Home Video Hovel- Hostel/Hostel II, by David Wester
There’s nary a special feature to be found on this 2-movie disc of Hostel and Hostel: Part II, but, if I may suggest one, having some kind of a shuffle setting which played a random chapter from either movie for an hour and a half would be a good one for these two films. Both are on the verge of being pretty good, and each has certain strengths that buttress the weaknesses of the other. So if one had the option of somehow fusing them together in a strange, home-video Brundlepod, it seems likely that a good, borderline great movie would emerge (though, in some iterations of this experiment you’d no doubt end up with the cinematic equivalent of the dreaded inside-out baboon). Alas, the two films lie apart forever, tragically split in two like the creatures in The Dark Crystal, complimentary halves of the same whole.
This was my second viewing of both films, and of the two, Hostel still remains the superior movie. It’s an efficiently crafted machine, chugging through its plot with a fast enough pace and a compelling enough mystery that I was able to forgive the cypher main characters their macho blandness both times. The story has the lurid simplicity of an urban legend. It focuses on three young men who, while backpacking and fucking their way through Europe, get on the wrong side of a shadowy organization which sells the privilege of murdering innocents to awful rich people.
One of the greatest pleasures of Hostel is that it features a surfeit of world-building that thrums underneath the story at all times. There’s no doubt in my mind that if you asked writer-director Eli Roth a question about any aspect of the world of the film, he could answer it with the speed and clarity of any good fanboy about his favorite property. The whole enterprise feels incredibly solid and well-thought through. This despite the fact that the script stumbles a lot in clumsily shoe-horned exposition, character beats, and unlikely circumstances that lead to the main character’s survival (at one point, a random loose bolt allows the hero to escape… gugh, why not just use good ol’ Deus Ex Machina, and have God himself swoop down to save the day, eh?). It also features an unsatisfying, wrong-headed ending. And yet, while he falls short in these areas, the way Roth reveals the big picture over the course of the film is masterful. He delivers just enough detail about the horrific circumstances the heroes find themselves in to allow the audience to piece the whole thing together while eliding the nitty-gritty business that would bog the film down in too much back story (that stuff all comes to play in the sequel). And in just about every scene in the film, Roth has tucked hints of the larger, unseen picture that never fail to compel–in one moment, a torturer’s expression, unseen by the victim, could be expressing disgust at the horror he’s about to perpetrate, delight in the same, or a mixture of both, emphasizing his humanity and thereby ratcheting up the suspense of the scene as the hero tries to reach his torturer.
I think one of the oddest aspects of Hostel is that, even with all the head-bashing, eyeball-gouging gross-outs, the film feels more at home in the adventure genre than the horror genre. You can boil down the plot to the following: an intrepid explorer (in this case an American college student) travels to an exotic location, runs afoul of the locals, gets captured and spirited away to an evil fortress, and flees with much derring-do while posing as a member of the evil local tribe, and barely escapes with his life. And the adventure aspect is what Roth really sinks his teeth into. The movie’s best parts feature its main character sneaking through the torturer’s lair in disguise, suddenly privy to a world he shouldn’t be seeing. While it’s more horrific, Hostel reminds me more of an Indiana Jones movie than even Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull did (and to be fair all the Indiana Jones movies featured their share of gratuitous ew yuck gross-out moments). The thrill in uncovering this immense secret society is palpable, even if the man uncovering the mystery for you is an annoying bro. This is why the ending is all wrong. When the film tries to end on moral ambivalence, posing a “who’s the real monster?” moment of revenge in which one previously peaceful character sinks to the barbarous level of an antagonist, it just doesn’t work. It’s a betrayal of the thrilling escape from the obvious aberration that happened just moments before, and the villain that is dealt with is the wrong villain–he’s just a pawn in a larger game.
More at home in the horror genre, more thematically consistent, yet a weaker film in craft and execution overall, is Hostel: Part II, AKA, this time it’s ladies. After a really rough start unnecessarily catching us up on the further adventures of a survivor of the first film, Part II jumps to a nearly identical situation featuring three young tourists, women this time, stumbling in over their heads and getting preyed upon by the torture organization from the first film. Just as it appears to be a rehash of the first film, Roth shifts the perspective around and simultaneously tells the story of two men who are paying for the privilege to torture these women. I loved the way Roth chose to deepen the world in his sequel. It’s the right choice and it really works at first, the relationship between the two men resembles that of the men in In the Company of Men (only not nearly as harrowing or brutal, funnily enough). After some time, though, all the deepening begins to wear. As alluded to above, this is where Roth starts filling in too much detail, providing answers to questions nobody was really asking or interested in, and losing himself in the minutia of his invention to the exclusion of dramatic tension, pacing, or even just good artistic judgement. In other words, it starts to feel like fan fiction.
Roth is a competent director, though he seems to struggle with his actors (the best performance in both movies comes from a mostly silent group of kids). So, while a lot of Part II feels warmed over from the original (In fact, you could almost see the entire film as something like Roth doing a 2nd draft of Hostel) and the trajectory of the film’s two intercut plots is pretty unsurprising from the get-go, the flmmaking craft is still there, so it all goes down easily enough if you’re not squeamish about extreme violence. But the movie’s ending turns it from a passable, though uninspiring genre entry into something more. It’s a perfectly executed ending, at once viscerally thrilling and thematically satisfying in its conception. It wraps the whole series up perfectly and says what the first film struggled to say. It finds a solution to free the protagonist from a horrifying, unwinnable situation without resorting to convenience and manages to bring her down to the villains’ level in an understandable, relatable way. It also, unlike the previous entry, correctly identifies who the proper villain for this tale is. For all of the leaping about and running away, Hostel never found a true antagonist like Hostel: Part II does. And, wouldn’t you know it, that villain lies inside all of us!
The most maddening thing about both of these films is the feeling of almost that permeates. These movies are, overall, very well made, but where they fall short is in their ambition. I think Roth is straining to create a piece of genre fiction that also reveals a criticism of its very genre (see the first 2/3 of Behind the Mask: the Rise of Leslie Vernon for a successful entry or the last 1/3 of Tarantino’s Death Proof). But the points he seems to be trying to make don’t square with the passions he otherwise displays. His attempt to link the hedonism of the boys visit to a brothel in Hostel with the sadism in the torturer’s lair is a welcome try to hold the men accountable for their sinful ways, linking their objectification of women with their later becoming objects of pleasure themselves but it just does not resonate beyond being a simple, slightly comical call-back. Until the very end of Hostel: Part II, one does not find a satisfying thesis to the violence, a hint of a compelling subtext, or a reason to tell this story other than to warn good Americans that the woods of Slovakia are dark and scary and full of wolves.
Because Part II’s ending in some way redeems the entire series, it’s perhaps best to own both films on a double feature disc such as this one if one is to own these films at all. It would have been nice to have, at minimum, the commentaries from previous releases included on the films, particularly as Roth is always an engaging, enthusiastic presence, but as mentioned, there are no features to speak of. Picture quality is adequate, though nothing eye popping (sorry for that), and the sound is a simple 5.1 track which gets the job done, though my copy had a problem where the sound of the final scene was curiously missing… and yet it’s one of those tech errors that somehow improves the film. The scene played a lot better in silence than it does with all the sounds of screaming, blaring music and wet stabbing noises.