Friday, April 04, 2008

Double Feature: Hostel & Hostel Part II

I've been curious about the recent (and now declining?) glut of horror films focusing on torture for some time now. As a long-winded academic at heart, when I saw ads for the Hostel and Saw films, it was impossible to ignore the way they tugged at the zeitgeist-sensing center of my brain. Surely, my brain cried, there must be a reason for these films beyond the insatiable blood-lust of any standard human population! Why are these films finding a market? Why NOW? The subject matter, however, made me a bit queasy and I will admit to not wanting to spend my hard earned money to watch some actors pretend to be in pain. However, after hearing Eli Roth, the director of the Hostel films, speak quite articulately about his intent in making the movies, I decided to swallow my discomfort and sample some of the old ultraviolence to see if there was anything to what Mr. Roth was saying or if he was just a windbag.

Having sat through both Hostel and Hostel: Part II in one afternoon, I realize that it isn't the graphic violence I should have feared, but the dramatic stillness of watching torture unfold onscreen. Two people are in a room. One is helpless, bound, and unable to do anything at all. The other character is holding a sharp object and approaching with ill-intent. Since we've been told by the film that there is absolutely nothing the first character can do to escape this torment, there's really nothing happening in the scene. The only question, the only suspense is, "How much of the body's frailty is the movie going to show?" An entire film devoted to scenes of this nature is bound to be a pointless, dull experience, lacking in any narrative tension. Luckily, neither Hostel or Hostel: Part II is Hard Candy. Both films cast a wider net than depicting the specifics of skin vs. blade, and neither lingers on the torture in a gratuitious fashion (that is, the torture is germane to the plot.). And, while both films are greatly flawed, there's more going on in both than just the easy titillation of feeling scared for people in pain or the vicarious thrill of being the torturer.

Of the two, Hostel is by far the better film. Three young men traveling through Europe go to a hostel in Slovakia, enticed by the promise of sex with willing, beautiful women. Once there, they're kidnapped and held as prisoners by a "hunting club" run by some very naughty Slovakians. This organization offers the wealthy people of the world an opportunity to kill people like our intrepid heroes in a variety of gruesome ways (for a hefty fee, of course... and Americans cost the most!). While this storyline never overcomes or plays with its inherent xenophobia (you mean the local authorities are corrupt and in on the whole shebang too? What hope has a young American in this backward, barbarous land?), it, at least, has the half-believiablity and terrifying simplicity of a juicy urban legend. As a whole, the script is well-constructed, and Roth, as writer-director, credibly depicts the logistics of how such an establishment would operate and the types of people who would patronize such a service. There's a refreshing depth and clarity to the world of the film. And, thematically, there's a fun, though clumsy, modern twist on horror-movie Puritanism--the boys are cinematically punished for objectifying women and become objects for gleeful, sexually charged mayhem themselves. The movie doesn't do much with this, particularly as it's just as guilty of the crime as the boys, but it gets points for trying.

For all of this, Roth writes himself into several corners and the solutions he comes up with are ludicrous and too convenient. When presented with a seemingly inescapable dungeon, I desire more than a chair whose bolts come loose at the right moment or a casually tossed away gun as the means by which the hero escapes from danger. Problematic, also, is a tendency toward easy characterization. At one point, the main character re-enters a place of danger, an act that defies any definition of good sense, even taking into account the first-act monologue shoehorned into the film to justify it. Similarly, the final sequence of the film, in which the hero finds revenge, is unconvincing. While it's tempting to blame Jay Hernandez's performance (which is adequate but simplistic), the real culprit is Roth's script which never does the heavy-lifting it needs to earn these moments. Too many of these moments pile up and suffocate the plot's credibility.

But for all the stumbles he makes as writer, Roth, as director, clearly knows what he's doing. I was surprised and pleased with the editing of the film, particularly in a third-act chase sequence that captured, of all things, a sort-of Spielbergian Indiana Jones vibe. The editing in the torture scenes is masterful too, not too coy and not too gleeful. It shows just enough of the violence, like the film is putting a hand over your eyes to shield you from the horror, but still letting you peek through the fingers. It's shot with real ingenuity, as well. A POV shot through a black hood reveals just how dire the situation is in several stages, taking in all the details of the torture room until it stops to stare at the table of implements. When the main character is dragged through the dungeon for the first time, the shot which reveals the horrors of his predicament mirrors a previous shot that revealed the forbidden pleasures to be found in a brothel.

These technical aspects are nearly good enough to overcome the problems in the script. I wound up liking Hostel a whole lot more than I thought I would and, so, was excited and curious when I started watching the sequel. I couldn't imagine what would compel Roth to create a sequel besides pure economics. There were tantalizing questions left unanswered in the original, though not the kind that I necessarily need answered to feel satisfied. Indeed, often these sorts of questions are the sort that turn a film into a delicious, half-remembered dream (see 2001) and answering them tears the dream away and brings it gasping for life in the harsh glare of reality (see 2010). While Hostel: Part II never quite betrays the original in this way, and while it compellingly deepens the world presented in Hostel, it's also more indulgent, more scattered, and often feels strangely self-important or insular, almost like a fan-made Star Trek film intended for devotees.

At the film's outset, Roth takes the consequences of the original film far too seriously, taking up too much time (and employing too many twists) to wrap up the fate of a character from the first entry. Then, we're back in too familiar territory, following a group of Americans in Europe falling into the same Hostel-trap as the original film. But, just when it seems that the sequel is going to be a mere a remake of the original, the film takes a welcome turn, introducing and following the story of two businessmen who've paid for the chance to kill these unsuspecting tourists.

In following these two wealthy gents, the film finds something new to talk about, though, again, the characters are developed in a simplistic, flat-footed way. One of the dudes is a macho A-type, excited about the prospect of killing someone as a kind of macho rite-of-passage, while the other is a weaker dog, bullied into signing up by his associate. He's less successful than his friend, feels emasculated by his wife, and exudes the never-quite-committed-to-anything attitude of a perpetual bronze trophy winner. While Roth charts the former's excitement and the latter's doubts and insecurities to a realistic end, he comes to a conclusion that is a lot more obvious than he seems to think it is. Still, it's smart of Roth to find the familiar rhythms from the first film and then switch perspectives, playing on our knowledge of what's to come.

That the three victims are young women this time is completely wasted. Similar to Tarantino's Death Proof, (Tarantino is the executive producer of both Hostels), the women are fantasy creations--even when no boys are around they talk and act the way some women do when they're trying to attract a mate. The hint of lesbian sexuality permeating the film has all the sophistication of soft-core pornography without the payoff. And, though the ladies are lured to the Hostel, not by sex, but by the promise of the best, most relaxing hot springs in the world, they're still kidnapped upon making themselves vulnerable through sexual activity. While Roth makes a play at something resembling gender equality by prominently featuring a female torturer (who bathes in the blood of her victim, a la Elizabeth Báthory), he never really dives into the sexual politics at play. Everything's surface level, kiddie-pool stuff and the movie ultimately feels like a safer, milder(!) version of In the Company of Men.

Whatever problems the films have (and as noted, they are legion), this is not to discount Roth's skill as a director. Both films are shot and paced wonderfully, and Roth seems to have a fine understanding of the filmic language he's working in. Part II, in particular shows a certain maturation--for all of its meandering (and boy does it ever meander), it builds expertly to a rousing climax that would no doubt bring down the house if it were a movie about baseball. This ending also features the delightful, devilishly clever escape from the unescapable dungeon missing from Hostel.

What Roth is missing, though, is an equal understanding of humanity. His first film, Cabin Fever, was a fun exercise (and nothing more) in 70s horror nostalgia, but was also distinguished by the fact that its best performance was delivered by a dog. Roth gets his best performances in both Hostel movies from a group of children. He's already figured out how to defeat the old Hollywood adage about never working with children or animals through camera placement and editing, but has yet to grasp the simplistic wonders waiting to be found in human performance. Like many virtuouso genre directors, I wanted Roth to go deeper in his thinking, to really sneak in something subversive and witty, but he never quite makes it. As it stands, after three films, I still can't tell if Roth is a gifted director who knows how to push the right buttons in an audience, but still has a lot to learn, or if he's a savant who knows where to place the camera and when to cut, but can do no more. I do know, however, that he's not a windbag.


John said...

I like Roth, but I'm similarly conflicted. I can't tell if Cabin Fever is really as fun as I think it is, or if the whole thing is just some kind of mass hallucination experienced by everyone who grew up watching the same movies as Roth did. I say that because I've yet to find anyone who didn't like it (apart from the inarticulate statements that populate most online horror boards), and I know that just can't be right.

I don't care for either of the Hostel movies, more because I just don't feel engaged than as a result of the violence or implications, but I do feel like Part II was unfairly slammed by a lot of people.

I'm very interested in hearing your take on what I consider to be Roth's masterpiece, the Thanksgiving trailer he did for Grindhouse. The movie itself never needs to come out -- and I hope it doesn't. The trailer is a better piece of nostalgic horror than Tarantino or Rodriguez could ever hope to accomplish (and that's coming from someone who threatened friends' lives for not seeing Grindhouse in a theater).

David Wester said...

I would just like to take the opportunity to say that Rob Zombie's was a piece of shit that shouldn't have been included.

The Thanksgiving trailer was awesome, a blast, made all the better by Roth himself doing the VO. "White Meat, Dark Meat, all will be served."

Anonymous said...

weiner dog was way too over the top, trying to over compensate for her weirdness not realizing that her doing nothing was weird enough. that death scene with her was obnoxious. i hated the fact that she got the job cause she's hard on the eyes and weird. did she feel bad when she was on set? did she have feelings of self hatred as she cashed her pay check? did she sit with the pretty girls at lunch or did they avoid her? did she hope her parents and friends would skip the movie --that's all I could think about as she hung in the air with all that snot running out of her nose ---a sure sign of "real acting " and "deep terror" --yeah right? i just just felt bad for "heather." And why was she so buff? she was supposed to be a dork but she practically had a six pack!

the first one was for sure better but not unlike the
first friday the 13th was better than the second ---
both these part two's had a lot in common.

I'm that one person who didn't like cabin fever....Why do horror movies have to be funny, the one's without the jokes are so few and far in between. I think these guys put the jokes in so that when people say "ooh it was kind of lame" or "amatuerish" then the director can say "ooh it was supposed to be funny, didn't you get it?"


movies said...

Love watching Hostel sequel. Hostel series is the most BRUTAL Series that I ever seen. This is one of my FAVORITE MOVIE. I also enjoyed the film SAW..