12 June 2007

Hostel: Part II

Written & Directed by: Eli Roth

Grade: C+

There might be a point to Hostel II, the follow-up to Eli Roth's now classic entry into the "torture porn" genre, but Roth underplays it so often at the expense of violence and exposition that it can be hard to spot. Horror movies, in general, can be the best measure of a society's fears and concerns (although whether or not the frightless Hostel films should be called "horror" movies is open to debate); Roth surely knows this, but he doesn't really seem to care. The first Hostel film was a gross and gory jubilee that at times paraded itself as an examination of post-9/11 anxiety, an acknowledgement that, as Scott Tobias writes, "bad behavior overseas could result in a little blowback"; it also approached a critique of masculine aggression in which men who treated women as meat were treated as meat in return. Well, those readings work at least up to a point, and that's Roth's problem; he's no fool, but he's more than happy to succumb to a fool's delights, trying to delicately balance the crowd-pleasing carnage with informed commentary in a manner that is sure to please neither camp.

Though I suppose Hostel II should feature enough climactic violence to satisfy the jones of any pimply teen—particularly one with a DVD and a fast-forward button, as the bulk of the violence is to be found in the finale. Opening immediately where the first film ended, just like Halloween II (or, going back a bit, The Bride of Frankenstein), we find a bloodied Jay Hernandez unconscious on a train. It proceeds to do away with him, the first film's sole survivor, just like in Friday the 13th Part II. (This is an incredibly self-aware sequel of Kevin Williamson proportions, though subtler, without being so loud about it.) That out of the way, Roth cuts to three American girls studying in Italy, each representing a familiar archetype—the freak, Lorna (Welcome to the Dollhouse's Heather Matarazzo, a marvelously cast misfit); the bitch, Whitney (Bijou Phillips); and the sweetheart, Beth (Lauren German). Guessing in which order they'll be killed shouldn't be too difficult, nor should hypothesizing as to which will be the Jamie Lee Curtis left standing.

They are thoroughly shallow and irritating characters; is it less a consequence of careless writing than a reflection of American character, and the perception of its citizens abroad? The girls decide to take a trip to Prague, but en route a sexy Italian model tells them about the wonders of Slovakia, civilization's final frontier; she even knows a cool place to stay! Hey, thanks! Of course this turns out to be the eponymous hostel, and all in all a bad idea. "So few safe places left in Europe," bemoans the Italian bitingly, and it's especially true for women; after all, woman is the nigger of the world, and on the Eurorail the Americanettes are seen as nothing but fuckable (and drugable) meat by the Eurotrash. But Hostel II has more up its sleeve than a simple rehashing of the first film, despite the fact that the girl's scenes often feel that way, by focusing on two of the (American) killers (Roger Bart and Richard Burgi) who will, later, be the ones murdering Whitney and Beth. To Americans, women are just butcherable meat.

Roth examines their crises of conscience, both before and after the acts. "Do you think we're sick?" Bart asks Burgi, who replies with a resoundingly enthusiastic, "fuck no!" The two killers-to-be are like a neo-Leopold and Loeb, except in the modern world they pay can big bucks in an internet auction—a montage featuring a humorous overview of the international rich and homicidal—for the thrill of the kill and a bit of legal protection. There's nothing money can't buy! Hostel II is not, like the first film, a parable of American vincibility, but rather could easily be read as a struggle between feminism and (masculine) capitalism; and of course, as always, the latter is the victor.

But that reading only works if you cut out the peripheral fluff, such as a lesbio-erotic scene of blood-letting that proves allegorically problematic. Roth suffers from a lack of focus, or at least comitment, and, as in his debut Cabin Fever, by the end Hostel II has devolved into sheer farce. (Though not before a ballsy killing sequence, a crossed-legs-inducing scene of literal emasculation. How on earth did this get an R rating?) But, I suppose, at least Roth is trying, and Hostel II is mildly interesting, if ultimately spotty, on an intellectual level and perversely entertaining to those who find such things entertaining. Torture porn doesn't get much better, or much worse.

2 comments:

Clayton L. White said...

I'm sorry, but I refuse to believe that there are some sort of deeper provocations or implications to any of Roth's work, or the "torture porn" genre in general. Roth, to me, is one of those kids in grade school that would pick his nose and run around trying to wipe it on everyone else, except now he's grown up and has a camera. He's juvenile, he's sloppy, and he's just looking for excuses to show ample amounts of nudity and violence while never even attempting to add anything substantial. He only wants to gross us out. People like Pasolini, Haneke, and Romero can get away with this shit, but not Roth. He has neither the grace nor the talent.

By the way, this is not an attack on your review, but only a sampling of how I feel about Roth's work.

H. Stewart said...

I understand your frustration with Roth as a filmmaker, and you characterize him quite well as a bebooger-fingered with a camera (haha!) but I don't agree. I think Roth is definitely motivated by seeing how violent and "shocking" he can be, but I really don't think it's as simple as all that. Whether or not the substance in his films is effective or interesting is up for debate, but it's there...it's just not there well.

Nathan Lee agrees with you in his trenchant review:
http://www.villagevoice.com/film/0724,lee,76886,20.html

Scott Tobias would disagree:
http://www.avclub.com/content/cinema/hostel_part_ii

Both are pretty convincing, I feel somewhere in the middle.

Both are pretty persuasive though...