Promises--I generally avoid them, and yet I am beginning this review with TWO:
- I will not make any "Hostel"/hostile puns.
- I will not profess my panty-moistening desire to hump the balls off of director Eli Roth and bear his scores of love-children, even though I have received the memo that he's the new Bruce Campbell. Eli-Lovers, he is all yours (you're welcome).
I saw the first "Hostel" shortly-ish after its release in 2005 and disliked it enormously. While it was sleekly-lensed with above-par special effects work, I found that it drowned itself in the bucket of profoundly unlikeable characters and something akin to hardcore-BDSM-flavored homophobia (you know how THOSE PEOPLE are just lurking around every corner to pop out and GETCHA) in its Boy-Versus-Men-Becomes-Final-Girl construction. To boot--I didn't find its guignol to be grand enough to justify its reputation and therefore categorized it as a dud.
Why, then, do I have such a hard time explaining why "Hostel: Part II," which is kinda-sorta-really the same movie, left me feeling not-unpleasantly off-kilter and invigorated? It's a perfect example of why the success or failure of a horror film--or any piece of genre entertainment--lies in its details.
My disappointment with the first "Hostel" wasn't enough to dissuade me from investing ninety minutes of my Sunday morning in watching its sequel--the promise of Edwige Fenech and Heather Matarazzo (who I've admired as an actress since her heartbreakingly awkward turn in "Welcome to the Dollhouse") in one gore-soaked film was more than my cawfee-addled brain could resist. Even if the movie turned out to be an unpleasant exercise in physical excess (not that there's anything WRONG with that), I'd have cool stunt-casting to enjoy. In addition to the aforementioned actresses, this flick boasts Ruggero Deodato and Bijou Phillips--WORLDS ARE COLLIDING!!!.
Similarly to its predecessor, "Hostel 2" tracks three white, upper-middle class students on vacation in Europe who get waylaid by fascinating strangers with an alluring offer of cheap lodging and exotic adventure in Eastern Europe. This time 'round, our protagonists are three women: Matarazzo's predictably-sweet Lorna, Phillips' predictably-slutty Whitney, and Lauren German's kinda-hard-to-pin-down-but-definitely-wealthy Beth. Statuesque Vera Jordanova plays Axelle, the omnivorous artists' model who lures the ladies into the clutches of the Hostel owners. Yes, for those of us who have been without media exposure for the past five years, the "Hostel" films deal with the kidnapping, torture, and murder of young tourists at the hands of wealthy club members with an appetite for the cruelest of kinks.
I wasn't sure if casting women in the central victim roles in this movie would leave me feeling like the material was even more objectionable than on my first outing with the franchise, dealing as it would with the intense objectification of the female body as meat to be abused, but I found this film to be far more engaging than I'd anticipated. A few tweaks were put in place that made it all click.
The number-one BEST alteration to the structure of "Hostel 2" was to give a bit of backstory to the clientele and management of the hostel. Generally speaking, it's a bad idea to over-explain horror stories--the harsh light of reason really has no place in the World of the Weird. This movie is an example that tests the rule, though! By giving a face and a motivation to the people who shell out big bucks to work out their vicious, sexual fantasies on strangers, the truly ghastly nature of the hostel is underscored. Sure, the story arc of the two man-pals who travel together to the isolated thrill-kill bordello is telegraphed and obvious, but in a universe as lurid as this, that potentially-hokey plotline actually manages to work.
There are several places in which texture is injected that help keep the movie from being a sterile exercise in meanness. I needn't even explain how much delight it brought me to see Ms. Fenech's appearance as an art class instructor in the opening scene--she's lovely and spirited as ever, over 30 years after the height of her Eurotrash Cinema career. The film then moves the three lead characters onto a train which is filled with ominous figures from soccer hooligans to drug dealers to pickpockets. It's no secret that I dig suspense sequences set on trains, and this was a very well-executed one. I nearly squee-ed aloud with nerdy, in-joke delight when the girls got waylaid by a threatening group of men in a scene that evoked Aldo Lado's "The Night Train Murders." By the time they're being dispatched in the hostel, the film feels like a steroidal version of every "final girl" flick made since the 1970s.
Then there's that Elizabeth Bathory scene where Lorna is strung up by her ankles while a curvaceous female hedonist slashes her to death with a scythe. In a word--YIKES. I've seen my fair share of eroticized violence on film, but the sense of panic and dread expressed by the victim combined with the mounting arousal of the murderer are graphically conveyed. Add in hideously evocative sound engineering (echoing screams, the sound of metal on skin--EEK!) and here is a setpiece that literally made me squirm in my seat.
There are moments of pitch-black humor to the film as well that keep it from being an endurance test. Deodato's appearance will evoke smirks from fans of extreme horror, and the timing of some events during the murder sequences play out as if they were part of the most fucked-up cartoon you're likely to see. This probably makes me a pretty lousy person, but I had to stifle a giggle at the image of a kitty-cat sipping delicately from one character's neck stump.
Am I ACTUALLY recommending a film from the so-called "Torture Porn" subgenre that I had initially dismissed? Yes--you bet I am. Just be forewarned that you'll probably be wanting a hot shower after watching this nasty little flick. I know I did.