Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Movies I Love That Everybody Else Hates: Hostel 2 (2007)

***WARNING! This article contains graphic imagery***

"Stuart, this isn't like going to a whorehouse. You can't just back out..."

When Eli Roth ventured onto the horror scene in 2002 with a bad case of CABIN FEVER, he was heralded as the next big thing in horror. His debut feature was a macabre, and irrefutably quirky little horror flick that was praised by some (and lambasted by others) for its unusual approach and homage to classic horror of decades past; particularly those of the grueling 70s.

The controversial HOSTEL (2005) was next and really didn't expand much beyond Roth's debut. Outside of grossing an inordinate amount of money for a film with this subject matter, it was essentially a gory version of a teen sex comedy ripe with an abundance of juvenility and nudity. This double schlock-olate cake was also judiciously slathered with a grue laced icing for high calorie horror hounds. In spite of this, it ended up grossing over 80 million in America and also ushered in the now nauseating terminology, the so-called 'torture porn' sub genre; a style of film that Teruo Ishii inadvertently initiated with the still grotesque, tasteless, yet artistic excess of the JOY OF TORTURE series that premiered in Japan way back in 1969. A sequel to HOSTEL was indeed a no-brainer.

The sequel to the surprise hit of 2005 was one of the most eagerly anticipated 'part 2s' in modern horror history. At least so it seemed. Even with all the heavily saturated promotional jaunts and pervasive advertising, HOSTEL 2 (2007) ended up being a devastating failure at the box office; not just in America, but all around the world. Even with the so-called all-mighty movie masthead that is Quentin Tarantino acting as an Executive Producer, HOSTEL 2 failed to garner interest.

The film did manage to attract an enormous amount of controversy which, on this occasion, was unable to translate into ticket sales. Roth later claimed piracy was the reason for its dismal performance; and in so doing, he more or less pissed off a great contingent of the horror community. Some online critics claimed the film failed to make money because Roth made the exact same movie over again. That is true to a degree, but as will be explained below, Roth took what worked with the first movie and expanded on it; much like the sequel to the Spanish horror favorite, REC (2007). It's rather a long stretch to claim HOSTEL 2 failed because it's the same film all over again. If that's the case, than franchises like FRIDAY THE 13TH and SAW have some explaining to do.

To add insult to injury, Roth's superior sequel was reportedly banned in some territories and according to Roth, all the violent scenes with the children were removed for its German release.

But prior to that, a great many horror fans echoed disdain for Roth's first two films which was amplified when grotesque posters for the then upcoming sequel began to surface. But this disdain didn't seem to be directed towards a feared retread of the PORKY'S level horror of the previous movie, it was directed towards an air of pretension the director had seemingly created for himself; whether knowingly, or otherwise.

It also didn't help matters that the irritating 'Quentin Tarantino Presents' (encoring from its top billing on the previous movie) was plastered above the title which bears the moniker 'Eli Roth's HOSTEL 2'. Has QT lending his name ever actually helped anybody?!

Even before HOSTEL 2 hit theaters, it was already showing signs of an alienated fan base. Whatever it was, Roth's third film shows a remarkable amount of maturity when compared with his two previous movies in virtually every way.

The first movie was essentially a group of guys on a European vacation lookin' for love in all the wrong places. The title HOSTEL acted as something of a double entendre--One, it's the hotel where the protagonists are set up for the kill. Second, the abandoned, foreboding warehouse is also something of a Hostel; only this time the clientele have no say in whether they approve of the accommodations. Like a roach motel, you check in, but you will never check out.

While that film did manage a modicum of tension due to the mysterious Bloodhound Club, the sequel expands on this insidious organization. The inner workings of its ghastly operations are explored in multiple ways. This reduces that air of mystery, but Roth is successful in extracting suspense in other areas all the while creating a striking arc of exposition the first film barely touches upon.

The opening ten minutes emanates an incredibly evil mood that recalls the opening of FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 (1981) regarding the fate of Jay Hernandez's returning character from the first movie. It was one helluva way to begin HOSTEL 2 and got things off to a simultaneously frightening, and gory start. From the first ten minutes alone, we can deduce that no matter where you go--regardless of them being on the other side of the world--this powerful mafia-like syndicate can and will find you. They will find you and cut your head off and return it back to Europe where an ominous, non-smiling old man played by Slovakia's former Minister for Culture (Milan Knazko) awaits you. Speaking of Milan Knazko, he bears a striking resemblance to Marcel Bozzuffi of FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) fame and numerous Eurocrime movies.

With the opening out of the way and the ties with the previous films surviving character successfully severed, the new protagonists are set up. Instead of a group of horny guys, it's now a group of female art students who are seduced not by sex, but by the promise of rest and relaxation at Slovakia's natural spring. A stopover at the same hostel hell the victims of the previous endeavor temporarily resided reveals how the victims are set up and just how their selection takes place.

It's becoming more apparent in horror today that by revealing too much, you run the risk of eroding the potential building of terror and whatever arcane sense amassed from it. This isn't the case with HOSTEL 2. When we see that everyday normal people around the world are placing bids on human victims much like individuals would bid on an ebay listing, this speaks volumes on the inherent savagery that we all try to suppress in our so-called civilized society. That even with all our industrialization and technological advances, these same evolutionary accomplishments are used as an extension of our hidden propensity for violence and need to exert superiority.

If you have doubts, keep in mind we live in a society where friends and family members have killed each other over such trivial things as a TV remote control, or a bag of Cheetos to name two. Social status does nothing but make an individuals hidden barbaric tendencies all the more frightening.

"Dude, you look anywhere in the world where there's no law...whether it's fuckin' Chad or New Orleans...and this is the shit people are doin', bro. We're the normal ones."

It's also here where we are introduced to our male co-stars; both these men arguably formulate the most fascinating characters in the film. Todd is an overly masculine, easily excitable American businessman who coaxes his passive, henpecked best friend Stuart to accompany him to Europe for this unusual, life altering excursion. What's intriguing is that Stuart is not the boss of his home, nor on an equal plane with his wife. Todd is, on the outside, the epitome of machismo and this European vacation is something of a sadistic rite of passage; it's made all the more sleazy in that Stuart's chosen victim, Beth, resembles his domineering wife.

Throughout their entire arc, Todd is viewed as the dominant male of the two. Stuart doesn't even seem receptive to the ordeal and makes subtle attempts to back out on a couple of occasions by showing a lack of interest. Things change dramatically once the two men are confined to their rooms where they will act out their dark fantasy that involves the killing of defenseless women.

It's here where Todd and Stuart switch places so to speak. Aside from his rough, chiseled exterior and tough guy banter, Todd evokes a latent hatred towards females that seems to stem from one or more past relationships.

Upon sloppily slicing a girls face with a circular saw, he rapidly loses his nerve to finish the gory job. Having built up this seething hatred and fervor for the supposed thrill of killing a helpless, bound and gagged human being, Todd relents his violent intention. By refusing to carry out the requirements of his contract, things do not bode well for Todd.

While he cowers, his friend Stuart suddenly becomes empowered; changing from a mild and meek 'yes man' to a cold, emotionally detached psycho. This is a striking dichotomy that Roth's script explores and something you rarely see in a film of this sort and especially nothing on this level in the first movie.

Speaking of violence towards women, HOSTEL 2 also came under fire for its scenes of extreme misogyny. The first film had an even playing field as it was a mixed group of males and females. Here, it's also guys and girls being slaughtered, but the ordeals of the women are expounded upon. But what the sequel does that the first doesn't is that most all of the torture victims are people we have grown to feel something for, so these moments are stronger than they would be otherwise.

Roth also does something else unique here. None of the women are particularly innocent except for one, yet they're far more likable than the men of the first picture; and the virginal one of the bunch dies horribly and has the best sequence of the entire movie.

Of course I am referencing the 'Bathory' scene. This one bit alone is better and stronger than the entirety of the first HOSTEL. It's also one of the most mesmerizing, shocking and gruesome scenes of horror in anything seen in the genre up to this point. Beautifully photographed, it recalls some of Dario Argento's earlier ghoulish set pieces from some of his more famous works. The art decoration is also splendid; evoking the Gothic ambiance of classic horror marrying it to the extreme bloodletting that has since numbed the senses of genre fans. The way this sequence is shot, the performance of both the victimizer and victim, and the music all give it resonance most horror films strive and fail to attain.

HOSTEL 2 looks like a macabre painting, an ode to those Euro genre films of past decades; and not limited strictly to horror. So many directors these days tend to homage past pictures with a varying degree of success. Most times this sort of genre pandering feels forced, or, in Quentin Tarantino's case, extremely pretentious and often childish. Eli Roth is of this school of homage as well. Yet he pays tribute to European genre cinema much like Sergio Leone did with showcasing his love of the American western. He takes certain attributes of those films and does more than simply toss in a recognizable personality or recycle a famed line of dialog. HOSTEL 2 is essentially a gory love letter to all those Euro cult films that continue to enjoy a DVD renaissance these days.

Edwige Fenech, actress of numerous Italian horror and sex comedy films, came out of retirement to essay a role as an art teacher in what appears to be a nod to her SCHOOL TEACHER series.

Luc Merenda, retired and formerly a "pretty boy" actor in numerous Italian crime movies and horror pictures revisits his 'Violent Cop' roles as another policeman; only here, he is far more sinister. His cameo during the striking opening ten minutes is one of the best moments in this film.

The entirety of the train sequence recalls Aldo Lado's NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS (1974), one of a handful of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) clones. TERROR EXPRESS from 1979 is another. Lado's movie strives for more artistic intentions, though. This train sequence is another masterfully mounted moment that builds a great deal of tension. The themes of isolation and the fears of being in a foreign land surrounded by strange people is a holdover from the first HOSTEL, but here, the subject is likewise expanded upon. The bizarre passengers, including three rough neck Italian party-goers allude to the dangers ahead.

The one time HOSTEL 2 glaringly caters to fanboy sensibilities is with the inclusion of Ruggero Deodato. This sort of playful 'tip of the hat' is the one most often embraced by what passes for the New Wave of horror director today. Roth isn't so desperate with this sequel to cram his film full of references, though. They are there, but very subtle and comfortably lie within the cinematic surroundings. He uses this sole "money shot" of Deodato in all too familiar cannibalistic territory to temporarily takes fans out of the film so as to wink at them. It's possibly the single best in-joke in horror cinema since the last shot of Peter Jackson's BAD TASTE (1987). From there, it's back to bloody business. And boy is the finale bloody!

To say the next to last gore shot is gruesome is an understatement. It's an over the top highlight in a film that uses gore to punctuate a set piece instead of said viscera being built around everything else. This particular moment involves a nasty piece of cutlery, a man's penis and some dogs. Aside from being spectacularly gross, this scene is supposed to elicit cheers from the audience or even a good laugh.

This same exact scenario played out in a Sonny Chiba film from 1975; the autobiographical Karate gore picture, THE KILLING MACHINE. In that film, a gangster is punished by Chiba for raping a young girl by cutting off his penis with a pair of scissors and feeding it to a dog! While we're on the subject, let's digress a bit! In yet another example of phallic destruction involving a canine, a rapist actually has his dick bitten off by an attacking dog in the kung fu film, DRAGON ON FIRE from 1979. Then there's RICCO, THE MEAN MACHINE, a 1973 Eurocrime film with arguably the nastiest instance of Anglo extremity exsanguination. In it, an adulterer is punished by the mafia by being graphically relieved of his penis and testicles by having them forcibly shoved into his mouth! The thoroughly explicit castration of HOSTEL 2 upholds the grand guignol tradition of manhood mutilation. It's both disgusting and a moment of poetic justice.

If there's anything about HOSTEL 2 I disagree with, it's in Roth's proposed political subtext. He made a case for this with the previous HOSTEL. If his intention in either film was to make a political statement, it gets lost amidst gorgeous locations entrenched within an air of thick atmosphere and lots of screaming accompanied by the sounds of noisy power tools. Roth states the HOSTEL film are his stance against American Imperialism of all things. He also claims he is a fairly conservative guy, but then his attacks againsts capitalism that allegedly play out in the movie denounce this notion. Also, he makes his central heroine an obvious supporter of the free enterprise system when Beth, in an attempt to buy her life back, proclaims she has bank accounts in several major European markets!

Purported political underpinnings aside, HOSTEL 2 is a grossly underrated sequel. I think a lot of the animosity towards its director is possibly misguided, or misrepresented. I haven't actually seen or heard anything he has said that came off as an extreme case of "douchebaggery", but listening to him talk about movies, he comes off more as an excitable fan living the dream more than anything else. However, it's not unusual for a personality to turn off members of a genres fanbase because of their words or actions (Tarantino being a prime example) Unfairly maligned, HOSTEL 2 trumped and surpassed Roth's two earlier movies in my opinion.

The most likely culprit guilty of its failure is simple audience trend shift. Other horror movies suffered massive box office blood loss around this time including flicks like THE REAPING (with Hilary Swank), DEAD SILENCE (from the original SAW team), 28 WEEKS LATER, GRINDHOUSE and the sequel (to the remake) THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2.

Whether it failed because of Roth's alleged surge in ego pissing off his core audience, or piracy, or audience disinterest, it's all speculation in the end. The only surefire fact is that HOSTEL 2 failed to find an audience. For what it is, and strictly from my perspective, it succeeds for the reasons listed above. It also shows a director attempting to go the extra mile to turn out something noticeably different yet doing so within familiar trappings. Here's hoping Roth does something even more interesting with his directorial career using the same sort of devotion he labored onto this sequel; a sequel to a film that inarguably seared a bloody tattoo onto the new millennium's brood of modern horror filmmakers.

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