Suggested Audio Candy:
Kansas “Carry on Wayward Son”
Eli Roth is a name which you will no doubt be more than familiar with by this point. Having burst onto our screens in 2002 with Cabin Fever and consolidating his claim three years later with the first of two massively successful Hostel movies, he has continued to prove himself as one of the horror industry’s brightest stars. This guy lives horror, breathes horror, shits horror, and fucks it also. Speaking of which, I would hedge a bet that every time he shoots his sailors, a little deep red splurges forth. Needless to say, I’ve been greatly impressed with his endeavor and, while critics continue to habitually miss his point, I’ve long since been sold on his purpose. The more I learn about Roth, the more it becomes transparent that he’s a stand-up guy and more far more knowledgable than folk seem to realize.
Recently, he keeps popping up everywhere I turn and this is no happy accident, I can assure you. You see, when he’s not making movies, Roth’s favorite pastime is watching them. Moreover, he started out at around the same time as I did and I would imagine his extensive DVD library to look uncannily similar to my own. With numerous overlooked classics being given the restoration treatment and repackaged for a fresh audience, one name keeps cropping up in both the extras and footnotes. I am fast losing count of the amount of times that he has weighed in with his own analysis and what strikes me is just how much he knows about the films he is discussing.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise as his movies wear their influences proudly. However, he doesn’t simply show his face and give two enthusiastic thumbs up. Instead, he cuts to the very core of what makes these treasures so personal and the kind of effect that they had on him growing up as an avid horror aficionado. He also uses his extensive hindsight to explain just how significant these works have been to the evolution of the genre. While he may be living the dream and making movies that, one day, others will look back on with just the same fervor, he’s primarily just a regular guy with both a passion for cinema and an eloquent voice of reason.
Another pastime that speaks volumes for Roth’s pay it forward mentality is spotting talent and helping to nurture it. As well as co-founding Crypt TV and supporting fledgling filmmakers with their passage into the industry, he also isn’t afraid to put his money where his mouth is, even if that means backing a long shot. In 2010, rookie screenwriters Jon Watts and Christopher D. Ford made the audacious move of uploading a faux trailer to YouTube for their upcoming project named Clown. It proved an instant hit and this was likely due, in no small part, to the fact that Roth’s name was dropped as producer. This was without his prior consent of course and he had no idea it even existed at this point.
However, instead of climbing atop his Trojan and barking his disapproval at their presumptions, he praised the pair for having the brass balls to attempt such a stunt and was flattered by their actions. As a result, Clown came to fruition four years later and lo-and-behold, Roth was still listed as producer, only this time with his full blessing. This speaks volumes for the kind of guy he is and, in his own words, he’s just a “nice Jewish boy who loves movies”. Moreover, he hasn’t forgotten where he came from and how hard it can be breaking into this often cut-throat industry. If he can assist a fellow hopeful in making their pipe dreams a reality then, time allowing, he’ll do so without procrastination.
So what of his movies then? Well, he certainly hit the ground running with Cabin Fever. Inspired by his own experiences whilst working at an Icelandic horse farm and numerous backwoods exploitation flicks including Charlie Kaufman’s grossly underrated Mother’s Day, this blackly comic tale of five college kids who happen across a flesh-eating virus was praised pretty much across the board for its clever concoction of body horror and side-splitting humor. Sure, it was funny as hell, but Roth opted to play things straight down the line and the result was one of the most promising debuts in recent times. Even more encouraging for the rookie director was that Peter Jackson had a raging hard-on for it and offered his full endorsement as an extra sweetener for consumers. It worked and Cabin Fever turned a tidy profit at the box office.
As any professional will attest, it’s not how you start out but how you follow up that is critical. The all-important second feature placed Roth in a far less thankful position. All eyes were on him to repeat the feat and, when Hostel landed in theaters worldwide, this time endorsed by none other than his close friend Quentin Tarantino, it proved that Cabin Fever was absolutely no fluke. I’ve never particularly been a fan of the crudely titled “torture porn” sub-genre and, for as much as the seven-strong Saw franchise has been reasonably consistent, it leaves me decidedly limber. Hostel, on the other hand, is another story entirely. Granted, the torture scenes are harsh and unremitting but, bizarrely enough, it’s a whole barrel of fun and stands up remarkably well to repeat viewings.
The reason for this is simple: Roth is always aware of his audience and their requisite for a dash of enjoyment alongside all that toll-taking human suffering. If ever there was a tale of two halves, then Hostel is it and, by the time we’re introduced to what really happens at Slovakian hostels, we’ve been soundly won over by its cheeky front-end. Consequently, that makes the second half even more harrowing as, regardless of some fairly dickish behavior, we don’t wish for harm to fall on our backpacking buddies. Comedy is one of the most potent tools a horror filmmaker has in their armory and Roth marries the two like the matchmaker that he is.
Two years later and the inevitable sequel arrived. Hostel Part II had no right whatsoever to be anything more than a soulless rerun with chicks replacing guys and a few novel dispatches to raise it above mediocrity. However, Roth has never been one for falling into formation and, instead, he turned the entire concept on its head with glorious results. Mindful that the shock factor was largely nullified by familiarity, he opted to reveal the flip side of the coin and introduce us to how the other half live. This worked beautifully as it provided a fresh perspective and one even more likely to make the audience feel uneasy. As a result his sequel provides, not only a fitting companion piece to the original, but arguably an even better overall movie.
Then there the small matter of the Slovakian bath tub scene and I hope that you’re reading this Eli so you can know how significant this kill really is to a battle-hardened Gruehead such as myself. I state the following without a single stutter – this is my all-time favorite dispatch bar absolutely none. The hapless Heather Matarazzo must’ve suspected she’d died and been delivered straight to hell, while any fans of The Princess Diaries would likely have spewed up fur balls at the sight of her dangling naked above said bath awaiting her denouement. This was a far cry from Disneyland and only about to grow more ominous as her tormentor disrobed and took her position beneath her precariously placed plaything.
Then, much to her further disparagement, said vixen produces an elongated scythe – one of the most overlooked tools of dispatchment in my opinion – and begins teasing its steel against her subject’s bare flesh. The foreplay continues for a couple of torturous minutes as she slices her prey and lathers herself with any deep red that vacates her wildly twitching carcass. With climax now an inevitability, she goes one step further and makes it even more personal by reaching down the side of the bath and clutching a handheld sickle, before performing the finishing slice across her victim’s throat and reaching orgasm as a final gush of blood sprays southward. I kid you not, in over thirty years of watching horror movies and hoping to be disgusted, this kill stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Anyhoots, after Hostel Part II I was ready to have Roth’s face tattooed on my ass cheek and this man could no longer do a thing wrong in my eyes. In 2012, he came up with the initial idea for, co-wrote and produced Nicolás López’s Aftershock and, this time, Slovakia couldn’t have been further from his chosen destination. Set in a coastal resort in Chile amidst the fallout of a ground-rupturing earthquake, it chartered the efforts of a small group of holidaymakers as they attempted to stay one step ahead of the tremors. Intriguingly, the natural disaster was not the main focus here and, instead, it explored the inhumanity of mankind once tragedy strikes. Bearing the cunning tagline “The only thing more terrifying than Mother Nature is human nature”, it provided key roles for both his wife Lorenza Izzo and frequent flyer Nicolás Martínez, whilst also reminding us of his own acting chops.
A year later he was back in the hot seat once more with arguably his most ambitious project to date. As a self-confessed nut for the short-lived cannibal cycle of the late seventies and early eighties, The Green Inferno presented him with the opportunity to play homage to the likes of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust and Umberto Lenzi’s equally notorious Cannibal Ferox, whilst giving them a fresh lick of war paint. Not content with simply phoning things in from a set, he and his crew travelled to deep within the Amazonian jungle and broke bread with the natives, many of whom ended up in the final cut. Naturally, his film received a somewhat dubious welcome and, for the next two years, it looked increasingly unlikely that The Green Inferno would ever see the light of day due to numerous scenes of excessive brutality. Mercifully, it found eventual distribution and audiences got to revel in the first bona fide cannibal movie for over thirty years.
Once again, one particular scene will live forever in my memory and it arrives hot on the heels of an admirably patient getting to know you period. The kill in question was everything I’d hoped for and more besides as our unfortunate meal ticket had to suffer the indignity of having his eyes gouged out and feasted upon, then his tongue sheared off and swallowed whole, before each of his limbs and, finally, head were subtracted in turn. For as much as it was a sight way beyond cringeworthy, the thing still lodged in my throat afterwards was the victim’s high-pitched screams for mercy. Roth never misses a trick and, furthermore, the resulting scenes of the tribe going about their daily business whilst cooking the body parts for later consumption highlighted just how little they regarded it as cruelty. For them, it was a way of life and just another day in God’s green office. Masterful.
Wary of being branded a one-trick pony, Roth then decided to try something completely different from anything he had ever attempted previously. Knock Knock marked a significant change in direction as it was the first of his movies not to supply rivers of grue and, instead, focused solely on steadily building tension. Featuring Keanu Reeves in an everyman role far departed from what audiences had come to expect, it placed him in mortal jeopardy as he offered a couple of hot as July strays shelter from the rain, while his beloved wife and kids were away for a weekend at the beach. Poor Evan had no idea what he was letting himself in for when he invited Genesis and Bell into his family home to dry off while they waited for their taxi.
Whilst Evan had no intention of playing away, his defenses were compromised the moment they began to appeal to his pecker and, after a sordid night of sweaty coitus, woke up to discover two life-sized raccoons had invaded his kitchen. Things only grew worse from there for poor Evan as his house guests proceeded to make his life a living hell and make him pay for his moment of weakness. Knock Knock was grossly misunderstood by critics and unfairly judged when it actually had a great deal of social relevancy. Like The Green Inferno before it, it touched on how social networking plays such a significant role in deciding our fate and is a far better film than it was ultimately given credit for.
So there you have it. That brings us pretty much up-to-date, aside from numerous other projects he has been involved in and various acting roles. Currently his name is attached to a massive project that has been knocking about now for some time. With a budget of around $150m, Meg may well be his ticket to the top table and you can bet your bottom dollar he won’t let us down as he has never done so before. Roth fully deserves every last credit I could possibly bestow upon him for living the dream and making every solitary moment count. In many ways, I liken him to his pal Tarantino, albeit with horror as his primary purpose. That’s some compliment to pay but he has more than earned his stripes after over a decade of pushing boundaries, spreading joy, and honoring those who have inspired him along the way.
Horror desperately needs someone like this right now after far too long playing second fiddle to anemic rom-coms and by-the-numbers summer blockbusters. It’s high time we were rewarded for our undying faith in the genre and this nice Jewish boy really is the gift that keeps on giving. Watch this space as a long and distinguished career is inevitable and, in Eli Raphael Roth, horror has itself a true great white hope.