Dir: Eli Roth. US. 2005.95mins.

A serpentine thriller likely to both repulse andexcite, Roth's second feature - and follow-up to Cabin Fever - plays like a shotgun marriage of Eurotripand Saw, starting out confidently as an European road sex adventure beforedevolving into a mutilation splatter flick.

It is not always easy totake, and at times makes for unpleasant viewing - but for better or worse, Hostel is a horror feature that deliversthe goods.

Presented by QuentinTarantino and shown in Toronto as a work in progress - from which it isreviewed here -the only potential commercial fallout is a possible restrictiveNC-17 rating in the US.

Lions Gate Films, however,has earmarked a Jan 13 slot (Martin Luther King Day weekend) for its releasewhich, with the recent appetite for horror - Saw II has taken an impressive $75m in less than three weeks -should bode well (although Cabin Feverfinished on $21m). Overseas, the extensive use of European locations shouldhelp.

Roth is blunt whereimagination is required, and he is never afraid to go for the jugular. From thebeautiful supermodels shown to spectacular effect to the grisly carnage, Hostel is a slick, well-engineeredexploitation work that easily placates its young, eager audience demographic.

Opening in Amsterdam, themovie's three protagonists, backpackers travelling through Europe, take refugein the opium dens and sex district where everything is permitted and nothingdenied.

The group's two Americansare Paxton (Hernandez), a law graduate preparing for his bar exam, and Josh(Richardson), a fledging writer coming to terms with a painful romantic breakup. Oli (Gudjonsson), anIcelander, is the wild card, a free spirit whose relationship to the other tworemains teasingly ambiguous.

Roth adeptly plays off themen's irrational and mounting fears - European anti-Americanism, Josh'sapparent sexual confusion - to create a foreboding sense of malice.

At their Dutch hostel theychance on a mysterious benefactor who informs them about a Bratislavanhostel that is a sexual Nirvana.

The three friends thentravel across an industrialised, post-communist Europe, plotting their sexualadventures, unsettled only by a German traveller (Janis) they meet on the way.

Their fears quicklyevaporate at the new hostel, however, as Paxton and Josh share a room with twogorgeous, sexually voracious women, Natalya (Nedeljakova) and Svetlana (Kaderbkova).But their idyllic, sexual quest turns suddenly sour when Oliinexplicably goes missing and the Americans feel increasingly trapped in thenightmarish landscape.

Soon Josh also disappears,and Paxton is left to disentangle the mystery and fend for himself. Touring a"torture museum," he uncovers a brutal black market operated by sadistic "surgeons"who play out their own twisted fantasies in death and dismemberment.

By necessity, the movie'sfinal third is stomach churning and cruelly macabre. If the early sections aremore eerily suggestive, the final third is twisted and uneasy. Roth's inspirationis clearly the extreme violence of genre Japanese cinema and its most notoriouspractitioner, cult director Takashi Miike (who turnsup in a cameo here).

But if Roth lacks both Miike's acidic sense of humour and command of form, then hecompensates with a full frontal intensity.

He also manages to pulltogether a largely unknown though credible cast, andHernandez in particular proves a fairly inspired choice for lead. Quirky,intelligent, good-looking and with a talent for the unpredictable - his charactercan speak German, for instance - he makes for a noteworthy hero.

Production companies
Screen Gems
Hostel LLC

US distribution
Lions Gate Films

International distribution
c/o Screen Gems

Executive producer
Quentin Tarantino

Eli Roth
Chris Briggs
Mike Fleiss
Scott Spiegel
Boaz Yakin

Milan Chadima

George Folsey Jr

Nathan Barr

Main cast
Jay Hernandez
Derek Richardson
Eythor Gudjonsson
Barbara Nedeljakova
Jana Kaderabkova
Petr Janis