Gorehound Eli Roth reasserts his position as leader of the “splat pack,” an unofficial fraternity of directors dedicated to topping one another’s stomach-churning antics, with “Hostel: Part II.” His ultra-grisly pics may be an acquired taste, but Roth seems more than happy to feed auds’ appetites for hardcore horror, taking three European tourists on a detour through his Slovak killing factory. In this twist-filled sequel, the real shocker is just how smart and satisfying such degradation can be. There’s no question “Part II” outgrosses the original “Hostel” in the blood-and-guts department, and savvy spin should do the same financially.
Roth is no dummy, and he’s learned from the press surrounding the original “Hostel” (or was it the fan-driven messsage boards?) just what auds want. For starters, it’s the ladies who drive horror-movie ticket sales, dragging their male dates along, not the other way around. So in a gesture of equal-opportunity exploitation, Roth switches the gender of his victims and injects a fair amount of full-frontal male nudity.
And where “Hostel” followed three American tourists so abrasive auds wouldn’t really mind seeing them tortured beyond recognition, “Part II’s” central trio come across as reasonably sympathetic. There’s Beth (Lauren German), a trust-fund case so rich she keeps her father on allowance. “She could pretty much buy Slovakia if she wanted to,” explains wild-child Whitney (Bijou Phillips), who rides her friend’s coattails through Europe, flirting with every dangerous stranger she meets along the way.The two girls also invite socially awkward Lorna to join, with actress Heather Matarazzo delivering a performance even more courageously pitiful than the “Welcome to the Dollhouse” turn that launched her career.
All three actresses are horror vets, and pro enough to make auds feel invested in their fates. That said, what makes “Hostel: Part II” so subversive is that Roth shifts the focus to the perpetrators, a network of international businessmen who pay top dollar for the chance to snuff wayward backpackers in whatever fashion they please. Stanley Kubrick would have approved of Roth’s Elite Hunting operation, and the “Hostel” sequel stands as the “Eyes Wide Shut” of horror movies.
Where the original preyed on relatively mundane fears of traveling abroad, “Part II” plunges much deeper, raising horrifying questions about what the average mild-mannered husband might be doing with the family savings.
Instead of concentrating on just one sadist, sequel broadens the network to include the world’s rich and powerful, daring to suggest that, given the motivation and the means, each of us might find some sliver of that murderous impulse within ourselves. There’s some truth to the idea, at least insofar as auds derive any satisfaction from watching these heinous crimes enacted for their entertainment onscreen (the disappointment is palpable when a character obscures one death from view). Roth’s indictment doesn’t extend to everyone, but “Hostel” auds are a pretty self-selecting bunch — given Lionsgate’s unusually graphic advertising campaign, no one stumbles into a movie like this unawares.
Pic shadows two customers in particular, a big-talk tycoon (Richard Burgi) and a browbeaten househusband (Roger Bart), with their own macabre motives for joining the killers’ club. By letting auds’ into their world, “Hostel: Part II” answers the obvious question left open by the original: Who exactly are these people who pay to torture perfect strangers? Pic also introduces Sasha (Milan Knazko), the cold-blooded mastermind who oversees the entire operation, who could emerge as a recurring villain of future sequels.
The gore, it would seem, is almost incidental. A larger budget and strong below-the-line support allow Roth’s imagination to run wild (one ghastly scenario no viewer will soon forget features a sickle-wielding witch who pays to bathe in virgin blood), and makeup masters Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger have risen to the challenge. As gruesome as their creations can appear, a twisted sense of humor underlies the entire operation, as if sheer outrageousness might offset the effects’ startling realism.
Indeed, the only way to watch is to suspend any literal-minded analysis and appreciate Roth’s Grand Guignol sensibilities on their own level. Could Roth have accomplished the same thing without introducing such patently offensive imagery into the world? Absolutely, but then he wouldn’t have bested the recent efforts of his peers, who keep upping the ante with pics like “High Tension” and “Saw.” Nor would he have involved us so thoroughly in the action that we’re complicit in the pic’s incredibly satisfying climax. There are no innocents here — least of all the audience.