The second half of this review is loaded with spoilers. Please avoid scrolling to the end if you haven’t seen the movie. The final grade for this film is an 8.
Eli Roth faced a dilemma when making Hostel Part II: we were in on it already. What made the first film work was how it gradually turned from a sex comedy to something more horrifying; the film slowly became a tour into the depths of a man-made hell. The marketing let us know we were going to end up there eventually (no one walked into Hostel thinking they were getting Eurotrip II), but Roth doled out the reveals perfectly, building the film to a gory climax… and then going a little over the top. Hey, it’s Eli Roth.
That means Hostel Part II can’t just do the same thing, even with the genders of the main characters switched. Nobody is going to sit through forty-five minutes of bumbling around Europe – it would be like Friday the 13th Part 2, which is just a cookie cutter remake of the first film (by the way, Roth very much homages the opening of Friday 2, as well as many other serial slasher films). So Roth does something very smart – he partly replays the original film, with genders reversed and the tension more palpable, but he also pulls the story back and not only looks behind the scenes of the ‘hunting club’ that murders backpackers, but he follows two men through the system, right from their American homes to the Slovakian torture chambers.
Ultimately that was the part of the film I liked the most and found the most involving. The great Richard Burgi is Todd, a real Master of the Universe type (think Tom Wolfe, not Eternia), and Roger Bart is Stuart, his more passive friend. They have been around the world doing things that the neighbors at home wouldn’t understand, but killing somebody is the ultimate rush for them. Bart’s a perfect choice for the role because he brings a natural vulnerability to the character – against my own best gorehound interests I found myself rooting for him to get the hell out of this situation before losing his soul.
Another fascinating bit of this storyline is peeking at the operations behind the hostel – seeing the girls’ passports scanned and their pictures entered into an online bidding war. Roth shows us the people driving the price up, and many of them look like family men or business leaders; sure, it’s not some kind of astonishing psychological insight, but it’s a gratifying swipe at the rich white man. We follow Stuart and Todd as they go through every step of the process, even scoping out their victims the night before they’re to torture and murder them. Roth keeps relying on Bart’s innate decency to lend these scenes a heavily ominous atmosphere; a scene at a fair where Stuart meets and talks to the girl he has paid to kill is nicely teased out – you get the sense of her doom, but also Stuart’s.
Sadly, Roth can’t make the girls’ story come alive in the same way. Heather Matarazzo as the plain-jane, spaced out Lorna delivers a solid and sympathetic performance, but Bijou Phillips would have been better used in Hostel’s teen sexcapades gone wrong first half; she plays her character like a rote and boring slutty bitch. Lauren German is saddled with the Hero Girl role (Beth), but she’s so bland (in an icily beautiful way) that it’s impossible to get a hold of her. In the first Hostel the only character you liked was Josh, and it was kind of audacious to make the jerkiest kid the hero. Roth doesn’t go that way again, but he also doesn’t seem able to make his hero that interesting, although to be honest this seems to be the standard for post-Halloween slasher films – nobody remembers the Hero Girl, but they all remember the wacky teens who got offed along the way. At any rate, German can’t hold the screen, even if her character continuously makes admirably smart decision, a refreshing change for this kind of film.
At a Q&A after my screening, Roth talked about how proud he was of subtly setting up one aspect of Beth’s character that pays off in a big way at the end (actually, there are two aspects, one of which is blatantly ripped off from Back to the Future II and III). I have to admit I was mystified by this claim – he sets this aspect up in such a ham-handed way he should have frozen the frame, gone to negative and then whooshed a bit of text explaining it to us. In the first Hostel I ended up being able to forgive this sort of directorial clumsiness because of the tonal change – I sort of convinced myself that the elements that went thud in the first half were supposed to go thud, that it was all part of the conceit. Hostel Part II has no tonal change like that (it can’t, really, unless Roth turned it into a musical, which, considering he had Roger Bart, could have worked), so there was no way for me to forgive inept moments like that set-up. There are more, and like in Hostel, they tend to occur in the first half of the movie, where Roth’s establishing things. It seems like he’s a tremendously gifted filmmaker when it comes to visuals, but he needs to do some work with his storytelling. That said, there’s a scene in Hostel Part II – we follow Todd and Stuart as they prepare to kill – that’s completely wonderful, and played perfectly. I found myself on the edge of my seat during a sequence that contained no overt menace or threat of violence, and that’s impressive.
Hostel Part II is already attracting some controversy for its violence. After reading some critics, I steeled myself to sit through a real endurance test of grisly nastiness; I was surprised to find that Hostel Part II is less violent than the first film. What’s upsetting some critics is that Roth is using his violence better, wielding it to not just gross us out and make us watch the movie through our fingers but to really shake us. The outcry from some critics is a sign that Roth succeeded, and the scene they’re calling out – where one character is hung upside down naked and then sliced open while another woman orgasmically bathes in her blood (think Elizabeth Bathory) – is wet and bloody but not gross. It’s damn unsettling, though, and that means it’s SUCCESSFUL. Roth has always been more Troma than real grindhouse – he’s an entertainer and a showman first and foremost – but there’s a darkness in him that comes through in this scene. The juxtaposition of violence and sexuality makes you uncomfortable, and that’s the reaction he wants to elicit. Horror films are given a pass or dismissed by the critical establishment when they’re like a house of horrors, with things popping up and shocking you, but once they try to – and in this case, actually do – disturb you, the people who have been disturbed get mad. They’re mad because they’ve been got, because Roth had them in his hands and did what he wanted with them.
From here on in I’m going to be discussing thematic elements that will require me to spoil the living shit out of this movie. I’d recommend that you bookmark this page and come back for the rest of it after you’ve seen the movie. If you want some kind of summary, I’ll say that while Hostel Part II doesn’t have the element of surprise that made the first film work so well, it does represent a significant step forward for Roth as a filmmaker, and while it doesn’t dole out the same thrills as the first movie, it’s much more disturbing – again, a testament to Roth’s growth. I’m giving this sucker an 8.
And now for those who want to be spoiled or who have seen the film:
The other criticism the movie has been receiving is that it’s sexist and exploitative. At my screening, some people took offense at the killing of a child in the film, saying that it was there just to be there. And? I fail to see why that’s particularly so repugnant (especially since I understand how film works and know that the child is PRETENDING to be dead. It would be too costly to actually kill him), or why an exploitation element, one calculated to once again upset us, is so out of line in a movie about teens being tortured and murdered for sport.
The sexist critique feels like an exercise in dipshittery, to be frank. There wasn’t much outcry over the first film from the critical establishment, but putting women into similar situations suddenly brings the bile – it reads like sexism to me. It also reads like not paying attention to the movie. Roth establishes an environment where the women are treated like meat long before they get to Slovakia – every man in the movie takes a look at their asses, and some men that they’re flirting with call them teases, bitches and cunts when they won’t put out (the only guys who are decent to them – including a guy who’s disappointed but okay with not getting some action – either get beat or come to a grisly end). During the auction scene we see a woman bidding, but otherwise the members of the ‘hunting club’ seem to be men. Even the street kids from the first film call these girls bitches, and I don’t think Roth is just throwing the word around – he’s creating a misogynist world that is about to victimize these girls.
Furthering the sexist critique is the idea that the only kind of people who make and consume films like this are guys who have issues with women. That may be so, but Roth’s not unaware of it – in the movie’s third act Stuart is revealed to be a henpecked husband who doesn’t feel like a man anymore, and Beth has been bought for him because she looks like his wife. Torturing her isn’t enough for him, and he tries to rape her – the whole ‘men who have issues with women’ thing is right there on the screen. And it’s handled well, I think, because Stuart has been the character we’ve been rooting for, hoping he’ll come to his senses; when he dissolves into a misogynistic monster it’s damning of the rest of us. And if all of this is not clear to those of you in the cheap seats, Roth has German get her revenge on him by graphically cutting off his dick and feeding it to dogs. The man who was metaphorically castrated by his wife ends up literally so. You may be able to come back at me with subtextual elements (and I relish the challenge – I love looking at movies beyond the surface elements) but textually Roth has created a film that could be argued as feminist… in the same way that I Spit On Your Grave could be argued as feminist. You could argue that the revenge aspect only exists to make us feel better about enjoying the degradation of the female (and I wouldn’t say you’re wrong), but I think that with the exception of Bijou Phillip’s character, Roth has created sympathetic women who are smart and who are in a world that’s naturally a little hostile towards them.
And again, it’s on purpose. We can go back and forth about how much of the subtext of Hostel Roth intended and how much just sort of ended up there, but this time he’s aware. There’s a scene where someone is cornered by dogs that’s a recreation of one of the Abu Ghraib photos. Roth’s observations about Todd and Stuart, while not blindingly original, ring true. And his penultimate scenes make the whole film a gloriously cynical view of how to survive in this world – to make it out of the torture chamber, you have to buy into the torture chamber. It’s the ugly lesson that every kid who delayed life by backpacking through Europe had to learn eventually when they got home. If you’re not part of the system, the system is going to eat you the fuck up (literally in this film, which has a cameo by Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato as a guy indulging in a Hannibal Lecter-style dinner). This ending is more successful to me than the ending of the first film, and more in line with the original ending of that movie, where Paxton, instead of killing the torturer, finds the man’s daughter and kills her. You hate it but you become it.
I do wish that Roth had constructed a better third act; Hostel Part II feels like it’s all Act Two. There’s a face-off between Beth and Stuart that I felt was too perfunctory – there should have been more mind games. It’s fascinating to watch Stuart break down and give in to his worst side, especially as Beth takes charge of the situation and makes him again feel like less than a man. But German can’t act alongside Bart, and so the whole thing feels like a real actor walked into a community theater production – while German remains as flat as she’s been, she suddenly makes Bart seem too operatic and big. And Roth can’t resist going out on a gag – the guy’s a showman, after all. He doesn’t want you walking out of the theater upset, because he knows that means you won’t recommend it to your friends. But if you walk out laughing it’s another matter.
Hostel Part II is a better movie than the first, but I’m not convinced I like it more. I’m interested in seeing how this film ages – my current reaction comes just over 24 hours after seeing the movie, and I wish I had more time to think about it. I think the film is going to find itself in a weird position, though, damned by critics for the violence and dismissed by genre fans for its lack of violence. It’s not a perfect movie, and it has problems stemming from its split structure (which is too uneven), but it’s an interesting movie and an effective movie. I was scared, I was creeped out and I was grossed out and I rarely felt like the movie was cheating me or taking logical short cuts. Hostel Part II may not be the follow-up that everyone was looking for, but I think it’s a worthy film on its own.