When it comes to a gore movie, there are two ways about it. One way is to look at the film as cultural poison, indulgent of audiences' most salacious, base instincts. Another way to look at it—the way of insatiable gore-hounds—is that the flick is a helluva lot of fun. To paraphrase a famous scarecrow, some films do go both ways. Such is the case with writer-director Eli Roth's precociously clever horror mousetraps Hostel and, now, Hostel Part II.
These films—about backpackers lured into a pay-per-torture compound secreted under a Slovakian hostel—are squirm-inducingly brutal in ways that will make most people sick and make die-hard splatter fans cheer. All the while, Roth is smart enough to rig terrifying tableaus and bestir social subtexts in ways intended to impart moral lessons on viewers. Whether or not the frat crowd learned from the downfall of entitled college-age misogynists in Hostel any lessons about imperialist hubris is certainly up for debate, but you can be damn sure they crapped their pants.
Roth returns to the scene of the crime with Part II, which stirringly picks up just where Part I left off. Soon, the events of the first film give way to a narrative that shares with the first film a similar bone structure but with fresh meat. The protagonists of Hostel Part II are three female friends: rich, reserved Beth (Lauren German), wild child Whitney (Bijou Phillips), and painfully awkward Lorna (Heather Matarazzo). Roth puts a spin on his sequel by spending a substantial amount of time with two antagonists, rich clientele of "Elite Hunting." Gung-ho Todd (Richard Burgi) drags along nervous buddy Stuart (Roger Bart) for a very different kind of hunting trip.
By zooming out instead of panning left or right, Roth gives Hostel II its raison d'être. Though not always convincingly, Roth explores the psychopathology of the rich high bidders who pay for the privilege of organized torture and murder. To them and the Eurobaddies who run the joint, it's just business: a bloody analogue to a whorehouse. To the victims, of course, it's a matter of life and death, and it's clear Roth has in mind an implicit critique of America's violent role in the global economy (there's also an overtly barbed reference to chaos in New Orleans).
But it's just as clear that Roth and his target audience, like Todd and Stuart, get off on violence and, better yet, sexy violence. The screen violence is cathartic in a way that's hopefully harmless and, as Roth convincingly boasts, aphrodisiacal. If taken seriously in context, the violence is also genuinely horrifying. Roth defended his horror to the MPAA by excusing it as "revenge violence," but as he hits new heights (or lows) of gruesomeness, he gleefully taps a sick, sadistic vein. It's aggressively moralistic, but it ain't seemly. Score another Hollywood picture for the Old Testament crowd.
Much of the appeal of the Hostel films is in the atmosphere. Part II evokes The Wicker Man's subversion of rustic charm by creeping around a medieval fair in the picture-ready town of Cesky Krumlov (near Prague). The dank factory underground that houses the torture chambers is yet more the stuff of nightmares. Roth purposely courts caricature by putting mirrored sunglasses on his Slavic crime boss and giving him bloodthirsty German shepherds; likewise, Burgi plays his ugly American to the hilt. The gifted Bart does the very best he can though his character is scripted and directed to execute an unconvincing hairpin-turn stunt.
The scream queens do their respective jobs well, especially young veteran Matarazzo in the film's most emotionally painful encounter. In the excruciatingly delayed but inevitable torture passages, the director pays homage to screen-horror iconography (Ruggero Deodato, for example, has a cameo appropriate to the director of Cannibal Holocaust). Roth's penchant for puns goes visual in a literal bloodbath, and his quest to take the "R" rating as far as it will go succeeds in spades. Perhaps the manhood-mangling climax of Hostel Part II explains Roth's insistence he's not planning a Part III. The next evolution in evisceration would definitively take him into the cartoon territory of Itchy and Scratchy.
[For Groucho's interview with Eli Roth, click here.]