Hostel: Part 2

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/08/07 00:00:00

"From Eli Roth, A Little Something For The Ladies"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Aside from the fact that it made a lot of money on an incredibly low budget, I doubt that even the biggest fans of Eli Roth’s grotesque horror film “Hostel” thought that there was anything about it that required a follow-up film. Yes, it had a nifty and potentially provocative premise–an international organization luring horny college kids to a torture mill in which rich sadists would pay greatly for the pleasure of brutally murdering them–that cannily played on the contemporary fears of both America’s current standing with the rest of the world and the ideas of where increasingly jaded members of an anything-goes culture might wind up going for kicks before too long. Beyond that, however, it wasn’t particularly scary by any conventional definition of the word–the only real suspense to be had came from what implements would be used to reduce the unlucky cast members into twitching piles of goo–and while the idea of having a depraved attitude as the evil force instead of a more traditional boogeyman was conceptually interesting the first time around, it is the kind of idea that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a sequel. Of course, being a hard-core horror fan himself, Roth no doubt realized these pitfalls when he sat down to make “Hostel: Part II” and it actually shows in the results. Instead of trying to figure out some ham-fisted manner of stretching the story of the first installment out long enough or just offering a by-the-numbers retread, he has essentially chosen to go back to the drawing board to create a semi-remake that reworks some of the elements that didn’t quite work the first time around while expanding on the ones that did.

After a prologue involving the fate of Paxton (Jay Hernandez), the lone survivor of “Hostel,” “Hostel: Part II” starts off as a distaff version of the previous film. This time, we have three cute American art students–tarty Whitney (Bijou Philips), sweetly naive Lorna (Heather Matarazzo) and mysterious Beth (Lauren German)–taking the train to Prague for a weekend of relaxation. On board, they run into Axelle (Vera Jordanova), a sexy nude model from their class, and she tells them about a fabulous out-of-the-way place in Slovakia with relaxing spas and harvest festivals for their enjoyment–she even knows a quaint little youth hostel in town for them to stay at. Of course, as anyone paying money to see the film already knows, our heroines are being lured into a trap and over the next day or so, they find themselves kidnapped and drugged and when they come to, they discover that they are about to be chopped, burned, beaten, sliced, pierced and mangled at the hands of sickos who have paid enormous sums of money for the privilege. (With the film spending roughly the first half of its running time concentrating on the girls gabbing and the second half on them screaming, “Hostel: Part II” at times plays like an odd riff on “Death Proof,” which featured Roth in a brief, supporting role as one of the guys trying to pick up the first group of gals before their fateful encounter with Stuntman Mike.)

While all this is going on, the film begins to develop a parallel storyline following a couple of those very sickos as they prepare for their gruesome adventure. In the first “Hostel,” you will recall, the creepiest and most memorable moment was not one of the ones involving copious bloodletting–it was the bit when one of the customers (Rick Hoffman) animatedly gabs about how jazzed he is about the depravities that he was about to inflict on a complete stranger in an effort to make him feel more like a man. Expanding on that bit, Roth introduces us to a couple of ostensibly normal guys–obnoxious alpha-male Todd (Richard Burgi) and the meekly hen-pecked Stuart (Roger Bart)–who have decided that they need the experience of taking a life in order to lend meaning to theirs. Yes, they have the money and the means to contemplate such a thing but when push comes to shove and they find themselves in the same room with a living, breathing person and not just a theoretical representation of the type of person who exists solely to keep them from achieving their full, manly potential (in other words, a woman), will either of them have what it takes to go through with it after all? (It can’t be just a coincidence that Roth filled these roles with two actors who will probably be most familiar to audiences through their supporting appearances on “Desperate Housewives.”) And if they don’t, what happens to them when the people running the establishment get wind of it?

Even though the shock aspect of “Hostel” is necessarily absent from “Hostel: Part II” and the storyline is largely dependent on one’s familiarity with the earlier fil, Roth makes up for it with the changes and additions that he has tossed into the mix this time around. For starters, the central characters who wind up in the torture chairs here are infinitely more watchable than the frat-boy jackasses in “Hostel”–Philips is appealingly snarky as the sort-of bad girl, Matarazzo (a long way away from “The Princess Diaries” or even “Welcome to the Dollhouse”) is adorable as the good girl and relative newcomer German (perhaps best known to gorehounds as the ill-fated hitchhiker at the beginning of the abysmal “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake) is charismatic enough as the central girl to make you want to see her in a part where she isn’t covered from head-to-toe in blood–and as a result, you may actually find yourself rooting for them to somehow survive their ordeals even though the very nature of the film suggests that they won’t. The development of the two potential killers adds another intriguing edge to the proceedings in the way that it allows us to understand how someone could find themselves developing the kind of mindset that would allow them to contemplate the things that they are contemplating (the scene in which Bart’s entire family silently abandon him to an empty house after breakfast is perhaps the most affecting in the entire film) while never quite letting them off the hook.

In these aspects, Roth shows that he is slowly but surely improving as a filmmaker but in too many other areas, his flaws are as pronounced as ever. For starters, while he is perfectly adept at creating the kind of grisly punch lines that get people talking, he is still all thumbs when it comes to building up to those moments. There is never any time during the film when anything resembling genuine tension or suspense ever begins to develop–it almost feels as if he just doesn’t have the patience for such a thing and assumes that his audience doesn’t either. (In light of this, it is perhaps not surprising that the most accomplished thing that he has produced to date is “Thanksgiving,” the hilarious and punchy fake trailer that he contributed to “Grindhouse”) The opening sequence with Jay Hernandez is a good example of this–it has a pretty good capper but it is too aimless for its own good, especially since it is pretty obvious to any horror fan how it will turn out. Despite Roth’s repeated claims that the climax he has created will go down in the annals of horror history, it too is kind of a disappointment–he was apparently so pleased with his Grand Guignol finale (one that should have half the audience cheering and the other half squirming) that he decided that it didn’t matter that for in order for it to happen, it required characters to behave in ways completely at odds with how we have previously seen them act.

Instead, he channels all of his energies into his gory set-pieces and while they are certainly disgusting enough, they lack the kind of manic invention that would make them feel like more than just a show-off reel for the FX crew. For example, without giving away too much, I will say that one character is taken out in the kind of grotesquely operatic manner of Dario Argento at his most flamboyant and while the stylized imagery is eye-catching for a minute or two (especially when compared to the more documentary-like approach to the killings in the first film), it grows less interesting once you realize that there isn’t going to be anything else to it other than Roth showing off that he can adequately ape Argento. And yet, for all of his bad-boy braggadocio, Roth seems to be going out of his way here to defuse the potential charges of misogyny that often dog any horror filmmaker dealing with scenes of women in intense jeopardy–one even goes so far as to have a woman as the torturer while another cuts away from the action at a key point. This is not to say that I especially wanted to see endless scenes of young women being killed in the most appalling ways imaginable (and what we do see them go through is enough to put the average person off of dinner for maybe a month) but considering the icky surprises he has in store for his male characters, his comparative reticence in dispatching his female characters seems like a bit of a cop-out.

Make no mistake, “Hostel: Part II” is neither a particularly good film nor is it a particularly necessary one–despite being a horror film, the only genuinely frightening thing about it is the notion that a “Hostel: Part III” may eventually turn up, despite Roth’s insistence to te contrary. While I can’t say that the end result is good by any means, it is a better and smarter work than the original film, it has a few nice nods to old-school horror fanatics (including in-joke cameos from cult actress Edwige Fenech as the girls’ art teacher and director Ruggero Deodato as a sadist who takes time out from his torturing for an especially sickening snack) and as pointless and sadistic horror sequels go, it beats “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” and “The Hills Have Eyes 2" like a gong. Most importantly, it does show that Eli Roth, who has largely divided genre audiences into a camp that considers him the future of horror and a camp that dismisses him as an overhyped hack, has improved as a filmmaker since debuting with the fairly inept “Cabin Fever”–while he still hasn’t made a good movie to date in my estimation, his work here suggests for the first time that he may one day be capable of doing just that at some point down the line.

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