It was probably a mistake that I watched Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) the night before I saw Eli Roth’s Hostel: Part II, since it put me in a reflective mindset of how very far horror films have fallen in the intervening 31 years. The truth is that Carrie stood head and shoulders above most horror films of its era, too, so in a sense the comparison is unfair. But in another sense, it really isn’t, because it highlights a difference grounded in the very definition of the genre.
Carrie had a heart, a soul and a brain. Roth’s film has unlikable characters being tortured and slaughtered by marginally less likeable characters for the sole purpose of our entertainment. A few ho-hum post-modernist touches like giving Ruggero Deodata, the director of the execrable Cannibal Holocaust (1980), a bit part as a cannibal doesn’t imbue this movie with a brain. Nor does it make much difference that Roth proves his literary/historical credentials by naming a jaded rich woman who bathes in one victim’s blood Mrs. Bathory (Monika Malacova) after the infamous Elizabeth Bathory (who reputedly did this to preserve her youth). The end result is still situational horror grounded in torture as spectator sport. The point is for the viewer to get his or her jollies by watching characters scream in pain while being maimed, mutilated and murdered: It’s torture porn.
As with a good deal of modern horror, the film constantly confuses being repellent with being frightening. Roth takes this to new extremes—not by “pushing the envelope” of what is permissible on the screen, but by not bothering to even make a stab at providing any scares. There’s no suspense, no sense of dread, no emotional investment in the one-and-a-half dimensional characters. Hell, the man can’t even work up a good shock effect—or maybe he simply can’t be bothered. His movie is all about the money shot. Who cares about foreplay?
With Hostel: Part II Roth has, I’ll admit, made a better looking film than the original, but he’s also made a more dramatically inept one. That’s not entirely a bad thing, though, because it’s the cosmic silliness of the movie that keeps it from being as objectionable as it might have been. In other words, the movie’s just too stupid to take seriously enough to be offended by it.
Roth starts off with stealing the opening of Steve Miner’s Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) by having the survivor from the first Hostel (Jay Hernandez) meet his fate at the beginning of this one. The fact that it’s the long arm of the Slovakian murder club that reaches out for him rather than Jason Voorhees and his little machete isn’t a major difference. This is also where the film starts being unintentionally funny, since it moves from the beheaded corpse to a motorcyclist delivering a box of a certain size and shape to a disreputable looking gent (Milan Knazko) on the terrace of some posh European resort. Whatever could the box contain? Will we find out? Worry not, since Roth never fails to assume his audience is mentally challenged, the contents will make a later appearance in an unsurprising riff on Count Zaroff’s trophy room from The Most Dangerous Game (1932). (Did the motorcyclist carry the contents all the way from what is supposed to be hard-to-find grandma’s house where Hernandez was hiding? Where is grandma’s house? Bulgaria? No wonder it’s hard to find.)
At this point, Roth stops bothering with a new story and simply makes Hostel all over again—with less setup and a few frills. Oh wait, but it is new, you see, because this time instead of obnoxious guys, we have two obnoxious girls—Beth (Lauren German, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Whitney (Bijou Philips, Venom)—and instead of a goofy Icelander, we have a dorky American girl, Lorna (Heather Matarazzo, The Princess Diaries), for the meat-on-the-hoof brigade. And this time, instead of our heroes being egged on by a seemingly gay middle-aged character, they’re exhorted to go to Slovakia by the Sapphic advances of a beauteous babe of an art-school model, Axelle (Vera Jordanova). Creative, is it not?
The frills come in the guise of finding out more about the Slovakian murder market and how it goes about its nefarious business (open bidding for the victim of your choice over the Internet?), which only makes the whole thing more preposterous. There’s simply no way this could be cost-effective considering the elaborate machinations and the number of employees required. In addition, Roth tosses in a glimpse into the customers in the form of two middle-aged American gents—Stuart (Richard Bart, The Producers) and Todd (Richard Burgi, TV’s Desperate Housewives). Todd is a loud vulgarian determined that he and his friend will prove their manliness by offing the girls—Whitney and Beth—he’s bought for them. Stuart, on the other hand, isn’t keen on any of this and is only caving in to please his friend. (Yes, there’s some gay subtext of a disturbingly misogynistic sort here, but it’s probably unintentional and it goes nowhere.) No prizes are offered for guessing Roth’s big twist about their characters. And just for color, Roth has thrown in a ridiculous peasant “harvest” festival (which seems to go on like a multi-day rave set to gypsy music) that looks like it wandered out of a 1940s Universal Frankenstein movie.
There are the requisite torture killings and an all too abrupt ending with a twist that I’m pretty sure was borrowed from a silent comedy where a revolution is quelled by a rich American with a checkbook. Unintentional laughs aside, this is simply another distasteful, unpleasant exercise in sadism being palmed off as horror. Rated R for sadistic scenes of torture and bloody violence, nudity, sexual content, language and some drug content.