Hostel Part II (2007)

When the first Hostel movie came out in January last year, it surprised everyone by knocking Narnia off the top box office spot in the US; it was the little horror movie that could, with a little help from Quentin Tarantino. It was in the right place at the right time, tapping into the zeitgeist, and its success prompted a deluge of other low-budget, high-splatter movies.

Fast forward to the present and Hostel Part II has just tanked in the US. An opening night screening in London last night managed to boast maybe thirty cinemagoers willing to part with money to see it. It's difficult to say precisely why the two films, ostensibly very similar, should receive such different reactions -- maybe it's because the torture movie market is now saturated; maybe it's due to the fact that a high quality workprint of the film leaked onto the Internet days before its US release; or maybe it's really because Hostel Part II just isn't a good movie.

It picks up more or less where the last one left off: the sole survivor of Hostel is still running away, haunted by nightmares and paranoid that at any moment he'll be found and killed. Sure enough, he soon is, and it's onto the next set of helpless victims.

This time, the victims are all female - a nice girl, a bitchy girl, and a nerdy girl plan to take a trip to Prague together, but the train is full of threatening and belligerent men, so when a passing acquaintance mentions she's going to a Slovakian spa, they're easily persuaded to tag along. Guess who she works for? Before long, the girls find themselves in the 'Art Gallery' from the first movie, and ... er, lots of torture happens.

The only thing that's really different is that this time around, we get to spend more time with the torturers, rather than with the victims. In the place of the menacing Dutch Businessman are two Americans (both plucked straight out of the Desperate Housewives cast) - Todd, a mouthy and aggressive man who can't wait to get stuck in, and Stuart, who's quieter and more reluctant. We also get to watch the bidding war as businessmen around the world compulsively tap ever higher numbers into their Blackberries for the privelege of getting to kill some American girls. (They'd be shit at eBay - who raises a bid by $10,000 a time?) This should be interesting ... and you can just feel the impending "but" here, can't you?

Yeah, it's a big but. It doesn't fucking work. There are a lot of similarities between Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and Hostel Part II: both take what the filmmakers perceived to be the best, or best-loved, elements of the first films and repeated them, with dramatically diminished returns. Eli Roth has all too transparently been reading his reviews; something which is never more evident than in a conversation between the girls about whether or not there's been a war in Slovakia recently. (In the first film, a character remarked that there were lots of available women in Slovakia because the men had been killed in a recent war, sparking critics to remark that Roth didn't know his world politics; something he seems almost desperate to prove here.)

There's much less sex in Hostel Part II than there was in Hostel; but there's a lot more gore. Or maybe that's not quite fair, but the handling of the gore is radically different. Whereas Hostel relied on the audience's intelligence and imagination, cutting away at the last moment so as to leave the nastiest bits off screen, Hostel Part II seems to feel it has to show you everything, lingering for endless minutes over girls screaming in terror and then agony.

I've argued long and hard with people who criticised Hostel, telling them that it was intelligent and provocative, and stayed just on the right side of being the much derided "torture porn." There is absolutely no way that even I, the most devoted Eli Roth fan you're likely to find, could defend Hostel Part II against those same allegations. The very first torture sequence presents a naked girl hanging upside down, with loving shots of her breasts. She's completely naked, exposed and vulnerable, while workmanlike men set up the scene around her ready for their "client." In a transparently obvious take on the Elizabeth Bathory legend, an older woman soon enters, strips, and proceeds to slash at the younger girl's skin till her blood spills everywhere, to the obvious sexual gratification of the client.

There are other moments, later, that are also supposed to draw on time-honoured myths and fairytales, but unfortunately, the film isn't clever enough to do it well. Instead, this scene is just two naked women and lots of blood - the camera, the client, and thus presumably the audience are supposed to be enjoying, or getting off on, the suffering of an innocent young woman. It's undeniably pornographic, and intensely difficult to watch, with absolutely nothing to redeem it later.

Every part of Hostel Part II feels clumsy. The return of Milda Havlas (the "desk clerk Jedi" from the first film) was something I was looking forward to, but it basically turned into the endless reruns of the "where's the rum?" joke from Pirates of the Caribbean: funny and spontaneous the first time, cynical and repetitive thereafter. See also: the return of the Bubblegum gang. Every plot development was obvious, to the point where you could almost see the notes in the margin unfolding onscreen: this scene is supposed to be character development, here's where you're supposed to be shocked, here's where your sympathies shift...

There's a couple of moments in each film that really demonstrate why (and how) one worked and the other didn't. In Hostel, there's a scene early on where Paxton and Josh, walking alongside a canal, talk about Paxton's childhood experience of witnessing a little girl drowning, and the way her screams stayed with him for years. It's a nice moment: it works, in context, as a conversation these two friends would legitimately have, and it also works later in the movie where Paxton again hears screams and knows he can't just ignore them this time. In Hostel Part II, there's a moment early on where the 'nice' girl offers to buy drinks and the 'bitchy' girl explains to the 'nerdy' one that nice girl is rich - "she could buy and sell Slovakia if she wanted." It doesn't work in context; the dialogue, usually Roth's strongest point, is awkward, and it flags up, instantly, what's going to happen at the end of the movie, because there's no other reason for that conversation to be there otherwise.

The characterisation, so spot on and realistic in Hostel, is entirely absent from the sequel. The girls are one-dimensional, conventionally pretty (though Lauren German really looks like she could do with a nice long sleep) but uninteresting; the boys in Hostel may not have been perfect, but at least they seemed like people. Crucially, all this stuff is boring -- and there's a lot (a LOT) of padding.

Honestly, Hostel Part II played like a first draft. Whereas Hostel was tightly plotted, tightly scripted and generally really bloody clever, Hostel Part II is slapdash and careless. Eli Roth mentioned on his MySpace blog that he's going to be taking a long break from filmmaking now, having been working solidly since he started making the first Hostel film; I hope he does, and I hope he gets to recharge his batteries and work on something he genuinely loves next. Because there's nothing in Hostel Part II that implies it was a film anyone cared about beyond the studio's desire to make more money.

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