[11 June 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
I’m sure he expected vitriol. Maybe he even welcomed a little of it. Controversy sure spins the turnstiles. But nothing could have prepared Eli Roth for the advanced word on his recently released sequel to the successful horror film Hostel. One critic questioned his humanity, even going so far as to state publicly that, upon finally meeting the man, he would refuse the offer to shake his hand. Ouch! Then there are the neo-con calls for boycotts and censorship, arguing that “trash” like this only glorifies the death and defilement of young women. Granted, it’s a shortsighted argument, but a very effective one in our touchy feely mindset. You see, it’s all about the chicks, man. That’s what’s got everyone in an uproar. Stick a bunch of horny teen boys in a slice and dice slasher flick centering around an Eastern European hostel from Hell and no one screams. But change the gender dynamic, and it’s the latest example of filmmaking excess.
For many Hostel: Part II is a non-issue. It’s a horror film, fulfilling the questionable thrill seeking needs of a particularly narrow dynamic. To them, the genre itself has very little going for it artistically, and those rare films that break out of the categories mold of mediocrity to become certified cinematic classics – the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, etc. – are the anomalies in a field overflowing with filmic offal. As a result, most mainstream critics avoid it, while the marketing makes it clear that the adolescent teen demo is the target for such shock value. All in all, it is easy to dismiss, the typical carnival barking of an otherwise pointless motion picture ideal. But there is another facet to this film’s outright rejection – and it has very little to do with its effectiveness as a shocker, a splatter fest, or a social commentary. No, this aspect of the argument goes to the very heart of how people interact with their entertainment media of choice.
Looking over the isolated discussions of Roth’s return to his previous success, two main complaints arise. The first is also the most ridiculous – that all he offers in Hostel: Part II is more of the same. Anyone with half a brain and a real knowledge of what this filmmaker did in his original film would instantly deride such a preposterous suggestion. Still, by viewing both efforts back to back, we will see how incredibly sloppy such a suggestion is. The second disparagement is equally ludicrous, but goes to an issue much more culturally complex. To listen to the pundits and self-described purveyors of taste, Roth has offered up the most misogynistic film ever. He degrades women in ways that few, if any, have done before, and mixes the sexual with the sickening to further his gangrenous goals of sensationalism. Sadly, such a view ignores 50 years of moviemaking and illustrates that, in many cases, these objections are based on the source’s own desire for glory, not a realistic grasp of motion picture reality.
Let’s take the first point, shall we - that Roth is merely repeating himself. Again, that’s a completely bogus attack. The first Hostel centered on a group of teenage
boys backpacking across Europe looking for sex, drugs…and more sex. They find themselves in Amsterdam partaking of cheap booze and readily available marijuana. When the female element fails them, a Slovakian student suggests they head to an inn in his homeland. There, he says, there are hundreds of willing women, and, as Americans, they can do pretty much anything they want to them. The lure of easy companionship sends the boys to the Eastern Bloc. There, they check into the youth accommodations, meet some incredibly hot to trot honeys, and begin their descent into debauchery. Now, for those who have not seen the film, and may be eager to do so some time in the future, a SPOILER ALERT is now offered. From this point on, we will be dealing with major plot points and scare reveals.
Our three men are separated one night, with two (Josh and Paxton) waking up to wonder where their friend has gone. Turns out, he has become the first victim of something called The Elite Hunting Club. A rich person’s permutation of The Most Dangerous Game, it’s an organization that allows the wealthy to spend obscene amounts of cash in pursuit of the ultimate taboo – the taking of another human life. The factory facilities that house this horror show offer the clientele any number of death dealing options – power tools, surgical equipment, firearms, old fashioned torture devices. All the paying customer has to do is choose his personal ‘poison’ and start the slaying. Soon, Josh is kidnapped and killed, his body used by a wannabe doctor as a kind of fresh cut cadaver. Paxton investigates his pal’s disappearance, and it’s not long before he’s being sliced up by a nervous German with a chainsaw. Managing to escape, he saves an Asian girl, gets out of Slovakia, and even manages some revenge on the deviant who vivisected his friend.
Arguing the merits over the movie is one thing (this critic happens to believe it’s an important horror classic), but to say that Hostel: Part II is exactly the same is pure and utter crap. The differences are so painfully obvious that you have to believe Eli Roth sat down with his original script and decided to fashion a completely contradictory take. Sure, this time around we focus on three girls instead of three boys, but this is not where the differences end. No, this movie is purposefully out to fill in the gaps left by the original narrative, plus provide some incredibly novel twists on the whole women in peril dynamic (more on this later). Our Hostel: Part II leads are not really looking for sex and pharmaceutical thrills – they’re students studying abroad. Looking for a little relaxation outside their Rome routine, they take the advice of an attractive artist’s model named Axelle and head to a Slovakian spa. Naturally, their accommodations are the title tenement.
Our trio is like sketches out of an archetypal coed guidebook. Beth is rich, so much so that she keeps her Dad on an allowance. Whitney is an international skank, but she also seems centered and sensitive to her raucous reputation. Lorna is the Sylvia Plath of the bunch, lost in her own world of wounded self-doubt, but capable of bursting out of her carefully crafted cocoon now and again. That we know more about these ladies is one of Roth’s new conceits. In the first film, our heroes are differentiated by size (tall, medium, muscular) and appearance (light, medium, and dark). We learn very little about their lives save for Paxton’s discussion of a young girl’s drowning and Josh’s mending of his recently broken heart. The guys have goals (lawyer and writer) but we don’t get much more meat than this. Before long, they’re ‘under the knife’, so to speak.
Similarly, before the girls are served up for their sickening purpose, we are introduced to the behind the scenes situations of the Elite Hunting Club. We learn of Sacha, the principle organizer and his connections to the corporate world. When our heroines check in, their image is immediately flashed across PDAs, cellphones and laptops worldwide. Rich individuals with a decidedly depraved outlook start a manic bidding frenzy, using the lives of these young girls like so much highly prized commodities. The winners are beyond excited. The losers are downcast and depressed. Unlike the original Hostel, which showed this killer’s club as a kind of underground den of unspeakable inequity, Roth revamps the idea, turning it into the ultimate escape for the overworked, overstressed CEO.
In this regard, we are also introduced to Stuart and Ben. The former is a slightly sheepish man with family issues. The latter is a pumped up powerbroker who believes that murder makes a man more threatening – even if only ephemerally. They have won two of the gals in our story, and are traveling to Slovakia to meet their manifest destiny. All of this material is new to the Hostel mythology. The original movie had the psychotic surgeon in training and nothing else. We learned a little about him (his love of things tactile, as well as his daughter) but there is not as big a backstory. No, Stuart and Ben come to represent two very intriguing concepts in Hostel: Part II. Without giving it all away, it boils down to what makes a man, and what eventually emasculates him.
This all leads to the most talked about element in Hostel: Part II – the death of our leads. Again, to avoid ruining the movie for those still interested, here’s another SPOILER WARNING. Unlike the first film, which offered at least a dozen on screen kills (some in very gruesome and graphic detail), this time around Roth gives us only three. Granted, another four (or five) occur, but they happen mostly off screen, without so much as a simple special effect to illustrate their dread. Only Lorna, Stuart and Axelle are shown being horrifically tortured and killed, and even then, only the first two have particularly nauseating deaths. In the case of our snooty model, she’s beheaded in a last act in-joke. Stuart has his gender literally removed when his penis is cut off. Lorna, on the other hand, becomes our first female victim, and it’s her disturbing death that’s causing all the clamor.
Quite clearly, these two movies are not “exactly” alike. They both take different routes to reach similar ends, and both are derivative of their creator’s desire to explore the premise he perfected in the first film. Indeed, the notion of a 180 degree reimagining of the original Hostel is so obvious as to be more than crystal clear. In the first, male machismo leads to hormonally charged happenstance – and death. In the sequel, female intuition constantly wins, but only as far as the dominating male Id will allow it. In the end of the original Hostel, brawn and bravery triumph. At the conclusion of the revisit, sensitivity and female cunning allow the tables to be turned. When meshed together, both Hostels become a complete whole, a look at both sides of the sexism coin and how it affects dread. If it weren’t for all the false bravado and public policy kvetching from the wannabe watchdogs, these films would be celebrated as such. In the future, perhaps they will be.
In Part Two, (scheduled for Wednesday, 13 June) we will discuss the death of Lorna, the entire “violence against women” angle, and how complaints about its blatant brutality fail to take into consideration the entire history of horror – or the other half of gender humanity.