A young woman hangs upside down, naked and gagged, above an ornately tiled tub surrounded by candles. An older woman enters, disrobes and lies down in the tub. Reaching beside her, the older woman brings up a long, sharp scythe and begins cutting into the younger woman’s flesh. As the younger woman’s blood pours down, the older woman writhes in ecstasy.
A strong and disturbing scene which combines the two most basic and elemental of human experiences- death and sex. Even though the French refer to orgasm as “le petite mort,” or “the little death,” these are two things that people usually don’t risk combining in their entertainment. While low in the outright gore factor, it probably rates as one of the most disturbing sequences in Hostel: Part II, a film that, like its 2005 progenitor, has audiences squirming in their chairs and some critics having self-righteous spasms over their computers.
Whereas the first Hostel focused on a trio of males backpacking across Europe who arrive at a Slovakian youth hostel only to discover that it is a trap that supplies victims for a nearby facility where the sadistic rich pay to torture and eventually kill innocents, this second installment follows three young female art students, Lauren German, Bijou Phillips and Heather Matarazzo, a very long way from her Welcome To The Dollhouse feature debut, who accidentally make their way into the hostel’s clutches.
Although this new installment’s structure basically echoes the first film, writer/director/franchise creator Eli Roth is canny enough to use the audience’s knowledge of what is happening around his unknowing characters in two ways- to build suspense and to illuminate how the Slovakian hostel and torture factory work. This second objective is accomplished through the eyes of Todd (Richard Burgi), who wins the chance to kill one of the girls in an online auction (where one of the bidders looks disturbingly like an older Dick Van Dyke) for his friend Stuart (Roger Bart). Todd is of the opinion that people can sense if someone is dangerous, so that if he actually kills someone, his future business contacts will sense that he is a man to be reckoned with. Stuart is a bit more reluctant about the whole process. Surprisingly, the two men’s story becomes one of the most interesting aspects of the sequel.
Still, despite its strengths, there are a few nagging weak spots, but nothing fatal, excuse the pun, to the storyline. While Roth does reveal some of the workings of how the people behind the Hostel connect killers with their victims, it doesn’t explain how new customers, as personified by Burgi and Bart’s characters, come to hear about the place to begin with. The film opens with the previous film’s only survivor being silenced by the organization to keep him from telling anyone what he knows. Obviously, they are very intent on keeping their operation secret. How do they attract their clients then?
Even before Hostel 2’s release, or even before it was screened for critics, some entertainment commentators were already decrying the film, dismissing it as “disgusting trash” that “glorifies violence” while “degrading women.” But such criticisms, even if one had bothered to see the film in question before uttering them, would constitute only a bare surface reading of the film, with the reviewers’ own prejudices towards genre material being revealed than any real analysis of the material in question.
If one were to argue that the slasher film cycle of the 70s and 80s as being a cinematic manifestation of the remnants of Cold War paranoia – dark forces made impersonal by visages hidden beneath hockey masks or under battered fedoras who invade our lives to randomly destroy them – than perhaps an argument could be made that Roth’s Hostel films are a reaction to the 21st century’s geo-political clime. In both installments, young Americans are out in a bigger world, having a grand adventure blundering their way through another country’s culture (one character in this new installment knowingly refers to himself as an “Ugly American,” a literary reference that will probably sail over the heads of most of the film’s primarily teen to early 20s audience) that is interrupted by the randomness of them being ensnared by the machinations of the films’ torture factory, a fairly obvious though still workable metaphor for terrorism. Of course, although Roth has stated he has no desire to make a third Hostel, if this geo-political subtext were to be pursued in a further installment, it would almost demand that some survivor of the torture factory lead a group of soldiers or mercenaries back to the place to destroy it, though things would not go to plan. Think the difference in tone and style between Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and the James Cameron helmed 1986 sequel Aliens.
Admittedly, Roth might not have such grand intentions here. He may just see himself as someone who knows that there is a certain segment of the movie-going public that enjoys the kind of thrills and scares that he is offering. The box office figures for the first Hostel and the fact that we now have a sequel would certainly backup that claim. But much like in the aforementioned bathtub scene – in which he seems to be challenging some critics’ assertions that horror films are often misogynistic for their depiction of women as victims by showing that the sex of the tormentor and the tortured doesn’t matter, all humans have the capacity to commit such horrors – Roth confronts his critics while possibly in the act of absolving himself, at least in his own eyes, through the management of the torture factory itself. They know that any desire, no matter how base and depraved, will need someone to cater to and make a profit from it.
As the film tells us, “It’s just business.”