(This essay originally appeared in Splatterpunk #7 and was published in April 2016)
I’d like to take some time to talk about my very favorite horror filmmaker currently in the scene – Eli Roth. I’ve been thinking a lot about his filmography lately due his long delayed four film, THE GREEN INFERNO, is finally seeing release this fall. It’s obvious that I’m not the only one as every in horror has been talking about Roth’s return – and most of it isn’t good.
The complainants against him see pretty universal – that he’s a bro, that his movies are more concerned with violence than being a good film, that his characters are unlikeable and mean-spirited (I’ve never understood that complaint about horror movies) and that he exploits women, gay people, and foreigners.
I can see where people are coming from but I think most of this analysis is a bit knee-jerk. Roth came to fame as one of the originators of what is commonly called “torture porn” – a horror subgenre I personally adore. This gritty, sadistic, and gory style of horror filmmaking came to popularity in the early 00’s and killed off the SIXTH SENSE and SCREAM rip-offs that dominated the 90’s. But, even as someone that love torture porn, there’s no denying that many of the films released then are trash and most are already forgotten. Many of those filmmakers were only interested into jumping onto a popular trend to make a buck – but not Roth. When he started doing gore flicks, making bloody movies was extremely out of style.
Roth’s first film, CABIN FEVER, was released in 2003. An irreverent story of a group of teens who go to a cabin in the foods and contract one by one an extreme quick-acting flesh-eating virus. It’s a premise that while not overplayed, isn’t exactly the most original. But Roth adds flourishes like a viciously aggressive child who can only say the word “pancakes,” a cop that is equal parts an idiot and oddly menacing, and a dream sequence straight out of a David Lynch film (it should be noted that Roth was actually Lynch’s assistant before making CABIN FEVER).
It’s early in this movie that we get our first glimpse that Roth wasn’t just the bro-horror that he is accused of being. There’s a sex scene that plays out with the normal T&A that one would expect from the average horror film but it’s the end of it that goes in a different direction than normal. The woman flips over her boyfriend and makes him cum by sticking her fingers up his ass. This isn’t the normal sort of sex that one sees in a normal horror film (or any for that matter). It may not seem like much, but a finger up the ass is very showing that Roth isn’t catering to the typically homophobic teenage audience he commonly accused of pandering to (butt stuff is “gay” to most teen boys).
The rest of the movie is a very accomplished for a first film, paranoid horror movie. As the infection spreads the characters begin to turn on each other and take increasingly drastic steps to attempt to avoid infection from their contagious friends. There’s a lot of fun for a horror fan to have here with some great and grisly set pieces (the shed scene really stands out).
The end of the movie is the most “Roth” aspect to the film. All but one of the former friends but one are dead and the final survivor is brutally shot by the police just when he thinks he’s been rescued. Then there’s a scene change to the local town, a race joke that will make most viewers uncomfortable, and the reveal that everyone in the town is about to become infected with the disease. This is Eli Roth’s world – the world is a cruel and dangerous place. You can’t trust your friends, your lovers, or any authority figure – all will eventually turn on you.
While CABIN FEVER is a fun and impressive debut, it’s HOSTEL (2005) where Roth found his grove. The story of four America backpackers getting captured by a black market organization who sells them to rich people to be murdered. HOSTEL (along with SAW) kicked off the full on torture porn craze and spawned hundreds of imitators. Sadly, it seems that many film watchers group the subgenre together and HOSTEL gets blamed for many of its sins and many can’t see the real merit in the movie.
What is commonly overlooked in discussion of the film is the relevance of it being in a post 9/11 environment. Just like in the late seventies when the Vietnam War inspired the creation of what is commonly viewed as modern horror (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and many others), the War on Terror inspired a new generation of horror filmmakers. People all over the world had witnessed thousands die on live television and the internet spread images and videos of soldiers torturing POWs and terrorists beheading civilians. Ghosts and teen horror/comedies weren’t going to cut it anymore.
HOSTEL is the quintessential American horror film for the new cultural perspective. The plot revolving around the buying and selling of human beings for the purpose of murder – with Americans going for the highest price – summed up how the United States felt in the world.
The movie gets a lot of criticism for how the characters act, especially in the first have of the money. They are your typical movie dumb frat boys, touring Europe to fuck local girls. Nobody likes them – but that’s the point. That are assholes that feel invincible until the denizens of those countries show them they aren’t as untouchable as they think they are – basically the exact same viewpoint of the American public before the War on Terror and then after.
You’re not supposed to sympathize with these characters for the first half of the movie as they take advantage of the people they come across. At almost the exact halfway point of the movie that the storyline moves into the warehouse complex where all the murders are occurring. That is when the second half of the movie become almost a direct mirror of the first half. The walk down the hallway in the warehouse seeing all the violence is filmed almost identically to the walk down the brothel hallway from earlier in the movie (even the same song is being played on the soundtrack – just different versions).
One of the earliest scenes where the viewer is supposed to despise the main characters is when one of them takes a picture with his phone of himself having sex without the knowledge of his partner. This same phone is used to send a picture of his severed head later in the movie – directly linking the main characters taking sexual advantage of local women with the torture and death they later receive as both being evil.
After ninety minutes of bleak disregard for other human beings, the movie ends on a note that the only thing that pass for positivity is brutal revenge. It’s fun to note that in the original ending of the movie, the main character didn’t kill one the hunter but kidnapped the hunter’s kid with the implication that kid was going to be killed.
HOSTEL 2 came out just eighteen months after the first, which is a very short turn around for a sequel written and directed by the same writer and director of the first for any set of movies. While most sequels made that quickly would be cash grabs, there are many who consider HOSTEL 2 to be superior to the first.
Just as the first half of HOSTEL is a mirror to the second half, the sequel is very much a mirror to the first. This time the viewer follows three female characters and the hunters themselves.
Both movies are drenched in the negative side of masculinity. This time we see the direct effects from a female perspective. The women are misled and taken advantage of from who they view as their new friends. While the men from the first movie are presented as their own type of villains, the only “sin” these women commit is trusting the men around them.
In the hunter portion of the storyline we follow two men who are joining the organization and are going to commit murder for the first time. One of them is your typical macho tough guy and the other is weak-willed and basically bullied into taking part. As the film goes on we see that the tough guy is just putting on an act and is unable to actually go through with killing another human being. However, the weak man finds that when he is put in a situation where he holds power over another he is quick to embrace his cruel side.
Just as with his previous movies, the only way out for the main characters is to embrace the cruelty of the world and become just as nasty and mean as those that wish them harm. The last remaining woman finds that the only way she can get out is my joining the hunter’s club and commit a murder of her own. She does them by cutting off the penis of the former weak-man turned psychotically cruel. After two films that revolve around the negativity of man desires, it’s appropriate to end with someone losing their manhood in the most literal and physical way possible.
Many wondered what Roth would do next and there were many announcements of projects that he was to direct but nothing materialized. Roth later revealed that he was suffering from depression brought on by excessive work and pressure over years of non-stop filmmaking (if you wish to know more do a Google search for an essay he wrote on his experiences titled “The Aughts (and the Aught-Not-Haves)”).
Instead of working on his own projects he choose to produce and write films for a number of young filmmakers that resulted in movies like THE LAST EXCORSIM, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS, AFTERSHOCK, THE SACRAMENT, CLOWN, and more. Finally, in 2014 it was announced that Roth was returning to the director’s chair with a cannibal exploitation throw-back, THE GREEN INFERNO.
Sadly, after the distribution company pulled the movie for still unknown reasons, THE GREEN INFERNO went into film limbo. Blumhouse Productions stepped in and audiences will be about to see the movie this September.
In true fashion to most good horror, people are already getting pissed off at the movie without even having seen it yet. The basic plot of a lost Amazonian cannibal tribe has brought on accusations of xenophobia and disrespect towards indigenous people. While it is in vogue in 2015 to find any accuse to be outraged or offended (it makes for good ad revenue from page clicks), many of these complaints miss the point of the type of horror that Roth makes. In his movies the world is a nasty place and kindness is non-existent.
The other controversy that has popped up is due to one of the posters for the film. It features a served hand holding a cell phone with the screen displaying twitter with the hashtags #JungleGate, #SocialJusticeForAll, #ACTnowUN, and #IndigenousLivesMatter. The main characters of the movie are naïve activists who travel to the Amazon to “save” a tribe from encroaching civilization, this is the same tribe that then takes the activists hostage to eat them. While these characters would be using twitter and hashtags in this world, some people have taken offensive at the poser’s hashtags as they are obviously parodying the Black Lives Matter protests. However, those people making the complaints are conveniently ignoring the hashtags that are parodies of the #StopKony campaign (remember that?) and the right wing anti-feminist movement #GamerGate.
Horror has always used political and social commentary as a major component. To say that these real life movements can’t be invoked in a fictional context is not only foolish but a disservice to the actual causes. Nobody is going to think less or more of the movements because a horror movie poster (note: it’s not yet know if they are actually referenced in the movie as, at the time of this writing, the movie has not yet been released) and to pretend that these movements are not influencing culture (which influences art) is sheer intellectual dishonesty.
Just as the halves of HOSTEL are mirrors of each other, and HOSTEL 2 is a mirror of the first, THE GREEN INFERNO appears to be a mirror of the HOSTEL series. Where HOSTEL was an attack on many conservative viewpoints, THE GREEN INFERNO appears to be an attack on many liberal viewpoints – namely what’s referred to as slacktivists. Roth appears to be commenting on the people who sit at their computers all day, talk about liberal causes, don’t do anything, and pretend they are affecting the world. The main characters of THE GREEN INFERNO actually try to accomplish something but they discover that the real world is a much more complicated place than liberal platitudes.
Fortunately, Roth is not letting these criticisms bother him. In an interview with Business Insider, Roth pointed out that the anger directed at his movie is completely misguided and it actually missing who the villains are in the real world. He said, “The idea that a fictional movie about a fictional tribe could somehow hurt indigenous people when gas companies are tearing these villages apart on a daily basis is simply absurd. These companies don’t need an excuse — they have one — the natural resources in the ground. They can window dress things however they like, but nobody will destroy a village because they didn’t like a character in a movie, they’ll do it because they want to get rich by draining what’s under the village. The fear that somehow a movie would give them ammunition to destroy a tribe all sounds like misdirected anger and frustration that the corporations are the ones controlling the fates of these uncontacted tribes.”
It is good for the horror genre that we have people like Roth making films. As we return to era where supernatural movies that avoid any real world issues are dominating the marketplace, it is refreshing to have a filmmaker willing to address the ugly sides of life. It’s easy to just view his films as mindless bro jokes and blood but, as I’ve outlined, Roth disserves credit for being one of the very few modern horror filmmakers willing to comment on the difficult nature of life and human interaction.
What fills me with joy is that after THE GREEN INFERNO we won’t have to wait another eight years for another Roth movie. He made a home invasion film, KNOCK KNOCK, that is currently scheduled for release this October and he has been signed on to direct the giant shark film MEG (scheduled for 2017). For those of us that love Roth’s sadistic and intelligent approach to horror, we have a lot to look forward to.