Judge Dennis Prince warns there's something very dark about this new Blu-ray release, and he's not talking about the grim subject matter.
Our review of Hostel: Part II, published November 5th, 2007, is also available.
In some places, the real value of human life is decided by the highest bidder.
Is it exploitative or explanative? Does it repel or reveal? Is the new horror sub-genre of "torture-porn" an outrage or an avenue to insight? The lines have been drawn between those who oppose and those who appreciate the experience that grueling and vicious terror films deliver to audiences. Some have castigated this type of "entertainment" as a slap in the face to good taste and social responsibility while others have wondered aloud whether this is actually a mirror, of sorts, that has been held up to expose what might lay deep within us. As Director Eli Roth (Cabin Fever) has dared to suppose, is it the bad people we should be most afraid of…or the "good" ones?
Facts of the Case
Beth (Lauren German, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2003), Whitney (Bijou Philips, Almost Famous), and Lorna (Heather Matarazzo, Scream 3) are traveling to Prague in hopes of seeing the more tranquil aspects of Europe, what with Italy proven to have been an excursion into battling back lecherous advances from the locals. By chance they meet up with the sensual and practically seductive Axelle (Vera Jordanova), a figure model who takes a liking to Beth's artwork—and maybe a bit more. Upon arriving at Prague, the girls check in to a familiar hostel, greeted by the recognizable desk clerk Jedi (Milda Havlas). He assigns them their rooms then secretly scans their passport photos. Within minutes, the three girls' images are being transmitted around the world, the latest offerings in a grim auction. The outwardly aggressive Todd (Richard Burgi, Desperate Housewives) has prevailed and quickly notifies his more reserved friend, Stuart (Roger Bart, American Gangster) that they have a trip to Prague in their immediate future. And while these two Americans are en route to "collect" on their auction winnings, the three girls are unaware that they are being entertained by the various factions of the subversive Elite Hunters club, they who are pervasive throughout the Prague community and who are rarely deterred in bringing the sort of fine goods that will please their high-paying clients.
While many had accused Roth of a simple retread of his first foray into the realm of pay for slay, it's arguably apparent that the director committed no such offense. In fact, while the setup is the same—that is, the notion that unsuspecting young people are being kidnapped as fodder for the depraved death factory—the perspective this time around is new. Whereas Hostel achieved its horrific impact by the apparent baseless motivation for the human slaughterhouse, here we are confronted by the icy terror of the business of mortgaging mutilation and death.
And although we already expect what will transpire in the film's third act—the dreaded eventuality that we will enter the abattoir to witness the hopeless wailing and pleading of the terrified victims—this is what makes the first two acts all the more unsettling: we know what awaits these soon-to-be victims. With that knowledge of the unspeakable violence to come, we are severely uneasy with every event and interaction surrounding the three unsuspecting girls. In a move that leverages from the mighty Hitchcock, Roth has delivered a lurid tale where the audience knows the despicable outcome—mostly—yet are helpless to intervene on the characters' behalf. All the while, we look suspiciously at every individual that makes contact with the girls and we desperately search for clues that will tell us who is good and who isn't. That is largely what separates this sequel from its predecessor: Hostel shocked us with unexpected carnage, the sort that spilled in front of our shocked eyes without immediate cause or reason. Hostel: Part II, on the other hand, is perfectly self-assured of its evil intentions and its deliberate method is what leaves viewers helpless to do anything about it—except, of course, to watch.
As the film reaches its apex of human destruction, then, it becomes curious why such a franchise can gain such popularity with audiences, they who come from every corner of our social fabric. The graphic violence is repulsive in its viciousness and vividness, the team at KNB Effects having practically perfected the art of mock carnage. And while it should cause us to recoil and shield our eyes—and consciousness—from such depravity, it seemingly attracts our lingering gaze very much like a horrible traffic accident, the sort that is difficult to tear your eyes away from despite the finality represented by twisted remains that lay strewn about. This is the conundrum that has been probed and picked at by psychologists and psychoanalysts for over a century, they who also pondered the attraction of the original graphic horrors presented in the Parisian Le Theatre du Grand Guignol as far back as 1897 and continued their research through the 1950's monster craze and into the 1980's "splatter film" fascination. There's yet to be a definitive answer provided although the situation remains the same: stark horror of this sort always gains an audience.
But, it's only a movie, right, or is it more? Hostel: Part II provides a better opportunity to ponder the potential answer here.
Granted, the film is far from a masterpiece of meat-laden macabre yet it does precisely what it sets out to do—it confuses its audience (arguably largely intended to be Americans) with geographies and cultures most don't understand. While Roth has taken heat for presenting a twisted depiction of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, he insists he's not aiming to offend the European people but, rather, to point the damning finger at American ignorance and self-indulgence. In his commentary track, he explains that this is his sort of railing against the current Administration and its willingness to trade human lives for oil profits. That said, we gain a greater insight into his decision to focus this sequel on the unblinking business end of the death merchants. Whether you agree with his political perspective or not, he nonetheless is effective in giving us reason to pause, further heightening the horror of the transactions that take place with a contract, a cash amount, and a cart of human remains. And so, by this point, it's rather pointless to vilify a filmmaker like Eli Roth or James Wan or Alexandre Aja or others who cater to the unusual curiosities of audiences to indulge in their sanguinary style of entertainment. The fact is, as with the businesspeople in Hostel: Part II, these showmen are merely supplying what their viewers demand; perhaps that is what's most disturbing of all.
As for this new Blu-ray release of Hostel: Part II, there's plenty on hand to lure us to look or purchase, but there's also an element of disappointment that needlessly mars the whole package. Without delay, the 1080p / VC-1 transfer here is remarkably dark to the point that it appears digitally defective. From the very beginning, as the recognizable Lionsgate gear-works grind away, the logo is darker than I've ever seen (especially after having seen it just a week prior while screening The Saw Trilogy). And, as the opening titles commence, the darkness lingers to afflict the picture with inky dark patches that obscure any and all shadow detail. The overt darkness is exacerbated by an unstable color saturation that's sometimes very accurate only to become extreme in the next camera shot, shifting back again with the subsequent setup. This is a truly confounding situation and is the first I've seen of its sort on a high-definition transfer. This is sad since the detail is quite crisp in lighter scenes and since it heralds trouble for the film's signature gore sequences, those that take place in the darkened dungeons of the slaughterhouse. This said, the film is not entirely unwatchable in this transfer and a large portion of the key details are discernible including excellent skin textures in some close-ups and even some great grime on the dungeon walls yet, even so, the poor black level management nags at us as we know there is so much more detail that has been hopelessly obscured.
(And, in case you're wondering, I screened this on two different plasma displays and even managed to check two different copies of this Blu-ray disc; no improvements).
As for the audio, the PCM 5.1 Uncompressed track is as full-bodied as they get. The low end is particularly omnipresent throughout, providing a constant thud of dread. The ambient effects are well managed and flow naturally around the soundstage. All the while, the dialog is easy to discern. Even the standard Dolby Digital 5.1 track is more robust than most but, alas, the wavering image quality steals some of the aural thunder.
As for extras, this disc is absolutely packed beginning with three audio commentaries. Eli Roth heads up the first, solo, and he speaks consistently from beginning to end, touching on elements of filmmaking, his motivations for the script, and his tips to other budding filmmakers who might be listening. Next is a group commentary in which Roth is joined by his brother, Gabe, and co-producer Quentin Tarantino, the group yakking and yocking it up for the duration. Lastly, there is group discussion in which Roth is joined by actors Richard Burgi, Lauren German, and Vera Jordanova for probably the quietest of the three. Next up are two excellent featurettes, one giving great insight to the film's effects (The Art of KNB Effects) while the other delivers a more promotional-feeling look at the production (Hostel: Part II: The Next Level). An intriguing international television special (Hostel: Part II: A Legacy of Torture) provides a look at actual torture devices and their means of extracting prisoners' confessions from a darker time. A collection of ten deleted scenes follow, each with a textual comment from Roth regarding their reason for having been excised (most slow the pace of the film). "The Treatment" is a radio interview with Eli Roth that is presented aurally only with a static (and uninteresting) still screen. The Blood and Guts Gag Reel offers three minutes of outtakes while the Blu-ray exclusive content is a rather meaningless bank of surveillance camera views—eight in total—that allow you to zoom in to each to see what is going on (and, sadly, it's not much to look at yet runs a seemingly interminable 7 minutes). Oddly, there aren't any trailers for the feature film to be found, only a few for other Sony releases.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Without question, Hostel: Part II is not a film for all tastes and will likely sicken the more sensitive among us. Roth shows absolutely no compunction in transgressing the tenets of good judgment, even within the genre of horror. Much like a couple of sequences in this year's Planet Terror, the sacred elements that are typically spared exploitation—flagrant harm to children or animals—are considered fair game. However, unlike Robert Rodriguez's foray into the land of the forbidden, the extreme nature of his film allowed such transgressions to be passed off in comedic fashion; not so with Roth's film and, as such, this might be seen as severely reprehensible to some.
And, with that said, isn't this the sort of furor that causes a film like Hostel: Part II to grow its audience, many of the uncontrollably curious sort?
Hostel: Part II is not the rip-off sequel that some alleged and, in its underlying theme of blood for profit, it is a far more disturbing experience than was its predecessor. Roth has made his politically motivated statement but the real test will be to see what he can whip up in a third installment. If he elects to offer more of the same, we'll wonder if he's a one-trick pony. If, however, he can mature his thinking in a way that provides even more subtext to the business of death dealers, we're likely to be in for another uncomfortable excursion into the deepest and darkest regions of the animal called human.
Eli Roth is found not guilty of the outwardly repugnant images that serve to cast light on the dark spots of the human psyche. Sony, however, is found guilty and in contempt of this court for a needlessly blackened transfer.
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