Hostel: Part II (2007)
★ / ★★★★
Affluent Beth (Lauren German), debbie-downer Lorna (Heather Matarazzo), and brassy Whitney (Bijou Phillips), American art students in Italy, decided to go on a trip around Europe over the weekend for some relaxation. While on the train, one of the models (Vera Jordanova) they had the pleasure of sketching just hours prior recommended a gorgeous must-visit hot springs in Slovakia. It seemed too good to refuse so the trio happily accepted. Little did the girls know that just minutes after they checked into a hostel, there was an auction, held by Elite Hunting, a murder-for-profit group, in which rich men bid on women where the winner could do whatever he wanted with his winnings. Written and directed by Eli Roth, I give a little bit of credit to “Hostel: Part II” because it tried to do something different from its predecessor. Instead of focusing solely on the would-be victims, it actually spent some time with the men who wanted to experience something they’d never forget. Todd (Richard Burgi) was gung-ho about killing something with his hands while Stuart (Roger Bart) was more reluctant. The way Todd and Stuart talked about committing an act of unimaginable violence to another human being was disturbing because certain phrases they uttered, like a joke or a snide remark, reflected an underlying struggle in attempting to make their victims less human. For instance, while sitting in the car on their way to the torture factory, Stuart asked his friend if he thought what they were doing was sick. Todd answered the question as one would express strong dislike toward a certain type of food. Furthermore, the picture allowed us to peek inside the business. We saw the important figures who made the negotiations when something went wrong. We discovered some of the requirements stated in the contract if one chose to be a part of Elite Hunting. We also learned that certain rules were allowed to be broken for the right price. Although it had potential to be a good sequel because it strived to expand its universe, the film just wasn’t good enough. Because there weren’t enough scenes dedicated to Todd, Stuart, and their relationship with the business, watching it all unfold was like observing a drowning person: an occasional gasp of air came hand-in-hand with its desperation to keep afloat. For the sake of so-called suspense, the material had a natural tendency to relegate to the three girls trying to run away from the burly bad guys in leather yet we knew all along that they had no chance of outrunning them. That was a crucial difference between this film and its predecessor. Part of the fun of “Hostel” was we actually believed that Paxton (Jay Hernandez), who made an appearance here, was able to escape despite his odds. There was technique, tension, and, most importantly, humor, in the manner in which he had to camouflage with the environment to avoid being detected. In here, a character ran into the forest and we expected her to trip. And she did. Lastly, I was especially sickened with the scene in which an adult pointed his gun on several children’s heads. One of them was shot in the face. But for what? Some could argue that the adult intended to teach a lesson. I argue it was for mere shock value. It felt cheap. “Hostel: Part II” was plagued with boring protagonists and lackluster execution. I wanted to find dark humor in its extreme nature but I ended up just sitting in my chair, depressed with all that was happening.
Kill List (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring), ex-soldiers, were experiencing financial difficulty because Jay hadn’t worked in months due to his back. After a dinner party turned into a verbal battlefield between the husband and wife, Gal (Michael Smiley) informed Jay about a contract job that paid a solid sum. Jay, desperate to keep his household together, accepted. Fiona (Emma Fryer), meanwhile, talked to Shel about her son (Harry Simpson) and her prospect about having kids. “Kill List,” written by Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, was a fine fusion of thriller and horror where many details were purposefully vague. As questions plagued our minds, the three title cards, “The Priest,” “The Librarian,” and “The M.P.,” that took over the screen were the only certainty, signifying the three people that Jay and Gal were assigned to kill in which the reasons were unknown to them. But they didn’t need to; what was important was the money. At times, the picture’s abstruse nature worked for itself. For example, one of the persons they had to kill had a prodigiously negative impact on Jay’s psychology. Instead of being a professional and going for the easy and clean kill, he lost his temper and went on a violent, gory rampage. Even Gal, seemingly no stranger to murder-for-profit, had to look away. Though we didn’t know exactly what Jay saw in the videotape that pushed him over the edge (although we were able to hear sounds), it probably had something to do with what happened back then that traumatized him as a soldier. At its best, the mystery piqued my curiosity. It forced me to look closer on how the characters reacted to dialogue and the things they experienced through sight and sound. However, at times, its secrecy was frustrating. As Jay descended into madness, which conflicted with his motivation to be a good husband and father, not enough of our questions were answered. What did the client (Struan Rodger) have against the three men? What was so special about Jay and his family that they had to go through dark twists in the latter quarter of the film? We deserved to be informed because we put time into watching the story unfold. By not answering some of our key questions, the movie felt shallow. Eventually, I got the impression that it had a great idea of making a hybrid of two genres but the writers didn’t quite know how or they were too lazy to piece information together. Ultimately, the project felt like a gimmick rather an a compelling story worth sitting through and thinking about. Directed by Ben Wheatley, “Kill List” benefited greatly from good performances. I enjoyed the contrast between the ugliness of marriage when things were tough and the macho friendship between Jay and Gal even when things were tough. Since those two aspects felt real, I cared when they were challenged. If only I was able to say the same about the nightmarish spiral down the rabbit hole.
★★★ / ★★★★
Locked out from their hostel because of curfew, Paxton (Jay Hernandez), Josh (Derek Richardson), and Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) were invited by Alex (Lubomír Bukový) into his room and recommended that they go to Bratislava, Slovakia if they wanted women who were willing to have sex. In need of no further convincing, the trio took the train and checked into a pretty nice hostel in which they had to share the room with Natalya (Barbara Nedeljakova) and Svetlana (Jana Kaderabkova). They were well-endowed so the guys more than welcomed the situation. After the first night of flirting, drinking, and dancing in a club, Oli was nowhere to be found in the morning. Unbeknownst to the American backpackers, the girls were hired by a murder-for-profit group to lure them into unconsciousness only to wake up in a dungeon full of sharp tools. Written and directed by Eli Roth, “Hostel” was overwhelmingly violent even though there were only two scenes that featured torture. Two was more than enough and they were shot with incredible realism. I felt like I was there in that room and anticipated things to go very wrong and very bloody. The horror and suspense came in when the masked person about to inflict pain held up his cold instrument of choice and decided which body part he was to make contact first. As the characters screamed to the top of their lungs, vomited, and begged to be released, I wanted to look away because of the violence yet, at the same time, I was desperate to see how or if the characters could extricate themselves out of their predicament. That’s why I enjoyed the film: There was always a possibility that the characters, even though they weren’t exactly model citizens, could get away and exact revenge. Sure, they did drugs, engaged in casual hook-ups, and had a lack of respect for the locals, but not one of them deserved to be tied up in a chair and mutilated in any way. Furthermore, the picture was not devoid of a dark sense of humor and genuinely sad moments. When Paxton accidentally dropped two of his excised fingers while playing dead, he had to quickly reach for them with his three remaining fingers before the butcher, busy chopping up limbs, turned around. I was tickled with the fact that Paxton was desperate enough to keep his two fingers when what was at stake was his life. The butcher must’ve been three times his size. If he got caught, it would surely be over for him. And then there was Josh, pressured by his friend to travel all over Europe to have sex with as many women as possible. He was a closet homosexual, possibly bisexual, and there was sensitivity in his interactions with a Dutch businessman (Jan Vlasák) while in sitting in the bar. If Josh and Paxton were so close, why not just tell him the truth? Surely Paxton, if he were to look closely, could have recognized the signs. “Hostel” consistently embodied a menacing atmosphere that became more apparent and potent as the story unfolded. I watched in terror and disgust through my fingers, very thankful to have every single one of them.
Final Destination 5 (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
A group of co-workers were on their way to a retreat that would supposedly help them become a better team. But when Sam (Nicholas D’Agosto) was somehow able to see the future involving the collapse of the suspension bridge their bus was on as well as the deaths of his colleagues, he grabbed his girlfriend, Molly (Emma Bell), got off the vehicle in a panic, and a walked away from the impending disaster. Gymnast Candice (Ellen Wroe), lubricious Isaac (P.J. Byrne), myopic Olivia (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood), patient Nathan (Arien Escarpeta), whistleblower Dennis (David Koechner), and mercurial Peter (Miles Fisher) followed paranoid Sam to safety. Sure enough, the survivors, dubbed “Lucky 8” by the news, started to die in the order in which they were supposed to on that bridge. Written by Eric Heisserer and Jeffrey Reddick, “Final Destination 5” was like its other sequels with one scintillating detail. Bludworth (Tony Todd), a recurring character in the series as a mysterious coroner, informed Sam and his friends on how to quench Death’s thirst. With this knowledge in mind, we got to observe, at least in the latter half of the film, how the characters turned against each other, as well as possibly forcing strangers into the mix, because they wanted to live. Yet even when we were presented with a solution, the execution wasn’t strong enough. This could be partly attributed to a weakly established protagonist with a motivation as shallow as a dog’s. After each death scene, the picture relegated to the hackneyed romance between Sam and Molly. During the first scene, the Molly broke up with Sam. Naturally, the latter was very confused because, at least from his point of view, everything seemed to be going well. Later, we came to discover that she felt she needed to break the relationship for Sam. It turned out that her ex-boyfriend was offered an internship as a chef in Paris, but he wouldn’t accept it if Molly was to remain in America. The romance was not only a sophomoric attempt to get us to care, such scenes slowed down the picture’s momentum immensely. They were good at pouting and giving each other puppy dog eyes but none of these qualities contributed to the horror and the suspense. Why must there always be a couple fighting for their love in just about every other horror movie? If it’s not necessary, it’s an easy way to fill up the minutes with junk. What I wanted to see were more scenes that built up to one character inevitably meeting his or her grizzly demise. There was a dark sense of humor in the deaths. I especially liked the massage parlor with the acupuncture needles and the LASIK surgery scenes. They got under my skin, in a good way, because I have a fear of allowing someone else, like a masseuse or an eye surgeon, to be in charge of my body. Range was also present. Some deaths were quick and painless (only appearing to be painful with all that blood on the floor) while some were slow and almost unimaginable. Directed by Steven Quale, “Final Destination 5” was forebodingly formulaic but the deaths contained enough imagination. If the romance was completely excised in place of the main character actually doing something relevant to stay alive, it would have been more exciting.
Cold Fish (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara) was caught shoplifting by a store manager, he called her father, Syamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), and stepmother, Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka), before calling the police. But when Murata (Denden), the store manager’s friend who happened to be on the same tropical fish business as Syamoto, came barging in the office to brag about his gigantic rare fish, he persuaded that the police needn’t be involved. Syamoto and his family were very grateful, but Murata wasn’t as generous a man he seemed. Behind his fish business, he and his wife, Aiko (Asuka Kurosawa), murdered people for money. Written by Shion Sono and Yoshiki Takahashi, “Tsumetai nettaigyo,” also known as “Cold Fish,” was an exercise on how a family, through a paternal figure, needed to be shaken up by horrific events in hopes of breaking out of their rut. Mitsuko was a wild teen who didn’t have an ounce of respect for her parents. She beat her stepmother without remorse and considered her father as a joke. Hoping that she’d change for the better, it was no wonder her guardians agreed for Mitsuko, equipped with free room and board, to work for Murata. The father was partly to blame. He was too lenient. If I was a teenager and got caught stealing from a store, my parents would throw a fit. When Murata allowed Mitsuko off the hook, there was not one scene where the father attempted to discuss with his daughter why what she did was unacceptable. We should be disturbed by that lack of proper parenting. The filmmakers made sure that the family drama was deeply rooted in reality before diving into the excess of gore, perversity, and dark comedy. The murders and step-by-step ways to make a person “invisible” didn’t leave much for the imagination. Once the victim had been poisoned, he was taken to a remote location, a shack next to a church, to be chopped into manageable pieces. Red liquid flooded the bathroom floor like sickness, organs were everywhere, and body parts that were still whole glistened in morbidity. However, it was mostly done in a comedic way. For instance, a silly, playful music would play in the background as someone desperately gasped for air. Close-up of the Aiko devoid of reaction, almost somnolent, because she’d seen a man struggle for his life more than she could count. As Syamoto was forced to dispose human meat in the size of chicken nuggets by the river, Murata would enthusiastically say things like, “You’re doing a good job!” and “The fish will be happy!” Shion Sono, the director, paired violence with sex. The physical act meant differently for each character. For instance, Taeko considered it a way to escape her miserable marriage while Aiko held it a symbol for being wanted. I admired “Cold Fish” most because I felt like it wasn’t restrained by anything. It was able to make a statement, with clarity, about how we live and the powerful elements that influence, consciously or otherwise, our decisions. It was a lesson in responsibility.
Shallow Ground (2004)
★ / ★★★★
When a boy, naked and covered in blood, appeared at the police station with a knife, the three officers (Timothy V. Murphy, Stan Kirsch, Lindsey Stoddart) in charge of the small town suspected he had committed murder. But when a medic (Natalie Avital) looked at the blood sample, she discovered that the blood had come from three or four different people and the cells had been dead for about a year. “Shallow Ground,” written and directed by Sheldon Wilson, was a horror movie that made no sense. It didn’t know whether to be a slasher film or a supernatural thriller; it ended up a hybrid of both but the story was too weak to sustain our attention. There were hints that the events that were happening in the small town were happening in the city as well. Was there some kind of virus that plagued certain areas? Maybe the strange events were triggered by something alien like in George A. Romero’s zombie flicks. Instead of taking advantage of our curiosity and exploring that angle, there was a barrage of painfully unnecessary flashbacks involving a girl that one of the cops failed to rescue from a hooded, knife-wielding killer. One or two flashbacks would have sufficed but there were about ten. None of them served to push the story forward. The writer-director just wanted to hammer the fact that the cop was plagued by guilt and that was the reason we should root for him to survive. Furthermore, the picture relied too often on false alarms aided by its obnoxious music. Due to its formulaic use of scary music, we grew accustomed to its techniques. We knew exactly when something would pop out of the dark corner so there was no tension in the kills. The eerie whispers, rustling leaves, doors opening and shutting were simply not scary. The movie also tried to scare us with blood. It was almost amusing how much blood was used to the point where I managed to put them in groups. One type of blood was the kind that moved as if it had a mind of its own. It reminded me of the very inspired Black Oil saga from Chris Carter’s “The X-Files.” When touched, it gave someone a jolt and the person was able to see another’s darkest secrets. It helped to drive people to kill “the sinner.” The second type of blood was, like the film’s pacing, stagnant. It did no harm to the person who happened to touch it. I called it “regular blood.” Both types looked incredibly fake and neither generated scares. Weren’t the filmmakers aware of the fact that blood by itself didn’t necessarily equal to a good horror movie? Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” was scary because the shark ate people and then we could see blood in the water. Blood was a byproduct of something horrific, not the element that caused the terror. “Shallow Ground” failed because it tried to be too many things at once. Jack of all trades, master of none.
Eden Lake (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by James Watkins, Steven (Michael Fassbender) and Jenny (Kelly Reilly) decided to retreat to the country for a weekend of relaxation. Steven chose the place because his last visit gave him fond memories of stunning landscape and invaluable peace. But nothing was like as he remembered it. There were now gates that surrounded the area to keep people away and sociopathic teenagers scoured the vicinity. When the hoodlums, led by Brett (Jack O’Connell), stole the couple’s car, a prank turned toward a deadly route. “Eden Lake” drained every bit of energy I had because I was so desperate for the couple to escape and find their way home. Although the picture was realistic in terms of its violence, it did not glorify it. We were meant to be sickened by the teenagers’ increasingly bad decisions and maddened by the fact that none of them voiced out that what they were doing was immoral. When some of them decided to stand up to Brett, they quivered and their resistance didn’t last for long. Although a one-dimensional character, O’Connell did a wonderful job in portraying a very troubled individual. Rash and incredibly ruthless, we rooted for the moments where he made mistakes and wished that one of his errors would lead to his downfall. We didn’t need to know his life at home or if he was bulled in the past. What mattered was the decisions he made that changed the lives of those around him. It was compelling because not only was the kids’ and the couple’s situation scary, it was also very sad. Jenny, a nursery school teacher, was essentially put into a situation where she had to reevaluate her connection with the young. We left to wonder what we would do if we were in the same situation. Personally, if someone is trying to kill me, good luck to them because gender and age become irrelevant. However, there were some pieces that bothered me. For instance, when Steven, prior to being captured, told Jenny to ask for help: What did she decide to do? She hid in the bushes, slept it off, and didn’t even look for help until morning arrived. In a life or death situation, I am convinced that no one will be able to sleep. It may be dark and the person may be tired but if I was in her shoes, I would have ran until I saw civilization. Even then I wouldn’t trust the people who decided to help because the kids had to live somewhere nearby. Despite the material’s occasional lack of common sense, I enjoyed it because it was successful in generating tension and holding onto it until the payoff. “Eden Lake” knew the difference between suspense and thrill. It was suspenseful when we were left squirming in our seats and wondering if our protagonists were going to get caught. It was thrilling when Character A was running from Character B and the latter knew exactly which direction the former was heading. The best scenes were the ones where I felt chill running up and down my spine.