HOSTEL: PART II
Reviewed by Sam Hatch
Will the guy who invented the term ‘Torture Porn' please stand up? Sorry, but you're fired. Please leave your laptop at the door and roam freely through the plains thinking up new examples of useless terminology. Honestly, exploitation horror films in which protagonists are subjected to nasty scenarios are nothing new. It's been a cornerstone of the genre for a while now – putting an audience into the shoes of characters they're supposed to care for, and then making them imagine what it would be like to endure these tribulations (or perpetrate them, as is partially the case in Hostel: Part II).
Granted, perhaps American horror films haven't delved into this dark corner of the horror dungeon as often as European countries' product, so maybe films such as Hostel and The Hills Have Eyes (the remake) felt to some as if they had come straight out of another dimension. A dimension of (cue dramatic music)… Torture Porn! Pornography is solely designed to stimulate the viewer's particular desires, usually of a sexual nature. If there were a specific variation called Torture Porn (which has already been titled Snuff), it would be designed as a visual stimulus exclusively for the enjoyment of viewers who love the idea of torturing a human being.
Is that really the case in films such as Hostel and company? Sure, part of the buzz in watching said films is that the director may make you uncomfortable and guilty for watching the atrocities on display, but would any die-hard torture enthusiast really sit through an hour and a half of pure story to get to the brief moments of horror on display in Eli Roth's films? Real porno films have a skeletal storyline in place to pose as ‘legitimate' cinema, but viewers tend to fast forward through those parts (or so I am told).
There may indeed be some sick, twisted torture fanatics in the audience (as is implied by the ‘everyman' torturers in this film), but the key distinction is in the intent of the filmmaker. There were probably some people watching Titanic and loving the disaster and death found in the last act, but was Titanic ‘Disaster Porn'? And if you're willing to go that far, wouldn't all ‘sensational' cinema count as a form of pornography? Is it only a matter of days before I read a headline bemoaning this summer's submersion into the unholy soul-staining abyss of Swashbuckling Porn?
And do your research, while you're at it. Italian horror director Ruggero Deodato has a cameo in Hostel: Part II playing a cannibal (Roth again poking fun at the notion that horror directors really are sick people – he included Takashi Miike in the first film ), and his seminal 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust was a profound influence on Roth. So sick films like Hostel are a new entity? No. So please leave and shut the hell up on your way out of the office. As juvenile, demented and deviant as the horror genre supposedly is, it's a storytelling medium and therefore an art. So I'm not going to call Hostel: Part II a torture porn film or a horror film. I'll call it an art film.
I admit I got a little queasy upon hearing Lionsgate's plans to immediately launch a sequel right after the opening of the brilliant Hostel. Mainly because quick cash-in sequels seem to be a trademark of theirs (did Saw 12 come out yet? I blinked). With a sequel announced for release just a fraction over a year from the initial film's release date, that doesn't leave much time for finessing a script. It's just bag it, can it, get the actors on set and go! When Eli Roth stated that he had an idea to work on and that he would direct it, I exhaled briefly. But it's always slightly nerve-wracking to hear that one of your favorite films may somehow get tarnished by a shoddy sequel. But hey, money can change everything, as Roth sets out to prove in this clever continuation.
Roth uses a similar story template for his sequel, which does indeed pick up immediately after the finale of Hostel (albeit in a slightly tricky fashion that apes the opening of Aliens). Jay Hernandez' Paxton physically survives the last film realizing that his state of mind hasn't fared quite so well. He returns to the States and goes on a retreat with his girlfriend Stephanie (Jordan Ladd, who played Shanna Banana in Death Proof) but still finds himself scared to death of the shadowy organization known as “Elite Hunting”. Since we already know what happens to people who encounter that group from the wrong end, Roth smartly gives us more of a behind the scenes peek into the creepy torture syndicate that allows rich folk the chance to kill another human being for the right price.
In place of the three horny male backpackers is a trio of young women whom we meet sketching nudes in Rome (a hotbed for some of the best exploitation horror ever made). Other directors would treat these European locations as a source of exotic wonder for an American audience (and that ‘oooh' reaction is mocked by Roth through the dialogue of Heather Matarazzo's Lorna), but Eli Roth uses the time spent in Rome as a way to show his appreciation of some of its best actors and actresses. He actually convinced the actors Edwige Fenech (as the art professor) and Luc Merenda (as a police inspector) to come out of retirement for this film!
During this early scene we meet the wild girl Whitney (real life wild girl Bijou Phillips) and her more serious companion Beth (Lauren German, looking quite a bit like Milla Jovovich) as they are approached by one of the models (Finnish actress Vera Jordanova as the seductive Axelle) who also drops the fact that she's traveling to Slovakia to indulge in their hot springs. Though it would have been funny for Roth to completely apply the style of the first film by having Axelle promise super-hung beefcake guys, he tones down the sex this time and puts a more feminine slant on things. These chicks don't want sex (well, they kinda do it turns out), but spas and special talks sound so much more appealing than a night of clubbin' and humpin' in Prague.
Beth convinces Whitney to allow Matarazzo's Lorna to come along for the excursion, even though her sickly-sweet wide-eyed virgin shtick grows on everybody's nerves. Since the first film exposed the scenario that these characters will eventually encounter, Roth abandons the slow buildup of dread and immediately makes everything and everyone appear menacing. The train ride to Prague is a dangerous, alien experience where Whitney and Beth almost get raped by a trio of sleazy druggies and Lorna has her iPod stolen by a scraggly old man who looks like he crawled out of an old John Carpenter movie.
It's then that Axelle saves the day, returning the swiped audio device and shining a light of hope onto the journey. Her welcome appearance leads the girls to allow her into their fold, and they are finally convinced to join in on the expedition to Slovakia. There seems to be an even stronger connection between Axelle and Beth, and it appears the latter character may be evaluating her sexuality much like Josh from the first film. In fact, Beth is a combination of Josh and Paxton, Whitney represents Paxton's original party animal persona, while Lorna's goofiness has her as the comedic tagalong a la the Icelandic Oli from Hostel.
Roth saves time by not overly establishing the lovely village where the hostel is set, since we know all that already. (And yes, a Slavic dub of Pulp Fiction is still playing in the common room.) Milda Jedi Havlas' creepy “Desk Clerk Jedi” character is back, but this time we see that he scans guests' passports and furnishes them to the Hunting group to start an online bidding war. This is slightly at odds with the events of the first film.
In Hostel: Part II, the torturers know who they are going to be killing, whereas in the first film Josh and his murderer were traveling to Slovakia together. The creepy Dutchman was obviously on his way to make a killing before his victim even arrived at the hostel of doom. This isn't necessarily a gaffe per se, as the film shows the business model of the operation as being slightly flexible. Perhaps the Dutch businessman of the first film was coming to town to see what the ‘Daily Special' was.
In the case of this film, our heroines are immediately up for grabs once they check in, and Roth shows a clever montage of normal people bidding on the opportunity to eviscerate them. It's a great device that echoes what made Rosemary's Baby so frightening – that it's the perfectly normal people (including a kindly old woman wrangling horses out West) who are frothing for a chance to murder. (You'll certainly be more wary of what the people you meet in public are doing on their Blackberries!) With more of the opposite end of the pipeline to explore, we are introduced to two of the buyers – Richard Burgi's Todd and Roger Bart's Stuart (oddly, both Desperate Housewives co-stars).
Todd is more akin to the Rick Hoffman character from the first film – a well-to-do businessman who can't wait to gain the power from his first kill. His thirst for blood is exaggerated, and he's aching to get to the Eastern Bloc to vent his sickness on a young girl and gain a barely discernable power over others that they will be able to ‘sense, like an animal does'. Roth writes great arcs for both torturers, and Todd becomes an animal something akin to Kurt Russell's Stuntman Mike in Death Proof.
Stuart is a mousy husband who sees his family off before receiving the call that it's time to go kill with his buddy. He's slightly more ambivalent about the prospect, and one suspects that he might have been pressured into going. Either way, the scene of him receiving his ‘assignment' shortly after his family's breakfast is effectively chilling, down to the well-placed milk carton with a missing child advert on the kitchen table. This guy's not just some soulless suit looking for kicks; he's a father on his way to kill other people's daughters.
Once the girls are settled in, they join Axelle at a local fair which plays as a Slavic version of a RenFest. Many of the participants roam around in oversized plaster masks and costumes, dropping visual references to both The Wicker Man and Miike's Gozu. These scenes are a great addition, and help bring a new spice to this film while showing how enchanting and foreign such a place could be. Lorna quickly falls for a lumbering long-haired gentleman who lures her into joining him on a boat ride. Whitney has eyes for the studly Miroslav (Stanislav Ianevski, who played Viktor Krum in the last Harry Potter movie).
Beth, however, skirts around further seductions from Axelle and denies a dance request from a young man who then rebukes her rebuff with the ominous claim that he ‘could have helped' her. The one person she does connect with is none other than Stuart, the man who has taken out a second mortgage on his home in order to pay for the opportunity to murder her. He and Todd are both in town, and after receiving the bloodhound tattoo required of all participants, they are put up in a posh hotel to await the moment when they are called to kill.
In another hilarious comment on consumerism, the Elite Hunting agents hand out plastic pagers embedded with blinking lights just like you'd get at an American chain restaurant. Todd mainly spends his spare time whoring and thinking about what he'll do to his victim, but Stuart can't resist the urge to get a little closer. He almost blows it by calling Beth by her name before she tells it to him. It's another eerie moment that puts her Spidey Sense a-tingling.
This dance of death is a welcome addition to the storyline, but the insight into the ‘Elite Hunting' group doesn't stop there. We're also introduced to Milan Knazko's Sasha, the murderous mastermind whose pet bloodhounds are the inspiration for the organization's logo. Also back is the Bubblegum Gang, the feral kids wandering the streets of Slovakia looking for gum or in this case a dollar. An encounter with Lorna elicits laughs when her offer of a ‘Smint' is answered by a spit in the face from their gang leader (played again by Patrik Zigo).
There's an interesting subplot introduced which establishes the Bubblegum Gang as the only real foe of the Elite Hunting agency. There's a tense scene in which Sasha holds a gun to every child's head before executing one of them at point blank as retribution, but it paints an interesting picture of a group of poor children being the only people able to stand up to the long, corrupt arm of the death trade organization.
Roth's directorial talent is still waxing, and he (along with returning DP Milan Chadima) creates some truly haunting imagery with this film. The film begins with close-up shots of the personal effects of previous victims being burned to ash in a large fire pit. These harrowing shots establish a feeling of dread even before the story gets underway. There's a moment at the hot springs where Beth awakes from a poolside slumber to discover that everyone is gone. There are some beautiful slow pans of steaming waters that could have been lifted out of a Kurosawa film.
Roth also dabbles in some generally cool looking shots such as the one focusing on the reflections of a large, ominous box in Sasha's mirrorshades. Or the clever moment where a brief blackout aboard a train allows a creepy old man to subtly invade one characters' cabin while she's not paying attention. I also loved the musical montage with Slavic folk music accompanying Todd and Stuart's entrance into the realm of death. It's a great segment that displays sick humor (as the two joke around in a room filled with custom torture devices and costumery) while it gets under your skin by asking you to identify with Stuart in particular, and what he is reluctantly about to do. Roth's bag of tricks doesn't begin and end with gore, much to the chagrin of his adversaries.
But what about the torture, you say? You came for torture and you've had to endure me rambling on about poetic visuals and character arcs. Okay, kids – there's also torture in the film! There's nose biting, head sawing and member clipping to be had. As mentioned before, director Ruggero Deodato portrays a cannibal taking time to savor a young victim's flesh. Then there's the reference to the Hungarian serial killer Elizabeth Bathory (in case you didn't get it, the character's name in the film is Mrs. Bathory) who slices up a hanging, cattle-like victim (as seen in some of the film's poster art) with a scythe while sitting below in a candlelit bathtub. It's a nifty update of the apocryphal suggestion that Bathory used to bathe in the blood of her victims to gain eternal life and beauty. It sometimes plays a bit goofy, but that's probably because it reminded me of the softcore ‘blood and boobs' segments from Britain's Redemption Video and TV series.
The introduction of ‘theme rooms' in this film shows that the business end of these murder services has grown since the events of the first film. (And after Paxton's escape, more thought has gone into the layout of the space, making the factory that much harder to slip away from.) There's one scene with a victim slowly bleeding to death with nobody to benefit from her demise, spurring the management to go cell door to cell door offering a special ‘act now!' discount providing they can dispatch the girl before she dies naturally in twenty minutes. Whereas the first film was more about turning the exploiter into the exploited, this film focuses more on how that is accomplished through commerce and the evils of money.
Money drives everything in this world, and is the only thing separating life from death. Roth has mentioned that he views this as a Grand Guignol meditation on the war in Iraq, with the ‘respectable guys' profiting from the deaths of countless soldiers and civilians. The first film also generated comparisons to the events at Abu Ghraib, and Hostel: Part Two drives home the point that the real killers aren't always the one you would suspect. Even the victims themselves can become predators with enough cash at their disposal.
It also once again points out the disgusting nature of a society that knows what atrocities are going on, yet looks the other way in fear of reprisals - or even a la The Wicker Man, for fear of jeopardizing a cash crop. With the inclusion of the one young man eager to help new victims, at least Roth shows us a glimpse of humanity among the townsfolk. Yet as well meaning as his character is, his intentions are noticed by others and swiftly punished with violence.
With the inclusion of scenes such as the opening fire pit segment and a later instance of surly looking lads filling trash bags with the possessions of a young couple who looked so happy and alive the day before, Roth evokes more dread by illuminating that this is all so damned routine . Your death means nothing to these people; except for the amount of money it can net them. It's a fascinating comment on societies and industries that perpetrate horrible acts yet justify them by ignoring or normalizing them. Luckily, this is all a movie and such passive criminality could never occur here, right?If the world wasn't a bleak enough place in the first film, Roth adds to the horror by introducing the ‘bidding' concept. Even though we felt that the characters of Hostel were doomed the moment they entered the village, in this film we know they are. Once their passport picture is beamed across the Internet, they are essentially dead. They can still walk around the town enjoying themselves, but it's an illusion of free will. It's a frightening scenario that makes you wonder if you've ever made a decision that will ultimately doom you.
Part II obviously couldn't rehash the finale of the first film, so it instead pulls a one-two punch that is both grisly and darkly humorous. This film is much more of a black comedy than the first one, which is a welcome tact since Roth probably couldn't have topped the overpowering dread of Hostel. I still like the original film the most, but I wasn't expecting Hostel: Part Two to work nearly as well as it does. Most reviews will probably omit mentioning the great visuals and interesting European casting choices, but Eli Roth knows how to mix class and trash with just the right measure. It doesn't give the same buzz generated by the first film, but Hostel: Part Two does put its stink on you well after the credits have stopped rolling. What would you be capable of if you had the money?Actually, on second thought – I don't want to know, so save your emails. Just go out and see this film if you're at all interested in trash cinema. It's a funny, artistic horror film that will likely disappear from screens relatively soon. And then you can proudly tell the world: “I Love Torture Porn!”