Friday, June 8, 2007

Review :: Eli Roth's Hostel: Part II

[It's hard to legitimately review a horror film. It's aimed at a very specific audience, most of whom will see it no matter what critics say. So let me just disclaim this: I like horror movies. Some of my favourite directors have worked in horror, such as Stanley Kubrick and David Cronenberg. At the same time, though, I want more, much more, than just blood. Horror can be a legitimate genre only in as much as it has wit or intelligence. I liked Hostel. I thought it was clever and so I went into Hostel: Part II hoping for a decent film that had some chills and some interesting social comments. Now, on to the review... ]

The last several years have seen the rise of a new sub-genre within the larger realm of horror movies, the so-called "torture porn" or "gorno," films such as Saw, The Devil's Rejects and, of course, Hostel, the most obviously exploitative of the three. These terms are often used derogatively and with great moral outrage and yet Eli Roth, writer and director of the Hostel movies, is likely right to say that this it is an an unfair term, one that deliberately fails to recognize these movies as legitimate attempts to create art. Horror, especially good horror, is often rather more intelligent, subversive and ironic than most critics and pundits ever give it credit for. That being said, it seems to me that in horror movies there is in fact a very fine line between art and pornography, wit and exploitation, actual intelligence and raw bloodlust. And all too often, that line is crossed as soon as a film becomes a franchise and spawns sequels.

In Hostel, three American men travel to Amsterdam to enjoy the thriving sex trade; while there, they are told of a remote, little-known hostel in Slovakia that is supposedly home to some of the most beautiful women in Eastern Europe, towards which they immediately set out. Of course, the hostel is a front for something far more sinister and they soon find themselves in the clutches of an evil syndicate of wealthy businessmen who, bored with their own excesses and with more traditional forms of exploitation, such as prostitution, have turned to human torture and murder as a form of entertainment. As one character in the sequel describes it, murder is the "next level." The obvious connection between the flesh trade and the new flesh-torture trade were readily apparent, if not a little on the nose. As a comment upon exploitative American tendencies, Hostel was clever enough and so, in its own eyes at least, it provided a fair enough justification for its sequences of brutal violence.

Hostel: Part II, follows much the same premise except that in this iteration its justification is rather more thin and less obvious. The movie follows three American women who seem to be in Europe getting a taste of the Old World. Unlike the men from the first movie, though, nothing these girls do could be construed as a reason, metaphoric or otherwise, for what will befall them. They are average, regular college-type girls doing average, regular college-type things. More interesting than them, though, is the two American businessmen on whom the movie also focuses, clients of the hostel that come to Slovakia with the express purpose of torturing and murdering these girls. Roth is surprisingly deft at portraying these two men and what, I suppose, could be the psychology of the decisions they make. Roth tries to make some comments upon sexual politics and male insecurities but, really, there isn't much here by way of social commentary that hasn't been said before or said better.

And that's the problem I have with Hostel: Part II, or with any horror movie sequel for that matter. In almost every case, sequels are redundant and nothing is done in them that hasn't been done in the first one. Sequels just add more blood. Sure, sometimes they try to be clever and fiddle around with the tropes and conventions established by the first one. Here, for instance, Roth changes the protagonists from men to women, which affords him the chance to make a few interesting changes. More importantly, he almost found a new angle by focusing of the torturers. And had he focused exclusively on the American businessmen and their psychology/psychosis, Hostel: Part II might have been an interesting film. Instead, however, we are given a film that is predictable and, unfortunately, not scary. Perhaps I'm jaded, but I was never once scared. A bit nauseated and uncomfortable in some sequences, yes, but never scared. While the first film had a growing sense of dread built around this mysterious and menacing place, the second film has all its cards already spread on the table. We know what the hostel and the factory are and we know what to expect. Devoid of any real scares and without any interesting social comments (aside from several thin feminist themes that have run through horror for a while now and which have been treated so much better, such as in Death Proof most recently), Hostel: Part II comes dangerously close to actually being this so-called "torture porn."

In the end, the film is a lot less clever than it thinks it is, is more disgusting than the first one, and comes off, unfortunately, as a rather obvious and mediocre sequel. It felt like Saw II: bigger, bloodier and less intelligent. Roth has stated that this will be the last Hostel film. Personally, I hope he remains true to his word. I had high hopes for Roth after Hostel. Perhaps his next film will be better.

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