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Saturday, July 07, 2007 

Film review: Hostel: Part II

(This review contains spoilers.)

Sometimes, you end up getting things horribly wrong. The original Hostel, a film so flatulently awful, offensively irredeemable and without a single aspect worthy of defending, couldn't possibly produce a sequel that would be any better, or at least that was what I thought. I went along to see it with the sole intention of coming back here and writing about how it was yet another new low in modern Hollywood horror film-making, a further cynical cash-in on a genre that rather than going back to its roots continues to stagnate and degrade inexorably. Eli Roth, who before directing Hostel made the similarly breathtakingly bad Cabin Fever, was just a hack who had somehow picked up the backing of Quentin Tarantino, possibly because he can tell a money-maker when he sees one.

Well, I take it all back. Hostel: Part II by comparison to the original is a smartly-made, reasonably well-written and competently directed film by a man that on this evidence will probably only get better. First though, some background.

Hostel: Part II undoubtedly belongs to the new-wave of horror films that most agree have risen in response to the glut of post-modern slashers, ala Scream, and the Hollywood remaking of Japanese horror flicks, eg the Ring, Grudge and the Eye, films that were already tame by the gorehounds' standards which Western directors subsequently made even less challenging. Designed as a return to the exploitation genre's heyday of the 70s, where for a while almost anything went and where post-modernism and the tongue in cheek were yet to be invented, most of the returns have actually been fairly disappointing or even more questionable. Leading this pack are Rob Zombie, Roth, Alexandre Aja, and the various directors of the Saw franchise. All, some would suggest in the aftermath of 9/11 and with the rise of a new perceived brutality, both in and outside the realms of bourgeois society, have decided that the public mood is no longer on the jump-scares provided by the Japanese ghost films or the weak, PG-13 rated-slasher more focused on providing pop-culture references than on delivering the goods in the way of blood and grue, but on nihilism, unflinching violence and in the case of Zombie's the Devil's Rejects, making serial killers into anti-heroes where it's difficult to know whether you're meant to sympathise with the debauched police or with the wise-cracking murderers.

In actual fact, while Zombie's films are unashamed homages to the excesses of the 70s, being set then for a start, and at least the original Saw owes as much to Seven as it does to the days of "It's only a movie", Roth's Hostel owes a far greater debt to another Japanese film, Audition. Directed by the prolific Takashi Miike, Audition is almost certainly his masterpiece, at least outside the yakuza gangster genre which he has made his own. While the film is as much a study of who holds the power in relationships, of who's using who and of the Japanese work ethic as it is an out-and-out horror, the last 40 minutes are rightly considered some of the most intense, downright twisted and shocking in recent times, just as the first hour is quiet and unassuming by comparison. The last twenty minutes especially, where the middle-aged businessman who used the process of an audition for a film to meet young women is tortured by the beautiful yet mysterious Asami, are as much the template for Roth's scenes in a Slovakian dungeon where the rich pay to kill and torture backpackers as anything else.

There has been plenty of comment, both in America and over here about how this new-wave is in effect "torture-porn", glamourising and brazenly depicting acts of depravity which a couple of decades ago would have resulted in the films themselves being banned. There is a certain amount of merit to those making such arguments, but that's about all. While Zombie's Rejects is certainly troubling, it's a brilliantly executed dark journey which has been seen before, and lest we forget, those responsible for the carnage do get their comeuppance, even if it is to Free Bird and beautifully shot. It's the Saw sequels, and most certainly the last one which perhaps come closest to meeting the description, being little more than one scene after another of sickening tests of both nerve and stomach, with little of the suspense of the first or the brilliantly simple but still pleasing twist of the second. Additionally, while the war in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition may have brought torture back to the top of the news agenda, and these films may be attempting to cash-in, there's nothing in these films that anyone's either going to get off on or likely to attempt to replicate, although saying that there has recently been a case in the Netherlands where Hostel has taken the blame, although it was bound to happen sooner or later.

These films can neither adequately be described as glorifying torture, featuring porn, or in actual fact being either. For the most part they are just a response to what the public wants: let's not forget that Hollywood is now so ruthlessly focus-grouped that there's little that'll be released that doesn't meet their approval, which is why so much of its output is mundane, dull, unoriginal, brainless and for the most part inoffensive, at least to an American audience. The new wave of horror is around the only thinking outside the box which is currently going on, and the public and critics are mixed, rightly so considering how abysmal the original Hostel and other recent attempts at upping the ante like Captivity and Paradise Lost are.

Where the original Hostel suffered was in its sheer boneheadedness. Roth, rather than heeding the message of Audition which is what he was trying to emulate, decided not to bother with the excellent characterisation, plotting, feeling of dread and dream/nightmare-like quality which built up during it and instead focused on recreating the visceral nature of the torture: unsurprisingly, the film as a result was execrable. Taking 3 young men, each more annoying and unsympathetic than the last and leading them one by one into the torture chamber simply didn't work. We needed to care about them to share the horror of their torture; instead they were stereotypically badly-behaved Americans (with one Icelandic guy tagging along for the ride) abroad in Amsterdam, smoking pot, visiting stunningly gorgeous prostitutes (the only one of whom who isn't is described as "a fucking hog") before being persuaded to move onto Slovakia, where there's been "a war", and as a result the young ladies are gagging for it. The casual denigration of women continues apace throughout, with them either being whores or monsters who sell their foreign friends into the dungeon, but not before it's revealed that they're in fact ugly beneath their make-up. In comparison to its reputation, the actual torture and gore are remarkably slight, with only the scene featuring a young girl's eye meeting a blowtorch being particularly nasty (she later throws herself under a train once she's seen herself in a mirror; undoubtedly because she's a vain female like all the rest of them). Some defenders of the film tried to paint it as being some sort of satire either on American ignorance, or on cultural imperialism, but that always seemed far-fetched. This was cynicism and the work of a hack rather than someone trying to say something.

Despite its success, it seems that Roth took all these criticisms and more on board. Ignoring the beginning, which quickly deals with the demise of the only survivor from the previous film, Roth twists the original full-circle, with instead of 3 guys out to fuck anything that moves we instead have 3 young American women, Beth, the "straight" one, played by Lauren German who has a striking resemblance to Nicola Walker, Whitney, the party girl, played by Bijou Phillips and Lorna, the nerd, played by Heather Matarazzo. While Whitney and Lorna mostly do the same thing the two guys with the similar characterisation in the first film did, Roth obviously realised he was going to need to flesh out Beth much more than he previously did Paxton. As a result, she's the fully-formed, sympathetic and well-written centre of the film, with a decent performance from German helping immensely. While there are a couple of major holes still, as she's supposedly swimming in money but not living the high life, instead slumming it while one would imagine others in her position doing the opposite, especially as she's deeply concerned about getting into potential dangerous situations, she's the structure which the original was crying out for.

In fact, the major problem with the film isn't that Roth's tried to up the ante while further developing the characters, it's that he's tucked-in a sub-plot which is neither believable nor necessary. While the original just centred purely on the three backpackers, this time round we also see the story develop from the viewpoint of two of the men who've paid to murder our three young American ladies, who incidentally carry a far higher price than any other nationality. Why two Americans would be paying to kill their own kind when in certain parts of the states they could just shoot someone and claim it was self-defence for nothing is unclear, but it's forgiveable. What isn't forgiveable is how Todd (played by Richard Burgi) and Stuart (Roger Bart) are an unhappy throwback to the cliches and bad writing of the original. Todd is in simple terms a psychopath, a businessman looking forward to slaughtering someone as he would clinch a deal, while Stuart is the family-man unsure of the whole business. Predictably, their roles are eventually reversed, as every horror flick now worthy of the name has to have such a twist.

Roth in fact succeeds most in the demise of Lorna, the nerd who's bumped off half-way through. In the sort of scene that would have given James Ferman a heart attack, she's hung-upside down naked while the woman who's paid to kill her enters, strips off and lays beneath her in a sort of bath, before using a scythe to first scratch and then rip apart her prey's skin, resulting in a shower of blood not seen since Carrie. It's undoubtedly the sort of scene that fits the bill for torture-porn, yet it's carried off with such panache that you almost feel the blade against scraping against your own skin. Very few of the other attempts in the genre have come close to creating such an excellent set-piece, both scary and satisfying. It's perhaps worth mentioning that during the video nasties moral panic the case of SS Experiment Camp featured a woman half-naked upside down on a cross, which caused more outrage than perhaps the actual content of the film itself did; things, it seems, have quite rightly moved on.

Nothing else quite comes close to equalling that, but the cinematography is splendid throughout. The extended budget over the original shows, with many more full shots showcasing the well-chosen locations, and Roth certainly maturing as a film-maker. Unlike most recent Hollywood efforts, the frenetic steadicam shots are kept to a minimum, and the film is far better for it. Keeping with the spirit of the first, where the aforementioned Miike made a daft cameo, this time round we have Edwige Fenech, the Italian starlet who featured in many 70s sex comedies and giallos making an appearance, still looking stunning, with Ruggero Deodato, director of the notorious Cannibal Holocaust, a film far, far better than this one, living up to his reputation by playing err, a cannibal.

While by no means perfect, Hostel Part II is certainly worth a look. The misogyny is gone, much more attention has been paid to the characterisation and the blood-letting, as it is, is far improved. The only real clanging scenes are one in which a load of severed heads, including Paxton's, are discovered by Beth in Sacha's wardrobe, and the train scenes involving an attempt by Beth and Whitney to score drugs, although it provides a rather weak echo for the film's conclusion. It doesn't come close to the tension and dread in Wolf Creek for example, or the sheer brilliance of Haute Tension, but no longer can it be said that Roth is just going through the motions.

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