“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.