***/**** Image A Sound B Extras C
starring Lauren German, Roger Bart, Heather Matarazzo, Bijou Phillips
written and directed by Eli Roth
by Ian Pugh SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. A continuation of the original film's premise of murder as a commodity available to those who can afford it, death is the only earthly pleasure in the world of Eli Roth's Hostel Part II, not just as a metaphorical substitution but as an active replacement for every other human itch as well. Killing and dying are the only ways to earn respect from your peers--the only ways to pass the time and especially the only ways to get your rocks off. In this sense, the film simultaneously embraces and resists the notion of subtext in the images that seem to most warrant some kind of allegorical interpretation; when some poor bastard has his penis placed in mortal jeopardy, you might see it as an exertion of sexual supremacy--but more likely, the act is simply the last word in torture for a disturbing landscape where mutilation is the alpha and the omega. Where visual suggestions of the Grim Reaper are so omnipresent because the phrase "I am become Death" has become orgasmic in its literality.
The accusations of dangerous puerility that have plagued the so-called "torture porn" sub-genre of horror--that there's something deeply wrong with someone who would consider graphic depictions of cruelty to be entertaining--are not entirely unfounded. Although I was a vocal defender of the original Hostel, it's difficult to deny that it eventually abandons a few brilliant conceits, particularly its harsh lessons about not taking foreign cultures for granted, in favour of masturbatory splatter. In Hostel Part II, however, Roth supersedes such criticisms right from the start. He opens on a furnace, where the personal items of a hostel victim are being burned (it's easier to cheer for horrific acts when you don't know the person involved) and follows that up with a re-introduction to the previous film's protagonist, Paxton (Jay Hernandez), that overturns a number of horror sequel clichés in quick succession: the "right-where-we-left-things-off" prelude of Halloween II; the flashbacks to scenes from the last film; the familiar "it's only a dream" cop-out; and the invalidation of a pseudo-happy ending, à la Friday the 13th Part 2. Roth questions why we return to the well so often with/despite expectations for the same old shit.
There is a plot to Hostel Part II, but it's the film's greatest flaw for its essential predictability. Here Beth (Lauren German), Whitney (Bijou Phillips), and Lorna (Heather Matarazzo) wander Europe looking for nondescript good times; they soon check into the infamous, eponymous shelter, instigating a bidding war between the conspiratorial conglomerate of businessmen, who all want a crack at doing them in. (American girls, it seems, are worth a pretty penny--the film makes an enterprise out of The Wicker Man's structural premise of finding the right sheep to slaughter.) The winners are way-too-excited Todd ("Desperate Housewives"' Richard Burgi) and reluctant Stuart (Roger Bart, also a "Desperate Housewives" vet), the representatives of an all-too-brief subplot that proposes a look at the torturers as a parable of capitalism gone awry.
But enough about that, because the women are soon drawn into a literal bordello of blood, forced into "themed" prostitute get-ups as opposed to the males' straightforward torture chambers of nondescript factory filth. If this ultimately carries less weight than it should (mainly since the protagonists are ciphers compared to the frat boys of Hostel), it's nonetheless interesting to consider that Lorna, the assigned ugly-duckling of the group, is the first to be captured and tortured--a strange subversion in terms of what the characters desire versus our conditioned desire for the more "classically" beautiful starlets of horror films to be outlived by the dowdier (read: less vain) heroine. Compounded with the fact that Lorna's torturer is a woman, this sequence serves as a companion piece to the murder of the possibly-gay Josh in the first Hostel in that it's poised to take an entire audience of immature jerk-offs to task for their hypocritical disgust of male homosexuality in the face of their titillated "acceptance" of female homosexuality.
As mentioned, it's predictable: Lorna's unconventional sacrifice aside, the characters we expect to survive do, and their development is finally restricted to a series of stale turn-arounds. Yet many of Argento's movies can be off-putting when taken on a strictly superficial level, too, and this film actually has so many fascinating ideas in its head that it sometimes rushes through "the boring parts" to apply those ideas to its crowd-friendlier scenes. (Imagine if someone had just discovered that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre wasn't merely about hillbillies with chainsaws, but fast-forwarded through it until they saw Leatherface anyway.) And when Hostel Part II does get to those scenes, it's absolutely fantastic--and complex to a maddening degree, raising difficult questions about the nature of horror and pleasure in the form of individual shots and set-pieces so instantly iconic that they could compete with the best of Roth's influences and mentors (including one or two moments that would feel right at home in Un Chien Andalou--no kidding). The picture is perhaps epitomized by its final scene, an utterly perfect compromise between horrifying/comical depravity and a summary of that "something deeper."
Sony brings Hostel Part II to DVD in an "Unrated Director's Cut" jam-packed with a host of special features just sociopathic enough to enforce the film's fascinating auto-criticisms. That said, they're also just worthless enough to consider skipping entirely. First things first: The 2.38:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is excellent in terms of detail, maintaining the balance between grime and professional gloss that makes the torture chambers so unsettling. The attendant Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is fine, though to be honest it rings a bit hollow. Three commentaries append the film--one fewer than you'll encounter on the original Hostel's DVD, but they can still be a real slog to sit through. "He likes to talk," a wise man once warned me of Eli Roth, and that's probably the most concise way to summarize these yak-tracks. On his solo "Director's Commentary," Roth reasonably argues that these yakkers were never meant to be heard back-to-back, although there's no telling where that leaves the rest of the extras on this disc, since they repeat most of the pertinent info found in these commentaries as well as in interviews with Roth conducted at the time of the film's theatrical release (including our own).
Left to his own devices, Roth borders on a particularly obnoxious form of stream-of-consciousness, but he does have a few ingratiating traits--particularly his propensity to say the title of his Grindhouse trailer "Thanksgiving" in the same deep mumble he utilized for said trailer's narration. A "Producers' Commentary" features Roth, his little brother/second unit director Gabriel Roth, and executive producer/"presenter" Quentin Tarantino. While Roth rehashes most of the stories he tells in his solo yakker, the presence of Tarantino and Roth the younger helps keep things active. If they occasionally teeter a little too far into frat-boy territory, Tarantino's own brand of ever-present love for the movies remains a treat. An "Actors' Commentary" sees Roth theoretically moderating a dialogue with actresses Lauren German and Vera Jordanova: he ends up dominating the conversation by fishing for compliments. The entrance of the jovial Richard Burgi thankfully puts a temporary stopper on that cycle and invites at least a few minutes of interesting discussion.
Featurettes begin with "Hostel Part II: The Next Level" (27 mins.), a meandering, self-congratulatory doc directed by Gabe Roth that covers the film's principal photography and contains a few too many in-jokes to be of much interest. "The Art of KNB EFX" (6 mins.) takes us through the creation of the various instances of splatter engineered by the titular effects company; other than a brief overview of the basic materials that went into their creation, there ain't much to learn here. Same goes for "Production Design" (6 mins.), which plows through the concept and construction of the train, fair, and torture chamber sequences as if pressed for time.
"Hostel Part II: A Legacy of Torture" (24 mins.) is a travelogue of the history of torture, I guess? A weak synopsis of Hostel Part II makes way for a tour of Tuscany's Museum of Medieval Criminology courtesy its director, Aldo Migliorini, who describes the various instruments of pain therein while a series of History Channel-esque illustrations demonstrate their horrifying practicality. Roth's father (a psychoanalyst) and mother (a painter) admirably back things up with brief discussions about historical applications of these devices and their impact on contemporary art. However, these scenes are abruptly followed by the umpteenth round of adoration over the cameo appearances in Hostel Part II from Italian horror vets Edgwich Fenech, Ruggero Deodato, and Luc Merenda. This sudden shift is incongruous, to say the least--a sharp, childish contrast that really only serves to validate Roth's harshest critics.
"The Treatment" (27 mins.) is a radio interview with Roth conducted by critic Elvis Mitchell for KCRW. It's a pretty standard conversation that starts off awkwardly with Roth's bewildering assertion that the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina resembled "Dawn of the Dead, with bodies floating down the street." As Dawn of the Dead is everyone's favourite metaphor, the analogy is not unreasonable--yet the remark itself nonetheless feels awfully offensive for its offhandedness. On the bright side, Roth's good for a few amusing Death Proof anecdotes. The "Blood-and-Guts Gag Reel" (3 mins.) is what it is, cobbled together like some ultra-violent, Eastern European version of "The Benny Hill Show". Finally, there's a selection of deleted scenes, each of which is preceded by a short paragraph, authored by Roth, explaining why it was excised; despite being written in that familiar know-it-all tone of voice, they demonstrate a sharp eye for maintaining the film's pace. The "Previews" menu encompasses a commercial pimping Blu-ray along with trailers for 30 Days of Night, Boogeyman 2, Rise: Blood Hunter; Resident Evil: Extinction, Kaw (a crow-specific redux of The Birds?), Pumpkinhead 4: Blood Feud, and Fearnet.com. The first four from this list pop up upon insertion of the disc. Originally published: October 27, 2007.