Grade: C

This is a disquieting movie–not simply because the subject matter is unsavory and the level of graphic violence very high, but because it’s skillfully made, generating some real suspense as well as revulsion. It’s a picture that does quite expertly what it sets out to do; the problem is that what it aims to achieve is pretty loathsome. Which raises the question: should it be condemned for its content, or praised for its execution?

The titular “Hostel” isn’t a very inviting place–as the old saying goes, it’s the sort of joint, like the Bates Motel, that people check into but never check out of, except permanently and in pieces. (It’s a hostile hostel, get it?) And the movie by Eli Roth, the guy behind the flesh-eating virus thriller “Cabin Fever,” isn’t designed to be welcoming, either, or even pleasurable. This is another in a string of recent horror flicks–the most notable being the “Saw” franchise and “Wolf Creek”–that center on grisly torture as the means of provoking audience reaction, and employ the most up-to-date gore effects in doing so. There’s nothing new in this, of course–one can trace the lineage back at least to the 1934 Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi shocker “The Black Cat,” if not further. And seventies shockers like “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” certainly fall into the line. But the modern cinematic fascination with such sadistic business probably has its origin in the Clive Barker “Hellraiser” franchise, which started in 1987. The newer examples, though, don’t bother with the sort of supernatural twaddle found in that series (or in the “Nightmare of Elm Street” movies, which have a lot in common with them, too). They just go for the jugular, as it were, and often very effectively.

That’s certainly true of Roth’s movie. There isn’t so much a plot here as a cruel situation, which is said–like that in “Wolf Creek”–to be based on actual events, though one must wonder how much. A trio of cross-continent backpackers–cool frat boy Paxton (Jay Hernandez), his fumbling pal Josh (Derek Richardson) and sex-crazed Icelander Oli (Elythor Gudjonsson)–are orgying in Amsterdam when they’re told that the real action is to be found in Slovakia, so they move on to the titular hostel outside Bratislava. There they’re taken in–in all senses of the term–by a couple of voluptuous femmes fatales whose aim, it soon becomes clear, is hardly benign. Soon the guys find themselves in situations not so very different from the ones the Jigsaw’s victims do in the “Saw” movies.

There’s an explanation for their predicament which, if one wanted to think about it seriously, might have something to do with the psychological urge to gratify oneself by harming others, capitalist excess and the sad economic state of post-communist countries; but such deeper ideas are window dressing at best. “Hostel” merely wants to disturb and make you queasy, and in that it succeeds. The first forty minutes or so set things up by following the three guys on their journey to Slovakia, including an encounter between Josh and a vaguely menacing train passenger (Jan Vlasak). Once arrived they find themselves sharing a room with two eye-catching girls (Barbara Nedeljakova and Jana Kaderabkova) who introduce them to the local nightspots and lead them literally to the slaughter. This introduces the segment of the picture–relatively brief but extremely grisly–illustrating their gruesome treatment and the motives behind it. (Vlasak shows up again here, and Rick Hoffman, whom you might remember as the obnoxious motorist in “Cellular,” does so as well.) Then there’s an elaborate coda that turns the movie into a cat-and-mouse chase, done by Roth with touches that are almost Hitchcockian (though the old man would never have countenanced such sanguinary displays, and a couple of the incidents, involving a disfigured Japanese girl and a band of feral kids, are truly ghastly). And to top it all off, Roth provides a gore-soaked vengeance scene to satisfy the blood-lust of the vigilantes in the audience.

So if your thirst for cinematic blood puts you in the Dracula class, “Hostel” should be your cup of–well, not red wine, even though those of you more interested in instant gratification may find the movie’s foreplay to the slaughter a mite over-extended. Even those this sort of stuff doesn’t attract, though, will have to admit that Roth possesses considerable craft–he manages a few allusions to old vampire films that may strike a chord among the cognoscenti, and is much more successful at escalating the tension than most of his rivals. Though the cast gets little opportunity to really shine except when they’re glistening with blood, Hernandez, who’s shown real promise in pictures like “Crazy/Beautiful” and “Friday Night Lights,” makes a suitably handsome hunk of meat and actually gains some sympathy as the viewer surrogate in the last reels, and Richardson is more likable than loathsome as a dweeby sort marked for extinction. (You have to laugh, though, at the brief asides that indicate Pax’s intention to go to med school and Josh’s desire to be a writer.) Gudjonsson comes across as a total jerk, so it’s hard to bewail his fate. And while one might enjoy ogling Nedeljakova and Kaderabkova as the Slovakian seductresses who come on to the guys, they both have about as much chance of winning acting awards as Paris Hilton. Vlasak and Hoffman are quite convincingly vile. The technical work is surprisingly solid for this kind of flick, with Milan Chadima’s cinematography making good use of the seedy European locations and keeping things suitably muted in the more explicit sequences; Nathan Barr’s moody music is a plus as well.

Of course, that’s precisely the idea: Roth wants “Hostel” to be as ghoulish and grim as possible, and he certainly succeeds as well as–or better than–the makers of the other recent samples of this sort of thing. But one can’t help feeling more than a little unclean leaving a picture like this, however cleverly it’s designed and executed. It has a visceral impact, but really panders to the darkest side of the viewer’s psyche in the same way as the “business” it depicts does to its customers’ most brutal instincts. There was a time when what were called snuff movies were traded under the counter, with at least a smidgen of embarrassment in the transaction. Now they’re mass-produced and hustled into thousand multiplexes to satisfy the expectations of youngsters brought up on the most ultra-violent of video games. Basically this is a movie that traffics in sadism as much as its villains do, and your reaction to it will pretty much depend on how you feel about that.