Want to see something scary? Take a look at the box office grosses of the recent wave of horror films. If the numbers are any indication, audiences are fast getting burned-out on jack-in-the-box slashers, on torture turned into a booby-trapped game of jolt and squirm. Of course, these things come in cycles, which means that it’s not necessarily the fault of the films themselves. Eli Roth’s Hostel: Part II, despite its lousy opening weekend, is an authentic real-world creep show — better, if anything, than its predecessor. As for 1408, it may have the title of a bad Christopher Columbus biopic, but it’s a deft Stephen King freak-out. These two unabashed genre films do what they’re meant to do. Screamingly, teasingly, they bring the pain.
In the sado-perv fearfest that is Hostel: Part II, respectable businessmen from all over the world make bids, on their BlackBerries and office computers, to purchase a freshly abducted American college girl. The top bidder will travel to Slovakia, where, in a network of dungeons hidden behind the thick corroded walls of an abandoned factory, he’ll torture and murder the victim he has bought. What’s creepiest about this scenario is the way it mirrors the online auctions that have become big business in the sex-trafficking industry. Roth isn’t just whipping up a blood-smeared megaplex hellhole. He’s asking: In a world of global depravity, where anyone can buy anything, is homicide-for-kicks-for-the-right-price really such a huge leap?
This time, the hedonistic victims are a trio of women. Two are played by name actresses (Bijou Phillips and Heather Matarazzo), which only adds to the horror of seeing them bound in chains, screaming like stuck pigs as they’re assaulted by blades and power tools. The innovation is that Roth now invites us to enter the sick-puppy view of those homicide-porn clients (the disarmingly ordinary Richard Burgi and Roger Bart). Part II delivers the gore: a disgusting ”erotic” blood shower; a buzz-saw mishap that’s so gruesome yet, in its awful way, so credible you’ll choke on your giggles. Roth is ruled by B-movie reflexes, but what lifts him out of the gross-out ghetto is his Maileresque fascination with the killer inside.
1408 doesn’t pretend to be a seismic Stephen King movie, like Carrie or The Shining. It’s more like the nifty King-on-film scare machines of the ’80s, such as Christine or Cujo. Based on a short story, it stars John Cusack as a writer of travel books devoted to ”haunted” inns (he knows that they’re all scams). For research, he checks into room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel in Manhattan. No one, it’s said, can survive that room, and what happens to Cusack is a roller coaster of a head trip in which the forces of evil come from inside, as well as outside, his brain. I won’t give away more, except to say that where Hostel: Part II provides up-to-the-minute shivers, 1408 is reassuringly old-school gothic. We’ll see if that, at least, can scare up an audience. Hostel: Part II: B; 1408: B