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Hooking up, any horror fan can tell you, is not a positive development. Especially when it’s with, say, a pair of well-endowed Eurochicks who like to hang out topless at the local spa and “go for disco.” If that’s not enough to convince you that Hostel’s happy backpackers are dead meat, consider this: They’re staying at a Bratislavan flophouse that isn’t in any guidebook but was talked up by a porn-bearing stranger. And oh, yeah: He also happened to mention that “not everyone wants to kill Americans.” Hostel, the second feature from horror auteur Eli Roth, features the same 20-somethings-in-search-of-carefree-sex setup as the writer-director’s 2002 debut, Cabin Fever. In this case, two Americans, cool dude Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and earnest nerd Josh (Derek Richardson), go tramping around Europe, idling away the time between college and grad school with Icelandic pal Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson). Everything that’s interesting and original about the rest of the narrative—essentially a revenge story—requires a spoiler alert. Suffice it to say that torture figures prominently and that squeamish viewers will probably miss any War on Terrorism–related topicality as the director pushes the gore level above and beyond the genre norm. Roth never makes any explicit political statements, but once the too-easy screwing is over and Paxton ends up in a place where people are imprisoned, tormented, and killed, the story does zero in on basic questions of humanity. Cabin Fever, which concerned a liquid-borne flesh-eating virus, was grisly and hilarious in equal measure. Hostel is much more, well, hostile—a tour de force piece of shock cinema that can’t get in your face enough. Though the contrast between the movie’s lighthearted early scenes and its unrelentingly dark and claustrophobic later ones might seem a little schematic, that’s probably intentional. Roth reduces his characters to sexist, imperialist types—then to simply people—to play with our notions of justice. Whether the battle is intellectual or physical, we like to believe that every one of us deserves a fair fight, an idea that the director consistently offends—sometimes with power tools. Though the most dogged of gorehounds may find the film’s uncynical conclusion hard to stomach, others will find it a relief: It suggests that Hostel has some purpose besides being the most sickening morning-after movie ever—perhaps even a timely one. —Brent Burton