Thursday, June 14, 2007

Hostel Part II

Director: Eli Roth
Starring: Lauren German, Heather Matarazzo, Bijou Phillips, Roger Bart, Richard Burgi, Vera Jordanova, Jay Hernandez, Jordan Ladd
Running Time: 93 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

Almost two years ago I reviewed a movie called Hostel, directed by Eli Roth. At the time I noted it had slightly more for going for it than just blood and gore and praised the film for exploiting our fears of being left helpless in a foreign country. That infamous line in the film, "You're a long way from home" couldn't have rang any truer. I also thought Jay Hernandez's underrated performance was an overlooked reason why the film's third act worked. I gave the movie three stars and moved on. I didn't really pay it a second thought after that.

Sometimes when people find out I review movies they ask me which I enjoy more: Praising a great film or bashing a terrible one. The answer is neither. The most fun comes from reviewing the movies that fall right in the middle in that three star category, but then later they somehow return to your conciousness. You realize there was more to them than you originally thought and you can go back and re-watch them, discovering little details you may have missed the first time. That's what I love most about movies. This has been happening a lot with me lately, especially with horror films, most recently with The Descent, which I realize now I didn't give the credit it deserved when I reviewed it earlier this year. Hostel is such a film and I recently re-watched it with the commentary on and realized there was actually a great deal more going on than maybe I gave it credit for. It's still a three-star movie, but it's a more memorable one. If I wrote a review now it would likely be completely different.

You could imagine my surprise then when the movie got an incredible amount of publicity and Roth became a lightening rod for hatred and controversy, prompting allegations that his films are misogynistic, homophobic, and he holds contempt for his characters. And that's just the beginning. I haven't even mentioned the things that were said about him personally. A new term, "torture porn," was even coined to describe what many believe is his sick and sadistic method of filmmaking. I'm going to be brutally honest here: I don't care. It's a horror movie. People are going to die. People are going to be tortured. The strong will survive and the weak will perish. And, oh yes, there will be blood. I care even less what his films say about him as a person since I don't know him. What I do care about is whether he can tell a visually involving, smart and entertaining story for an hour and a half. I'm happy to report that the answer is "yes."

Now the big question: Is Hostel Part 2 better, or as good, as the original? Visually and technically it's leaps and bounds better and a noticeable directorial improvement for Roth. In fact, it's probably his best directorial work (his Thanksgiving trailer during Grindhouse notwithstanding). The film also contains something the original didn't: genuine suspense and terror. Unfortunately the sequel, unlike the original, contains minor miscalculations by Roth that individually may not amount to much, but by the end start to add up and take the film down a notch. Still, it's impressive and the film is redeemed by two unforgettable characters and an interesting twist at the end that ranks among the most psychologically complex you'll ever see in a horror film.

Hostel Part II opens with a prologue catching us up on what's happened to Paxton (Hernandez), the first film's protagonist, who managed to survive and is now haunted by visions of his horrific experience. He's in hiding with his girlfriend (Jordan Ladd) at her grandmother's farm and always looking over his shoulder, basically living in fear. It's at this point that a decision is made early on with the Paxton character I didn't agree with and does more to negate the ending of the first film than add to the start of this one. It seems like it was thrown in for shock value and sensationalism. I understand the point of the prologue was to catch people up on the events of the first film, which is fine, but I think most of it could have been excised with no harm done to the picture. The cynic in me thinks it exists just to get Hernandez and Ladd into the movie.

Luckily we shift quickly to meet Beth (Lauren German), Whitney (Bijou Phillips) and Lorna (Heather Matarazzo) who are three American girls studying abroad in Italy. While there they encounter exotic model Axelle (Vera Jordanova) who lures them to the same Slovakian hostel that led to the bloodshed for our pals in the first film. Then in one of the very best scenes in this film we see an electronic, e-bay like bidding for the three girls and the winners are two American businessmen, Todd (Richard Burgi) and Stuart (Roger Bart). Todd, an arrogant prick, is almost literally dragging the shy and reserved Stuart to Slovakia to do some "elite hunting" for his birthday. The dynamic between these two characters make the film and before it's over they'll be tested as much as the girls they've won the privilege to torture and kill.

There's a lot of plot going on in the first act of this film as we're thrown from the prologue into two different, but directly related plots. We also get an unprecedented, behind the scenes look at the inner workings of this secret murder-for-profit organization, which has even further reaching influence than we originally thought. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is left to the imagination as Roth throws everything out on the table for us to see. We even get to meet the mastermind behind the entire operation. Normally leaving so little a mystery should rob the film of suspense and tension, yet strangely it doesn't. Somehow it increases it as seeing the sadistic way it all works makes us fear for these girls even more. Roth seems to be using the sequel as a means to fill in the little details that were missing in the first film and expand on themes that were only just touched on. If you think about it, that's exactly what a sequel should do.

It could have just been me, but the protagonists in this film seemed a lot stupider than those in the original. You'd think traveling to a foreign country, and especially being female, these characters would have been especially cautious and made smarter decisions, even if this is a horror film. Everything they do, and how they eventually find themselves in the dire situation they're in seemed like it came out of a handbook titled, "What Not To Do When Traveling Abroad." However as stupid as their decisions were (and boy were they stupid) I can honestly say I believe someone could have made them. Still, I thought how the guys in the first film found themselves in the situation they were in was more realistic and held up better to logical scrutiny. Also in the first film the guys seemed like they were really good friends with a strong camaraderie.

Here, these girls seem like they're just mere acquaintances which takes away from the story a little bit. They're also more stereotypical characters. We have the slut, the dork and the normal girl (if normal can actually be considered a stereotype). Phillips and especially German (who's really tested late in the film) give good performances, but Matarazzo does not. Those wondering why you haven't seen her much since her role as Dawn Weiner in 1995's Welcome to the Dollhouse will get their answer here. Her performance is like nails on a chalkboard and a parody of every movie geek stereotype with the volume turned up to eleven. It's like Dawn Weiner goes to Europe. What a testament to how gruesome a later scene is that we do eventually have sympathy for her.

The first film featured the cruel irony of guys going to the hostel to take advantage of women only to have the tables turned on them and get taken advantage of themselves in the worst way. Even though the backpackers here are young women Roth still finds a way to make an insightful commentary on gender roles and male psychology. He does this with the characters of the two businessmen and the performances from Burgi and Bart (who ironically have both appeared on tv's Desperate Housewives) are absolutely sensational. You'll swear you know guys exactly like Todd and Stuart. I know I do. Considering this is a horror movie, which aren't generally known for deep characterizations, that's a major accomplishment. Roth was interested in blood and gore in the first film but here he's actually interested in exploring the moral ramifications of what these people are doing. By having two very different types of males who aren't in agreement about what they're doing, a moral center is created in the film. By the end he challenges our expectations of what each will do and how they will act, but does it in a way that makes so much sense and brings truth to the situation. Roth has publicly called the ending to his film "the most shocking in horror movie history," but it's actually what comes just before the ending that's more shocking and carries the most emotional impact.

In a strange sort of way this film reminded me of Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof in that we're given time to get know a group of girls before the carnage comes. Of course Roth doesn't have Tarantino's ear for dialogue (who does?), but three quarters of this film is dedicated to building suspense, and it's done successfully. When the carnage comes it's brutal and graphic, but to be honest if you look at the whole picture there isn't that much of it. There's a scene with one of the characters alone in a swimming pool and Roth does something he's never done before. He directs a scene that's terrifying and sets a mood. I was legitimately frightened for this character and worried what would happen next. The first Hostel was just fun. This one, even though it probably has more flaws, seems better put together and feels like a deeper movie with more to say thematically.

All the little pieces don't quite fit together seamlessly and I thought the film went on one scene longer than it should (with a final shot that really breaks the film's tone). Also the "bubblegum kids," one of the few genuinely frightening elements from the first film, return in what seems like a larger role, except this time they're treated more as a joke than anything else. These are relatively small complaints because overall this is a strong effort. Eli Roth has yet to make a truly great film, but for the first time, he comes dangerously close. There are flashes of brilliance here. I wouldn't want to see a Hostel Part III and I don't think we will, at least judging from the box office take of this one. This feels like a good time to end it and for Roth to move on to something else, which I'm looking forward to since he's improving as a director with each film he makes. It's a shame little mistakes at the scripting level prevented this from being everything it could have been because it's almost flawlessly directed. If you're looking for a quality horror film you're not going to do much better than Hostel Part II.

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