"Hostel: Part 2" opened up in theaters over the weekend, the culmination of a grisly ad campaign that would seem at first glance more than deserving of the tagline to 1974's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre": "Who will survive and what will be left of them?"
As I viewed "Hostel: Part 2," however, I found myself asking the question less about the characters and more about Eli Roth, the self-aggrandizing writer/director at the movie's helm. Would he manage to grow as a filmmaker and deliver on some of the flare for tension and atmosphere he demonstrated in his previous work, or would he let his equally over-the-top love for tasteless and ineffective shock cinema win out?
Horror is a difficult genre - more so than most audience members and even filmmakers are likely to admit. Too many fans are content to find enjoyment in such cinematic refuse as the "Saw" franchise and an ever-growing swarm of hacks are more than willing to finance, write and direct more of the same: a product created with the mindset that horror is easy.
The world is a frightening place. The challenge of horror is to tap successfully into the web of fears that meshes through our everyday lives, that curdle up through the primal subconscious and waits just outside the boundaries of what we take for normalcy, law and reason.
In its better moments, "Hostel: Part 2" manages actually to connect with real currents of horror, successfully conveying a sense of unease and alienation in a fictional vision of Eastern Europe where anti-American hostility, cultural divide and large-scale corruption are brought to life in the form of an underworld where jaded millionaires bid for the chance to torture and kill U.S. citizens.
The first film set up the premise, following three male backpackers on European holiday as they're slowly lured into a world of black-market sadism.
Two of the characters die grizzly deaths, one achieves a brutal escape from the Slovakian torture rooms and manages a degree of revenge on one of his tormenters.
The sequel retreads a lot of the same territory, only this time detailing how three female college students from the U.S. are sucked in.
As with their male counterparts in "Hostel," the girls are as predictable and cardboard as one would expect from the horror genre. The first film gave us the nerd, the jerk and the survivor. This time around, we get the clichés of Lorna the bookworm (played by Heather Matarazzo) Whitney the promiscuous brat (Bijou Phillips) and Beth (Lauren German), who by virtue of being conventionally attractive and slightly less horrible than her costars, is destined to survive the film - or at least die last.
To counterbalance this predictable plot line, Roth presents a B-story that, for much of the movie, presents some hope for genuine intrigue and terror. We quickly learn that two additional characters are also making their way through the criminal underworld to the grimy, industrial dungeons - not potential victims, but paying customers.
Richard Burgai and Roger Bart play two wealthy Americans, Todd and Stuart, who have bid and won the chance for each to torture and kill one of the girls. Todd spends much of the film talking up their forthcoming experience to the reluctant, passive Stuart, putting their entry into the world of murder in terms of a rite of passage that will leave them marked in their daily lives: stronger, more confident, a force to be feared corporately, socially and domestically.
The duo provides the only shreds of thought-provoking, intelligent horror to be found in the film, forcing the viewer to ask real questions about the violence and murder that fuels our animal fears of pain and death. How does the perpetration of violence change a person? How fragile are the boundaries between chaos and order, between insanity and reason?
Stuart becomes the emotional center of the movie: a weak person, will he find the moral strength to stand up to his friend and the world they've immersed themselves in? Will he make his way out of the trials ahead with his humanity still intact?
As the plot builds towards the inevitable meeting of victims and killers, however, Roth steers the film through less satisfying waters, interrupting stretches of genuine tension with hackneyed, "Children of the Damned"-esque scenes involving Slovakian street urchins and the first of several boring death scenes.
Roth clearly intended these death scenes to shock more naive audiences and wow hardcore gore fans. I have a strong suspicion that neither crowd will be greatly impressed.
And, indeed, why should viewers care about a character who they've nothing emotionally invested in and whose impending death has been forecasted from the moment they stepped onto the screen?
The only avenue left to Roth is simply to try and gross the viewer out with hideous scenes of physical torment - and, sadly, these scenes are not his strong point, despite the shock master persona he strives so hard to present in the press. I don't think I can stress enough that film gore, in excess, is boring if there is no substance to back up the blood and give it power.
Eli Roth's work constantly presents the inner struggle between his talented grasp of unsettling ambiance and a Garbage Pail Kids-flavored love for tasteless, excessive gore.. Indeed, which side will survive and what will be left of it?
I wish I could say the filmmaker in Roth wins out in the end, that he manages to truly disturb us when the would-be killers and the American college students finally wind up in the same, dark room with each other. I wish I could say he uses the characters of Todd and Stuart to maximum effect, exploring how true cruelty is not born of bravado and strength but a deep weakness - a desire to be something tougher in such a frightening world.
Sadly, Roth manages to flush all of this possibility down a drain of shaky writing, shock tactics, senseless gore and utterly predictable plot twists. I wouldn't go as far to say he sets up a masterpiece and fumbles the ball in the final quarter, but his more artless tendencies do manage eventually to spoil all the potential he showed early on.
When I think of his self-absorbed press appearances and take in all the various flaws and sparks of potential to be found in his films, I can't help but think of Roth as one of those fraternity guys I remember from college in the late nineties, their faces glowing as they described the wonders they'd discovered on the Internet: the depths of pornography, accident photos uncensored by the press, the sleazier entries in European and Japanese horror cinema.
I get the impression Eli Roth has yet to grow much beyond that point as a filmmaker, and somewhere inside him, the beginnings of an artist are drowning in it.
"Hostel: Part 2" is rated R for sadistic scenes of torture and bloody violence, terror, nudity, sexual content, language and some drug content. It has a running time of 93 minutes.