“I want to be seen as the guy who won’t pussy out at any turn when he makes a horror film,” Eli Roth told FilmInk in 2002. “I want people to see my name on a horror movie and know that they’re going to get the good stuff.”
It’s tough talk, but Roth backed it up with his debut feature film, Cabin Fever. A throwback to the grimiest, grainiest impulses of 1970s and 1980s horror, this nasty little 2002 nail-biter boasted blood, guts, homicidal rednecks, stranded college students, and a flesh-eating virus of the first (and most skin-crawling) order. Made independently for just $1.5 million, the film was a breakout hit for its eventual distributor, Lionsgate, raking in $22 million at the U.S. box office and $35 million worldwide. On top of the cash haul, the film also got a viscera-smeared stamp of approval from the world’s notoriously hard-to-please horror fans. Roth was instantly installed as a new generation flag-bearer for the oft-maligned genre, but his was hardly an overnight success story.
The movie-obsessed son of a psychiatrist and an artist, the Massachusetts-born Roth started making short movies with his brothers at the age of eight. While attending film school at The Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, Roth started to make connections in the film industry, toiling as a production assistant on various feature films, and working as a PA for producer, Frederick Zollo (Mississippi Burning, Greetings From Tim Buckley), and notorious radio personality, Howard Stern, on the set of his biopic, Private Parts. He also worked on content for the website of director and artist, David Lynch, and created a series of animated shorts for Mandalay Sports Entertainment which were never actually aired. Also thrown into the never-to-be-properly-shown basket was a series of shorts made for the short-lived website, z.com. In his final years at NYU film school, Roth wrote and directed a student film called Restaurant Dogs, an homage to the cult classic, Reservoir Dogs – directed, of course, by Quentin Tarantino, who would eventually become one of Roth’s greatest supporters and creative collaborators – which was nominated for a Student Academy Award in 1995.
Possessed of now duly noted energy levels and reams of self-belief, Roth kept battering away creatively, writing scripts and eyeing off an entry into feature filmmaking. That finally came with Cabin Fever, which Roth co-wrote with his college roommate, Randy Pearlstein. Gory and wildly inventive, this flesh-eating-virus magnum opus had a fascinating source point. “I am the king of freak illnesses,” Roth told FilmInk in 2002. “When I was twelve-years-old, I was stricken with a rare virus that affects one in a million children called Toxic Siniovitis, and as a result I couldn’t walk for six weeks. To some, this would be the end of the world, but to a lazy slob who loved nothing more than sitting around and watching movies, this was a six-week vacation. Friends visited me every day with boxes of fudge, books about film, and copies of Fangoria magazine. But what started as a fun stint as the centre of attention soon turned into series of endless, lonely nights where I would lie in bed wide awake, terrified that I might never walk again. Those fears of being sick and alone are where the seeds for Cabin Fever began.”
The subject of a famously fierce bidding war at The Toronto Film Festival, and publicly loved up by the likes of Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino, Cabin Fever quickly established Roth not just as a major genre filmmaker to watch, but also as a horror movie true believer, and not just a cinematic tourist. “All I hear from fans is, ‘We miss the good old days; we miss the ’70s and early ’80s.’ Well, if fans want change, it’s up to them,” Roth told FilmInk in 2002. “I’ve done my part, now they have to do theirs. They have to come out and support films like Cabin Fever and other original horror films in the theatres on their opening weekends. The opening weekend gross is everything – it makes or breaks a film. And if a film does well it sends a clear message to Hollywood that there is a market for the adult, violent, blood-guts-and-tits horror film. And there are at least 100 filmmakers waiting in the wings to make their horror movies, and the studio executives need an example of something that works in order to make a film. Otherwise if they take a risk and the film fails they’re accountable and will lose their job. And the last thing anyone will ever be in Hollywood is accountable for a decision they made. It’s going to take a two-part effort from the fans to support these films, and from the filmmakers to call their films horror films and not ‘thrillers.’ I am proud to have made a horror film. For me, that’s the highest honour there is.”
Eli Roth didn’t shy away from the horror tag with his follow-up film. 2005’s Hostel – about two American backpackers looking for sex and drugs in Europe who instead find torture and horror when they’re lured into a sick marketplace where human beings are sold off like cattle to be butchered by wealthy internationals – is a harder, much darker film than Cabin Fever. Brimming with dark menace and directorial confidence, it retains the energetic enthusiasm of its predessessor, but works on many more levels. Gory and horrific, but utterly riveting, Hostel became a smash hit, hitting the number 1 position at the US box office. “You always have fantasies about things like that but then you go, ‘Well…it’s so violent and gory – are there really people who are into movies this sick?’ And apparently, yes. Yes, there are. It’s a wonderful shock,” Roth laughed to FilmInk in 2005.
Importantly, Hostel would be the film that would seal Roth’s creative relationship with his mutual fan, Quentin Tarantino. “It was 2004, and I was at Quentin’s house,” Roth told FilmInk. “I was, ‘Dude, I don’t know what to do next.’ And I told him my ideas, and I told him about Hostel and he was like, ‘Dude, that is the sickest fucking idea I’ve ever heard! Make that your fucking Takeshi Miike movie!’ Once Quentin Tarantino says it’s fuckin’ sick, you fuckin’ listen, right? So after that kick up the ass I was, like, possessed and I wrote the script very quickly. Two weeks later, I went over to Quentin’s house and we got stoned and hung out on Sunset – he drove me there in the fuckin’ Pussy Wagon – and went through the script line by line. So he came on as executive producer. He was really great and gave advice on crew and casting.”
After leapfrogging his initial reticence about helming a sequel to Hostel (“This has been my life for twelve months, so I don’t want to leap into a sequel,” Roth told FilmInk in 2005. “I’d definitely produce it. But…I’m not sure. Right now I want to go to Iceland and ride my horse and think about things”), Roth turned the nastiness up a notch for Hostel: Part II, which was just as grim but far less focused than the original film.
Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino’s brotherly bond solidified with their next project. Occasional actor, Roth, was a featured player in Tarantino’s fantastical 2009 WW2 epic, Inglourious Basterds, starring as Sgt. Donny Donowitz, a Jewish US soldier who spreads fear throughout the Nazi ranks by beating in its soldiers’ heads with a baseball bat. Tarantino, however, asked Roth to do double duty by requesting that he direct a film within the film. A focal point of the amusingly movie-aware Inglourious Basterds is the screening of a fictional Nazi propaganda film called The Nation’s Pride, in which Daniel Bruhl’s German sniper war hero, Fredrick Zoller, stars as himself, re-enacting his slaughter of over a hundred Allied soldiers. “We had to show the absurdity of the Nazis,” Roth told FilmInk in 2009. “Quentin gets the Jew to make the Nazi propaganda film! That’s great. Quentin was totally cool. He said, ‘Go for it.’ He gave me total control. I gave Quentin more footage than he would ever need. In the script, they were expecting maybe thirty seconds of footage. I gave him a five-and-a-half-minute mini war epic with different dramatic changes and long sequences. It really helped Quentin, and he was so happy with it. It was fun. I thought, ‘God, how can I be more offensive than Hostel: Part II?’ I thought, ‘Jesus, this is going to start The Fourth Reich! They’re going to make me their Sarah Palin!’ Then they’d find out that I’m a Jew! ‘He made a good movie, but he’s a Jew!’ [Laughs] Inglourious Basterds really tells us about the power of cinema, and it makes you think about what those German propaganda films did. There were 800 of them, and those films helped push the German people over the edge. People believed what they saw in those movies. Cinema can be used for good, and it can be used for evil.”
Many would argue that Roth continues to use cinema for evil, particularly with his next film, The Green Inferno. A ferocious nod to 1980s jungle cannibal nightmare flicks like Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox, Roth’s 2013 effort follows a group of student activists travelling to the Amazon to save the rain forest, but who instead end up the victims of unspeakable pain and torture at the hands (and teeth) of a tribe of indigenous cannibals. Roth remained hilariously gleeful and resolute in the face of a minor media storm, which threw down charges of cultural appropriation and general cinematic sadism. “You don’t make movies like the kind that I make to be universally loved,” Roth told Rolling Stone upon the film’s release. “You make them because you want to provoke and you want a reaction. The best thing that people can say is, ‘I couldn’t watch it’ or ‘I watched it with my eyes closed.’ If I’ve really done my job as a director, nobody can actually watch your movie. They’re watching the inside of their hand. You don’t want people walking out of a movie; you want them running out of the theater screaming. When that happens, that’s like a standing ovation for me.”
After the flat-out, no-holds-barred, intestine-mauling horror of The Green Inferno, Roth shifted directorial gears with 2015’s Knock Knock. Though he’d frequently flexed different creative muscles through his work as a producer (on films like Aftershock and The Man With The Iron Fists, and on the Netflix TV series, Hemlock Grove) and actor (who could forget his work in Piranha 3D?), Roth had never shaken it up as much as a director as he did on Knock Knock. Relying on chills and characterisation more than blood and guts, the darkly comic psychological thriller documents the downward spiral of a happily married family man (Keanu Reeves) whose will and sense of morality is painfully tested by two sexually precocious psycho vixens (Ana de Armas and Roth’s now wife, Lorenza Izzo). “I really wanted to show that I’m an actor’s director,” Roth told Screen Rant about his change of pace. “I wanted to write characters that could give somebody such an incredible opportunity to show their range.”
For his latest project, Eli Roth has made a surprisingly full bodied move away from the horror genre, helming a remake of Michael Winner’s epochal 1974 urban thriller, Death Wish, which stars Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, a liberal architect who starts hunting down criminals after a brutal attack on his wife and daughter. Tapping into fears about rising crime rates, Death Wish became a smash hit, and spawned four increasingly absurdist sequels. So, why would such an original, envelope-pushing director take on a remake? “I asked the same question,” Roth – who cast Bruce Willis in the film’s lead role – said in an interview with EW. “The answer is, for me, that so many of the same problems that were plaguing the country – that crime is out of control and police are overwhelmed and there’s no way to stop it – still feel very relevant today. It feels like however far we’ve gone in other areas, we have not progressed in terms of crime. Plus, I wanted to really make it about family, and stick to the central issue of what would you do if this happened to your family. The movie for me really is about family and protecting your family and what do you do when you can’t get justice for your family?”
Roth has another aim with Death Wish too. “We wanted to bring back that great, classic Bruce Willis that we all know and love and just do a fun, badass update of a revered classic,” he said prior to the film’s US release. “I wanted to bring Bruce back to that Fifth Element, Unbreakable, Die Hard glory and have him craft another iconic performance, and I really think he did it. I really think that this can be his Taken.”
But if Death Wish looks like a bold shift for the increasingly diverse Eli Roth, his next movie is an even bigger push back against expectations. The upcoming Cate Blanchett and Jack Black starrer, The House With A Clock In Its Walls is based on a 1973 gothic horror novel intended for, wait for it, child readers. Considering something that Roth told FilmInk back in 2005, this could be a very, very interesting movie indeed. “Well, I was a camp counsellor for years,” the director laughed, “and ten-and-eleven-year old kids are fuckin’ crazy!”
Death Wish is released in cinemas on March 8.