*½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B
starring John Jarratt, Nathan Phillips, Cassandra Magrath, Kesti Morassi
written and directed by Greg McLean
DVD - Image A- Sound A Extras B+
BD - Image A- Sound A Extras A-
starring Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eythor Gudjonsson, Barbara Nedeljakova
written and directed by Eli Roth
by Walter Chaw When I say that I enjoy a nihilistic film on occasion, I don't mean movies that aren't about anything. There are films that adhere to the philosophy that life is meaningless, that there's not much hope, that we might be in Hell or, better, a godless maelstrom of happenstance and entropy. And then there are ostensibly nihilistic films like Wolf Creek and Hostel that are more accurately examples of nihilism. Both inspired by real-life events*, they seem to use their basis in fact as protection against not actually telling a story with gravity or purpose. They're not governed by a prevailing philosophy or buoyed by any artistry--they have nothing beneath their grimy veneers to reward a careful deconstruction (though we'll try). Worse, they know only enough about their genres to (further) discredit them in the popular conversation. I look at these films as though I were observing an alien artifact, an insect with solid black eyes. If there's intelligence to them, it's not a kind I understand.
There's no hint of existential conundrum in these pictures--and although my saying that may cause you to roll your eyes, consider that the best grindhouse films (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Black Christmas, Deliverance, The Evil Dead, and so on) have something going on under the skin whether you care to engage it or not. What Wolf Creek and Hostel have is one already-notorious scene apiece and a lot of nothing going on in their ugly, empty little heads. They're cinema as punishment, providing no vicarious thrill; like the televised geekshow "Fear Factor", they just ask the question of how much can you take before you turn away. You watch them, you feel sorry for and superior to the filmmakers and the kids laughing for the benefit of their friends, and then you tell everyone you can that there's a difference between good, terrifying, nihilistic horror flicks and stupid exercises in braggadocio such as Wolf Creek and Hostel.
Besides their simultaneous release in U.S. theatres, the two films have in common a resentment of tourism, a victim waking up bound and gagged after being drugged, and gags involving severed fingers. Wolf Creek is partially set at the semi-titular park (as in Australia's "Wolfe Creek Crater National Park"--the spelling change meant to facilitate a "big bad wolf" read, maybe, or to soothe an international audience that's also supposedly queasier with words like "philosopher" replacing "sorcerer"), the world's second-largest meteorite crater and a place of such awesome natural foreboding that I wondered during the picture's leisurely first hour whether debut hyphenate Greg McLean had modeled his picture on Peter Weir's Outback creeper Picnic at Hanging Rock. Such intimations to greatness are hamstrung, though, first with a few incomprehensible party scenes that establish the bizarre love triangle between Aussie Ben (Nathan Phillips) and British birds Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi) and later with the actual charnel house of the film, wherein Wolf Creek reveals itself as having no new ideas and runs out of old ideas fast.
Somehow this neo Jack, Janet, and Cindy agree to go for a day-hike to the crater. They talk about meteorites and alien abductions, and then when their car battery is mysteriously as dead as their watches (thank goodness for those non-electrical Aussie flashlights, eh mate?), who should swoop in as their salvation but good ol' boy Mick (John Jarratt, in a performance that elevates the film) by offering to tow them to his workshop for a little tune-up. Savvy genre blokes will prick up their ears not only when Ben's sexuality is challenged by a bunch of inbred locals at the Last Gas Station (and again by Mick, proclaiming Ben's hometown of Sydney "the poofter capital of Australia"), but also after Ben does what no one--especially not a fellow POME--should ever do and compares Mick to Crocodile Dundee, prompting Mick to lament the proliferation of feral tourism. This is to no good end, however, as Wolf Creek isn't terribly interested in either the oppressive indifference of the Natural or the offense that the city mice commits against the country mouse, or even the sexual politics of a male challenged and women threatened. It's not something as noble as a film that defies genre convention so much as it's a frantic pastiche that hopes there's a spark of life left in one of the sewn-on transplants. I'd been looking forward to Wolf Creek from the moment it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to a few quiet raves; what I should have considered is that Saw bowed to similar festival buzz last year.
Still, Wolf Creek is a model of restraint compared to Eli Roth's Hostel. I had a fair share of affection for Roth's writing-directing debut Cabin Fever, seeing in it a refreshing honesty about his love for traditional spam-in-a-cabin flicks that I thought carried it over some of the (perhaps) intentionally shoddy filmmaking and a layer of Jackass crudeness and hostility. Hostel's a middle-finger flipped at every single thing that makes films like this worthy of deeper examination and, more importantly, the carriers of genuine unrest and discomfort. It lurches along with a wilful rejection of intelligence and sensitivity for fear of emasculation--"pussy" and "faggot" the two words its heroes use most often in Hostel's and thus, as Dr. Phil would tell you, the two things author Roth probably most fears that he is. The result of that puerility in its creation (maybe creator) is a film that bends over backwards to punish women and homosexuals; Hostel is unrepentantly, unselfconsciously leering, and so ugly on the topic of gay men that it reserves its nastiest, ugliest punishments for quiet schlep Josh (Derek Richardson) and the older Dutch man (Jan Vlasák) in whom he may be interested. Tellingly, the one vivisects the other before encountering his personal Waterloo in a train station's public water closet, his pants around his ankles and his head in a toilet full of his own waste. It's where queers go to die in movies made by homophobes. For more eloquent commentary than I'm capable of providing of the damage done by this kind of image, look to a bathroom murder scene in Hellbent.
It begins as the Last American Virgin remake Roth's been threatening us with as a trio of college-age hedonists, on a budget and armed with a europass, frequent the ganja bars of Amsterdam just prior to going window shopping in the Red Light District. The usual suspects: the wild party guy is Icelander Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson); the devil-may-care daredevil is Yankee Paxton (Jay Hernandez); and the delicate, budding writer recovering from a break-up is fellow Yankee Josh (Derek Richardson). After getting locked out of their hostel, they find themselves in the apartment of a seamy Russian who advises them to take a train to Bratislava, where the women are beautiful and desperate. Sure enough, once they're in a gothically-appointed hostel, a pair of Russian beauties (and why are Russians staying at a Russian hostel? Who cares, right?), Natalya and Svetlana (Barbara Nedeljakova and Jana Kaderabkova), accidentally (oops!) flash their tits, invite the boys to a spa, and then flash their tits on purpose. Yet apparently these girls have more on their minds than fucking (but fuck they do, don't get me wrong)--seems they're paid a lot of money to deliver young men to a shadowy network of flesh peddlers who sell rich international businessmen the opportunity to torture someone to death.
Japanese girl Kana (Jennifer Lim) has an eyeball plucked out in slow-motion, quails at her appearance, and kills herself by jumping in front of a train. Yeah, she's vain, but is there anything to the notion that the loss of her eye is speaking to an objectification subtext? I doubt it. Hostel revels in its venality and arrogance, rubbing it all over itself like the gouts of blood it uses to soak every non-victim in the picture. It's posed itself as a piece owing a debt to the Japanese shock cinema of Takashi Miike (himself a bit player in the film) when it really owes more to the gore/schlock cinema of Herschel Gordon Lewis. For whatever you can say about Miike's pictures, not a one of them (and he's been known to churn out up to five a year) would you describe as empty, sadistic capering. Hostel can't be a commentary on sexual tourism because it is sexual tourism; it can't be a commentary on exploitation of women and virulent gay-bashing because it's those things, too; and, ultimately, it's neither as scary nor as funny as it wants to be, because it's just a cheap bit of garbage and everyone, even or especially the people who'll like it best, knows it.
But there's a catch--and the catch is the torture scene of anti-hero Paxton, whose humiliation Roth shows in bald, intimate detail. There's a suggestion in this lead-up that Paxton is "unmanned"--turned into the "pussy" he cavalierly calls his dead friends in bonhomie and goading. And so, in the calculus of his lizard brain, he's been degraded in a more significant way than dissection. He delays his own demise (and facilitates his escape) by showing off his bilingual ability, confusing his German tormentor with pleas for his life in his native tongue and, in the process, identifying a theme of ugly-Americanism that works as a weak undercurrent in the film. If Hostel fails to add much to the conversation about voyeurism and sexual identity in the slasher genre, at least it manages in spite of itself to suggest in a meta way how Americans piss off the rest of the world not just with their politics and their arrogant ignorance (note that in Syriana, another film with a disgusting torture sequence, one of the emir's men says of the Chinese that at least they learn Arabic to deal with them in business), but with their affluence and sense of entitlement, too. It doesn't make Hostel a good film--but it does make it worth a conversation. Originally published: January 6, 2006.
THE DVD - WOLF CREEK
by Bill Chambers Dimension brings Wolf Creek to DVD through Genius Products in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The image is astonishingly filmlike, especially given its HD origins, although there's almost too much fidelity to the theatrical presentation: The hot whites and intense saturation of the digital intermediate look even harsher on the small screen and can be a little overbearing. I didn't find the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio as aesthetically satisfying (there's just too little going on in the rear channels for a horror movie set primarily outdoors), but it's plenty loud and warmly recorded. Extras begin with a feature-length commentary reuniting writer-director Greg McLean, executive producer Matt Hearn, and actresses Cassandra Magrath and Kestie Morassi. This is a male-dominated track--the first substantial remark from Magrath is a squeal as her onscreen counterpart doffs her top--and not an especially edifying one at that. We learn there was a lot of improvisation in the early scenes, which were subsequently streamlined in the editing room to make the interpersonal dynamics less inscrutable.
Though I much preferred "The Making of Wolf Creek" (50 mins.), it's one of those reductive nuts-and-bolts pieces that dares not open up Pandora's Box by asking why. At times, however, the implicit becomes explicit: McLean is clearly more interested in what horror can do for him than what he can do for horror, and all things considered, his constant refrain that he made Wolf Creek "purely to scare the crap out of the audience" is a little tasteless. In fairness, McLean touches on the cultural elitism responsible for the schism between the film's heroes and its villain, but no one seems willing to venture further beneath the epidermis of the text. Complaints about a lack of funding are predictably filed, although the many demonstrations of the production's resourcefulness are somewhat inspiring in this era of the CGI crutch. We also learn that John Jarratt didn't shower for six weeks to get a better feel for his character's nomadic existence; when Morassi--whose startling resemblance to The Blair Witch Project's Heather Donahue goes unobserved--subsequently whines about having to go ninety minutes without a cigarette, you kind of want to watch her bite it again. A useless deleted scene (more of Ben scoffing at country folk) and Wolf Creek's theatrical trailer round out the disc. Also available in an R-rated widescreen edition that runs five minutes shorter. Originally published: April 17, 2006.
THE DVD - HOSTEL
1. Eli Roth, Quentin Tarantino (producer), Boaz Yakin (producer), Scott Spiegel (producer)
2. Eli Roth; George Folsey Jr. (editor - leaves 33 mins. in); Harry Knowles (professional fanboy - enters at 33-minute mark, leaves 19 mins. later); Barbara Nedeljakova (actress - enters at 52-minute mark, leaves 18 mins. later); Eythor Gudjonsson (actor - enters at 70-minute mark, stays 'til end)
3. Eli Roth, Chris Briggs (producer), Gabriel Roth (fly-on-the-wall)
4. Eli Roth (onanist)
by Bill Chambers In a phone conversation with AIN'T IT COOL NEWS webmaster Harry Knowles on the "Unrated Widescreen Cut" of Hostel, Eli Roth--who completes his transformation into Adam Goldberg by donning a unibrow within the video-based supplements--asks why his name is often dragged through the mud in AICN "Talkbacks." Knowles hypothesizes it's because other sites (with characteristic tactlessness, he rhymes off a few by name) edit their interviews with Roth in such a way as to make him appear relentlessly self-promotional. Yes, that must be it, for Roth is so demure on the DVD release of his second film, which, like the DVD release of his first, attempts to canonize the imminently disposable Hostel with four commentary tracks, in each of which Roth either serves as moderator or flies solo. Even when his co-commentator is not particularly sycophantic (such as the mischievous Barbara Nedeljakova), Roth rarely stops fishing for back-pats, and it's telling that the anecdote most likely to cause déjà vu finds the auteur the toast of Hollywood post-Cabin Fever and a man of integrity all the same, since he followed the advice of an iconoclast (Quentin Tarantino replaces David Lynch as Roth's main source of street cred) and spurned the studios' advances by writing Hostel on spec.
Roth is fast becoming a gasbag on the order of Brett Ratner; directed by Roth's brother Gabriel, the disc's 3-part making-of, "Hostel Dissected" (56 mins. total), has the frat house sensibility of Ratner's increasingly narcissistic behind-the-scenes documentaries. "Everything is how it should be," observes actor Lubomir Silhavecky, at which point Roth frère ironically cuts to a pair of bouncing tits. (Nevertheless, Silhavecky's offhand remark, "This is my first movie--American movie," lends a bit of resonance to the piece by throwing the inferiority complex of the European film industry into sharp relief.) There's a potentially fascinating avenue to explore in the hypochondriacal Roth's fascination with shit and blood and piss and grime, but in the end his bouts of OCD behaviour (he excuses himself to wash his hands after the propmaster coughs and wears a surgical mask during an exterior shoot) add up to a severe case of mugging.
As for Hostel itself, it's presented in a handsome 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer; slightly weak shadow detail is its only caveat. The accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is crisp and immersive, if inconsistently loud. An interactive "Kill the Car!" feature (watch Roth nurture violent impulses in children from a trio of angles) plus trailers for When a Stranger Calls, Silent Hill, Underworld: Evolution, The Cave, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Boogeyman, Ring Around the Rosie, and The Fog round out the Sony platter, with the first three cuing up on startup. Note that "Hostel Dissected" includes B-roll of an alternate ending nowhere to be found among the bonus material--guess they're saving it for the inevitable superduperedition. Originally published: April 17, 2006.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - HOSTEL
by Bill Chambers Briefly, a note about the "A-" for the image on this BD: although I gave the video of the standard-def DVD an A- as well, the two formats really are apples and oranges. You don't need to do an A/B comparison to be immediately startled by the improvements of the Blu-ray release, mainly with regards to shadow definition. The sets have a much grimier, more evocative patina in HiDef, while the carnage is, for better or worse, easier to decipher. Whether the newfound clarity comes at the expense of atmosphere is for you to decide, but obviously this better approximates the filmmakers' intentions. If there's a caveat emptor or two, I found the colours to be a little oversaturated (or at least distractingly 'thick') and the added resolution to bring out print debris that was sort of subliminal before. As for the accompanying Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio, even though the mix is the same, the lossless presentation trounces that of the original DVD. This Blu-ray edition comes with two variations on Hostel, and while neither received an MPAA rating, they're individually classified as "Unrated" and "Director's Cut." All of the previous commentaries return, though they only append the unrated version (which happens to be the default should you bypass "play" and go straight to "scene selections"). As for the Director's Cut, it's identical to the Unrated alternative right up until the final sequence--a thorough nullification of Hostel Part II's prologue, as it happens, thus calling into question the wisdom of labelling this incarnation a Director's Cut instead of, say, a workprint. For what it's worth, you can access the new ending on its own via the special features menu.
The supplementary material of the previous disc likewise resurfaces here, where it's joined by a fresh slew of featurettes: "Music & Sound" (12 mins.), an extended interview with composer Nathan Barr that made me realize I'd undervalued the movie's score; "Set Design" (5 mins.), wherein production designer Franco-Giacomo Carbone walks us through Hostel's torture chambers; "Hostel Dismembered" (30 mins.), a fairly standard EPK that hauls out the likes of Harry Knowles to recount/dissect the picture's genesis; "An Icelandic Meal with Eythor Gudjonsson" (3 mins.), in which actor Gudjonsson acquaints us with the most appropriately disgusting delicacy his homeland has to offer; "KNB EFX" (11 mins.), another enjoyable insight into the demented minds of the eponymous makeup artists; and finally "Takashi Miike Interview" (10 mins.), a subtitled talking-head that finds Miike prematurely singing the praises of Roth on the set of Hostel and confessing that David Lynch films don't inspire him so much as cause him to lose his mojo. An 18-minute batch of Deleted Scenes (mastered in 1080i), all nine of which are preceded by Roth-penned rationales, proves unenlightening--each elision is the kind of superfluous detail only an inveterate backpacker could appreciate. Rounding out the platter: a typically garrulous Roth's first appearance on Elvis Mitchell's radio show "The Treatment"; four stills galleries, one of which is gratifyingly devoted to actress Barbara Nedeljakova; and HD trailers for Hostel Part II, Vacancy, and Blood & Chocolate.
*Just as Wolf Creek is based loosely on Australia's Backpacker Murders, Roth and producer Quentin Tarantino claim to have found a Thai website advertising "murder vacations" for ten grand, thus inspiring their collaboration on this project. Go to Crime Library to research the Backpacker Murders case, by the by, and note that two of Ivan Mital's victims are dead ringers for the actresses in Wolf Creek. Merry Christmas, families of the bereaved! return