What’s happened to the Hostel series?

News Matt Edwards 20 Feb 2012 - 11:53

With the latest Hostel movie released straight to DVD, Matt looks back at Eli Roth’s horror series, and at its gradual fall from grace...

In 2006, writer/director Eli Roth’s horror film Hostel was released in cinemas. Produced on a small budget, the film was a financial success, pulling in more than $80m around the world as well as winning a strong fan base. A sequel was announced shortly after, and it seemed that a new horror franchise had been established.

Now, six years later, a third entry in the Hostel series has been released. Roth is no longer involved. The film has not seen a theatrical release, instead given a low key debut on home video to little fanfare. So the question is, what’s happened to the Hostel series?

Hostel

I remember going to see the first Hostel film. I was visiting New York and was desperate to see it, as the UK release was still a couple of months off. The film had already been out in America for a few weeks, so the cinema was less than crowded. I noted a man in his mid-to-late 20s who, thanks to American film certification rules, was able to bring his toddler son to the cinema to see the film.

Even before seeing the film and knowing the extent of the violence and gore, I questioned the wisdom in that decision. The kid didn’t seem too bothered, though, using the cinema as an adventure playground for the duration of the runtime.

I was already a fan of writer director Eli Roth by this point, having been very taken with his debut film Cabin Fever, and was very impressed by Hostel. It’s certainly very different to Cabin Fever, but showed a similar reverence to the horror genre.

Where Cabin Fever had been great fun, though, Hostel was a more grown-up, troubling film. While extended torture sequences and graphic violence were horrifying, the tense atmosphere created by the bleak, unfamiliar Eastern European location was arguably the film’s most effective tool.

Hostel tells the tale of two young Americans travelling through Europe who end up being lured into the possession of Elite Hunting, a company who sell them on as murder victims to the cruel and curious. It’s presented to us as a believable set-up – small, out of the way and grimy.

The strength of Roth’s script, littered with interesting touches, such as the Bubblegum Gang, combined with the movie’s excellent execution (it’s extremely well shot) meant that Hostel was a real stand-out at an interesting time for the horror genre. Extreme horror, crudely dubbed ‘torture porn’ by critics and would-be censors, was proving popular at the box office, and with Saw II having grossed just shy of $150m just a few months before Hostel’s success, a Hostel sequel seemed inevitable.

Of course, the Saw franchise was establishing itself as a yearly event, with a new film released every Halloween. This meant that very little was necessary to sell them – people knew what to expect, and they knew when they were going to be out (the same strategy is currently being aped by the Paranormal Activity franchise - a series even cheaper to produce).

But, despite some similarities, Hostel is actually quite different from Saw. The script is more intelligent, and it has Roth’s distinctive voice. So while writers can be working on Saw 4 while Saw 3 is still being finished, Hostel’s script would need to be guided by Roth and would likely take longer to write.

So when Hostel: Part II was released only 18 months later, again written and directed by Roth, there was cause for concern. Still, I’d enjoyed the first one so much, and had faith that Hostel: Part II would be a suitable continuation to the series.

Hostel: Part II

Perhaps it’s telling that my memory of seeing the first Hostel is so vivid, but that I can’t remember a thing about seeing Hostel: Part II. I couldn’t tell you when I saw it in relation to its release, and I couldn’t tell you where I saw it. What I can remember is how disappointed I felt.

Hostel: Part II expands the Elite Hunting organisation shown in the first movie to a level that almost implies a global conspiracy. The group shown in the first film seemed smaller – operating in an abandoned warehouse in a small town where people are exploited and the local authorities are paid off. Here, we’re a shown a mansion with a secret room just to display the decapitated heads of the owner’s enemies.

The attempts to integrate the Bubblegum Gang into this film feels labored and don’t work at all. A sub-plot involving the main character’s distaste for the c-word is another confusing addition, since it asks us to believe that she’ll stand for torture, attempted murder and rape but draws the line at being insulted. These are the small things that the first film got right.

Knowing that the audience will be familiar with the Hostel format, the sequel plays with its expectations. This is fine when it works, which is infrequently, but it often takes the form of out-of-character behavior from the film’s protagonists and antagonists. With one of the ‘killers’, his change is so dramatic that it comes across as cartoonish, and others aren’t far behind.

Problems are scattered throughout the film, which is frustrating, but things really start to unravel in the final 20 minutes. Baffling plot twists abound as characters attempt to borrow each other’s personality traits in the name of keeping the audience guessing.

It would be easy to consign Hostel: Part II to the same shelf as The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 – sequels to influential horror films that simply aren’t worth bothering with – were it not for the elements that really work. The film is again well shot, perhaps more so than the first one. Gore hounds will be thrilled by some of the kills, particularly the spectacular messy tribute to Elizabeth Bathory.

I’d also mention the recap at the beginning (something that used to be commonplace in horror sequels which I’d love to see make a comeback), the strong cast and the wonderful cameo from Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato.

Perhaps more surprising than the problems with Hostel: Part II was the film’s poor performance at the box office. Arguably too little money had been spent on the film for it to be considered a flop, but it would be fair to say that it performed massively below expectations, grossing just $35.6m worldwide – less than half of Hostel’s haul.

Although it would be easy to blame this on the film simply not being very good, that doesn’t seem likely to be the case. Worse films than Hostel: Part II have experienced tremendous success at the box office. Besides, there are plenty of people who would disagree with my assessment of the film. My tastes are rarely in-line with box office revenue figures.

One of the earliest movies to find its way onto the Internet prior to its release, albeit as a work-print cut of the film, Hostel: Part II was heavily bootlegged, which many felt was a major contributor to the film’s financial troubles. Even now, it’s difficult to know whether that was the case and to what extent its effects were felt. It’s impossible to know how many of the downloads would have represented ticket sales, just as you can’t measure the effects of early word-of-mouth reviews of an unfinished version of the film.

Another possible explanation, and for me the most likely, was the strange decision to release the film in June. Releasing such a grim, bleak horror film against the summer’s blockbusters seems a bizarre decision, and left the film competing for business against the likes of Shrek The Third, Ocean’s Thirteen and Spider-Man 3.

Hostel: Part III

A potentially lucrative horror franchise was suddenly not the safe bet it had once appeared. Eli Roth has not directed a film since, and is very unlikely to return to the series. Although the budgets for the previous two films were modest, it’s unlikely that such money would ever be invested in a Hostel movie again. That said, the films do still have a fan base, and with a built-in audience, further Hostel films were inevitable.

So now, four and a half years later, Hostel: Part III has been released on DVD and Blu-ray.

Make no mistake, Hostel: Part III is not a film that was intended for the big screen that, having been poorly received by the studio, was dumped onto video. From the look of the film, the actors, the effects - this is straight-to-video through and through.

Still, for at least the first hour, Hostel: Part III is not such a bad film. As patronising as this may sound, being released the way it has means that those watching it are unlikely to be burdened by high expectations. This leaves it free to just have fun with the Hostel concept, and it does so by subverting the series tropes (something it does more successfully than Hostel: Part II) and with some cool additions to Elite Hunting’s operations.

Relocating to Las Vegas, the plot starts with a group of guys heading off for a debauched stag weekend, The Hangover-style, before we end up in familiar territory, hunting for missing friends and falling afoul of murder-merchants Elite Hunting.

Of course, measured against the first film, it’s a big disappointment. It’s the shallowest entry in the series by some distance. Also, perhaps in tribute to the second film, there’s a ridiculous character twist about 20 minutes from the end that marks the point where it abandons all logic and descends into silliness. It’s frustrating and really spoils all of the good work that had come before it.

Hostel: Part III does nothing to undo the damage done to the series by the previous film, but it doesn’t cause much damage to what’s left. Fans of the previous films should certainly consider checking it out, although I would advise them to approach this one as the likely start of a new, less ambitious direction for the series.

So now what?

Assuming that Hostel: Part III is a success, I see no harm in continuing the franchise on as a straight-to-video series. As the American Pie series has shown, continued success in the straight-to-video market can jumpstart a franchise theatrically. A few more of these Hostel sequels, and we may yet see the series return to big the screen, where we can hopefully get a sequel worthy of the first film.

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