Folks who live for the pull and snap of live flesh will have their share of sequences to cheer for in ''Hostel," the new horror flick about two American backpackers who wind up snared in a wild Slovakian torture ring.
Written and directed by Eli Roth (''Cabin Fever"), the movie tells one of those nightmare-abroad tales, like ''An American Werewolf in London" or ''Eurotrip." Jocky and horny Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and bookish and virginal Josh (Derek Richardson) show up in Amsterdam and promptly hit the bong and cruise the nightclubs. They befriend an Icelander named Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), insult the locals, get in fights, find hookers, and carry on with boorish joie de vivre.
Intolerant and bullying, Paxton causes most of the trouble, and the movie indulges his chauvinism and casual homophobia. Ever eager for easy women, he heeds the advice of an Eastern European who promises a place in Slovakia where there's ample opportunity for sex. Paxton, Oli, and Josh check into a hostel near Bratislava, and needless to say, not everyone checks out. Guests are whisked off to Ye Olde Dreary Dungeon of Horrors. Amid the howls of terror, bodies are impaled and digits cut.
''Hostel" is being sold as a Quentin Tarantino presentation, which seems a little disingenuous, even though it's true. Viewers expecting Tarantino's visual wit and cinematic verve are bound to feel rooked by Roth's gallows schlock. The ''Tarantino presents" tag is meant to seduce a wider audience than saying, ''from the dude who brought you 'Cabin Fever.' " Yet it doesn't rightly distinguish its maker from the hackwork of ''They," ''Fear Dot Com," and ''Darkness Falls."
Roth seems to care enough about his movies to do a lot of his work on the set, not in the editing room, where most horror films are turned to gobbledygook in a last-ditch bid to drum up fright. ''Hostel" is straightforward and classic-looking. The director is confident enough to advance a story with his camera and his actors.
In that sense, Roth fancies himself an old-school American moviemaker in the Wes Craven or Tobe Hooper mold -- a storyteller who happens to make films in which people are clawed and chainsawed. Acknowledging his Eastern god, Roth also tosses in a cameo from the ice-cool Japanese director Takashi Miike, whose psychotic ''Audition" (1999) is a deserved cult treasure.
The problem is that the screenplay is scarcely developed enough to shed much light on anything. Even after an outré punch line is revealed, the film is neither shocking nor adequately terrifying. It could benefit from the twisted moral outrage and dramatic irony of the ''Saw" pictures, which, unthinkably, attempt brief identifications with their torturer. ''Hostel" is more persuasive as a dark-dark comedy.
The movie does get more involving in its latter half (the murderous street urchins are a delectable touch). That's only because, by that point, Roth has switched genres and started making an action thriller.
The trouble is that in Paxton we have a hero we don't like. Hernandez has been one of my favorite promising actors since he loved a druggy Kirsten Dunst in 2001's ''crazy/beautiful," but in ''Hostel" he's a pain, until the movie turns him into Sigourney Weaver.
By then it's too late. Part of you is rooting for this cocky American to lose more than a finger.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.