Monday, March 17, 2008

Movies: A right to be hostel.

Greetings fright fans. I apologize for the dead air. After weeks of homebound freelancing, your humble horror host went out and joined the vast ranks of the regularly employed. I'm still getting over the shock of waking up before noon, but I think I've recovered enough to start writing again.

Since we're discussing personal stuff, I also would like to point out that, for some reason, it seems like I cannot carry out even the most basic task these days without cutting, scratching, or otherwise perforating myself. As it stands now, I have a single finger that doesn't have some nasty little slice on it and my right forearm has an angry red 4 inch long slice on it. It's healing, but ugly and unpleasant.

As yet, we've got no good explanation for my sudden vulnerability to life's sharper corners. I'm not generally accident-prone. My wife thinks it's because my skin is dry, and therefore more likely to split on impact with pointy things, due to seasonal weather changes. She thinks I should put on lotion. I think I might have cut in line in front of an ancient gypsy and she's cursed me to a supernatural death of a billion little cuts. I feel I should devote my energies to finding this witch and forcing her to reverse the curse. This may require I go freelance again, 'cause gypsies are tricky and I can't be tied to an evenings-and-weekend-only schedule if I'm going to find her. My wife says this is "idiotic." Oh, please: "seasonal weather changes." Honestly.

Speaking of perforating: today's flick is Hostel: Part II, Eli Roth's follow up to his seminal horror hit Hostel. For those who follow the blog, I did not have a great opinion of the first flick. Capsule review: Hostel was a great looking gore fest that failed to hide its trashy and cheap core with a shallow cover of awkwardly ill-thought-out anti-Americanism. It was this emptiness at its core, its inarticulate grasping towards anything to say while throwing young bodies into the chopper, that made it, somewhat justly, the poster-flick for the short-lived but much analyzed "torture porn" moment.

With Hostel: Part II Roth found an intellectual purpose sufficient to justify the horror. Instead of relying on a vague and nonsensical notion that the victims of the first flick deserved to be tortured to death by rich foreigners because they are boorish, Roth wisely shifts the guilt from the backpackers to the real villains: dudes and dudettes who would pay money to torture people to death. In this sense, the film is a quantum leap ahead of its predecessor. Unfortunately, putting the film on more solid thematic grounds doesn't entirely eliminate the sense that we've seen most of this material before. Roth now has a good reason to subject us to the horrors of his snuff club, but he's lost the shock value that was such a crucial piece of the first flick's power.

Like the first flick, this film follows the misadventures of three American students – wealthy art students studying in Rome – as they are lured to Slovakia, checked into the titular boarding, and trapped in the pay-to-play abattoir of the first flick. Despite the fact that Roth's changed the gender of his main characters (and made them just slightly less stereotypically the "ugly Americans"), the plot is remarkably similar. We've got two close friends and the outsider third traveler: hotties Beth and Whitney and awkward pity-friend Lorna, played with Dawn "Wiener Dog" Warner gusto by the fabulous Heather Matarazzo. Like the first film, none too subtle hints of homosexuality linger about one of the protagonists. They are even dispatched in the same order as their male counterparts. (I don't think it'll surprise anybody to find out that poor, not-hot Wiener Dog gets it first – being trussed up naked in Roth's most obvious homage to Blood Sucking Freaks and then being bled dry in a literal bloodbath for a client identified as "Mrs. Bathory.") The major change is that Roth has wisely twined this narrative with a parallel story detailing the journey of two clients – Todd and Stuart – as they go from their comfortable upper class yuppie existences to become torturers in the Elite Hunt Clubs slaughterhouse.

In the characters of Todd and Stuart, Roth's finally targeted a rhetorical villain worthy of his nightmare: free market capitalism run amok. This theme hid on the edges of his first film, unacknowledged by a director trying to cash in one an easy generic "Americans are dummies" vibe. While he tried hard to make his backpackers the morally and intellectually bankrupt ones, he was creating a vision of Europe where everything, including people-flesh, was available for a few Euros. And yet that system, the debasing of everything to the level of commodity, seemed to escape his notice. H2 gets the bigger picture and makes it the picture. Roth's second Hostel flick is one of the most effective satires of capitalist ideology I've seen. The flicks most chilling moment comes not in gory torture chambers beneath the post-Soviet brutalist factory in Slovakia, but during a brilliant montage in which a collection of wealthy men and women bid Ebay-style for the right to torture-kill our unwitting heroines. It's a scene made all the more chilling in relation to the recently much publicized scandal involving the ex-governor of New York and an Internet prostitution ring that offered its wealthy clients women ranked and priced for easy purchase. (In a touch Roth would, I think, appreciate, the images of women on the real site always had the prostitutes' heads removed from the picture, giving the weird sense that one was just buying a headless body.)

Roth's new found satiric sharpness is welcome, but it doesn't overcome the biggest problem with Hostel: Part II: we've seen it all before. Roth's best stuff is the new subplot involving the clients – and this film is at is best when showing the bizarre world of the clients and club owners – but he still spends most of his time with the fairly uninteresting and cookie-cutterish victims. Roth doesn't have any sympathy for the victims in his flick. He's made them a bit brighter, a bit less annoying, but they are still there mainly to end up in the torture chair and no amount of characterization tweaking hides that. Given Roth's bent towards the torturers, he'd be better off just making that his focus. The time he spends basically re-shooting his first flick, but with chicks where the dudes used to be, feels wasted.

Hostel: Part II is a mixed bag. Roth finds a framework that really makes the whole concept transcend its original torture porn premise. Unfortunately, it suffers from the fact that we've already become inoculated to his brand of shocks. In a way, the Hostel franchise has fallen victim to its own success.


spacejack said...

Hmm, you thought the first one was anti-American? I wonder if that's why we had such differing opinions on the flick.

Although I initially saw the characters as abrasive and irritating, I never thought of the film as anti-American. In fact, what I liked about the movie is how it shifted you from maybe hoping some of these guys would die some elaborate slasher-style deaths, to suddenly realizing they weren't all that bad in the grand scheme of things, and didn't really deserve what they got themselves into.

In other words, it starts off with a bit of "comedic detachment" (for lack of a better term) but then rather than playing everything for laughs and gore, it unexpectedly turned up the "realism" and got you sympathizing with the main characters, as well as thinking about moral decisions both small and large.

As a horror concept, I felt it did a great job playing on the fears of (North) American backpackers traveling in lands that turn out to be a lot more more strange and foreign than they bargained for.

As for the sequel, I think you nailed it in that it just wasn't that scary; we've seen it all before. I left wondering if I would've found it scary if I hadn't seen the first movie.

Still, the art students studying in Europe is close to home for me and I enjoyed that angle of the film.

The stuff with the Hunting Club, and the clients bidding was also interesting.

As a horror movie though, I think it failed. Also, the opening scene was just dumb. It killed off any real tension with its goofiness. They should've just implied the fate of the last character.

Anonymous said...

Has the Missus started tell you to place the lotion on your skin ? Hmm, precious ?

Nice Dollhouse reference. Though I cheated to figure it out, since I usually miss 90% of your references (and hadn't seen any of hostel or dollhouse..)

Anonymous said...

Dude, your regular readers are funny and... well, disturbed.

Of course, I haven't seen this film. Apparently I don't actually see any movies. Good grief, why do I even bother reading about movies if I don't ever watch them, he groused...
And don't get me started about my lack of reading books, either!!!

But, that's not why I write... THIS time...

Your account of your current bout with unwitting self-mutilation sounds like the beginning to a horror film, that begins innocently and then progresses... BADLY.

That's all.

PS: This week, the 2nd annual BNFF (Buffalo Niagara Film Festival) takes place, and Thursday is Horror/Sci-Fi/Fantasy Day, featuring H.G. Lewis in person showing his classic 2000 MANIACS!
If all goes according to plan, I hope to be there AND be square!
Figured you'd appreciate the news item.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

It's not just me. Roth has claimed, with RE the first and second flick, that one of the things he wanted to puncture was the American sense that they were protected. To me, this shows a serious disconnect in scale. Is being a self-important dill weed really worth ending up in a torture chamber? Especially when the torturers seem to be dudes who simply bought their way into the club?

I forgot to mention the follow up scene. I like the idea of following up with the character from the first flick, but you're right: it doesn't work. I think it is telling that the headless model was the same one they used in Roth's Thanksgiving trailer, where it was meant to evoke laughs.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

I don't even think the missus would get the reference.

Though she has fallen for the Dexter series, so there is hope for her yet.

CRwM said...


As a Southern boy, 2000 has a special place in my heart. Have a blast at the BNFF, you lucky bastard.

CRwM said...

Damn . . . Screamin' Cattle! You fully deserve the honorific. Sorry.