Thursday, June 14, 2007

BODY SHOP: ONE LAST LOOK AT HOSTEL PART II

Truth be told, I didn’t really want to like Hostel Part II. It would have been easier if I could have just dismissed it with a wave of the hand, or with a wave of nausea, as just another offensive, fumble-footed horror homage, along the lines of director Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever and Hostel. In fact, Hostel had a promising premise—ugly American backpackers for sale to the highest bidder as victims in an underground Slovakian murder ring—which never transcended its basic outline because the characters we were meant to identify with were painted with such broad strokes of derision, strokes equal to those with which the amoral, venal flesh dealers, and the blood-lusting murderers themselves, were rendered. Roth demonstrated a talent for building dread—we all knew what lay in store for these poor, horny, tactless bastards, and each mysterious new encounter with all-too-eager Eastern bloc babes or smirky desk clerks sporting glances that lingered a beat too long brought us closer to the charnel house with a satisfying turn of the screw.

But once inside Eli’s Body Shop, the air quickly leaked out of Hostel as it became more apparent that there were no more clever tricks up the director’s sleeve. The tenuous connection to any real world situation vis-à-vis the tarnished perception of the American presence overseas, and the extreme, violently rationalized reaction to it, is a circumstance with which the movie could claim association by proximity only. It certainly never felt imposed on the narrative or engaged with in any meaningful way by screenwriter-director Roth (despite his overactive spin control in pre-release interviews). He’s there in that filthy dungeon of dismemberment for one reason only: the dirty thrill of turning said screw until it bursts through and pierces flesh. When it became clear that the movie could only indulge in a series of gratuitous set pieces (featuring a whole bunch of people screaming and begging while decked out in ghastly-silly makeup appliances meant to gross us out) before trying, like the unlikely hero figure played by lone backpacking survivor Jay Fernandez, to wriggle out of the very difficult dead-end situation it creates for itself, it was hard for me not to give in to indifference.

The improbable escape and confluence of coincidences that allow Fernandez (and the audience) some measure of vengeful release for all the previously endured abuse finally tipped the scales way too far in the direction of absurdity, and Hostel turned out (not without some measure of relief on my part) to be an experience of much less intensity and effectiveness than I had imagined it might be.


So it wasn’t much of a surprise when Hostel Part II (Roth hopes that “part” will get you thinking more Godfather than Grease) grabbed hold of me in the much the same way that the first one did. We follow a trio of, again, obnoxious American backpackers—this time young women—as they’re led along the trail of bread crumbs that inevitably ends in a room in that darkened industrial warehouse where they will be separated from their dignity, their limbs, and their lives. These women are on a par with their male predecessors in terms of sheer, petulant obnoxiousness—frosty yet empathetic Beth (Lauren German), a trust-fund princess with a sense of decency just waiting to be splattered; earthy, lusty Whitney (Bijou Phillips), whose party-hardy philosophy and fundamental bitchiness make her a likely candidate for decapitation; and treacly sweet Lorna (Heather Matarazzo), whose overmodulated wide-eyed openness and vulnerability (a mistake on the part of actress and director) undermine our stake in her unfortunate fate, played out in the movie’s grisliest and most overtly stylized set piece.

Hostel Part II is no more a purposeful or reflective consideration of the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Darfur, or a finger on the pulse of post-9/11 anxiety, than was Part I. Again, the notion that a movie takes advantage of a premise involving an especially bloody and aggressive outgrowth of capitalism, spearheaded by characters that look like they could have come from deep inside the beltway of George W. Bush’s America, doesn’t mean that the movie profoundly engages with that premise on a political or sociological level. And hearing Roth pontificate in interviews about how he drew inspiration for the movie after pondering the aftermath of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina really is opportunism at its most shameless-- post-production rationalization designed to distract the mainstream press from the ghoulish play he’s really up to. No, Hostel Part II departs from its predecessor into the realm of a truly effective giallo-influenced thriller through sheer craft and skillfully achieved empathy for those pitiful specimens who find themselves in the death chair. Roth has become a better director, better able to take advantage of the dank creepiness of his locales, inside and outside of that slaughterhouse; better able to set up visual jokes that play upon-- and indict-- the audience’s desire to see more than even this plasmatic director wants them to see (late in the film, a guard at the warehouse obscures our view of a video monitor just at the point a particularly gruesome death is delivered); better able to convey far more storytelling skill than was on display in the previous gross-out. Roth’s happy-horseshit interview persona may be cynical, but his instincts for how to deepen the experience beyond a showcase for the talents of makeup wizards Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero have served him well in this sequel.

The biggest chance Roth takes is affording a sobering, satirical glance at what might underlie the impulse for a rich businessman to get him or herself tattooed and travel halfway around the world for the privilege of running a Skilsaw over someone’s screaming face. The movie intercuts the travels of the female protagonists with those of two American executive types who have won an intense bidding war over the right to disembowel our heroines. Roth introduces them in a very sharp split-screen montage sequence which shows us a vast pool of CEOs and other outwardly reputable types surreptitiously consulting their buzzing cell phones during business meetings, family breakfasts and, of course, golf matches. We might mistake their multitasking behavior as typical hard-core white-collar breadwinning, until we get a glimpse of those cell phone screens with images of Beth and Whitney, and those ever-escalating dollar figures. The privilege of stress-relieving, no-questions-asked murder falls to a type-A middle management asshole (Richard Burgi) who imagines the bloody experience as the ultimate extreme sport, one that will give him an inexplicable aura and edge (Eye of the ripper?) when he returns to the competitive business world. Along for the ride is another suit and tie (Roger Bart), a far more uncertain and reticent one who harbors an unstable sense of decency that will do him absolutely no good when the heavy doors of that abattoir slam shut and he realizes that someone must die. Roth teases us in clever ways as these two strands of the story dangle ever closer to each other, and they give Part II a definite psychological edge that enhances the squirm-inducing dread, the fear of the moment when steel meets, and rends, flesh, a fear that Roth unashamedly exploits for all the suspense and audience identification he was unable to locate in the first movie.

There has been some debate as to just with whom the audience is meant to identify, however. Many of the folks eager to chime in on the movie before they’d even seen it seemed convinced that, by making a movie about a torture-and-murder-for-profit organization and placing young, relatively attractive people in it, the movie was somehow advocating actual torture. (The tone of some of these arguments suggested to me that these detractors didn’t realize the horrors of Hostel Part II were the product of movie fakery.) At the very least, was Roth positioning the movie as some sort of vicarious geek hard-on, advocating bloody vengeance against all the pretty folks who, in the world outside this grisly fantasy, wouldn’t give said geeks and nerds the time of day? Some have even suggested that this misapplication of sympathies—with the perpetrator of evil and against the innocent victim—is the standard M.O. of horror, as if to say that we all identified with Freddy Krueger instead of Heather Langenkamp or poor Amanda Wyss. But that’s a tack (one seen coursing through a lot of the comments beneath David Poland’s well-publicized reaction) that’s as dishonest as Roth claiming the Hostel movies are some sort of cultural corrective to Gitmo. A casual glance at the plot mechanics, and a more observant consideration of the general tone of the film’s arterially-sprayed set pieces, ought to be enough to reveal that while Roth’s point of view is clearly not one of repulsion, neither is it one that suggests we should in any way be identifying with the impulses that spur these wealthy murderers on along their crimson-stained vacations.


We are, however, invited to identify with the transgressive frisson of being taken into a pact with a skillful and, yes, occasionally irresponsible director and shown some very ugly things in the service of what can only be described, with or without shame, as a successful genre entertainment. And, folks, it happens all the time. Individual sequences in movies as disparate in subject matter, quality and chronology as The Witchfinder General (a.k.a. The Conqueror Worm; 1968), Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), Lamont Johnson’s Lipstick (1976) and Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999) all contain imagery and/or sequences far more upsetting to me than anything in Hostel Part II, and that has everything to do with factors as variable as my own personal level of tolerance and repellence and, more to the point, the director’s seriousness of intent.


The fact is, it was entirely within my range of response to the movie’s most notorious scene, the Elizabeth Bathory-influenced evisceration of Lorna at the hands of a sexually gratified female assailant, to find it simultaneously horrifying, disgusting, a clever infusion of giallo-influenced imagery (films which often achieved a similar level of seemingly indefensible ghastliness), and an opportunity to face up to my own negative feelings about Heather Matarazzo’s performance and the way Eli Roth apparently directed her to once again channel Dawn Wiener, only heavily sugar-coated this time and turned up to 11. Facile genre subversion aside (it’s usually the dowdiest of the group that ends up standing in for the audience and making it to the end of a picture like this), I think this scene, the locus of David Poland’s emotional response to the movie, probably has to be added up to a directorial misstep, a grossly overindulgent moment in a movie admittedly full of them that, ironically, was made more endurable for me by just the kinds of aesthetic disconnects mentioned above, disconnects that viewers like David Poland were unable to achieve. (By the way, Poland reviewed the movie off of a bootlegged DVD made from a work print, and he reports Matarazzo screaming pathetically for her mommy in the version he saw. Unless my ears completely failed me, Roth apparently decided against this bit of business, because I never heard it.) I don’t, however, think that Roth can be held accountable if a certain sexually inexperienced and/or disturbed element of the audience gets its rocks off on watching a woman writhing in ecstasy beneath a cascade of blood, any more than I believe that Martin Scorsese should be held accountable for supposedly encouraging John Hinckley to shoot a gun.

However, the vilest scene in the movie, from a directorial point of view, is not the Matarazzo murder. Roth, during the course of the action, reintroduces us to the pack of young (average age, about 10) street thugs from the first film that serve as the director’s roving visual reminder of the anthill scene in The Wild Bunch. These are formerly innocent children driven by poverty, disease and lack of proper adult guidance to spend their time robbing and harassing the unlucky tourists that cross their path. At one point Beth, attempting to escape the clutches of her murderous captors, stumbles upon the children and is nearly beaten to death by them before being “rescued” by the steely-eyed CEO of the killing corporation. After carting Beth away, the man holds a loaded gun to the forehead of each of the boys (and one girl), before one boy is pushed to the forefront and coolly capped in full view of the rest of the gang. We do not see the spray coming out of the boy’s head; we see only the slumped, lifeless body in the foreground as both the killer and the children depart from the scene. I’m at a loss to imagine how this scene adds anything to our understanding of the brutal economic web by which the killer, his victims and these children are ensnared. Nothing gets thrown into stark, painful relief by this callous act except the director’s compass momentarily spinning completely out of control.


The movie got its claws right back into me, though, and held its grip throughout an extended sequence of carnage and, yes, even some pitch-black comedy once we finally return for one last tour through the charnel house. It’s here that the red-meat American businessmen come face to face with the fulfillment of their sickest fantasies, and, of course, the unexpected psychological short-circuit that comes along with it, and it’s here that the movie achieves the kind of grindhouse glory that eluded the first movie in its haste to pace through its third-act plot points. Say what you will about Eli Roth’s motivations and the audience’s relative lack of health for wanting to be subjected to the final result, but Hostel Part II has, along with a coarsely underground sensibility that suggests that a wide release for this bucket of blood was never the way to go (it’s why no one ever called for the heads of Mario Bava or Lucio Fulci), the simple courage of its twisted convictions. Maybe we’ll look back in 20 years and see more clearly that Hostel and this sequel were part and parcel of a communication between a movie and the culture that surrounded it, in the way that movies like Night of the Living Dead and The Wild Bunch, to name just two, were informed by and reflective of the tragedy in Vietnam. I suspect probably not, and that’s okay—there are plenty of good, nasty movies in this genre that have gotten by simply on their good looks (irony alert), and there ought not to be any shame in enjoying them as such. Instead, when we look at Hostel Part II in 20 years I think we’ll see pretty much what we see now—the work of an over-hyped hotshot director who, if he and we are all lucky, will have fulfilled some of the promise that he finally got around to indicating in the dank, moldy hallways of this ruthless, surprisingly effective shocker.

21 comments:

Dennis Cozzalio said...

By the way, I think the best horror movie of the year so far is The Host.

Steve said...

See, I'd argue that the scene with the kids works in context. It's like how Rodriguez uses the cute kid in Planet Terror -- Roth knows our expectations and knows that we don't think he'll ACTUALLY kill one of those nuisance kids. The buildup, though squirmy, is well-handled enough that when Mr. Hostel-Ringleader strolls off, there's that brief moment of, "Well, okay, we avoided THAT..." Then the silencer comes out. I think, though, it's significant that a kid isn't just killed at random in a shock-cut -- the kids, who function as a social organism and no doubt have a hierarchy similar to any social structure, choose one of their own who is deemed expendable. From my eyes, it's the most poisonous and cruelly effective demonstration of Roth's world o' social Darwinism (we're all in agreement that's what he's trying, however clumsily, to do here, right?) as well as a brutal goose to the audience showing that, this time at least, Roth knows exactly what he's doing.

Too bad about the Mattarazzo segment, though; although it provides a more concise and effective summation of the Bathory legend than either Eternal or Stay Alive, it's really far out of tune with the rest of the film. (I seem to remember her pleading for mommy once, maybe twice. I could be wrong, though.)

As for best horror film of the year... well, I liked The Host a lot. But I'm far more partial to the intense savagery of 28 Weeks Later.

Robert said...

"By the way, I think the best horror movie of the year so far is The Host."


Hey, that's MY line, Dennis...

Well, now that HOSTEL is over with (if they decide to press on with the series, one can only hope they decide to go straight to video with it), we can all look forward to 1408 (this year's Stephen King adaptation, which actually looks pretty good, and THE MIST to follow in the Fall.

Of course, SAW 4 is lingering in the wings....

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Ha! Sorry, Robert! I knew somebody had said something similar, but at the late hour (earlier this morning) I was just too bleary-eyed to find out who. Think of it this way: I only steal from the best! (And The Host really is just bout perfect!)

Saw 4... We knew it was coming, didn't we?

And do you remember who is directing The Mist? Something in the back of my mind makes me think it was someone of note...

bill said...

Frank Darabont is making "The Mist". I have high hopes for that one. I really can't believe that story hasn't already been adapted. It's made for the big screen.

Chris Stangl said...

Darabont going balls-out monster-crazy on THE MIST is - after GRINDHOUSE's double-shot of the good stuff - the most exciting movie prospect of the year, horror or no. Stephen King's novellas are the exact-right length for screenplay adaptation. "The Mist" is vividly cinematic already, but practically begging-crying-screaming for some lucky creature shop to call in its Giant Albino Spider Design A Team and launch this thing into the stratosphere. THE MIST could be all-time great creature feature stuff of legend.

I really hope Mr. Roth can put his more sophomoric tendencies aside for his CELL adaptation and do right by Stephen King. It's a tricky book, and he's going to need every ounce of his filmmaking muscle, and none of his skills as a provocateur.

Alex said...

I haven't yet seen the movie, but I do think our standards have to be higher for social criticism within the genre. Eli Roth may have some incoherent impulses in the right direction, but he's simply not where he needs to be, in terms of his understanding of politics or capitalism or human beings, in order to achieve high goals.

And partially, the problem lies within the concept of horror itself as a film genre. To make a horror film currently marketable at the profit level Roth seeks, the genre is now simply too constraining: the fanboys' desires constrain the film-maker too much. I would also challenge Roth's conception of his own art: if his primary driver was to create a critique of capitalism (which is also a main driver of my own work), then you have to evaluate his actions with consistency towards that goal.

One needs to be extremely subtle in pursuing that goal, but thankfully, there are many masters who point in right directions. But Roth wants too much to have the cake (make commentary about capitalism) and EASILY work within capitalism's constraints to his own quite large monetary profit. It may be possible to do the two at the same time, but it's quite difficult and Roth needs to be much more demanding of his own work in doing so. After all, if Roth is serious about the goal of criticizing capitalism, then such an important goal surely demands much of the artist. Working on such an important thing in a trivial manner insults the very claim that the goal is worthwhile.

Piper said...

Damn Dennis,

I had made up my mind not to see this movie, but your review of it makes me curious all over again. I especially like the dual story line of the rich execs.

But here's my ultimate problem. I don't like Roth. And I don't like him for the reasons you state. He is egotistical and shameless in promoting of the film. And while I like that he has put horror more on the forefront, I don't like that it's him doing it. So where do we draw the line on that stuff? Do I go to see it and say, "but I don't like what Roth is doing." It's kind of like saying, I don't support the war, but I support the troops.

Also (and again, I have not seen it so...) but from what I've read the scene with Heather M. being hung upside down and cut open sounds pretty graphic. So what's the point in showing that, and then having someone step in front of a monitor to mask out another graphic scene. To me, either you do it throughout or not at all.

Campaspe said...

Heh. Little Miss Wimpy, I mean Campaspe, did make it through Witchfinder General. I included it on a list of Most Frightening Movies but now must admit that is wrong. It didn't frighten me, I wasn't running around expecting to find Vincent Price chasing me down. But it sure as hell horrified me, and how. I saw it as The Conqueror Worm, scan and pan, cut for commercials and content, at 10 am one morning on AMC and I was no good for the rest of the day. I couldn't distance myself enough to judge it aesthetically. It's beyond disturbing, more in the realm of an assault on the audience. I will never forget that screaming woman being slowly lowered into the fire as long as I live. Who knew Vincent Price could be genuinely (as opposed to campily) evil?

More reason to fold my napkin, push back my chair and walk away from the current gore banquet, I fear.

Campaspe said...

now I am looking at my old post and I said then that AMC didn't have commercials at that point ... the movie tied me in so many knots I don't even remember anymore.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

We must have seen the very same screening of The Conqueror Worm-- AMC, pan-and-scan-- and it was about as horrific an experience as I've ever had with a movie. After a steady diet of Price -Poe movies for Corman, and even the enjoyably silly Cry of the Banshee, I truly was not prepared for how hard that movie was going to hit me. And I could barely stand to watch Vincent Price!

Thanks, by the way, for your very nice note that other day under the "Future of Horror" post. I truly do enjoy the occasional disagreement when it means I can have exchanges with the likes of you, Campaspe. There must be something we can agree on, though, and I bet, given your love of classic Hollywood and the breadth of your experience, that title would be just as easy to find as one to scuffle about!

You may also find this amusing. I was talking with my friend as we were hanging out after seeing Hostel Part II, and we discovered, to our amazement, that we both wanted to see the upcoming update of Nancy Drew. So this weekend, this gore-sated duo will be taking my two daughters out to see Nancy and friends solve a Hollywood mystery. Take that, Eli Roth! :)

Steve said...

Tying into what I started to feint at earlier, as well as a sidelong response to alex:

Despite bringing up the spectre of social Darwinism earlier, it occurred to me very early on that the so-called capitalist critique in this film is a fool's game, wallpaper for that which Roth actually knows a damn thing about. I mean, yeah, sure, it's there, but, as I see it, it's being used as a vehicle to talk about the "torture porn" genre that Roth helped to define.

I'll be back later to explain my daft reasoning (leaving work now), but I'd wager that Roth, in between this and the first Hostel, read himself some Carol Clover.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

"I think, though, it's significant that a kid isn't just killed at random in a shock-cut -- the kids, who function as a social organism and no doubt have a hierarchy similar to any social structure, choose one of their own who is deemed expendable."

Steve, you're right about that, and though it is maybe a subtle distinction, it is a distinction nonetheless. Maybe it's simply that I have such a strong reaction to seeing a child killed on screen that, especially in this context, I reacted so strongly. I think the children's gang works as a microcosm of the world Roth has constructed in regard to human exploitation, but it is a peripheral microcosm, and to have it given such weight in such a brutal moment seemed to set the movie to wobblin' again, at least for me. Interesting though that the death of the kid in Planet Terror is probably even less defensible-- there it is simply a joke on an audience's reliance on convention-- yet it didn't bother me so much. What's wrong with me?!

"I liked The Host a lot. But I'm far more partial to the intense savagery of 28 Weeks Later."

Now there are two movies that know how to put children in peril and make the most thematic hay out of it. I'd give the edge to The Host not only for its tonal experimentation, but for its facility at a shocker and for its amazing level of empathy and emotion. Talk about dangling a carrot in front of an audience's expectation with the ending of that movie. For me, 28 Weeks Later, while a worthy extension of the first movie's themes and expansion of it to some rather surprising levels of emotion of its own, The Host ultimately had freshness on its side too. This veteran of monsters-on-the-rampage movies walked out thinking I'd never seen anything like it.

"I'd wager that Roth, in between this and the first Hostel, read himself some Carol Clover."

I think that's a good, solid bet. And thank you for reminding me that I've wanted to order her book ever since seeing that documentary from a few years ago, The American Nightmare. She's the first critic I can think of since Robin Wood to really raise an academic eyebrow over this kind of material, for good or ill, and I think even when discussions like those of Wood and Clover go astray, they're still fascinating in that someone is actually taking the subject seriously. Sounds like a couple of good sources to revisit in light of all this recent theorizing about horror.

Damian said...

Well done, Dennis.

I must say that your analysis of Hostel II certainly sounds fair, reasonable and intelligent (like Piper, I had already decided I wasn't going to be seeing it, but your review certainly makes it sound more intriguing than anyone else's out there). When I read pieces like this I am reminded once again of how relatively ignorant I am of horror movies and have to face the fact that I will never become a true "connoisseur" of the genre.

At the very least it sounds like Roth might be progressing as an artisan if not necessarily an artist. As he continues to develop his craft perhaps (or at least I can hope) his sensibilities will mature as well, in which case I would actually be willing to give him and his movies another chance.

Campaspe said...

Dennis, all I have to do is scroll down to the Hawks post to find a great deal to agree with. Not sure I would call him the best ever, but that is more from reluctance to bestow absolute superlatives than anything else.

If anyone in this thread is reading our description of "The Conqueror Worm" and thinking, "golly! can't wait to see that one!", s/he is in luck. In a nice bit of synchronicity, one of my readers tipped me off that TCM is showing it at 2 AM on Saturday. Set those Tivos, watch at 10 am and you too can replicate the Dennis/Campaspe Shaken-to-the-Core Experience. Fun for the whole family, and a great palate-cleanser for Nancy Drew.

:D

Piper said...

I just have to add that I agree with The Host being the best horror movie of the year.

And I have to disagree that 28 Weeks Later was any good.

The Host makes the unbelievable believable in the way that it handles the monster and the people around it.

28 Weeks Later makes the believable seem unbelievable in putting the characters in a series of idiotic scenarios only to help re-spread the epidemic.

Noel Vera said...

Saw Hostel 2. Some good parts, and the ending's funny enough to be mistaken for thoughtful, but didn't Saws 2 and 3 already do this ending?

I agree re:2 28 Weeks later: not a big fan. It picks from Romero's best ideas (still, like the first one), and tacks on bits from Resident Evil and bits from Children of Men. It had one strong moment--snipers not being able to distinguish infected from non-infected--but that's it for me.

Cinebeats said...

I finally watched Hostel Part II yesterday so I figured I'd catch up and read your review and add a few last comments about Roth and the film since it's fresh on my mind.

First I'll say that I thought Hostel Part II was Roth's best film yet and after only 3 movies, the guy is clearly improving as a director in my opinion.

I stand by my claim that Roth's probably the best new American director making horror films and I'll further add that I think he's probably much smarter than most of his critics who don't understand his films and are blinded by the violence portrayed in them.

I've never been offended or put of by any art and yep, I consider all film's to be art. The films of Argento and Romero are as important to me as the films made by John Huston and Welles. I know the horrors I'm looking at are fake. I know that Eli Roth could not possibly show me anything as ugly and horrible as the real horrors going on in the world around me every day.

I look away when I see tortured soldiers on the news getting their heads removed by angry militants forced to fight back like animals against the American war machine. And I shed a tear every night when I watch Jim Lehrer read the names of dead soldiers who are dying for the lies of an administration that is willing to use their young healthy bodies for power and personal gain. I also shed a tear for an American populace that is so sheltered and blinded by their own problems that they're willing to be silent accomplices in all these crimes.

At the core of both Hostel 1 and 2 is a story about wealthy members of a secret society (Skull & Bones anyone?) who use their money and power in the most depraved ways imaginable. These killers don't sit around a board room discussing ways to use the bodies of young soldiers and tortured prisoners of war to expand their power, build up their wealth, restock their oil supplies and suck every nickel and dime they can from a society that's controlled by them. Instead, the killers in Hostel 2 get their kicks from killing and torturing young college kids just for sport. But is there that much of a difference between the two groups? I don't think there is.

Roth also smartly exploits the ugly American xenophobia in both Hostel films. I’ve read reviews where critics point out the awful portrayal of Eastern Europe in Hostel 1 and 2, but I’m married to someone who’s very familiar with eastern europe and who’s family came from Latvia and he knows all to well what the horrible living conditions have been like there for years.

White slavery and human trafficking still happens on a regular basis and orphaned kids are used by the mob to commit crimes if they can’t be used as prostitutes. Sadly, most American’s are completely unaware of the problems people face in that part of the world. Roth uses those horrible realities as well as American xenophobia which leads many Americans to think ridiculous things like “all middle Easterners are terrorists” and being completely ignorant to anything going on outside their own neighborhoods, to frame his stories.

In regards to the child getting killed you said:

I’m at a loss to imagine how this scene adds anything to our understanding of the brutal economic web by which the killer, his victims and these children are ensnared. Nothing gets thrown into stark, painful relief by this callous act except the director’s compass momentarily spinning completely out of control.

I think Steve already made a great defense as to why this scene is important to the film, but I also wanted to add to it. As I mentioned above, in Eastern Europe it’s common practice for orphaned street kids as young as eight or nine (or younger) to be recruited by the mob and forced in to a life of crime and prostitution. If these kids become a problem or don’t perform well, they don’t survive.

Roth was just showing a reality in that part of the world as well as showing how these guys recruit their workers. It was clear to me that the orphan kids would probably grow up to become the guys wearing black and working at the hostels in order to kidnap the victims. If they didn’t become part of the organization, they’d find themselves in the same awkward situation as the young guy who tried to save Beth, but had to flee town after getting badly beaten.

As for Lorna’s bloody murder which has caused so much fuss...

I do agree with you Dennis that Heather Matarazzo’s performance as Lorna was a little too sugary sweet to be 100% believable, but I like her and so I let myself get caught up in her performance. When she suffered her horrible fate I felt terrible for her and got chills. I even looked away from the screen for a brief momen at one point. Her elaborate murder was clearly based on the real life crimes of Elizabeth Bathory (a rich woman who used to bathe in her poor virginal servants blood thinking it would keep her young) and obviously inspired by eurohorror films like Jorge Grau’s Blood Castle and Vicente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride, as well as Hammer’s Countess Dracula. All the films I mentioned have similar scenes since the movies are based on the real crimes of a real-life wealthy and powerful woman. I thought it was well done and reminded viewers that women also commit horrible murders. It also drove home many of the main points of the Hostel films about the wealthy & powerful people who commit these crimes.

I thought all the stuff involving the business men Stuart (Roger Bart) & Todd (Richard Burgi) which started with that great online auction was just plain brilliant and really well done. Having seen the first film I didn’t expect too many surprises in the second so Roth’s choice to have audiences spend time with these guys was very smart and well executed in my opinion, plus both men were just terrific and completely believable in their roles.

I also thought Lauren German’s performance as Beth was really good. she was great as a wealthy and privileged young woman, who was torn between being friends with the party-loving boy toy Whitney (Bijou Phillips) and the thoughtful book worm Lorna (Heather Matarazzo). She also did a great job of dealing with her budding sexuality and attraction towards another woman, which is not an easy thing to pull off in any movie.

My only real complaint with the film was the ending. It should have ended when Beth was getting her tattoo. It would have been blunt and drove home a point, and I would have applauded that choice. Having Beth take more revenge seemed silly and tagged on, even though the movies end was clearly a nod to lots of great Italian horror films that have ended in similar ways, it just didn’t totally work for me. And other Italian films that have ended like that didn’t work perfectly for me either.

Maybe we’ll look back in 20 years and see more clearly that Hostel and this sequel were part and parcel of a communication between a movie and the culture that surrounded it, in the way that movies like Night of the Living Dead and The Wild Bunch, to name just two, were informed by and reflective of the tragedy in Vietnam.

I think critics will. Now more than ever, I think Roth’s films have flew over most critics heads. They don’t want to admit that these films are smarter than they are and deal with horrific ideas that are driven home every night if you watch the news. Instead they call Roth names and make personal attacks on the man and his audience. I guess that’s easier to do than deal with the real horrors taking place around you.

Thankfully in Romero and Peckinpah’s day there were a handful of people willing to look beyond the hype and move beyond the horror to see what they were trying to convey. America is still neck deep in a horrible war brought on by wealthy and powerful men with personal agendas who are willing to let young soldiers and prisoners of war be tortured for their gain. The real tragedy of what’s going on now has yet to be even fully admitted, much less examined. I stand by my opinion that Roth is one of the few artists daring to look at the world right now for what it is and horror cinema as well as black humor is his medium.

My own feelings have been confirmed by the critical response his films have gotten outside of America. I don’t think American critics or American audiences are ready to deal with the nightmarish things Roth is bringing to the screen right now and labels like “torture porn” make it easy to dismiss him.

Phillip said...

A lot of good points brought up here on this blog.

I'm going to start with the initial post and the product that brought about the second Hostel, and that would be the first Hostel! Dennis, while I agree that perhaps the first Hostel isn't as glossy clean as the second: the dialogue suffers a little more, the characters aren't as neatly developed and there's nothing to balance out the story line - so it's watching these guys live in want of fornication and cliches for an hour before any of the real good stuff starts. But to say:

"the characters we were meant to identify with were painted with such broad strokes of derision, strokes equal to those with which the amoral, venal flesh dealers, and the blood-lusting murderers themselves, were rendered."

is perhaps a bit much. I found myself understanding of their plight and in a film like this, that's really all that's necessary, because what it comes down to is how tricky the actual filmmaking gets. And as you say and I go into more detail on my own blog is that Roth's greatest skill is to slowly build the dread. To craftily take you into this underground world. The first film incorporated far more shadows, letting things be hidden and left to the imagination. I remember the Hernandez character being led down the hallway and looking into the rooms at what was happening, and he/we were shown just enough to get queasy. There was also a great amount of cleverness used in how the violence furthered the action of the story: getting his fingers chopped off, slipping on the blood...all nice little touches, especially the moment when the torturer seems affected by the fact that the young man speaks German, leaves, and for a moment you feel that perhaps...but no...it continues. Roth is wonderful at teasing the audience in the first Hostel, and he continues using that gift in the second part, but somehow he forgets to use it at times. There's of course the blood bath scene that everyone has already mentioned. Me, I have no problem with the scene as an idea. There's something creepy about it, but the way in which it was directed, shot and edited leaves want for more. It builds well, no doubt. The single shot of the hanging victim that they continue cutting back to is very effective. Once the blood letting begins all levels of effective filmmaking fly out the window. I even thought the editing was poor. As if they got lazy once the suspense ended. They lacked that grounded moment, that connective to show that the woman getting showered upon was indeed being effected by this in a real way. But there was one other moment in the film that I found to be even more distracting. The blood bath dealt with one of the main characters, but what in God's name did the Hannibal Lecter scene add to the film except to show a cannibal being able to feed off someone that was still living. Truly this was the most offensive scene in the film for me, because it truly added nothing. Unlike the the scene in which the young boy was shot, which I found to be one of the most effective.

A lot of people are saying that they don't see the influence of Katrina and the political world in this film, but does something have to be as obvious as "The Host" in it's assessment of what's happening in the world. Artists are influenced by a number of things when they write and direct or paint. Did Roth have to have an image of a city being flooded to make a connection. Simply I can see within the film the misplaced morals and values of rich white men, that to me, while not making a great statement, shows that the influence is seen within the film and that there is an idea at work. Does there have to be more? Maybe it would have helped if one of the people bidding at the beginning was a politician. I separate the filmmaker from the film. Tarrantino and Shyamalan are both egoists but I tend to enjoy their films.

"28 Weeks Later" was garbage. The first film created something that was feasible within our reality. People scratching and clawing to stay alive in a world that's suddenly falling apart with a nice little war allegory thrown in. The second scrapped any and all logical connection to what the first set up and made living humans that were infected by a virus into, well, mere zombies. There was shot in "Weeks" in which the infected are moving across the field of long grass towards their victims and one of the infecteds torsos is missing. What? They aren't zombies! And then we're expected to believe that the patriarch can follow people around the city after they've been in a car, etc. Or that the one infected person remaining has been left completely unsupervised!? It was simply ridiculous. A way to force the drama and spread the virus for perhaps "28 Years Later", which is how long I hope they take to make it.

"The Host" has my vote as well. Asian cinema is way ahead of almost any other set of nations right now. Korea, Hong Kong, Japan all taking risks in story and structure and it's paying off.

I saw "Witchhunter" at a movie theater last year here in L.A. It kind of bored me. Maybe I'll take another look. You mention "Audition". I've written a lot about Takashi Miike at my own blog. This was the first film in a long while to get under my skin. I've since seen about 12 of his films and he never ceases to surprise me. He's a director Roth looks up to, and as a director Miike is quite brilliant, very effective, he knows when to show violence and when to withhold. I've seen an interview between Miike and Roth in which Roth drops into fan boy mode and brings up this same detail, that influence is seen in Roth's work. But there are a few of Miike's films in which his ideas become lost in the way he presents them. I hope Roth learns from Miike's occasional mistakes and continues growing as a filmmaker, because I think he has some talent.

Piper said...

Dennis, I saw this last night and I would say that it wasn't as awful an experience as everyone had made it out to be: both cinematically and graphically.

I plan on posting additional thoughts on this, but you are correct that for a movie labeled "torture porn" it was not all that graphic and I was surprised and a bit delighted that Eli held back the way he did.

My biggest problem is that it's obvious that Eli is constantly influenced by the slasher movies of the 80s and that carries through in this. That would be fine with a "Thanksgiving" type movie, but for him to stick such cliched characters in an otherwise very realistic story shows that he's got a lot to learn.

Marcus Gorman said...

One of the best reviews of a completely misunderstood film amidst a plethora of unjustly hateful digs at a movie they only pretend to hate. The ramifications of this film more are important in a sociological and feminist fashion than most people can even believe.