Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy
Spoilerific thoughts below, folks.
I guess I kind of have to rebrand myself as an Eli Roth fan. Which pains me, trust. I openly loathed the guy's freshman effort, horror-comedy-that-was-neither-horror-nor-comedy-discuss Cabin Fever, and am pretty turned off by his appearances in public and fratboy pandering. But when Hostel came out in 2005, I gave it a fair shake and had to give credit where it was due: it was a cleanly-told, clever, and surprisingly complex (emotionally, even!) scare film. When Roth popped up TWICE in Grindhouse, I was back to hating him again (his Thanksgiving preview reminded me why I hated him in the first place and his insidious Death Proof barfly was one of the reasons the film was about 20 minutes too long and everyone tuned out before it got going). And it was of course with extreme trepidation that I approached the screening of the seemingly unwarranted follow-up to Hostel, Hostel Part 2, which placed three lovely ladies in the ball-gags and flirted openly with misogyny, redundancy, and Hollywood quick-buck cynicim.
Wonder of wonders, none of this flirting amounted to any fucking.
Thank heaven, we have a solid bona-fide horror film for 2007. Scary, intelligent, and alarmingly well-written, Hostel Part 2's success on almost every level flies in the face of just about everything you can think of about Hollywood horror and the camera-mugging juggernaut that is Eli Roth. It's a movie about the entrapment, sale, and torture of young women that in no way encourages or legitimizes sadism -- in fact, it's an incredibly squirmy testament to the wages of the emotional detachment that leads clients to the house of horrors that is its central mechanism. The film is really about globalization (seriously), cultural and personal alienation, and the obsession with youth more than it is about gender wars or anything else. Roth has managed to sidestep just about every pitfall regarding sequels, torture porn, and Bijou Phillips.
In short, bitch brought it.
Here's the lowdown: the film begins with a refreshingly understated opening in which a mystery person burns the various personal effects of what is apparently a young girl or girls: backpacks, a travel diary, clothes, that kind of thing. Devoid of screaming techno, jump cuts, or digital manipulation of any kind, the message seems to be clear: Roth isn't interested in impressing us with his packaging (he did that last week, nyuk nyuk). He's going to show us that he can make a classic horror film without any of the tricks that modern genre films depend on. Go for it, I say!
We start out exactly where we left off ... kinda. Paxton (Jay Hernandez) is alseep on the train, having lost a lot of blood. Oh, right -- he just totally flipped out and killed that creepy guy in the bathroom! Lordy how soon we forget these things. Anyway, as you might have predicted, Pax doesn't last too long -- and the point is made that this "hunting club" is more far-reaching and powerful than one might expect -- I mean, after all, they certainly don't have much of a decorating budget. Can't they work on that?
We then meet our three ladies: Beth (Lauren German), our level-headed (and pretty certainly lesbian -- but more on that later) hero; Whitney (Bijou Phillips), our bitch-in-residence; and Lorna (lesbian actress Heather Matarazzo), our ... well ... "Lorna". I mean, really -- what kind of homo names a character Lorna? Who has even ever HEARD the name Lorna but die-hard Judy Garland fans? Careful, Eli -- that shirt does make you look gay.
The ladies are studying art in Rome, and right off the bat we have a pickle-shot (yesss!) and some lesbian eye-flirting (which is of course the equivalent of "writing vows" in gay-speak) at the figures class. Beth and model Axelle (Vera Jordanova) have an obvious connection -- but we, having seen the first film, know that Axelle is just using Beth's attraction to her to lure her to certain death. The girls plan a trip to Prague for the weekend, but the train is so packed with disgusting drunk men that when Axelle (having mysteriously appeared on-board to help Lorna find her missing iPod -- see, models come in handy!) suggests they come with her to a spa in Slovakia instead, they jump at the chance.
And here's the moral of the story, kids: if anyone ever asks you to go to Slovakia, for any reason at all, DON'T GO.
(this message brought to you by the Slovakian tourism board)
Soon enough the ladies are at the titular hostel (the same from the first -- with the same creepy bellboy!) and on their way to becoming fodder for some businessman's sick fantasy.
But this is where it gets clever: having already tread this path in the first film, Roth decides to give us a look at the other side of this particular business: namely, the wealthy men (and women, we learn) who do the purchasing of these doomed young folk. The moment that our ladies check in, their passports are scanned into a computer and beamed out to a group of people around the world ... as an online auction. Yes, these people bid, real-time, for the chance to slaughter these girls like I bid for vintage Pyrex on eBay. Sorry, but that's a brilliant, horrifying concept, and one of many clever twists that Roth pulls this time around. See, he's giving us what we want, but not in the way that we expect. He manages to tell the same basic story, but he doesn't ever do the same things twice. The basic differences between these protagonists and the guys from the first film are always considered in the way the story develops (the guys go to Slovakia for sex; the girls go for ... a spa?) and he adds new layers to the story (like the back-end workings of the hunting club and the story of the girls' executioners) to keep us from getting bored. Bravo.
So who are our baddies? Surprise! They're yuppies. Yeah -- big shock there. Turns out that one cocky bastard, Todd (Richard Burgi from Desperate Housewives, who's way too good at playing this kind of smarmy asshole), bought two of the girls for himself and his best bud, Stuart, who's played by Roger Bart.
Yes, I just said "Roger Bart". As in, "the straight guy who always plays preposterously gay guys like the queen in Stepford Wives or the queen in The Producers or the gay-seeming wacko doctor on Housewives". Here he's allowed to play a full-fledged heterosexual, and let's just say that it's an entirely new Roger Bart for most of us (at least, I hope it is!).
Stuart is the "reluctant one", and when he orchestrates a "meet cute" with Beth (his victim), we start to wonder if he might be the key to our Final Girl's eventual escape. I mean, come on -- if there are three things that we can count on here, it's that Dawn Weiner is going to get obliterated, that Beth is going to end up in "the chair", and that she's going to somehow escape the evil clutches of the hunting club. Right? Well, let's just say that things don't play out exactly as expected -- and as I noted before, Roth's way of tying up the story cleverly sidesteps a lot of the criticism aimed at this kind of "tie up a girl and make her bleed" movie, because he strips it down to the basics: this is about business, plain and simple. I'll leave it to Roth to fill in the blanks.
A lot of reviews have said that this is not as gory as the original. Which I don't think is true. Remember, the original wasn't terribly gory to begin with -- Roth cut away more often than not and aside from a few grand guignol setpieces (the eye, the bathroom murder) it was oddly restrained. The sequel features one of the bloodiest things I've seen since Alex fell into that ketchup-bath in The Descent, and also pushes the bounds of taste by killing a kid and throwing in a few beheadings -- and other dismemberments -- for comic effect. But again, aside from the sad passing of Ms. Weiner (which is incredibly gross), Roth doesn't linger any more than needed.
Hostel Part 2's greatest strength is that it's clear that Roth actually thought about things -- audiences aren't stupid, and they can tell when the person leading them through the story has done his homework or not. The script is full of setups and payoffs that don't telegraph themselves as such and resolve in unexpected ways -- a basic screenwriting concept that is all-too-often ignored these days. You know the rule of drama that if you introduce a gun in Act 1 it had better go off in Act 2? Well, the same goes for Hostel 2 if you substitute "gun" with "penis".
So what about the lesbian angle? Is Beth a fuzzy-bumper? Well, yes -- she probably is. She's never shown to have any interest in a male (despite being hit on several times) and she is perfectly receptive to the advances of Axelle without seeming at all uncomfortable with them (when Axelle kisses her on the shoulder in the hot springs pool, she's perfectly cool with it). In fact, it may be Beth's imperviousness to the male element that affords her escape (both Lorna and Whit are taken while being wooed by men). True, she's attracted to Axelle, but that attraction is never used as the cause of anything (she's not the one who initially wants to follow Axelle to Slovakia, Lorna is) and she's not in any way "punished" for obviously liking a girl. Pretty big shift from the tragic tale of the original film's questioning backpacker.
Hostel Part 2 is satisfying in a way that the original wasn't (despite being a scary ride, it was more about asking questions than answering them), and familiar without feeling derivative. The cast is fantastic, the camerawork is deliberate and unobtrusive, and the score is classic, gorgeous, and brooding.