The problem with Hostel Part II isn’t its sadism. (Actually, there’s only one graphic torture scene, unless you count an abortive attempt that sends a would-be sadist blubbering from the room.) And the problem isn’t its sexism. (The female stereotypes are deliberately stoopid and thus represent an effort at cleverness rather than outright misogyny.) No, the problem with this horror sequel is its laziness.
Writer/director Eli Roth showed some stuff, I think, with his energetic flesh-eating-virus gorefest debut, Cabin Fever. Inconsequential but enjoyably nasty (and perhaps inadvertently timely following 2001’s anthrax scare), it was a bracing departure from the self-reflexive teen horror cycle that had been threatening to crawl inside its own navel. Hostel was more conceptually audacious, inviting viewers to share a Eurail pass with a couple of dumb American students looking for good times in Europe. When the duo makes an unplanned detour from Amsterdam to the former Eastern Bloc — in hopes of taking advantage of lonely women in poorer countries — the would-be exploiters become, decidedly and spectacularly, exploitees.
The sequel isn’t more of the same, exactly — because the gimmick is no longer fresh, Roth doesn’t have the luxury of the kind of peek-a-boo games he played before revealing the dark torture chambers of Hostel — but it’s no departure, either. The most obvious change is a gender swap. This time around, the protagonists are a trio of vacationing young women. Where the first film’s victims were lured to Hosteltown by the whiff of easy pussy, these girls are hooked on the promise of really good spa treatments. And where Hostel‘s kids were just a couple of dumbfuck horndogs, Roth can’t resist deploying generic genre stereotypes for the sequel — say hello to The Slut (Bijou Phillips), The Nerd (Heather Matarazzo), and multifaceted Good Girl (Lauren German), who works overtime as the Rich Girl and, of course, the Final Girl.
That’s fair enough, because you’d expect Roth to at least have some fun with the tired characters who populate the film. But there are no surprises to be had, and the script feels like a first draft. For instance, Roth abruptly dispatches Heather Matarazzo’s character, Loma, about midway through the movie in an over-the-top set piece that plays like an insert from a 1970s Eurotrash horror picture. It could be a truly queasy spectacle if we had any reason to care what happens to the poor girl, but Roth has been directing Matarazzo into a freakish performance that’s several times more garish than her feature debut in the seriocomic Welcome to the Dollhouse. As disconcerting as it is to see her suspended upside-down from the ceiling, breasts flopping lamely, that spectacle is barely more grotesque than the uncharitably soulless role Roth stuck her with. It’s less that she’s a sacrificial virgin and more that she’s a helpless thing being put out of her misery.
There are enough ideas here to make it clear Roth’s not completely clueless, yet Hostel Part II is indifferently scripted and ineptly directed. A no-doubt-intentional irony is that the film’s gawky virgin appears mostly nude, while the sexed-up Whitney (Bijou Phillips) retains her modesty throughout, but so what? Another wrinkle is Roth’s decision to dedicate screen time to perpetrators Todd and Stuart, American businessmen who’ve grown bored with Asian sex tourism and expect actual murder to take their alpha-dog confidence to the next level. Those scenes have the tantalizing whiff of Neil LaBute about them, but they’re executed limply — which makes the eventual pay-offs less satisfying. (And Roth doesn’t have the Abel Ferrara or Wes Craven scuzziness he’d need to execute a proper rape-revenge sequence.) Improbably, he’s most successful flirting with a Haneke-style critique of the spectator, as he dares to obscure a key decapitation from the audience’s view.
The general problem, I think, is a director who’s uncommitted, or has lost his nerve. Far from the misanthropic spectacle suggested by his earlier work, Hostel Part II feels studio-safe and focus-grouped. The newly sexualized torture is balanced by the quasi-feminist denouement; the quasi-feminist denouement is mitigated by the idea that your ability to survive is closely related to the size of your checkbook. The ridiculous, just-fooling coda (involving a severed head and something fun to do with it) is just more bet-hedging — the joke’s on you if you take any of this seriously. Or, keep moving; there’s nothing to see here. D