Retro Review: HOSTEL: PART II (2007){0}

What I find most amusing about the “torture porn” flicks like Saw, Hostel, and The Hills Have Eyes is this: The outraged and the intimidated choose to dismiss these films as mindless gore-fests, when in fact they’re all a pretty effective bunch of psychological horror movies. It’s the threat (and eventual arrival) of the red stuff that keeps us gritting our teeth and wringing our hands through these films. Some would have you believe that Eli Roth’s “Hostel: Part 2″ is nothing but a 91-minute slog through wall-to-wall body parts, when in fact the flick is more of a tight-fisted slow burn that whacks you in face with two or three really horrifying sequences.

Many believe that “shock value” (i.e. gore) is a shameful and pathetic thing to showcase in a horror movie, but I see it the other way: I walked into “H2″ knowing that I was going to see something shocking and disturbing — but still something that’s very safely fictional. And you know what? I enjoy that feeling. It gets my blood pumping to know that someone has set out with the intention of ratcheting up my tense-o-meter and then slapping me in the chops with something shocking. I can only compare it to that panicky little “I wanna get off this thing right now” impulse I get when sitting down in a roller coaster car, but there it is: I enjoy being scared on all levels, and that includes the visceral one. The irony is that I can’t watch the evening news for fear of shedding a tear over a dead stranger or a missing baby … but when it comes to the fictional nastiness, I feel no shame in admitting that I enjoy the dark material — and sometimes it even helps me appreciate the post-screening sunlight just a little bit more.

Roth’s original “Hostel” is, in my opinion, a very darkly clever horror movie. It subverts your expectations at several turns, it offers a fairly unique spin on the old-school “slasher” conventions, and it displays a canny balance between pitch-black humor and horror best described as “I wanna get off this thing right now.” (But you don’t get off.) The sequel ups the ante in several regards, not the least of which is the fact that instead of three men being terrorized and tortured, we’re now asked to join three young women on their trek towards doom. Roth not only knows how sensitive we (rightfully) are about violence towards young women, and you know what? He plays those strings quite well, if pre-release response to the film has been any indication.

The plot is a mirror image of the first film: Three 20-something women take a trip from Italy to Prague. Along with a lovely new friend named Axelle, the threesome plans to spend a few days at a rather exotic spa … and a few quick nights at a particularly untrustworthy hostel. If you’re reading this review, it’s probably safe to assume you’ve seen the first “Hostel,” so you pretty much know where we’re headed: The gals get snatched up by an underworld syndicate that makes a ton of money by “selling” young flesh to a network of bloodthirsty clients. What’s new in the sequel is that we get to see the other side of the transaction. One of the most disconcerting scenes in the first “Hostel” comes when our frantic and bloody hero comes across an American businessman. The kid hears a familiar accent and thinks he’s safe. Wrong. “H2″ ups the ante by allowing us to see the whole process, from how the “goods” are auctioned off to the psychological dysfunction that might lead to such a “purchase.” It’s all very grimly fascinating, and because we know it’s all make-believe, we can just give in to the storyteller and enjoy his nasty little campfire story. (Like we all did when we were young.)

Call me a splatter apologist if you like, but I find just the concept all kinds of creepy: Be careful who you trust when you’re in foreign lands, you pushy little Americans, because there’s all sorts of horrors out there just waiting for you. And yet Roth is still just clever enough to inject his horrors with a few scenes of absurdly bleak humor, as if to say: Yeah, my goal is to creep you out and give you a few jarring shocks, but c’mon: It’s still supposed to be fun. And to those who somehow believe that “extreme” horror is something new, I propose you do a little research before calling the material found in the “Hostel” flicks some bleak new revolution.

Much ink will be spilled over one particular scene: It involves two women, a scythe, a rope and a bathtub. Some will see this sequence as the nadir of horror cinema, the lowest of the low, a vile and reprehensible piece of hack filmmaking, and something to be shameful of. To that I’d say this: It’s also a shockingly well-constructed sequence. The packed house I saw the film with was stunned into silence by this scene. A formerly raucous audience of laughers and hooters had been struck dumb by a scene of true horror. And yeah, they sure seemed to enjoy it. Shocked one moment, nervously chuckling in the next, and then cautiously cheering our heroine towards (maybe!) an escape. Yep, a good horror flick works exactly like a good roller coaster: Flashy, scary, creepy, shocking, invigorating. But best of all: Fake, safe, and constructed completely for your entertainment. And by “entertainment,” I definitely do not mean “Oh that girl’s being tortured. How funny that is!” I mean “Oh man, I wanna get off this thing right now.” But you can’t get off. And yeah, that’s kinda thrilling.

If the “Hostel” films came from France or Japan and played only in the arthouses, they’d be hailed as brilliant. But since they come from Lionsgate and a colorful guy like Eli Roth, they’re often dismissed as “torture porn,” which is one of the stupidest phrases I’ve ever heard. Tell me one porno movie that could get away with delivering nothing but foreplay and a handful of brief sex scenes over the course of 92 minutes. But in the horror genre, what’s reviled today is celebrated two decades later. I’d like to go on record today: While obviously very harsh and most definitely NOT for all tastes, both “Hostel” flicks are damn fine horror movies.