by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & Hostel Part II & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & ostel Part II, writer/director/splateur Eli Roth's third film, begins with a decapitation that's capped off with a punchline. Walking into the kitchen to find her boyfriend beheaded, a young woman surprises the family cat who is having a snack perched on the boyfriend's barren shoulders. The cat looks directly into Roth's camera with a catty "oh crap, you caught me eating something I'm probably not supposed to" looks. It's the film's best performance.

In Hostel (do we now say Part I?), Roth charged a formulaic slasher film -- the crazy cannibals in the woods -- with political acumen. His victims were young Americans, and the woods were Central Europe. But more importantly, his victims were worthy of being victims. The characters in Hostel were arrogant American men, swaggering with a recognizable capitalism and chauvinism. They were dicks, the way that guys really can be dicks.

Hostel Part II takes a group of American girls for victims, and that's where Roth immediately loses his nerve. His American girls are nothing more than a string of TV-grade feminine clich & eacute;s -- the tough but trouble-making wild girl, the smart one and the shrinking violet. None of them are even vague caricatures of the annoying American girls that can be found clogging up the tops of escalators in malls across North America. Roth has the chutzpa to show the murder of a child, but he's weaker than the pop song 'Stupid Girls' when it comes to skewering airheads.

Worse than Roth's kid-glove treatment of Mc'Merican femininity is his abandonment of the financial tensions the first film set in motion. As affluent as they were, the young men in Hostel were still victims of their own class system. While they could buy cheap European prostitutes, richer, whiter Americans could buy them. In Hostel Part II, we're reminded repeatedly that one of the girls -- the sexy, smart one -- is super-duper rich. Like the single fake-looking book in the bookcase behind Scooby Doo, this plot point is so awkwardly inserted it can't help but resurface in a serviceable way.

As a horror film, Hostel Part II is as lazy an event as you'll find outside of PG-13. Some of the gore is extreme, but much of it is tempered with a gag or two. The torture is often photographed with two people talking, seen from the chest up -- as though Roth were filming a soap opera instead of a scene of bodily peril. And the climax involves a laughable struggle in which the words "Get into the chair!" seem to weaken a crazed killer like kryptonite.

And the sick, rich torturers? Mostly it's more of the same bumbling, over-testosteroned men again. But there is a woman who likes to writhe around in blood and an old guy who likes to eat living people. They get their few moments of screen time, but most of it is given to the heinous overacting of Roger Bart. As one of the American girls says to him, in the midst of what is supposed to be a murder: "You're not a monster." Then I'm not scared. (Rated R)

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