Hostel: Part II

Oh, how the mighty can fall, or at least stumble. Roughly a year and a half after his powerful Hostel, writer-director Eli Roth is back with another trip to the Slovak hell hole in disguise and another look at the pay-for-murder Elite Hunting organization, which from the looks of it provides steady employment to pretty much everybody in town and allows its boss a palatial home with blood hound statues at the entrance. Not quite as big a downgrade from its predecessor as the appalling Saw III was to the excellent Saw II, “Hostel: Part II” is still a disappointment as a follow-up to an exceptional horror film. This is the result of a shift away from the many strengths of Hostel – the visceral impact, the unblinkingly dark tone, the ruthless indictment of American imperialism and arrogance and the terrifying feeling of being lost in a strange land where life is cheap and evil’s only limit is the size of your bank account.

The film basically picks up where it left off. Paxton (Jay Hernandez) has escaped, but how long can you survive when Elite Hunting is after you? It’s no spoiler to say we don’t see him for too long. The plot shifts to a new batch of victims: whereas the first film had three guys (two American college students and an Icelandic “drifter”), this one has three young Americans gals in Rome for art classes. Lorna, Whitney and Beth (Heather Matarazzo, Bijou Philips and Lauren German) have just finished drawing nude portraits when the female model (Vera Jordanova) shows friendly curiosity about Beth’s rendering of herself. Axelle (the model) runs into the girls again on a train to Prague, and she talks the ladies into going with her to these fabulous hot springs at this super-spa in Slovakia. Cue the lodgings we know, with the same shady clerk, and let the mayhem begin.

Lorna, who’s incredibly meek, dreamy and naïve, is the first to be trapped by Elite’s henchmen after she accepts a night-time boat ride with a complete stranger that looks even less trustworthy than that sort-of pimp Alex did in the first movie. This decision leads to what is undoubtedly the film’s nastiest and most perverse scene: being naked, gagged and hung upside down is just the start of her ordeal, especially when you throw a scythe into the equation. Having good-times girl Whitney tied up and ball-gagged in sexy pink lingerie will give further ammunition to those who accuse Roth of voyeurism and exploitation through torture, but variations of what happens here have been happening in horror films for some time, to both men and women. It’s part of the nature of the genre to shock and sometimes repel, but like any other film genre, horror movies should be viewed and reviewed in a comprehensive manner about what makes it work or not; it’s often simplistic to make moral judgments based only on what may or may not be repulsive within a film.

Yet even with this inclusive approach, it’s hard to say what Roth was after here. Is this film some pitch-black vision of consumerism gone past the extreme, or is he trying to convey some alleged fear of the potential murderous maniac next door, hiding his worst impulses under the cover of financial stability, an apple-pie family and Sunday golf? Still waters may run deep, but there’s a jarring change of attitude here with the seemingly remorseful and hesitant Stuart (Roger Bart), one of two wealthy American clients, that is profoundly puzzling. He snaps in the blink of an eye, while his friend and fellow client, the boastful Todd (Richard Burgi), rationalizing the idea of murder as a self-imposed rite of passage, a demented road to unmatchable empowerment, is revealed to be all bark and no bite about his twisted intentions. I kept looking for possible insights into the nature of the evil that men do but found little explanation- perhaps the answer is that there is none- as well as a few sudden shifts in tone. At times the mood seems resigned and sorrowful (the plaintive song heard as Todd and Stuart march toward their respective death-dealing rooms is an evocative highlight), but this kind of atmosphere is undermined by perplexing asides that would be disgusting if they weren’t silly (the bidding process for the victims is preposterous almost to the point of parody, while the executioner’s “dinner” and the bubble gum gang’s soccer game, with a special “ball”, are incongruous attempts at gallows humour).

German turns in a fine performance as the headstrong and resourceful Beth. Her role is by far the most important of the girls, and she gives it the intensity it requires. No one else really stands out, but it’s not like they have fully developed characters to work with. An intriguing exception is Elite’s mastermind Sasha (veteran Slovakian actor Milan Knazko). We don’t know much about the man, but Knazko is very convincing as an all-powerful crime boss, for whom anything can be negotiated if the price is right and a key clause of the contract is respected – getting his organization’s trademark tattoo of a blood hound. “Hostel: Part II” is worth seeing for horror fans – if you usually stay away from the genre, this brand of gory, in your face nastiness is probably not a good fit for you – but a lot has been lost from the standout original film, most importantly the crucial element of surprise.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay