The ads for Hostel sold it all wrong. They sold it as a sadistic tour de force that the youth of America would have to dare each other to sit through. Maybe the marketing was effective in the short term — Hostel made $20 million its opening weekend. But the movie I saw, rather than being the callow gross-out I’d expected, is actually genuinely frightening and not terribly explicit (though it does have its share of grisly moments). Premises don’t get much more basic — three guys in search of thrills in a strange land confront stark raving evil — but what writer/director Eli Roth does with it stands as a stern moralistic rebuke to ugly-Americanism. The movie is in-your-face but not pointlessly so.

Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson), two typical college guys out for as much sex and drugs as they can grab during their European tour, and Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), a hedonistic Icelandic guy who’s maybe ten years older, begin the movie in weed-friendly Amsterdam. For these guys, ancient and many-tongued Europe exists only to satiate their wolvish whims. Like the party-boy Victor in The Rules of Attraction, whose Euro-trip streaked by in flashes of nudity and hallucinogens, Paxton and Josh treat their surroundings as their playpen. They’re hated pretty much everywhere they go, but they hear about a place in Slovakia where the women are hot for American accents. The trio are on the next train there.

Roth takes his time. We’re maybe forty minutes into Hostel (not counting the ominous opening credits) before we catch the first glimpse of carnage. The guys, it turns out, are being steered towards a dank and dingy dungeon of torture, where businessmen pay top dollar to mutilate captives. (In a good joke, the most expensive objects of torture are Americans.) Before that, though, Roth plausibly sets up a disorienting atmosphere in which three hungover guys who aren’t necessarily thinking with the thinking parts of their anatomy could be so easily herded to the slaughter. Paxton and Josh are cannily drawn as surrogates for the young males who’ll be most attracted to Hostel and would be most attracted to the same comely diversions that tempt the protagonists. In other words, they’re obnoxious.

Then again, so were the young victims in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and that horror classic certainly didn’t suffer for lacking “nice” protagonists. Once Paxton and Josh are separated and helpless in the face of masked, heavily-accented evil, we realize how much of their xenophobic, homophobic façade is a cover for just plain phobia; they are fearful, overcompensating young males, and now they really have a reason to be afraid. The torture scenes are certainly unpleasant, though Roth knows that what scares us is not clinical repulsiveness but the dread of shadows and the barely-glimpsed. When Paxton is dragged to the cell where pain awaits him, we catch corner-of-the-eye images of horrific things going on in other cells. Far more disturbing than what we actually see is the ghastly economics of this place, where anguish is well-paid for, the cops are in on it, and ruined body parts are casually chopped up, probably for dog meat. And the film’s most clearly seen disgusting moment is actually, perversely, an act of mercy.

Roth probes another level of American darkness when we meet a businessman from the States (Rick Hoffman) who’s absolutely giddy at the prospect of torturing a young Japanese woman. He’s done it all, he says, and he wants the rush of having ultimate power over life and death. The European and Asian torturers we see, while certainly sick and depraved, do seem to have some sense of gravity, some strange sense of respect for the import of what they’re doing. Not the American torturer, who can’t decide whether he wants to “make it quick” or get more bang out of his buck by making the agony last. He is, perhaps, meant to be Paxton or Josh twenty years later, an American male who never grew out of the pursuit of decadence and followed it down the rabbit hole to madness. He is probably the most repellent thing on view in the movie, and Roth very much intends him to be repellent and pathetic, not someone whose mind is to be enjoyed or emulated. The strategic placement of his scene, after we’ve already endured torture from the point of view of the protagonists, tells us that Roth is not simply after mayhem for kicks.

Some of Hostel — okay, a lot of it — strains credibility. (Are the people of Slovakia so blasé that they don’t notice someone with a blowtorched eye socket wobbling around a train station?) But the atmosphere, sin giving way to darker sin, is the important thing. It carries you through the mild cheesiness of the vengeful finale (as bracing as it is to see the pale, masked torturers get their comeuppance), which quotes directly from the moment in Pulp Fiction where Bruce Willis, about to escape his tormentors, stops and decides that he just can’t leave Ving Rhames like that. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Quentin Tarantino is “presenting” Hostel — it shares his aesthetic and his pet theme (actions have consequences). Roth, whose 2003 Cabin Fever was a fun throwback to backwoods horror, has made a movie that criticizes its self-consciously grotesque peers (recent movies like Saw II and Wolf Creek that seem to glory in nihilistic bloodletting for its own sake), criticizes its own audience, and even criticizes its own advertising. If you go to Hostel hoping for sadistic jollies, Roth puts you in that chair and makes you feel what it must be like to wait for God knows who to do God knows what to you. And it’s interesting that such a cinematic reminder of the hideousness of torture comes at a time when torture has been, shall we say, in the newspapers.

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