Hostel Part II (DVD)

ON

Now available on DVD

Cast:

Laura German as Beth

Bijou Phillips as Whitney

Heather Matarazzo as Lorna

Jordan Ladd as Stephanie

Richard Burgi as Todd

Rogert Bart as Stuart

Vera Jordanova as Axelle

Jay Hernandez as Paxton

Directed by Eli Roth

Review:

What a difference a year makes. When the original “Hostel” was released in January of 2006 and became a surprise hit, it vaulted writer/director Eli Roth past the cult status he had achieved with 2003’s “Cabin Fever” – suddenly Roth was at the center of the new horror boom, his name now known by the readers of Time Magazine as well by those of Fangoria. And as one hardcore R-rated movie after another scored big at the box office during 2006, it made sense to believe that when Roth made his return to Torture Town with “Hostel Part II” a scant year later, that his follow-up would be riding high on the public’s newfound appetite for extreme carnage. But by the time “Hostel Part II” hit theaters this past June, the wind had (temporarily) gone out of the sails of R-rated horror.

In the first half of 2007, films that might’ve been at least modest hits just a year before – such as “The Hitcher,” “Dead Silence,” “The Reaping” and “Vacancy” – all underperformed. Even “Grindhouse” – the much-vaunted collaboration between Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez – met with a sour reception much to the surprise of, well, almost everyone. Suddenly, opening “Hostel Part II” in June against stiff summer competition seemed like a death wish. And sure enough, when Roth’s sequel opened on June 10th this year against Ocean’s Thirteen and scored less than $9 million during its first weekend, the results were about as pretty as a blowtorch to the face, leading some to speculate as to whether horror was dead.

But while horror itself has proved to be as in demand as ever with the subsequent successes of “1408,” “Halloween,” “30 Days of Night” and “Saw IV,” “Hostel Part II’s poor showing changed Eli Roth from being the toast of the town to a casualty of the public’s fickleness. Which is too bad, as by this writer’s measure, “Hostel Part II” showed a noticeable improvement over the original.

Flying the flag high for early ’80s horror, Roth opens his sequel in the tradition of “Friday the 13th Part 2.” Like “Friday’s returning heroine Alice (Adrienne King), who is first seen in Part 2’s opening moments tossing and turning in her bed reliving the horror of Mrs. Voorhees, Paxton (Jay Hernandez) from the original “Hostel” is similarly experiencing nightmares about his traumatic run-in with the Elite Hunting Group. Utilizing flashbacks to the previous film in a way that sequels almost never do today – but which they always did in the ’80s – Roth recaps the grisly highlights of “Hostel.”

Not being able to sleep. Paxton goes downstairs at the home where he and his girlfriend Stephanie (played by Roth regular Jordan Ladd), are staying to take some medication and grab a bite to eat. But Stephanie wakes up early the next morning to see that Paxton never returned to bed.

After Stephanie enters the kitchen to see that Paxton has met his grisly end at the hands of Elite Hunting, Roth quickly moves the film’s action to Italy, introducing us to his new set of victims, this time a trio of female art students – played by Lauren German (as Beth, the rich girl), Bijou Philips (as Whitney, the slut) and Heather Matarazzo (as Lorna, the dork). Roth doesn’t give these characters much depth past their stereotype-level functions to the story (the fact that Beth is wealthy is so obviously ear-marked as important, it’s impossible not to see what Roth has planned) but these early moments are all a matter of prelude. Roth is amped by the ambition of making a bigger and better exploitation film than the first Hostel and so once the three girls arrive at the same youth hostel from the first film, they’re quickly divided and abducted, prompting much objectionable violence to be visited on them.

Inspired by the noted atrocities of Countess Bathory and her habit of bathing in the blood of virgins to perserve her youth, “Hostel Part II’s first grotesque set-piece was singled out by many (well, by all) of this film’s detractors as an example of Roth taking brutality too far. But while moral watchdogs can sputter about what it Means To Society, for anyone who’s been a horror fan for more than five minutes and anyone else able to make the distinction between real suffering and its fictional portrayal, this is just the same old Grand Guignol. that’s always been a part of the genre (with some brilliantly rendered FX by KNB, in this particular case). I mean, honestly, this is a Hostel film – did anyone think that the characters here would just die from old age?

Paralleling the girl’s herding to the torture chamber, Roth follows the men who have paid for the pleasure of murdering them. Richard Burgi and Roger Bart play Todd and Stuart, respectively – two middle-aged men who want to vent their frustrations by annihilating another human being. This reverse angle on the story is by far the most interesting aspect of “Hostel Part II” and Burgi and Bart do an excellent job of making their characters intriguing rather than repellant. Burgi plays the more abrasive of the pair but with his canned bravado, we sense that these men are just as doomed by their involvement with the Elite Hunting Group as the girls whose lives they hold in their hands. In every way, they’re out of their league.

Unfortunately, Roth isn’t much more adept as a writer in bringing out the full potential of the men’s side of the story than he is with his underdeveloped female heroines but yet Burgi and Bart do have some effective exchanges as Bart questions the morality of what they’re about to do and Burgi sees it as a necessary step towards empowerment (as his character asserts: “What we do here is going to pay off for us every day for the rest of our lives.”). The phrase “the banality of evil” tends to be overused but “Hostel Part II” is a convincing depiction of how ordinary men often don’t have to look far to find the darkness inside themselves.

But ultimately Roth has an even more pessimistic message to offer than reminding us that evil doesn’t look any different than the face we see in the mirror everyday. No, by showing us what the Elite Hunting Group really values I reflected on Max Renn, the hustling, self-serving anti-hero of David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome” (1983), a film that anticipated the “torture porn” genre by over twenty years. In that film, when Masha (Lynne Gorman) cautions Renn (James Wood) about pursuing his investigation of the snuff TV of “Videodrome,” her words to him are that “Videodrome” is dangerous “because it has something you don’t have, Max – a philosophy.” And while Renn was indeed undone by forces he couldn’t fathom, I expect he would’ve flourished with the capitalist-minded scum of Elite Hunting Group – as long as he could’ve developed a stomach for seeing the real thing.

I just wish that Roth had the maturity as a writer to follow through on the sobering implications of the conclusion he sets up and not go for a last minute gore gag to send the picture out on a cheap laugh. It’s a convention of slasher pictures (particularly as seen in the early ’80s) to have the Final Girl survive her ordeal but not really be truly “free” due to either the literal continued threat of the killer or to the lingering emotional trauma of what they’ve endured but while “Hostel Part II” offers a potentially intriguing, even poetic, wrinkle to that (it would’ve been apt to see a glimpse of Roth’s heroine vainly returning to her normal life only to see Todd’s earlier words to Stuart about their hoped-for new rep – “Sometimes you meet a guy who’s just fucking scary… He doesn’t act tough, he never has to say it. But like an animal, you can sense it.” come to pass, leaving her alive but hopelessly alienated), Roth quickly lets it drop, not willing to leave his heroine – or his audience – truly haunted.

Sony Pictures’ Unrated Director’s Cut DVD of “Hostel Part II” is as exhaustive a package (no pun towards the film’s climax intended) as any fan of the movie would want. The “uncut” footage doesn’t reveal anything more than a few extra seconds of KNB’s handiwork but the special features are extremely thorough. Besides three commentary tracks (one with Roth solo, one with Roth, executive producer Quentin Tarantino, and associate producer Gabriel Roth, and another with Roth and actors Lauren German, Vera Jordanova, and Richard Burgi), there’s a 25-minute featurette entitled “Hostel Part II: The Next Level” – an entertaining behind-the-scenes doc with Eli Roth clearly flush with the success of the first film and feeling very confident in his work. There’s also featurettes on the FX of KNB and the film’s production design (both clocking in at 6 min), deleted scenes, a radio interview with critic Elvis Mitchell, and a gag reel.

But the most amusing feature to be found is the 23-minute “Hostel Part II: A Legacy of Torture.” This featurette involves Roth defending his work as a vehicle for social expression and cathartic release (very Max Renn-like behavior, come to think of it) with none other than his own parents there to back him up! Not that his folks can’t state their approval, and not that such a case for the social value of Roth’s films can’t be convincingly argued, I just find it funny that such experts as “Dr. Sheldon Roth: Psychoanalyst” and “Cora Roth: Artist” just happen to be the only ones called in to defend “Hostel Part II.” But hey, at least they’re proud of their boy!

Less funny and more rueful is the fact that this featurette also includes a long look at the true history of torture. Everyone knows that people have been tortured throughout the ages in various cultures and we have a basic understanding of some of the devices that have been used to those ends but to see these devices and to have their intended effects on their victims explained is just depressing. More importantly, after all this and after so much talk about the social relevance of the “Hostel” films and the “History of Violence in Art,” the featurette ends on Roth enthusiastically explaining that what his fans expect to see in “Hostel Part II” is “…some gnarly shit happening to people. They want to see people getting fucked up. Bad.” And with that, it’s clear that although “Hostel Part II” shows some growth on Roth’s part as a filmmaker, that he’s still a gore-happy kid rather than a real artist to be reckoned with.