Hostel

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Starring Jay Hernandez and Derek Richardson. Directed by Eli Roth. Rating unavailable. For showtimes, please see page 48

The horror scene seems to be in the grip of a hardcore revolution these days. It's as if a cabal of serious fright-film fanatics got together and organized a bitter backlash against hokey Hollywood body-count flicks with cookie-cutter plots and predictable outcomes. In the last couple of years, there's been a resurgence of grim, graphic, in-your-face scare films.

Shock-rocker Rob Zombie kickstarted the trend in 2003 with his blood-spattered love letter to '70s exploitation flicks, House of 1000 Corpses, and the hugely popular Saw grabbed the gore torch from him in 2004. Both of those films spawned sequels in 2005 that ratcheted up the sadism and nastiness, and then just last month Aussie fearmonger Greg McLean topped off the year with his torture-the-tourists entry, Wolf Creek. Now comes Hostel, the most extreme, punishing, pain-filled gorefest yours truly has ever cringed through.

It doesn't start out that way, though. Writer- director Eli Roth is a sly one, so he lets us believe that this follow-up to his 2002 killer-virus debut, Cabin Fever, could be just a routine tale of nauseating Yank backpackers getting snuffed over in Europe. The film opens in Amsterdam, where randy American college buddies Paxton and Josh (Jay Hernandez and Derek Richardson)-along with their Icelandic travelling companion Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson)-act like immature bozos, get in barroom scraps, and call a prostitute with a bit of flab on her a "hog".

You can hardly wait for these jerks to get sliced and diced by some maniac in a Dutch hostel, but it doesn't happen. Instead, they take the advice of a slimy Russian geek-pimp who impresses them with digital photos of himself frolicking with a bevy of naked Slovak babes. He convinces these lawyers- and writers-to-be that if they book into a certain hostel in Bratislava, the beautiful women there will be crawling all over them. So they catch the next train out. Sure enough, as soon as they get to the place two scantily clad Euro-foxes suggestively invite the bug-eyed guys to join them at the spa. Jackpot!

Around this time, though, the pussy-hunt vibe starts to erode like the decaying surfaces of the Slovakian buildings. Their Icelandic buddy disappears, along with a Japanese tourist, and a sinister gang of pint-sized street kids threaten Josh. Then, in one harrowing scene that sets the ghastly tone for things to come, Hostel switches from being an overseas American Pie-type romp to being a no-holds-barred look at the international pay-to-kill trade. If there is a place in the world where wealthy businessmen can spend upward of 50 grand for the opportunity to torture someone to death, Roth has done a killer job of depicting it.

There is one particular moment of torture that literally had me gritting my teeth in revulsion, and it's sure to go down in the annals of film as one of the most stomach-churning images ever released in theatres. If you thought The Exorcist was famous for making people puke and/or pass out, just wait till Hostel's little snip-snip scene. Don't say I didn't warn ya.