Backpacking in Rome, college girls Beth (German), Whitney (Phillips) and Lorna (Matarazzo) tag along with aristocratic model Axelle (Jordanova), who suggests a spa retreat in sunny Slovakia. Naturally, it's Hostelville, and a local festival provides snuff outfit Elite Hunting with an ideal diversion...
Since 2000, horror audiences have been (mal)treated to three major trends. At century’s turn, we saw the genre all eaten up after cannibalising itself with the post-postmodern Scream 3. Then The Ring rang up and terror reshaped through the slowburn spooks of J-horror. And now we’re stuck with gorno, a censor-baiting subgenre that’s made up for its two predecessors’ relatively bloodless attacks with a savage relish. Gratuitous, guts-out, rooted in ’70s exploitation, gorno digs its fears out of lingering pain, voyeuristic camerawork, unblinking edits and a soft spot for novelty mutilations.
The original Hostel debuted at number one in the . The Saw franchise has made over $400 million worldwide. With audiences that size, there’s a thirst for this stuff beyond the gorehound pack. So, inevitably, here gorno is upgraded to summer-movie status, but already it sounds like we’re at the tail-end of the screech. Other than eyeing up the next taboo to break, there’s nowhere for gorno to go. For all its rough edges, the nastiness in writer/director Eli Roth’s original grindhouser felt unexpected and magnetically appalling in its own squirmy, seedy way. In his slicker sequel, the nastiness becomes cynical, unsurprising and, most suspect of all, neutered. The pre-release hype might have seen Roth playing the censor-baiting horror rebel, but in transforming a neat cult jolt into a risk-assessed franchise, the gore’s gone coy and the life’s gone from its eyes. Despite a calculated-to-outrage closing money-shot, even the bloodbath runs half-empty.
It certainly doesn’t start that way. In fact, Hostel Part II bows with the confidence of an edgy maverick with something subversive to say — the burning baseball cap in the credits montage hints at some spiky, dark wit ahead. But it also opens with the furious Biro-scratch of a very smart director ticking off his target audience’s boxes: intestines within five minutes, breasts by ten, drug deal by 15, decapitated head within 20...
And then the pen runs out.
It soon becomes painfully apparent that Roth hasn’t so much revisited the same underworld as remade the first movie with a larger budget, splattier FX and one superficial concession — instead of lunkheaded frat boys, we get three female backpackers, shorthanded down to slasher-movie subsets. Bijou Phillips is the Feisty One, Lauren German the Sensible One and Heather Matarazzo the Nerdy One. Actually, all three actresses are well-cast and fit their types, but that’s all they are: types — stock characters defined by what happens to them.
If that sounds like a callous way to treat your heroines, it’s probably because Roth’s focus is distracted by the torturers. This time, we not only get the full tour of Elite Hunting but an inside view of the buying process — internet auction, tattoo ceremony, apron-fitting, weapon selection... It’s ludicrous, alright, but neatly conceived and in Roger Bart’s family guy-turned-sadist, we also get the movie’s most intriguing character. The climactic, violent switch-around only confirms it: Roth’s fully on side with the sadists, which leaves the victims — and any empathy — hung up to dry. And if you don’t care, the shock softens. Hardly fatal, but what’s unforgivable is that Hostel II isn’t even tense, let alone scary.
Somehow, Roth has designed a torture garden where you can run through the thorns, scrape your skin off and not feel a scratch. It’s frustrating because the talent and the energy is there — Roth’s the kind of fanboy who’d happily sit slurping spaghetti during Cannibal Holocaust, and his pop riffs are cult gold. The first torture sequence, with its hokey candles and ritualistic pacing, is so Hammer you half expect Ingrid Pitt to waft in in a negligee; the wood chase re-runs Last House On The Left and even the poster looks like a sheet from Faces Of Death. But just like his helmer guru Lucio Fulci (gratuitously namechecked in the credits), while he’s eager to rub our faces in unflinching gore, he’s as stiff as a corpse when it comes to the build-up. Hostel II’s so pumped up to shock that it forgets how to rag the fear-glands. In other words, it doesn’t adrenalise; it anaesthetises.
If the future of gorno amounts to test-your-nerve pulp minus the thrills, the faster that horror moves on from this sub-genre dead-end, the better.
Roths slick shock-em-up sequel is a dispiritingly traditional splat of gristly Grand Guignol. Its tooled up to outrage, but ultimately numbs rather than grips.