Sunday, September 14, 2008

‘Hostel’ (2006)/ ‘Hostel II’ (2007)

‘When the Vacation Goes Awry’

The horror genre has been rampant of late with over the top slash-killings, enough gore to frighten even the hardest heart and impossibly corny endings that make viewers laugh rather than cringe with suspense. An hour into Hostel and I was ready to add one more film to the pile of disappointments and then the most remarkable thing happened: the killings stopped. Not totally, but, suddenly, hidden cul-de-sacs were opening up as the film careened towards what turned out to be a pulsating end.

The set up for the film is pretty standard enough. A couple of bratty, horny American college guys (Josh and Pax) and a very sexually-charged French pal (Ollie) are back-packing through Europe in search for girls. Of course, they start with the Amsterdam red-light district scene. The night is a great success but they are chased away from their hotel and have to overnight with the shady-looking Alexei whose room is more akin to a sex-shop. He tells them of the incredibly compliant girls in Bratislava and they chart a course for that location. A stranger on the train (a bit too pertinent so that was the viewer’s clue to trouble) reinforces what they were told and all minds are made up. They check into a hostel and hook up with two hot looking girls, who, as only women can, subtlety grill them for information then decide to show them around.

Sex in any film normally leads to bad tidings and in horror films it’s a sure ticket to death. Hostel picks up this well-tread motif and runs with it. A series of predictably suspicious disappearances, starting with Ollie, occur after a night of clubbing. His disappearance brings opposite reactions from both Americans. Pax decides to keep his rising terror in check by sticking to the game-plan of getting laid while Josh can’t help but think it signals some further abandonment (his girlfriend recently left him for another man). Pax’s attitude only changes once Josh goes missing. His instinct starts to kick in, even to the extent that he ignores the girls he once found irresistible.

The hedonist in him doesn’t disappear totally though but Hostel—maybe because it is set in a foreign country---veers off the cliché track once it’s down to Pax and his intuition to figure out what is wrong in Bratislava.
His suspicions never give way to paranoia nor does he take the next train in an effort to flee. Yet, unlike most films, he doesn’t see the nightmarish end even in hints. Such naïveté from an American in a foreign country gives the film a kind of reality that most Wes Craven films lack. Finally, Pax comes face to face with the horrible truth—truth that American naïveté thinking derives eventually, that the persons who at first seemed so excited and helpful to see them are actually decidedly against them. In this case, they’re players in a dangerous human-hunting game that will bring around the downfall of foreigners. After accosting the girls (high on drugs) he is taken to a museum where his friends are said to be part of the exhibition.

Pax’s face only registers the sheer horror of what he sees after the familiar countenance of the stranger in the train comes into view, carving up what is left of Josh’s body. He is then placed in a room and ‘tortured’ somewhat in a sick display of cat and mouse game. It proves to be a game that loses its edge when he renounces his patriotism to his captor. Needless to say, he escapes and rescues the girl and makes it out of the nightmare in the end but the manner in which he does so runs smoothly and with much suspense. Thankfully, Quentin Tarantino, the film’s producer, and Eli Roth (the director) decide to spare us the noise-filled gore that decked the first hour and channel Kubrick-esque camera shots, replete with appropriate silences towards the end.

What saves Pax however doesn’t translate into Hostel II. Immediately Eli Roth sets course for a map of suspenseful explanation but gets lost in the maelstrom of gore before anything can seriously unravel. Paxton may briefly appear in this installation but his death is a mere cliff-note and doesn’t serve as interlink to anything substantial other than the thought of an ever expanding human hunting network. Paxton’s thinking level is terribly mixed; after defying odds to escape, he then returns to America only to clamp up and not expose the horrors he faced. Unlike Tarantino’s 2007 smorgasbord epic Grindhouse, Roth however doesn’t spend too much time with logics in Hostel II, instead he laboriously shows us the behind the scenes excitement to collecting the human prey. I can’t recall any other horror flick making its aim and outcome so evident and not expecting to suffer for this foresight of our knowledge.

That drains what little suspense one can imagine and it makes the gore nothing but self-gratifying…which is really a shame. Hostel II does explore the wantonness of the hunters even if Roth encases them with only their depravity. Even in such shallowness, the poetry of this gore is fascinating. In one scene a female hunter sits under her hoisted prey- Heather Matarazzo (the annoying wimp, Lorna), naked and with an extended scythe. She tears at the girl’s body and immerses herself with the blood as it trickles onto her and the candles below. The camera then hones in on her hand reaching for a shorter scythe and slitting her victim’s throat. It’s devastating yet its disturbing silence is the film’s single notable achievement.

And yet, despite the hardness of that female hunter, the two main male hunters we see are poles apart in their ambition towards the killing. Todd (Richard Burgi) is the atypical alpha male and Stuart (Roger Bart) is pathetically lacking cojones. When Todd finally gets to torturing a victim, his sadistic joy is stalled by an unplugged instrument. His victim—Beth (Lauren German)—cowers in fear while he bellows at her; ‘you should see you f--king face.’ When the instrument gets unplugged a second time however, he accidentally disfigures her face. In the few seconds that follow, Hostel II swerves completely further off track and descends into a corny finale. Roth does not clarify the reason for Todd’s sudden change of heart. We are not sure if he is angry that electrical limitation is robbing him of his pleasure or the implications of his actions have caught up with him finally. Instead of probing this, Roth has the character mauled to death by dogs for reneging on his contract as a means of clouding the issue.

Roth thus misses his most valuable tool for true suspense. Hostel II salaciously proves that in such a postulation women are just as vicious as men. Indeed, the human hunting is co-coordinated by a woman. We realize also that the human hunters are not a tight-knit brotherhood, per se, but lovers of the highest price. Whitney (Bijou Phillips) escapes elimination by bargaining a price to partake in the game. She tells her captors that with a PDA she can have the money wired within minutes. It’s admittedly a clever twist amid the clichés… showing the strength of technology in the film but immediately it lets itself down with her only aim being to seek revenge not on the hunters themselves but the female that lured her to Slovakia in the first place. Ah, kids, they never learn.

RATING: "Hostel 1" 6/10 "Hostel 11" 2.5/10

No comments: