Sadism was once an element in horror films. Now it's more or less the only element, with the fear of death replaced by the fear of torture a fate worse than death. The new megaplex sado-thrillers, like Hostel, strive for the sensation of reality-based dread: the feeling that it's you, the poor viewer, who's being strapped into that chair or hung up on that meat hook, as a sweat-soaked creep in a leather apron approaches your face with a power drill. The decor? Late medieval dungeon, with a soupçon of smeared bathroom tile. Are we having fun yet?
In Hostel, directed by Eli Roth and coexecutive-produced by Quentin Tarantino, a trio of jerky collegiate dudes, two (Jay Hernandez and Derek Richardson) from the U.S. and one (Eythor Gudjonsson) from Iceland, cruise the discos and hash bars of QT's mythical haunt, Amsterdam, in search of eager babes. Then, acting on a tip, they travel to a place in which the action is even hotter: Slovakia, where a rusty, dead-zone village is the site of a youth hostel brimming with curvy Eastern European girls who line up, between visits to the nude spa, to meet any posh Western tourist. It's obligatory for a horror film to feature exploitative sex as an appetizer, but Roth, even as he fulfills the sleaze imperative, does something shrewder: He mocks his heroes, presenting them as cold-eyed horndog jerks who fail to see that they've wandered into an entire country of exploitation, a land where no one has any money and therefore everything is for sale.
Including mutilation for fun. Having tasted the charms of the former Soviet empire, our dude heroes get sold off, one by one, to the local warehouse dungeon, where for a mere $25,000 clients can arrange to torture and kill someone in any way they fancy. What's disturbing about this scenario is its patina of plausibility: You may or may not believe that slavering redneck psychos, of the kind who leer through Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects, can be found in the Southwest, but it's all too easy to envision this sort of depravity in the former Soviet bloc, the crack-up of which has produced a brutal marketplace of capitalistic fiendishness. The torture scenes in Hostel (snipped toes, sliced ankles, pulled eyeballs) are not, in essence, much different from the surgical terrors in the Saw films, only Roth, by presenting his characters as victims of the same world of flesh-for-fantasy they were grooving on in the first place, digs deep into the nightmare of a society ruled by the profit of illicit desire.