[After the jump are some spoiler-filled thoughts on the finest torture porn film yet, Hostel: Part II. Seriously, this shit is like champagne for the disembowelment set.]
"I had been looking for stuff you could do to girls that would be awful but not so horrifying that you felt like you couldn't watch it or you felt like you had been kicked in the stomach," director Eli Roth recently told the Los Angeles Times when describing the conception of Hostel: Part II. He considered ripping the navel ring from one of his characters -- the only thing that stopped him is that his buddies who make the Saw movies already have plans to incorporate such a stunt in the next chapter of their torture-porn series (which, if it keeps up its one-a-year stamina, will start to look like a real porn series -- there is a Saw 17: Saw Goes Raw in the future of our pop culture, mark my words). What's notable about Roth's quote is that he was tailoring his deaths to be gender-specific. After equal-opportunity nastiness of his 2002 debut, Cabin Fever, and only slight subversion of horror norms in the 2006 original Hostel (Jay Hernandez isn't so much the final girl, as he is the final...guy), Roth obsesses about gender in Hostel: Part II with the zeal of a toddler who just realized that not everyone has a penis. By consciously changing the sex of his victims (in Hostel, we followed dudes who met their fate in a Slovakian warehouse where rich men torture and kill youngins; here, we follow three girls), it would seem that the very point of Hostel: Part II, besides to make money (which it didn't, as the New York Times gleefully pointed out), is for Roth comment on that which horror detractors love to harp on: (cue the ominous boom that will spread into a sustained minor chord) violence against women.
In my opinion, Hostel: Part II is a direct response to criticism the horror genre and its treatment of women receives. Yes, on the surface, the film is torture porn (it's funny how so many negative reviews use "torture porn" as an epithet, as though it's not a flat-out reality by now). It's a snarky and nasty bloodbath that rarely scares and regularly nauseates. But it's more meta than that -- it's as though Roth has set out to make a movie that fucks with sex as much as cinematically possible. Tropes, clichés and would-be statements of and about gender politics are splattered all over this thing. It's as messy as a horror movie should be.
The basic skeleton of the film is that of the original Hostel: a group of Americans who are abroad decide to take a little Eurorail trip, get persuaded to instead check out Slovakia, get abducted, end up tied to a chair and tortured. The end. A major difference of Hostel: Part II however, is its more even tone. Hostel mutated from a sex comedy to a torture porn flick halfway through, but there's a sense of dread in Hostel: Part II from the beginning. The three central characters -- the good for goodness' sake heroine Beth (Lauren German), the bitchy sex fiend Whitney (Bijou Phillips) and the dreamer dork Lorna (Heather Matarazzo) -- are never not surrounded by menacing men of all ages (from the geriatric dude who steals Lorna's iPod basically just to fuck with her to the pack of pre-pubescent boys who terrorize the girls on their travels and assert their nascent maleness by calling them "bitches"). It is their very femininity that leads them to their death: the promise of a hot-springs spa in Slovakia (from another girl, who helps balance out the male-dominated evil side) is enough to make them reroute their trip entirely. These are some girly girls. Poor things.
Live by the vag, die by the vag, or so it would seem that Roth is suggesting. The first we get to see offed is Lorna, who is hung upside down nude, her femininity on display. Lest you believe that Roth would make an anti-woman message palpable by allowing a man to do the job, it is a woman (she, too, is naked) who kills Lorna. Lying beneath her, she slices Lorna with a scythe, bathing in her blood, leveling the playing field. Whitney, too, is as girly as can be when it's time for her to die, only instead of being naked, she's covered in make-up. We already know the extent of her sexuality, as Phillips (out Rose-ing Rose McGowan in Scream) renders a lovable lush out of Whitney ("Is he hot or is he, like, totally Eastern Bloc?" she asks Beth drunkenly, her potential lover within earshot) who's open about her masturbatory habits (when it's clear that she isn't going to get laid, she announces that her Rabbit is getting a workout tonight). There's not a lot of time to flesh her out, but still, she's easily the most likeable female character in a horror movie since...well, Rose McGowan in Scream, probably. Unfortunately: boom. Bitch goes down.
The flip side of all the girl stuff is a healthy side of American-male psychosis. Hostel: Part II is not the unnecessary retread of the original that many reviews suggest. Roth takes the opportunity (and doubled budget) to explore his own mythology, to flesh out the organization that coordinates these murders. We get glimpses into the lives of the rich white men who run and profit from this thing, and the rich white men who patronize it. Todd (Richard Burgi) and Stuart (Robert Bart) go on the hunting trip of their lives when they fly to Slovakia to hack up some girls. Todd, the more cocky, extroverted of the two, explains the point of the forthcoming murders: murderers take on this innate sense of menace. If Stuart's feeling like the emasculated slave of his wife, he can rest assure that when he's back from his hacking, his wife will fear him. If that doesn't paint a cinematic Norman Rockwell for these times dig this: Todd ends up not being able to go through with the murder after he accidentally maims Whitney while teazing her with a saw. The cocky asshole crumbles into a pussy and, completing another archetype, is devoured by dogs. Stuart then steps in (in the middle of torturing Beth), offs Whitney and, now a murder, reports back to Beth that he's "fucking Hercules." It's amazing what coming to terms with your primordial, gender-dictated nature can do to your self confidence.
Throughout the film, the contract that the murderers must sign to join and partake in this exclusive killing club is referenced. The contract is almighty, but strict rules are only for the corrupt according to Roth. Beth is the final girl who wrangles out of her shackles to put her would-be killer Stuart into a submissive position. However, she ultimately escapes not via swiftness or wit, but her bank account: in the end, she buys her way to freedom with her inheritance (not even her swiftness or wit came into play when earning it!). But the contract (always the contract!) dictates that she must kill someone to get out, and so, in a hazily feminist turn, she cuts Stuart's dick off after he pushes her to the edge by calling her a "fucking cunt." Is this the twist, Roth's retribution after crafting a movie around the torture of women? Or is it a reference to similarly exploitative, castration-featuring nasties like Cannibal Holocaust and 1978 I Spit on Your Grave? It's always hard to tell what's sincere and what's a reference with Roth -- in interviews, he's encyclopedic (if not obnoxious).
In I Spit on Your Grave, a woman who's gang raped and chased and raped and chased and raped some more for about 20 minutes solid ends up exacting her revenge on each of her rapists, one by one. When the last one is killed, the film is over. Is this director Meir Zarchi's parable for women's struggles and the strength needed to overcome them, or is it a 20-minute porno wrapped in 80 minutes of bullshit? That point has been debated for the past 29 years, and the answer still isn't clear (despite Zarchi's assertion that it's a pro-woman film). I think that it's this lack of clarity that pops up repeatedly in exploitation films to which Roth owes his greatest debt. In throwing so many sexual and gender symbols at us and then throwing even more to refute them, he's creating a sort of wild goose chase, a maze with no way out whose only point is to leave you dizzy.
I think that Roth's overall goal is to prove that reading too much into gender in horror movies gets in the way of the film (and I couldn't agree more -- I've said it before and I'll say it again: sometimes a bleeding girl is just a bleeding girl). By going to absurd lengths to prove this, he's crafted the smartest and most conscious torture porn film we're ever likely to see. Certainly, what Roth is not out to do is to moralize. He seems smarter for it -- what are horror movies anyway, but opportunities to enter a world free of the morals we civilized folk supposedly hold dear? Hostel: Part II is just too tasteless to be outright politically correct. By design, Roth blurs the line between awareness and apology.