“Are you ready for some fucked-up shit?” was how Eli Roth introduced NYC’s press screening of Hostel: Part II, and that more or less says it all. Roth’s follow-up to last year’s Hostel is just about worthless, though this slam has little to do with its copious gore, which will surely raise the hackles of certain critics and filmgoers who’ll find it gratuitous, revolting, and offensive. It is, to be sure, all of those things, yet what’s stunning about Roth’s sequel is that its sole creative impetus is to deliver as much button-pushing gruesomeness as it can.
To this immensely overrated filmmaker, horror has nothing to do with scares, or disquieting moods, or the power of suggestion; blood and guts are the end all, be all. No surprise that set photos have caught the director wearing a Cannibal Holocaust T-shirt, as his modus operandi is not unlike that of Ruggero Deodato’s infamous shlocker: to repulse audiences with notoriously taboo material (Deodato cameos for good measure). Roth, however, isn’t nearly as imaginative as his exploitation forebears, nor as original, as Hostel: Part II is a barren carbon copy of its predecessor. Outrage and disgust are sure to greet its theatrical arrival, but as its guiding conviction is that horror audiences desire nothing more than predictable schlock bereft of shocks or genuine terror, the chief impression imparted is one of condescension.
More than any of its alleged kindred spirits, it was Roth’s Hostel that defined torture porn, with its two-act narrative—the first half focused on idiot backpackers gallivanting around Slovakia, the second half about wealthy customers paying to kill them—eliciting chills and thrills solely from helpless innocents being horrifically mutilated. Insipid “ugly American” political subtext aside, the film’s main goal was to transform torture into desirable on-screen entertainment, into something that viewers eagerly anticipated. (Spoilers herein.) The same holds true of its sequel, epitomized by a scene in which the beheading of slutty vacationer Whitney (Bijou Phillips), seen on a video monitor, is obscured at the moment of impact by a security guard’s head. Roth wants us to giddily groan at this denial, without ever establishing any persuasive reason for us to care about either his lambs-to-the-slaughter or the slaughterers themselves, primarily because he doesn’t have even a passing interest in story or character. He’s only into depicting bodily harm as a means of egotistically boosting his own horror street cred, which is why when Todd (Richard Burgi)—in Slovakia with reluctant friend Stuart (Roger Bart) to slay some American teens—talks about wanting the quiet, fearsome aura that comes from committing murder, it’s clear the sentiment is really that of the director’s.
Hostel: Part II’s central novelty is that rather than male victims, this time around it’s women who suffer at the hands of degenerate businessmen. In light of slasher film history, it’s a logical switch, though Roth has no clue how to tackle this clichéd power dynamic in new or thought-provoking ways. Like his buddy Quentin Tarantino (whose Pulp Fiction is briefly glimpsed, and then subsequently mimicked via a scene in which two killers amiably chat about their forthcoming homicides), Roth is a diligent student of B movies. Nonetheless, his main skill is one of superficially, thoughtlessly replicating the tropes of his primary influences. To wit: Roth laces much of his introductory half with familiar sexist undercurrents, as Whitney, rich and bi-curious friend Beth (Lauren German), and scaredy-cat loser Lorna (Heather Matarazzo) are repeatedly slandered as “bitches” and harassed by predatory males. Yet instead of tweaking, subverting, or even examining such gender conflicts, Roth merely embraces them, most repellently with the execution of Matarazzo, who (unlike her more attractive female and male co-stars), is left to literally dangle nude, Roth’s camera gleefully lingering on her body in a manner so callous and cruel it’s amazing the actress agreed to participate.
With an unconvincing conclusion that echoes Slumber Party Massacre and Death Proof, Roth provides a built-in defense to misogyny-related objections. Throughout, however, he seems largely indifferent to what his material might truly be conveying because his concerns—recent press claims to the contrary—aren’t feminist/economic/political themes but showing off how extreme he can be. Which, it turns out, isn’t even all that extreme. Similar to its precursor, Hostel: Part II promises scandalous grindhouse excessiveness, then pulls its punches more often than it delivers the goods. When a handsaw accidentally minces a girl’s face, Roth cuts away so quickly that the actual contact is barely glimpsed, while another man’s grisly fate at the fangs of ferocious dogs (as well as Whitney’s ultimate demise) is kept completely off-screen. In these and other moments, the director reveals himself to be a poseur, a phony affecting a gonzo horror-rebel stance while failing to follow through on his guarantees. Still, his appalling material is more tolerable than his tongue-in-cheek black humor, which uncomfortably engages with his grim images of torture, and which never achieves the stunning sick-funny energy of the climactic shot of his Grindhouse trailer Thanksgiving.
In blustery macho Todd’s statement to hesitant wuss Stuart that sport torture happens in all chaotic locales (including Chad and New Orleans), Hostel: Part II stumbles upon an issue actually worth exploring: the correlation between morality and law and order. Like the relationship between sex and violence, however, Roth can’t be bothered to stop and think, too busy is he wasting time on torpid setup—suspense-free because we know, thanks to the first Hostel, that the protagonists will eventually find themselves prisoners in a dark, dank dungeon—and trying to be badass. Look, ma, I can shoot a kid! And elicit nasty laughs by having Todd callously throw a whore off his crotch!
Roth’s film functions as a ritual akin to the ceremony performed on Lorna, but one with no purpose other than to court easy outrage. All the while, the director gets to act the bad-boy rock star, egomaniacally puffing out his chest because he thinks he’s pushing the envelope. All he’s really done, though, is made a preeminent pseudo-horror film, one that ignores its decree to frighten audiences, wholly fails to unsettle them (even via goriness), and thereby operates as simply one long, tedious, immature, and pointless excuse for a flaccid money shot of a castrated cock being fed to dogs. That’s not “fucked-up shit,” as Roth believes. It’s just shit.
The film's characters go like lambs to the slaughter, so it was crucial that this transfer revere Milan Chadima's golden-calf cinematography. Fittingly, skin tones are sweltering, colors are succulent, and shadow delineation is solid, though combing is visible intermittingly. The sound is possibly superior: Truly, the brushes-to-canvas sounds during the nude painting scene are every bit as striking as the metal massage Heather Matarazzo gets in the film's first torture sequence.
Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino are responsible for two of 2007's worst movies, so the thought of hearing them yak away on a commentary track at the same time was not high on my list of Things To Do Before I Die. Miraculously, QT's sit-down with Roth and the Hostel: Part II director's brother Gabriel Roth, an associate producer on the film, is never more annoying than the scenes from Planet Terror where Tarantino pops in to suck the joy out of Robert Rodriguez's rad grindhouse sendup. Because Tarantino is in the house, Roth sounds as if he's been lobotomized (lots of chatter about what movies they ripped off and what Euro Stars of Yesteryear they rescued from obscurity), which is probably why a second commentary track, one with Roth flying solo, was necessary. In short, you have two options: Listening to QT talk about all the movie compilations he foisted on unsuspecting friends and boast how he can endure the film's torture scenes because he has a penis, or Roth chatting about how he wanted Hostel: Part II to reflect George W. Bush's war in Iraq. Whether it is the more pleasant timbre of his voice or his willingness to question the "torture porn" label and address the film's lambasting, Roth's solo track is the more useful listen. Roth, given his belief that only DVD reviewers should listen to more than one commentary track back-to-back in a short period of time, would be disappointed to hear me say that I skipped over the track he recorded with Lauren German, Vera Jordanova, and Richard Burgi, but this much I'll wager: If he believes that his solo track will be of use to future filmmakers, then this one is probably aimed at those wanting to star in the next Saw picture. Four featurettes are also included on the disc, though only two are of note: the muscle-building (don't ask-just watch!), Borat-quoting "The Next Level" and "A Legacy of Torture," which tries to place the film in a historical context. Next are 10 deleted scenes, presented sans "play all" function; one ("Rape Shower") is wittily written and performed, and though it would have made an interesting contrast to a later scene in the movie, Roth predictably snipped it for pacing purposes. Capping the extras are a "blood and guts" gag reel, a bunch of previews, and a radio interview during which Roth, again, invokes Iraq.
Sadly, the horror genre gets no respect, and Hostel: Part II is not the type of film to change that.