In theaters June 8th
Directed by Eli Roth
No appendage is left intact, everyone has a price on their head and writer-director Eli Roth explores his feminine side in Hostel: Part II, the follow-up to 2006’s box office hit that opened the year in horror not with a bang but with yelps of pain echoing through the halls of a Slovakian torture dungeon. Ample fodder for hushed water cooler conversations, Hostel cornered and hooked audiences with its unflinching approach to avocational violence. Discriminating viewers (like this writer) were far less admiring of the film’s lackluster leads (a trio of douche bags, really) thus disconnecting the umbilical nourishing us with the necessary empathy for when Roth’s characters suffered at the hands of wealthy businessmen. Released in the wake of the sensational Abu Ghraib torture prison news, Hostel was seen as an allegory of the times.
Here we are, a little over a year and a half later with the second, hastily-produced, gore-ific chapter to reinforce similar parallels intertwined with more weak themes and weaker victims this time out. The premise dispenses with mystery as easily as Hostel‘s oafish clean-up brute tosses body parts into the furnace.
Roth was not kidding around when he told the press his sequel would pick up immediately where the first film left off. A la Friday the 13th: Part II, we’re re-introduced to Preston (our Adrienne King) who is dealt some fierce retribution by “Elite Hunting” – the sinister group that profits from death – for escaping their clutches. It’s obvious they are a business with far-reaching power and are systematic in their dealings with “loose ends.”
This is Roth’s first shift to give us further insight into the world of Elite Hunting and it’s also the sequel’s largest misstep.
It’s a tonal botch-up supported by Todd and Stuart, a pair of businessmen – one brimming with disquieting, almost lampoon-ish, machismo, the other a timid tag-along – who venture to Slovakia for a “client” excursion. When Elite places their “potentials” up for sale, like some evil eBay, Todd, via a Blackberry, outbids his competitors. In an unsettling stroke of montage genius, Roth reveals these wannabe killers as well-to-do bosses, mature women and fathers. Nevertheless, it’s Todd and Stuart (a family man himself) we’re stuck with as they relish the spoils of joining the club. They get tattooed, they get hookers and parties. And through this, we’re learning the machinations of Elite Hunting, robbing it of its shadowy nature.
In a sense, Roth has stooped to modern prequel ambitions that, as of late, have strived to lend logic to the evil that men do. Why does Leatherface pick up the chainsaw? ‘Cause it’s there. Why does Hannibal cannibalize his victims? ‘Cause he ate his sister. Who are the men who enlist in Elite Hunting? Hostel: Part II eventually lets you know in its final moments through a predictable twist of derivative motivations.
I tend to believe less is more. The less I know, the scarier it is. Instead, the potential to terrify is lost in Roth’s good-intentioned effort to humanize his monsters.
On the flipside of this blood-spattered coin, we have Beth, Whitney and Lorna, art students seeking escape from their teachings and sleazy men. With the help of the sultry Axelle (this entry’s Barbara Nedeljakova), they discover and check into the now-familiar hostel and partake in the area’s harvest fest and hot springs. One-by-one they’re plucked from the local populace and prettied up all to be made presentable when they’re bound, gagged and weeping before their killers. It begins with poster girl Heather Matarazzo’s Lorna, a wet rag and utterly unlikable sap who is bled to death during one of the film’s more effectively gruesome moments cribbed from Countess Bathory’s plasma baths.
Roth makes this his “A” story, stumbling back in line with the same narrative structure as the first film, except this time it’s even more excruciating to slog through nearly forty-five minutes of lost character potential. What is most offensive is that he succumbs to female stereotype than break new ground. Lorna is the meek one, Whitney’s the bitchy slut and Beth represents the reserved final girl who may or may not lean towards lesbian tendencies. Laura German nimbly straddles this insinuation, even if it is unnecessary. Her co-stars slip into their personalities with ease. How many times have we seen Matarazzo play this role before?
When the worlds of the killer and victim collide, Hostel: Part II embraces its bloodlust like one of the film’s guard dogs savoring the taste of some poor walking steak’s bicep. Here, Roth is incredibly liberal with the liquids, knowing the limitations of on-screen torture. So now we get some true gut-churning moments of exposed and wet tender vittles on the receiving end of a circular saw or pair of shears. A particularly inspired scene (probably one of the best) comes from Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato’s cameo who quite literally chews the scenery. There is no mistaking it: Roth was a kid in a candy store this time and he pulls no punches.
But for all of the slick nastiness, Hostel: Part II exudes a slapstick nature. Several sight and sound gags elicit more chuckles than frights. A gardener revs up a chainsaw off camera as Roth has us wondering about the fate of one character. A guard steps in front of a security monitor to show off a motorcycle magazine to his pal just before we see a torturer go about his business, denying the gorehounds out there a much-needed money shot.
Although Roth demonstrates his continued growth behind the camera, Hostel: Part II suffers from an identity crisis. It struggles to continue the story arc Roth began last year, and it succeeds to a point, but the impotent script lacks ingenuity and relies on familiarity. And letting us peer deeper into the world he established may be its biggest detriment.
The parts here are most definitely better than the whole indicating that perhaps Roth may have needed a bit more time to fine-tune his themes. Surely he could have come up with a coda better than “money can get you anything” – but perhaps that’s telling sign of our times. Still, I’m not buying what this sequel’s sellin’.