There’s a commonly held misconception that says a critic needs to be objective about his subject; that avoiding bias is both possible and desirable. This, frankly, is bullshit. Not only is it ridiculous to think anyone could maintain objectivity regarding an art form he writes about regularly, it would also be really dull. Imagine reading 1,000 words about a subject for which the writer has no strong feelings — hell, imagine having to write them! The best critics are passionately engaged with their subject, burning with admiration and enthusiasm for the best work and with frustration and outrage for the worst. But they also have to be honest with the reader about their personal tastes — if I’m reviewing a Sirkean melodrama and that type of film is my Achilles heel, if I know that I’ll devour it and ask for seconds no matter how hackneyed or overacted, I have an obligation to acknowledge this predilection and allow those who don’t share it to place my praise into that context.
I say all this to preface an important disclaimer: I loathe Eli Roth. I’ve never actually met the man, mind you, and I’m always reluctant to make judgments of any type about a stranger based solely on his work or interviews or whatever, and I try not to get needlessly personal in assessing someone’s creative endeavors. But I can say with a fair degree of confidence that this overgrown frat boy is about as repulsive a human being as one is likely to encounter. His first two films — Cabin Fever and Hostel — contained such rampant misogyny, homophobia, assholishness, and general douchebaggery that I still become mildly apoplectic when discussing them. Setting aside the inherent depravity of the torture-porn genre of which Hostel is such a prime example, the characters in both these films were complete assholes for whom death could only be a mercy — for them and more importantly for the audience. Roth has heretofore seemed incapable of creating a character who wasn’t utterly worthless or writing a script I could give a tin shit about — even his two-minute fake trailer in Grindhouse managed to get on my nerves. In point of fact, I volunteered to review Hostel: Part II because I was looking forward to giving the vile little creep the caning he so richly deserved.
Then the fucking movie didn’t offend me. Not even a little. Compared to its predecessor, the new screenplay might well have been written by Betty Friedan. And I actually kind of admired parts of it. Now I really hate that bastard!
The thing is, horror sequels are so frequently unimaginative retreads of their predecessors — just toss in a fresh handful of horny teens and chop ‘em up like you did the last bunch! — that I don’t tend to expect much. And with Roth, I was kinda just hoping to make it out of the theater without puking or developing some rare opthalmologic malady caused by seeing too many bare tits. And then he had to go and take a whole new approach with this one, structuring the plot differently, focusing on a very different group of characters, treating the women as human beings rather than just the entities attached to the tits, and even making some of them likable human beings.
Now, this is not to say that the film doesn’t contain some brutal, stomach-churning violence — both the already-notorious Elizabeth Báthory-inspired scene and the climactic pruning are pretty difficult to watch — but the violence this time around has an entirely different context, because this time both the victims and the killers have been given actual personalities: These are characters that we care about, or at least are mildly interested in, and as such we have something at stake. Actually, this time it seems like maybe Roth himself cares about his characters, like he’s interested enough in them to give them qualities beyond the purely functional setting of basic types and to allow them to surprise us. Of course, in all this, I’m speaking relative to the first Hostel. I’m not suggesting that Hostel: Part II become required viewing for the freshwomyn class at Smith or anything; I’m just saying that the misogyny and homophobia are toned down enough that you really have to be looking hard to find any, while the events of the film are much more involving than in its predecessor. It’s almost as if Roth took a screenwriting class in the interval.
The basic premise is the same — a youth hostel in a charming Slovakian village serves as a front for a club where the superrich get to torture and kill unsuspecting backpackers for a hefty fee — but Roth takes a fresh approach to the situation. There’s a brief prologue with some flashbacks to the prior film to get newbies up to speed, and then we’re off to Rome to meet the next set of potential victims: slutty Whitney (Bijou Phillips), whiny Lorna (Heather Matarazzo), and practical yet temperamental Beth (Lauren German), three American girls studying art and looking for sexy, European fun (well, not Lorna so much, because she’s whiny and homesick). When Axelle (Vera Jordanova), the sexy Eastern European model from their figure drawing class, pops up on the train for their weekend trip to Prague, apparently nursing a lipstick-lezzy crush on Beth, and urging them to try out the natural hot springs in Slovakia, the girls quickly acquiesce, little suspecting what awaits.
Nor can we guess what awaits, based on previous experience with Roth. It seems almost as though taking the women’s point of view denied him a way to get into his usual shenanigans, because the whole film has minimal gratuitous nudity — off the top of my head, I can think of six breasts in the whole thing, compared to about six dozen in the first film — and little evidence of Roth’s previous sexual preoccupations. Instead, we get character development, of all things: One interesting twist is that this time around we get to know a couple of the killers-to-be: Todd (Richard Burgi), a swaggering prick who wants to kill someone because he imagines it will give him an extra aura of manliness, and Stuart (Roger Bart), a milquetoast who has some personal issues to work out. But perhaps most importantly, we get, instead of the helpless victims and walking vaginas dentata of the previous film, at least one realistic, self-reliant woman who is more than a match for any man she meets.
Some elements of this play out predictably — there’s one major reversal that I saw coming a mile off, and I’m no oracle — but others are genuinely surprising. What’s more, those real surprises almost always turn out to be doubly, or even triply, satisfying: 1) because a horror film should surprise you, by God; 2) because the surprises in the script tilt so far away from the nasty attitudes of the first film; and 3) because the surprises enrich either the characters or the plot in a way that makes the film more involving. And perhaps because Roth has himself become more interested in his characters, he no longer dismembers them quite so easily as before. The violence and gore in this film, relative to both of Roth’s previous endeavors, are quite restrained. Roth has matured from being a cinematic Patrick Bateman into — what? maybe a William Friedkin? It’s these small joys that are a critic’s lot.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | June 8, 2007 | Comments ()