Eli Roth may not like critics who label the work he does 'torture porn', but the trouble with that argument is - what else can you label it. Admittedly his "Hostel" films have more smarts than the increasingly tedious "Saw" franchise, and though twisted he's not the sadist Rob Zombie seems to be.
Nevertheless the two "Hostel" films still are 'torture porn' as such, which itself is simply a more overtly gross and realistic variation of the 'slasher' sub-genre. The whole point of horror films is to terrify or unsettle you, yet today's horror filmmakers continue to believe that for some reason high-concept overt gore equals fear and ignore things like subtlety, character, atmosphere and mood.
A good horror film should have you afraid to look at the screen, not turning away in disgust or looking at your watch in tedium. These films neither frighten or unsettle, let alone disturb, and they're certainly not hallmarks of great filmmaking - thus the only thing they are good for is for certain people to have fun with or get off on, making the 'torture porn' an accurate label.
Yet as these films go, the second "Hostel" is one of the nicer examples and stands taller than most that have plagued this depressingly popular and increasingly sick field. It may lack the darker edge and rawer nerve of its immediate predecessor, but it also displays an ultimately more polished presentation - dumping dull "Eurotrip" antics in favour of inter-connected storylines. Once again Roth continues to notably improve as a filmmaker, switching the unsympathetic asshole jocks of the first film in favour of a trio of likeable girls, along with expanding the scope of the film to include two of the antagonists.
Roth grasps concepts of proper filmmaking, especially in terms of visuals. There's no attention deficit editing, no overly pompous hard rock soundtrack, just solid and straightforward direction. His trademark toilet humour is toned down, even if it does break through in the darkly comic climax, but his admirable desire for nudity remains higher than ever but though gender-balanced (and more linked in with violence) this time around.
Yet "Hostel Part II" remains a throwaway affair due mainly in part to its hollowness. These movies are based on a great concept, a modern day urban legend for backpackers, but Roth's scripts never exploit them beyond a conventional slasher film's formula intermixed with violent blood-letting. Characters remain cardboard cannon fodder headed for a grisly fate - we know what'll happen to them, thus there is no tension or suspense. Lauren German as the lead girl does solid work, whilst Roger Bart delivers the best turn as a reluctant torturer (even if his eventual turnaround seems rushed and unconvincing), but otherwise the performances across the board are tedious.
The premise itself is fascinating, but too silly to stand up to any real scrutiny which makes the more expanded look at the operations of this gruesome agency seem more like pulp fiction than the smaller, dirtier and more intimate take the first film offered. There is a darkly comic subtext to these films - last time it was a quite amusing and dare I say biting take on the anti-American xenophobia that has risen around the glove in recent years. This time it surprisingly takes a risk condemning the very audience it is pandering too - those who indulge in violence for entertainment.
It's a riskier commentary, one that ultimately doesn't add up to much, but it has a few damning things to say - even if they're familiar tunes. Gore on the other hand is higher, although limited to the opening prologue and the last half hour of the movie. There's glimpses of scalp tearing, castration, decapitation, and a quite gross moment of live cannibalism involving a Harry Potter kid with nice pecs. It's excessive, but often quite short and over with quicker than you'd expect. Calls of sexism are unfair as women are portrayed as equally strong as men, the climax itself involves a woman emasculating the one male character whom we had any sympathy for. Outcry over a child's murder in this is just silly - considering the deaths in the film, it's the most tasteful and least indulgent.
Ultimately though its one scene that people will walk away talking about in this - the bathtub sequence in which a woman with a scythe cuts into a naked Heather Matazzaro so she can bathe in her blood. It's not a new idea, in real life Hungarian countess Elizabeth Bathory bathed in virgin's blood to keep her youth whilst figures in film and television, from "Blade" to HBO's "Rome", have seen its characters indulging in blood baths. Here it'll be remembered because its a needlessly drawn out scene, whilst the actual blood bathing looks more like video of a golden shower fetishist who unfortunately landed a partner with a hell of a urinary tract infection.
Despite some strong elements, the "Hostel" films remain curious but useless movies. Like the first there's a strong concept, solid visuals, and some fun, if awkwardly infused, layers if subtext. Yet their good qualities are thwarted by tedious characters, overdrawn setup, and self-indulgent denouements. Hardcore fans will be dissatisfied that much of the film lacks any violence or palpable threat, whilst others will find it overblown and too grisly. Unevenly paced, lacking in humour or suspense, and has no real satisfactory resolution - there's little on offer, yet that won't matter to most. If you liked the first, you'll probably like this as much - it's not as raw, but its a smoother ride.