Reel Opinions

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Hostel: Part II

To hear writer-director Eli Roth talk in interviews, you'd think the guy was re-inventing the wheel and crossing major boundaries with his Hostel horror franchise. I hate to burst a person's bubble, but this is just absolutely not true. Hostel: Part II, the sequel to his surprise 2006 hit, is bound to put even the most devoted of gorehounds to sleep. He fills the movie with characters we couldn't possibly care about, and then expects us to be terrified when they are killed and tortured in gruesome ways. The problem is, Roth expects us to be terrified sheerly by bloodshed alone. Violence is not supposed to be the source of the horror, it is supposed to be the result. Roth never seems to quite grasp this, and as a result, Hostel: Part II comes across merely as a special effects make up demo reel surrounded by long stretches where nothing much of interest ever happens.

After a short prologue depicting the outcome of the sole survivor of the previous film (Jay Hernandez), we're introduced to our three heroines this time around. They include all around average girl Beth (Lauren German), slutty Whitney (Bijou Phillips), and over the top to the point of self-parody nice girl Lorna (Heather Matarazzo). They're traveling across Rome taking art courses, and during their travels, they wind up on a train that seems to contain every single obnoxious frat boy and creepy sleaze cliche that's ever existed in cinema history. During the train ride, they befriend an art model (Vera Jordanova) who tells them about a spa located in Slovakia. The three girls unwisely take the model's detour advice, and find themselves staying at the notorious Hostel from the original film, which acts as a secret operation for a group of wealthy people who pay handsome prices to torture and murder the unfortunate travelers who stay there. The girls party, get drunk, and discover too late just what they've gotten themselves into.

In a parallel plot, two wealthy American businessmen named Todd (Richard Burgi) and Stuart (Roger Bart) have decided to join the top secret torture club. They wind up winning the bets on our three young heroines, tell their families they're going away on business, and set off to find a sick thrill in murdering these girls they've never met. Todd is pumped at the idea, while Stuart seems less than sure, and almost seems to be having second thoughts as the two draw closer to their destination. I suppose Roth is trying to give us a look at both sides of the fence. Whereas in the previous film, the villains were mainly faceless killers who murdered innocent young travelers for twisted sport, here he tries to put a face and a personality to the evil. It doesn't work, because Roth doesn't give us enough to go with. We never really learn Todd's reasons for wanting to do this, while Stuart is apparently bored with his upper class suburban life, and is looking for a quick thrill. Stuart is clearly the most interesting character in the film, and cries out for a screenplay that dives deep into his character and his train of thought, which seems to constantly be wavering back and forth. Roth's screenplay, however, is content to only skim the surface of this potentially interesting character, and instead gives us more of the same.

Yes, despite the filmmaker's insistence that he is pushing the boundaries, Hostel: Part II truly is more of the same. We've got another group of travelers that are completely underdeveloped and unlikeable, the movie wastes too much time in pointless set up that seems to go nowhere, and then we're "treated" to about a half hour or so of torture before the end credits relieve the audience of their collective misery. The strange thing is, the torture and violence (the main selling points of the film) is kept mainly off camera this time around. Aside from a sequence that is a literal bloodbath, and a scene near the end that includes the removal of a man's private sexual organ, there's very little to shock or horrify. The movie merely spins its wheels, promising us that this is all leading up to something, only to laugh at us for getting our hopes up. We spend so much of the movie watching the three main girls partying, cut between scenes with the two villains traveling to their destination or talking to each other, that our interest begins to fade and we just want the girls to die so that the movie can be over with. The film throws a little bit of dark humor into the mix concerning some very violent little street kids (when they find a decapitated head, they act like it's no big deal, and begin playing soccer with it), but it can't hide the fact that there's not a single original thought in the screenplay. Even the supposedly shocking torture scenes that the movie leads up to are mostly forgettable, aside from the previously mentioned "bloodbath" scene. Watching the film, I couldn't help but wonder if either I was just becoming desensitized to over the top horror gore, or if Mr. Roth just wasn't trying hard enough.

Hostel: Part II makes the same mistake the original film did, in that it mistakes gore and bloodshed for genuine terror. Unless that violence builds from something, it's just fake blood being splattered on the screen. It also carries on the mistake of making it impossible to care for just about anyone who walks onto the screen. If you want a reaction to the death of the innocent girls, you have to give us a reason to react. The characters of Beth, Whitney and Lorna are so two-dimensional and uninteresting, all we can do is just sit there and think of how they're going to meet their individual end. They possess no personality for us to feel anything for them and, aside from their very basic character traits, are pretty much the same person. I even found it hard to take the character of Lorna seriously, as the screenplay goes to such extremes to display her naivety and sweetness that she looks like she wandered in from a parody of horror films. (While Beth and Whitney drink alcoholic beverages, Lorna is seen sipping from a child's juice box.) As stated before, Stuart is the closest thing this movie has to an interesting character. It's no surprise that Roger Bart's performance as the character is the closest thing the film has to a real performance as well. Having mainly seen him perform in New York theater and comedic films like 2005's The Producers, it was interesting to see his take on such a dark and tortured character, and I wish the movie had used him more.
I think that anyone who walks into Hostel: Part II looking for a good scare is going to be severely disappointed. Horror can do much. It can thrill us, make us excited, make us laugh...This movie does none of that, nor do I think it wants to. This is just another movie title that everyone involved can put on their resumes, and then move on. The idea of wealthy people betting for the chance to kill total strangers is a strong and workable one, but to see it wasted in this film is more terrifying than any death scene Roth can dream up. When it was over, I felt deeply disturbed, but not for reasons the movie intended. I was disturbed by the fact that a filmmaker can completely miss the point not once, but twice.



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