Eli Roth's Hostel has the sort of structure that'd make it easy to mindlessly churn out formulaic sequels year after year, giving Screen Gems their own franchise cash cow in the vein of Saw or Friday the 13th. Y'know, a gaggle of dimwitted Americans drunkenly slosh their way through Europe and get duped into a trip to the Eastern Bloc, a couple of bored millionaires fork over their credit cards to make them die slowly one by one, and one lone survivor claws his way out (mostly) intact for some last-minute revenge before setting up the next year's sequel. Lather, rinse, repeat, and let the millions roll in.
Roth, however, tries to take at least a slightly less conventional approach to Hostel Part II, spending more time delving into the minds of the murderers instead of just retreading the original Hostel step by step. For one, he swaps the gender of this installment's travelers. Hostel Part II is anchored around three young American women: party gal Whitney (Bijou Phillips), dweeby, hypersensitive Lorna (Heather Matarazzo), and bright, level-headed, twentysomething billionairess Beth (the lovely Lauren German). They're plowing their way through Europe, and after indulging in the Roman art class cliché, they bump into Axelle (Vera Jordanova), a statuesque model who instantly sells them on a relaxing jaunt to one of Slovakia's legendary hot spring spas.
...but this being a sequel to Hostel and all, it kinda goes without saying that Axelle is on the payroll of Elite Hunting, a firm that engineers the kidnapping of young tourists and empowers stiffs in suits to butcher them at tens of thousands of dollars a pop. Elite Hunting's clientele was just briefly glimpsed in the original Hostel -- only the unnamed Dutch Businessman amounted to even a supporting character -- but Roth spends much more time with them in the sequel. A cocksure prick named Todd (Richard Burgi) drags his reluctant pal Stuart (Roger Bart) all the way to Slovakia for the ecstasy of the kill this time around. Hostel Part II follows the two of them as they leer at their prey from afar, staring at them the way you might a lobster in a tank at a seafood restaurant, leading up to those final moments where they don their leather aprons, pick up a circular saw or a carving knife, and slowly eviscerate these young American girls.
It's an approach that works in concept, stepping away from the xenophobia of the original Hostel to sneer at the capitalistic overindulgence that allows an outfit like Elite Hunting to exist. The sequel just didn't draw me in the way Hostel did, though. Josh and Paxton had a sort of dimensionality to them that these three girls lack. Not that the horndog fratboy and his sweetly sensitive buddy were exactly deep, richly drawn characters, but there was something about the way they talked and behaved that made them feel more like people and not just actors reciting lines from a screenplay. The three lead girls in Hostel Part II don't stand out in that same way. I think the idea might be that because they're female, there's some inherent tension in knowing that they're inevitably going to be brutally tortured, but it's surprisingly uninvolving, especially considering that I'm kind of a fan of these actresses to begin with. Pleasant, bland, inoffensive girls just aren't the most compelling leads for this sort of horror flick; after sifting through the deleted scenes on this disc, it's kind of a drag to see how much of their personalities had been left scattered on the cutting room floor. Hostel Part II doesn't juggle the girls and the two men that are a day away from mutilating them particularly well. Each story seems to just get in the way of the other, Stuart and Todd have a tendency to disappear and abruptly pop up again twenty-someodd minutes later, and the screenplay is too distracted to spend enough time with its characters to give anyone any real depth.
The original Hostel was buoyed by a cacklingly dark sense of humor, and as gruesome as the handful of torture scenes often were, it had the sorts of deceptive lulls and breakneck peaks of a rollercoaster. That kinda falls by the wayside in the sequel. It's played much straighter this time around, and there's so little humor that its rare stabs at comedy seem really out of place. In the original Hostel, someone who didn't know anything at all about the movie and missed the pre-credits teaser could go a half hour without realizing he was watching a horror movie. Hostel Part II, being a sequel and all, can't get away with that, yet it still takes an incredibly long time to get to the first torture sequence without finding anything particularly compelling to toss in between. The pacing really suffers in the sequel, which is odd since some stretches seem so rushed.
The torture is approached differently in the sequel as well. Only the first of the three girls -- who dies in a blood-soaked homage to the infamous Elizabeth Bathory -- is butchered in a way that's profoundly disturbing to watch. There are still barrel drums of stage blood and exposed organs in Hostel Part II, but it's overall tamer by comparison. The denouement after the climax is one of those squirming, jaw-agape, "...the fuck?!" type of borderline-legendary moments, and that's kind of Hostel Part II's problem -- it's a few stand-out moments in search of a movie.
Most horror sequels up the ante with sex and violence, but Hostel Part II instead opts to slink back, trying to push story, characterization, and an indictment of capitalism but not really managing to deliver on any front. The end result is okay, but a sequel to a movie as intense, brutal, and clever as Hostel really shouldn't be this forgettable. There are enough devastatingly gruesome moments to make this sequel worth a look for fans of the original, but Hostel Part II is a marked step down and kind of a disappointment overall.
Video: Hostel Part II shares the same set of technical specs as the original, framed at a 2.39:1 aspect ratio and encoded with AVC at an exceedingly healthy bitrate. The comparisons pretty much begin and end there; both Hostel Part II's photography and its transfer to high definition are a hell of a lot more polished this time around, and this Blu-ray disc looks phenomenal. Only a few bloody chunks of the original Hostel had gotten the digital intermediate treatment, but the sequel gave Eli Roth had a chance to really indulge his stylistic tendencies; colors early on are vivid and exaggerated, the jaw-dropping blues of the cast's eyes and the spring water leap off the screen, the streams of blood are rendered in a stunning crimson red, and saturation gradually drains away to reflect the stark, bleak tone of the movie as it progresses. Black levels are rock solid, although Roth has tweaked the contrast somewhat, leaving its darkest stretches looking somewhat crushed. Crispness and clarity are a massive improvement over the Blu-ray release of the original Hostel, revealing enough that I was frequently caught off-guard by how richly detailed the image is. There's a faint tinge of softness in a few scattered moments, but it's not a persistent problem, and I'd bet that could be chalked up to the original photography. It's appreciated that the film grain hasn't been digitally smoothened away, generally remaining tight and unintrusive throughout. Very impressive all around.
Audio: The sound design of Hostel Part II is similar enough to the original that I could almost get away with directly lifting the audio section from that earlier review. The biggest difference this time around is that instead of a lossless TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack, Hostel Part II boasts uncompressed PCM 5.1 audio. The sound design is more interested in establishing a strong sense of atmosphere rather than the usual hyperaggressive horror theatrics. Again, the audio is at its most impressive in the torture factory, with muffled whimpers and clinking chains lurking in every channel, and its most brutal sequences are greatly heightened by the strength of the audio. Ambiance is consistently robust, and even throughout the movie's most devastatingly aggressive moments, Hostel Part II's dialogue remains clear and discernable in the mix.
Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also offered in English and French, alongside subtitle streams in French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, Thai, and both English and English SDH.
Extras: There are a few high definition extras on this Blu-ray release of Hostel Part II. The first of 'em is a three and a half minute "blood and guts" gag reel, kicking off with footage of some uncooperative bloodhounds before settling into a gore montage with plenty of fumbling around with a prosthetic prick. The high-def deleted scenes reel runs around fourteen minutes in total, if you count the textual intros touching on each scene and explaining why they were yanked out of the movie. There's another murder that had been snipped out of the prologue, a few more minutes spent with the girls before any of their blood had been spilled (including cock-art, a hysterical rant about Lorna tagging along, and a jab at overdramatic afterschool specials), some more screentime with Todd and Stuart in the final moments before they stroll into their murder chambers, and an effective addition that would've immediately followed the climax.
A 'surveillance camera' feature exclusive to the Blu-ray disc lets viewers select from several different monitors to voyeuristically skulk around the torture factory. There's around seven minutes of footage in total, but even in the rare occassions when something...y'know, happens, the monitor in the middle of the screen is too small and to fuzzy to really make out much of anything.
Rounding out the HD extras are plugs for Resident Evil: Extinction, Tekkonkinkreet, Vacancy, and the usual Blu-ray promo reel. The rest of the extras are carried over from the DVD release, presented again in standard definition, either in 4x3 or letterboxed in non-anamorphic widescreen.
My favorite of Hostel's features was the hour-long documentary "Hostel Dismembered", a fly-on-the-wall look at damn near every step of production. Gabriel Roth's followup, "Hostel Part II: The Next Level", has that same sort of candid structure, but at 27 minutes, it clocks in at less than half the length as "Dismembered" and isn't nearly as comprehensive. There's no look at post-production at all, and it doesn't tackle each and every key scene the way "Dismembered" did. "The Next Level" is a quick overview more than anything else, tearing through a couple of pre-production meetings, location scouting, the shoot in Iceland, bigsister.net's voyeuristic brothel, the recipe for kid-spittle, the Elizabeth Bathory homage, and the shooting of the prologue. As was the case with "Dismembered", what really makes this featurette stand out from most making-of pieces is its sense of humor, hanging out with a half-battalion of producers as they work out, Eli Roth rattling off the pedophiliac inspirations for the surnames on the girls' passports, and, just for color, someone on set belting out a story about Slovakian gypsies munching on dogs.
There are a few other featurettes on the disc as well. The longest of them is "Hostel Part II: A Legacy of Torture", which spends a good bit of its 24 minute runtime examining the torture devices of choice during the Inquisition, all of which are on display at the Museo Criminale Medioevale in Tuscany. Later stretches of the featurette are recycled from other extras on the disc, but the remainder is largely spent with Roth talking about the international cast, some of the specific cameos throughout Hostel Part II, and the inspiration he took from gialli in shaping the sequel. The two remaining featurettes take a look at production design (7 min.), including the night train, the Harvest Festival and its four eerie puppets, and the design of the torture factory, along with a run through the gruesome effects KNB cooked up for the sequel.
Another installment of "The Treatment", Elvis Mitchell's radio show on KCRW, is included here. The 26 minute interview with Eli Roth has some fairly thoughtful comments from the film's writer and director about Hostel Part II, including his shift away from social commentary in the sequel and more of an emphasis on what would motivate someone's urge to kill, willful ignorance being these characters' ultimate downfall, and the similarities and stark differences between the U.S. and Europe. Along with ranting about low-rent remakes and sequels like The Hills Have Eyes 2 and Black Christmas, Roth also speaks at length about his cameo in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof.
Last up is an onslaught of three audio commentaries. Writer/director Eli Roth, second unit director Gabe Roth, and executive producer Quentin Tarantino pile into the recording booth for the first track, running through everything from the numerous homages throughout the movie (including The Night Train Murders, Torso, Hammer horror flicks, Rolling Thunder, and Killing Machine), Elite Hunting's elaborate set of rules, musing how Josh and Paxton from the original Hostel likely would've grown up to be bored murderers like the ones in this sequel, and an unprompted Tarantino having written his own unseen extension to one scene. It's a hell of a lot of fun, looking more at the approach to these characters and the story instead of the nuts and bolts of production. Likewise for the second track, with Roth taking the role of moderator as he sits down with actors Lauren German, Vera Jordanova, and, after the half hour mark, Richard Burgi. The commentary starts with Roth asking everyone how they got involved in the project, following up with chatter about digital nipples, Czech TV stardom, what had to be trimmed out of the R-rated cut on these shores, struggles with more demanding and aloof international ratings boards, a toothless musical actress, and how the cast dealt with some of the more emotionally and physically exhausting sequences in the film.
The third and final commentary is a solo track with Eli Roth. Some directors struggle to fill an entire audio commentary on their lonesome, but Roth has so much to say that there's still probably another commentary or two left in him. This is the filmmaker track, geared more towards how he approached the movie as a writer and director. The topics include his choice of Hostel Part II over $150 million studio flicks, rants about the misuse of the 'torture porn' label, the movie serving as a statement against the Bush administration, the influence of such films as To Be Twenty and Cannibal Holocaust, the one thing in Hostel Part II he'd change if he could do it over again, encouraging the actors playing the victims and tormentors to spend time together instead of isolating them the way many horror directors do, his approach to digital effects, deciding what graphic imagery needs to be shown and what can be left implied, and...oh, making a fake dick out of sugar and dog food. I found all of the audio commentaries to be well worth a listen, but Roth's solo track is by far the best of the three.
Conclusion: Eli Roth could've played it safe with Hostel Part II, sleepwalking through a retread of the original movie and mindlessly cashing a seven figure check in the process. Instead, Roth takes at least some chances with his sequel, pulling back the curtain behind Elite Hunting and the listless millionaires who shell out tens of thousands of dollars for a chance to murder without consequence. I just didn't find the story or its characters nearly as engaging this time around, and as deeply unsettling as a couple of moments are, Hostel Part II isn't as wincingly gruesome as the original either. There's enough about Hostel Part II that works for fans of the series to find it worth a look, but it's by far the less memorable of Eli Roth's two Eastern bloc torture flicks. The extras aren't as sprawling this time around, although there's still a hell of a lot to keep fans busy, and the Blu-ray disc looks and sounds great. Hesitantly Recommended.
The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.