not necessarily a good thing.

Watching Maniacs on a sunny weekend morning, I still couldn't help comparing it to the tourist nightmare that is Hostel. Pleasant Valley, Georgia, may not be a picturesque European village, but it proves just as deadly to the innocent visitor . . .
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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