There’s a pivotal scene in Eli Roth’s original Hostel (see my blog review) that left me wanting more by the end of the film. This is the scene when “American Client” (played by Rick Hoffman) mistakes our unlikely hero (Jay Hernandez) as a fellow torture fanatic, and starts riffing on the infrastructure and business that is the tourist-torture trade of Roth’s vision. The original Hostel was an impressively smart (and disturbing) Americans-in-bloody-peril horror flick. In its own way, it was very post-modern and savvy, but that one scene hinted at even more opportunities to tell a similar story from an altered POV. I’m happy to report that, after catching it last night with Eli Roth in attendance, Hostel Part II expertly succeeds at accomplishing this goal. No small feat for a horror sequel, a genre in and of itself, typically yielding disappointment. Not so much here.
Hostel Part II begins immediately where the first one left off (with a loose segue that exists for pure exposition), slowly transitioning into a story of three American college girls studying abroad in Italy. They decide to take a weekend trip to Prague, but a young Eastern European beauty persuades them to instead visit Slovakia, and the infamous hostel of the earlier saga. At this point, Hostel Part II becomes exceedingly familiar territory when compared to what transpires in the first film. And I found myself really worried that this sequel was just going to rehash the same plot points and character arcs, but with women instead of men. Rather than do that, Hostel Part II becomes two stories in one. While we follow the three American gals, we also follow a parallel storyline involving two American businessmen as they prepare for their chance at the killing floor. Of course, these two men will eventually intersect with the three women, but adding that dimension makes the film work so well. Rather than explore the same perilous descent into madness, Eli manages to add a fresh dynamic that was virtually unseen in the original. It raises the level of emotion and terror to a new plane. Like many horror sequels, Hostel Part II can’t help but repeat some of the same formula as the first. But unlike many horror sequels, Eli bravely takes the audience down roads less traveled. What would make a family man become a cold-blooded killer? What is the industry of exploitation and gore? These are some of the themes further fleshed out for the sequel.
The blood is plentiful (the “I can’t believe this got an ‘R’ rating” variety), the shock value is extreme (that’s saying something, compared to the first film), and the performances (particularly Roger Bart as the more conflicted of the two American clients) are pitch-perfect. So many horror sequels are a waste of our time. Hostel Part II, on the other hand, actually adds to the overall experience and becomes a worthy, and at times superior, companion piece. The first film worked because it dared to go places unexpected, so for this second film to work, it had to go somewhere different. And it does. During his post-screening Q&A at the Alamo Drafthouse, Eli proclaimed the unlikelihood of a third installment unless there was somewhere really interesting to go. After witnessing just how committed he was to making this sequel essential, I believe him.
UPDATE: I’ve been reading some of the negative talk about Eli Roth and his films, and I feel like adding a thought: His filmmaking is not for everyone, but it is without a doubt some of the most interesting and original American horror storytelling out there today. It is made with a sense of humor, and a respect for the audience. I wish that were true of most American “genre” films in 2007. And, Eli Roth will become the punching bag for this.
Meanwhile, those of us who travel to film festivals around the world and see hundreds/thousands of films a year, know very well that what offends most about the Hostel universe only pales in comparison to the truly gratuitous and shameful “genre” filmmaking out there. This is not “torture porn,” as some lazy critics prefer to dub it, but more like “torture pop.” Now, I would never suggest that something like the torture of innocent victims should be “pop” per se, but horror films are all about tapping into our deepest, darkest societal fears. And yes, in today’s age of terror and war on terror, the premise of a man-made industry of violence is very tangible. And, very scary. The boogeyman can still be supernatural, but what’s more terrifying? I would rather face off with a haunted house of ghosts than the haunted souls of Gitmo, any day.
It may fuel shocking images and questionable sequences, but Hostel Part II is about 50 times smarter and better-constructed than the endless barrage of studio teen-scare flicks we get to this day. And, holy crap yes, viewer discretion is advised.