A few words come to mind while attempting to describe Eli Roth's sequel to the film that made "torture porn" a household term: vicious, reprehensible, vile, repulsive...even hilarious. Of course, any reader caught off guard by that last one may just want to stop reading right now, because Hostel: Part II certainly isn't a movie for everyone, and if one can't enter into the whole endeavor with a sense of humor and an acceptance that this may be something more than mere titillation, then there's really no need to bother. As sick a man as Roth may be considered by critics who choose to take the moral high ground, the fact remains that he's one of the sharpest genre specialists of his generation and he certainly understands that a well-placed laugh can make his darkest moments of horror all the more effective. Make no mistake, there are scenes in Hostel: Part II that will have some folks running for the doors, yet the smart scripting and the manner in which Roth toys with the viewer's sympathies and emotions are more pointed and unmistakably effective than anywhere in his previous body of work. Of course, all of the crimson-soaked Grand Guignol theatricals are present here, though most viewers will likely be surprised -- even disappointed -- that for most of the running time this sequel feels decidedly more tame than its predecessor. Whereas the first installment seemed like something of an American response to the notorious All Night Long trilogy that set a new precedent for Japanese horror in the 1990s, this sequel takes that concept and filters it through a decidedly Italian aesthetic. In addition to drawing visual influence from Dario Argento and employing the morbid humor of Mario Bava at his most nihilistic, Roth also recruited Italian beauty Edwige Fenech for a memorable scene, Luc Merenda for a key supporting role, and offers Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato in one of the most thematically appropriate cameos in the history of horror cinema.
Despite the inherent baggage that goes along with being a "genre film," Hostel Part II is a mature film for a mature audience, and unlike many of the films lumped in with it by critics who would sooner label and forget rather than exert the effort to think about what they're seeing, there is something working beneath the surface here. This isn't your typical slasher sequel in which the new group of teens simply line up for the slaughter and the viewer is treated to a tired retread of the original -- Roth actually expands the universe presented in the first film and one can sense that he isn't simply cashing in. If the first film was a shot of a clock, the sequel is a look at the cogs and mechanics that make it tick. Viewers know there's an organization that will allow a client to experience the thrill of the kill for the right price, and in this expansion of the story we are shown precisely how that organization operates. Is it absurd? Yes, and the absurdity is alternately comic and horrifying. Not only that, but unlike the obnoxious, ugly American "bros" who sapped the viewer's sympathies in the first film, Roth sets his sequel comfortably apart by offering likable protagonists whom the audience can truly connect with. Heather Matarazzo turns in a fearless performance as the homesick American art student who documents every moment of her trip in an exquisitely detailed travel journal; Lauren German gets a killer character arc as the trust-fund girl who's always looking out for her traveling companions; and by opening up the story to offer a look into the lives of their potential executioners, Roth allows the viewer to invest in the characters in a manner that makes the ultimate payoff all the more effective. Time and again Roth displays a skillful sleight of hand that catches the viewer off guard, but it never feels forced. Whether building tension by showing something that isn't quite what it seems or using circumstance to shift character dynamics at the precise moment when it matters most, Roth has proven here that he truly understands the mechanics of the genre.
In the year 2007, we live in a society dominated by war and warlike mentality. The topic of torture is a frequent debate on the nightly news, and as a storyteller Roth is well aware of that fact. Torture does not make for a pleasurable viewing experience, yet it is a valid topic, since it is both pressing and current. In the 1970s, filmmakers like Wes Craven, Bob Clark, and Tobe Hooper were responding to their environments in much the same manner that Roth is today. The horror genre has always provided thoughtful artists with a means of holding a mirror to society -- a distorted mirror no doubt, but a mirror nonetheless -- and the cold truth is that most folks won't like what they see in that reflection. We try so hard to forget about the true horrors of the world by latching on to the latest reality television craze or taking news in small doses from glossy media outlets, and when someone like Roth throws that back in our faces, we get angry. In the end it's easy to write something like Hostel Part II off -- at best it's unpleasant and at worst, as some critics would lead us to believe, it's the bane of humanity. As absurd as it may have seemed to point this out in the midst of the summer blockbuster season, when Hostel Part II was released, film is at its core an art -- and an artist's responsibility is to comment on the topics that affect them. Sure, some folks will always prefer their art to be easily digestible, and that's all well and good. The problem arises when we start blaming the artist for all of society's ills instead of using their works as a catalyst for taking stock of our own lives. Roth's film reflects modern society at its worst, but the duty of an artist is to respond to their surroundings. When an actor in Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects expressed reservation during the production of a particularly tense scene, the director responded that art isn't safe. Whether or not filmmakers like Zombie and Roth produce art that adheres to our particular ideas of "entertainment" or "decency" is subjective, but to deny that their works are a reflection of society at a very specific point in time is to be willfully blind of the world we live in. When that happens -- and when artists are not afforded the opportunity to express themselves on the grounds that some may take offence to the manner in which they choose to do so -- is when things have the potential to get truly terrifying in the real world and not just up on the silver screen.