Dir: Eli Roth. US. 2007. 94mins.
Two significant story changes notwithstanding, Hostel: Part II stays close to the first film's successful strategy of mixing unsuspecting American tourists with sadistic Eastern Europeans. Writer-director Eli Roth tries to enliven the formula by switching the genders of his victims and by offering an in-depth look at two of the torturers - but this second installment loses the grim surprise of the original without adding much new in terms of character, plotting, or gory set pieces.

Opening on Friday June 8 in the US, this Lionsgate sequel will face a much different marketplace than its predecessor. Released January 2006 amidst weak winter competition, Hostel grossed almost $20m in the States in its first weekend, eventually pulling in $47m domestically and another $33m overseas. The follow-up will be squaring off against two major summer entries, Ocean's Thirteen and the kid-friendly Surf's Up, not to mention the still-potent Pirates Of The Caribbean sequel. While these features are not necessarily direct competition, each can, in its own way, nip at Hostel: Part II's audience.

Nevertheless, with the horror audience under-served since the release of 28 Weeks Later, the film should play strongly to its niche. It will be interesting, though, to see if the recent killings at the Virginia Tech campus and the media hand-wringing about the trend of 'torture porn' cinema will in any way blunt the film's commercial impact.

Internationally, where the film opened on June 7 in some territories and will expand throughout the summer, Hostel: Part II will possibly repeat the track record of the similarly-horrifying Saw films, which enjoyed increasing grosses with each new addition. Regardless, boasting a relatively minuscule budget, this new Hostel is an almost guaranteed moneymaker, even before ancillary markets are tabulated.

Three American tourists on holiday in Rome hop a train for Prague: flirty Whitney (Phillips), uptight, homely Lorna (Matarazzo), and responsible Beth (German). They meet Axelle (Jordanova), a beautiful European model who recommends they take a detour to Slovakia with her, promising relaxing spas and glorious hot springs.

The three women accompany Axelle, but soon enough they discover that they have been lured to Slovakia to be imprisoned and tortured to death by high-paying clients, including misogynistic Todd (Burgi) and his ineffectual best friend Stuart (Bart), who is beginning to question whether he can go through with the killing.

On its surface, Hostel: Part II follows the same trajectory as the first film: Unwitting American tourists who are just looking for a good time get suckered by exotic Europeans into joining them for some adventure, leading only to misery and death. However, Roth, perhaps not wanting to repeat himself completely, has added a couple novel new wrinkles that ultimately don't offset this sequel's slightly stale construction.

Unlike the first film, which featured young men as the main characters, Hostel Part II sends three young women out into a strange world they barely understand. While this gender shift puts the new film more squarely into the realm of many 'women in peril' horror movies of the past, Roth shows such a lack of understanding about how women interact that they are little more than pretty automatons and their nerdy, unattractive friend.

Roth tries to inject feminist spirit into the action by making Beth a resourceful, aggressive heroine - she's shown to be tough by cutting off a bad guy's penis - but because the characters have no dimensions, the gesture feels obligatory instead of sincere or inspired.

The second alteration involves Hostel: Part II's emphasis on the personal lives of two of the torturers. By showing us a bit of backstory on Todd and Stuart, the film seeks to explain how seemingly 'average' people would be willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars to kill strangers. At first, Roth's experiment at humanising these monsters is intriguing, but he fails to make either of these characters' actions believable.

As played by Burgi, Todd's macho sadist is pure parody, and his rah-rah attitude about killing edges into camp. On the other side of the spectrum, Bart's Stuart is portrayed as a henpecked family man who has selected to slaughter Beth because of her resemblance to his annoying wife. But no amount of goading by Todd can rationalise such a mild-mannered weakling's decision to enter into this murderous endeavour.

Roth pulls back the curtain on these two men in order to create emotional complexity in the film's third act when the torturers come face-to-face with their innocent victims. But one of the reasons the first film worked was because its killers were upsettingly anonymous, soulless psychopaths. Revealing their personalities, especially in such a meagre way as Roth does in the sequel, only highlights how ludicrous these films' conceit of a black-market death club really is. Even less successful is the finale's plot twist regarding these two men.

Of the three main actresses, German's performance is the strongest simply because her character is given more to do, while Matarazzo and Phillips are marking time with their underwritten roles until they're strung up for their big death scenes.

On that note, Hostel: Part II's shock scenes are surprisingly tame. Trying to top the original installment, not to mention the mayhem of the Saw films, Roth gets closest to truly scandalizing his audience with one set piece involving a naked body hanging upside-down over a torturer who has a (literal) taste for blood. But the overwrought grandiosity of its design results in stifled giggles and eye rolls rather than gasps.

Aided by cinematographer Milan Chadima and production designer Robb Wilson King, Roth gives his torture chambers a dank queasiness and the hostel's surroundings an unsettling otherworldliness. But ultimately this new Hostel feels overly familiar, no matter the new add-ons Roth has brought to the place.

Production companies/backers
Next Entertainment
Raw Nerve

US distribution

International distribution
Sony Pictures Releasing International (most)

Mike Fleiss
Eli Roth
Chris Briggs

Executive producers
Boaz Yakin
Scott Spiegel
Quentin Tarantino

Daniel Frisch
Philip Waley

Milan Chadima

George Folsey Jr

Production design
Robb Wilson King

Nathan Barr

Main cast
Lauren German
Bijou Phillips
Roger Bart
Richard Burgi
Vera Jordanova
Heather Matarazzo
Stanislav Ianevski
Milan Knazko