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Note: This article contains spoilers for Hostel.
In celebration of innovative horror director Eli Roth’s 50th birthday, we analyze the unique influence his groundbreaking film Hostel had on Latin horror cinema and Latino American horror audiences.
Latin horror, a subgenre of both Latin cinema and horror, currently does not have a concrete definition, but for the purposes of this article, it will be defined as “a horror film with a Latino or Latinos in a major position of influence, in front of and/or behind the camera – such as actors, executive producers, writers, directors, cinematographers, composers – and/or a Latino-influenced storyline.” Films that would fall under this definition include From Dusk till Dawn (directed by Robert Rodriguez and co-starring Salma Hayek), Sleepy Hollow (featuring Oscar-nominated cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki), Us (starring Kenyan-Mexican leading actress Lupita Nyong’o), and Psycho (Irish-Mexican-American leading actor John Gavin).
Hostel, released theatrically in 2006, follows three young men backpacking through Europe for fun and excitement, until they fall prey to Elite Hunting, a secret society whose wealthy and bloodthirsty members pay for the perverted thrill of torturing and killing innocent people.
Among the three young men whose journey we follow, is Paxton (Jay Hernandez). Paxton’s basic character traits alone challenge the long-established and overused Latino male stereotypes. Typically, Latino men in American media fall under the stereotype categories of the Latin lover/lecher, criminal/gang member, comedic buffoon, poor, and/or foreign. While these stereotypes can be used as either the primary attribution or secondary trait of a Latino character, these are not attached to Paxton’s character.
While not much is revealed about Paxton’s background, he’s portrayed as a middle-class American from California, who’s college educated, studying to be an attorney, and doesn’t speak with a thick stereotypical Latin American Spanish or Spanglish accent. When he does speak in a foreign language extensively, it’s not Spanish; it’s German. The only time we hear Paxton speak Spanish is when he describes going to Barcelona, Spain to see “hot ass señoritas.”
At the beginning of Hostel, Paxton and his friends are shown as young men determined to get their thrills from sex and drugs in Amsterdam. While it could be argued that Paxton’s lustful behavior falls under the Latino stereotypes of the lust-driven Latino, his ethnic identity is never addressed by anyone around him. He also never uses his Latin identity as a tool of seduction or as a reason for his behavior. The only identity Paxton identifies with, or is addressed as, is American.
To see Paxton being referred to as an American is significant. Though Paxton at times is referred to as an American as an insult, it’s a refreshing for many Latino American viewers to see a Latino American onscreen referred to as an American. A common insult used against Latino Americans is the insinuation that we are not “real Americans,” due to the stereotype that negatively portrays the majority of Latinos in America as ignorant immigrants (both documented and undocumented), regardless of our personal citizenship status.
However, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, the total U.S. Latino population reached 62.1 million, with 80% of the population being U.S. citizens. American-born Latinos are leading the U.S. Latino population growth, with the overall Latino immigration population decreasing. According to Pew Research Center, California alone (where Paxton confirms he is from) has Latinos making up 40% of the state’s total population.
The only scene where Paxton state that he is not American is at the critical moment where he is trying to escape being tortured by a wealthy client, shouting, “Look at me. I’m not fucking American.” For the members of Elite Hunting, Americans are the most expensive and potentially most desirable people to torture and kill. This scene could be interpreted as Paxton attempting to use his Latino features to persuade his potential murderer that he’s from Latin America, thus not American.
Paxton escaping Elite Hunting and making it to the end of Hostel is significant, considering the lack of Latino leads in the nearly 200 theatrically released American horror films of 1996-2006, from both major studios and independent releases. In this period, the main Latino leading men were Freddie Prinze Jr. (I Know What You Did Last Summer and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer), John Leguizamo (Spawn and Land of the Dead), and Hernandez (Hostel).
As for the representation of leading Latina actresses in American horror and Latino-directed films of 1996-2006, the most prominent actress was Jennifer Lopez (Anaconda and The Cell), followed by Salma Hayek (From Dusk till Dawn), Trini Alvarado (The Frighteners), Michelle Rodriguez (Resident Evil), and Jessica Alba (Idle Hands). The Latino-directed American films featured the groundbreaking works of Guillermo Del Toro (Mimic, Blade II, and Hellboy), Rodriguez (From Dusk till Dawn and The Facility), George A. Romero (Land of the Dead), and Eduardo Sánchez (The Blair Witch Project). However, this period does not appear to have any Latina-directed American horror films. Though this period had very limited Latino talent representation, it was a vital and influential period for contemporary Latin horror.
Since the success of Hostel, Roth has continued to collaborate with and promote Latino talent, including making films in Chile with Latino talent (Aftershock, Knock Knock, and The Green Inferno), highlighting Latino contributions in his horror documentary series Eli Roth’s History of Horror (including Romero, Del Toro, Rodriguez, Andy Muschietti, and Barbara Muschietti), and co-creating the YouTube channel Crypt TV to promote original horror content and content from up-and-coming horror creators (including Mexican-Canadian director Gigi Saul Guerrero). In February of 2020, Roth announced his involvement as a supporter of LA Collab, a non-profit organization dedicated to growing authentic Latino representation and viability in entertainment with the support of other notable directors such as J.J. Abrams and Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Today, the fastest growing audience for American horror films nationally and internationally are Latinos. This trend has been rising for some time, with Roth himself noting, in a 2013 interview with actress/producer Perri Nemiroff, “Latin people love horror movies. They’ve been driving the horror box office.”
As the Latino horror audience grows, there is an increased desire in this audience to see Latinos in horror, in positions of influence both behind and in front of the camera, in roles with cultural influence – such as Tigers Are Not Afraid (directed by Issa López) – as well as in roles where a character is not bound by their ethnic identity, like Hostel. While some see Hostel as simply a gorefest, it’s grown into a cherished film for many Latino horror film fans and has become a significant Latin horror film in American cinema.