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December 18, 2009

In Defense Of.... Hostel Part II

Lately I've been thinking of new column ideas for this site, and one of the things that's stuck with me is the idea of defending movies that most wouldn't dare think of watching, or even movies that I dismissed initially. But when I thought of starting this column, entitled "In Defense Of....", I never dreamed the movie that would inspire me to act would be Eli Roth's sequel from 2007.

Over the last half decade, I've loudly bashed the "torture porn" sub-genre of horror that's come into the mainstream. A mixture of old-school indie bloodbaths and the chic teen-based slashers of the '90s, films like Roth's 2005 Hostel signaled to me that filmmakers (and the audiences that bought what they were selling) had given up on trying to create atmosphere and tension in their films via character and setting, and that scares were being sacrificed in the name of blood spurts and severed limbs.

In fact, when Hostel Part II arrived in theaters, I skipped it entirely. That's a rare feat for a horror addict like myself (Despite my disdain for the first movie, I still nearly skipped out early from the wedding rehearsal I was at to see it on opening night), but I was tired enough of Roth and his brand that it pushed me away. When the negative reviews kept pouring in, I wrote this one off entirely.

But time passed, and I eventually found myself intrigued enough by the fact a mainstream horror had gotten away from me. So when I sat down this week to finally watch Hostel Part II...imagine how surprised I was to find myself thoroughly entertained by it. How did that happen?

From here on out, there be spoilers........

For starters, I liked how Hostel Part II focused on both the victims and the killers, as opposed to the original's focus on the victims primarily. Roth's first film introduced a excited killer played with vigor by Rick Hoffman late in the film, which was one of the highlights of that script thanks to Hoffman's frantic antics. In Part II, Roth goes to that well early and comes up with the testosterone fueled Todd (Richard Burgi) and his timid friend Stuart (Roger Bart), the bidders who win the chance to join the Elite Hunting circle. While it's still the idea of rich people killing for the sake of killing, having Bart's character involved reminds us of the humans who would have trouble considering this act. Burgi adds a scary presence as Bart's counterpoint, as his twisted outlook on the value of life is sadly realistic at times and made me think about how many people there are who don't have the same values most of us feel are common sense.

The film couldn't have survived on these characters alone, because in the horror world we like to meet the cattle before we get the beef. In Hostel, we followed three male college students as they were led toward the "hunters", and I didn't find any of them to be too interesting or sympathetic. In Part II, Roth focuses on three female leads and, while they're still stereotypical characters (even more so than the first, since most horror films follow the survivor girl model), they're written in a more interesting light. Roth's male characters in Hostel and his debut Cabin Fever have been scarily realistic, but the reality of college age males isn't always something you want to sympathize with. These girls aren't perfect, or entirely interesting, but Lauren German's Beth at least seems like the survival girl type we're used to.

The character that most helps establish the film from the first is Lorna, played by former child star Heather Matarazzo. She's the naive and innocent party along for the ride with Beth and the more adventurous Whitney (Bijou Phillips), and she really nails the part. Roth capitalizes on this as anyone behind a movie of this sort making her the first victim. But not only does she become the first victim, her torture is by far the film's most brutal, and it's heartbreaking to see. The first death is always important in setting the level of distress for any horror film, and this one (which is technically the second, but I count the earlier death as a continuation of Hostel) was handled in a way that had me interested thematically despite the use of gore...the "overkill" factor actually made me feel sorry for the character and worry about what could happen to the other girls when they met their hunters.

Aside from the improvements in characterization, Hostel Part II seems like an all-around more polished film than the first. The scenery is more appealing, it balances the two sides of the story throughout the script, and the final act surprisingly seems less blatant with its use of gore. The finale hits hard with a sinister double turn (or even triple turn, considering the outcome for Beth, Stuart, AND Todd) and leaves us with a couple of great moments that round out Beth's survival girl arc perfectly.

I've always thought Roth had a lot of potential to do horror right, but I didn't expect the sequel to his vulgar "breakout" hit would be the thing that gave me the most faith in him I've had yet. But I ended up enjoying Hostel Part II far more than any of the decade's Hollywood "torture porn" films, and I can't help but find myself defending this sequel as one of the most worthwhile films of its type.

1 comment:

: said...

Nice! I would like to see more of these "In Defense of..." pieces.

I liked both films quite a bit (despite *hating* the "eyeball scene" in the first HOSTEL -- that was totally unnecessary, and was nothing but obvious pandering to the gorehounds in the audience, IMO). Totally agree with you on the murder of the "timid girl" . . . man, talk about brutal stuff. Very disturbing, and probably the only scene in either film that I find genuinely *scary*. But it was, definitely. Both actresses -- the "Bathory" character and her victim -- sold it 100%, making it even more effective.

They're no classics, and they probably wouldn't even rank on my 100, but I still like the HOSTEL films more than I should.