Eli Roth doesn’t like the cold. On the phone from Toronto he bitches about weather he finds a great deal less comfortable than the mild California breezes to which he’s grown accustomed. “I grew up in Boston,” he says, “but it’s clear how much of a pussy I’ve turned into.”
Roth isn’t one to couch his feelings in polite discourse. The 33-year-old director rails against the stifling political correctness of the modern Hollywood establishment. As was clear in his first major movie, Cabin Fever, and in his new release, Hostel, language, nudity and gore are his playthings. This is from a guy who has been quoted as saying he made Cabin Fever—a gritty, low-budget horror about teens who fall victim to a flesh-eating virus—to get you laid, and if you don’t get lucky after seeing the movie, you’re pathetic.
Before you write him off as some kind of lunkhead throwback, consider that this is a guy who calls David Lynch a mentor and has Quentin Tarantino’s production company presenting Hostel. Roth cites literate British creepfest The Wicker Man as a direct inspiration for his film. In fact, Hostel is liable to be the most fun you’ll have at a horror movie this year. It will bathe you in blood and flesh, but it offers real surprises, not a little humour and characters that breathe on the screen.
“I think a lot of people, when they make a horror movie, they miss characters,” says Roth. “It’s the first thing that goes. They say, ‘Oh, kids just want the scares, the death.’ It’s really sad. Just because you’re making a horror movie doesn’t mean it can’t be well-written, with people you remember. Horror movies in the ’70s, they really wrote characters. No one was saying, ‘It’s a horror movie, we don’t have to try.’ Fuck that. If you watch someone getting tortured and you don’t know who they are, you’re not going to care.”
Roth’s parents let him watch R-rated films, as a child, even though they often made him throw up. He took in The Exorcist, Alien and eventually, the face-melting classic Raiders of the Lost Ark. He graduated to more hardcore products, such as Juan Piquer Simon’s college slasher Pieces and the Italian Make Them Die Slowly/Cannibal Ferox.
“Cabin Fever is very much a reflection of my love of Evil Dead and John Carpenter’s The Thing,” he says. “But after Cabin Fever, I was exposed to a whole other world of movies. Films like Takashi Miike’s Audition and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance from South Korea. I thought ‘Oh, my God. This is where it’s at. These people are making balls-out movies—movies for adults, where the main characters do horrible things, and people die in the wrong order!’”
Roth calls the Dutch dread classic The Vanishing one of the greatest films ever made. He clearly is, like Tarantino, a genre fan first and foremost. And how exactly did he get Tarantino to put his name to Hostel?
“It really just came from a natural evolution of us hanging out and watching movies,” Roth says. “Quentin loved Cabin Fever and invited me to his house to watch films, and we became friends. I’d been talking to Quentin about the idea and he said, ‘That is the sickest idea, you’ve gotta do it.’”
Hostel follows three not terribly likeable guys, two American and one Icelandic, on their tour of Europe. Their lust for eastern European women leads them from Amsterdam to a Slovakian town with a very nasty culture and tourism policy that provides both extreme character development and the threat of roving gangs of homicidal children.
Roth says the spirit of the film was to keep the budget low, have a fun time and be as sick as possible—to be “those guys that made that movie.”
That said, it isn’t all lowbrow exploitation. The first act, which has our heroes visiting Amsterdam’s red light district, is given a bizarro reflection in the torture-filled third act, when the main characters become objectified as meat (though in a more literal sense). There is more going on here than may be immediately obvious. For Roth, the bottom line is the film must be believably real in terms of character. That means resisting the urge to flinch on controversial material, despite what some studio flunkies might say.
“People are so uptight, nobody wants to offend anybody,” says Roth. “What bothers me is you’re not allowed to accurately show how people are. I can show all this violence and have an R rating, but if I show graphic sex, it’s NC-17. You can have Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie killing 200 people, but God forbid you show them having sex.
“It’s not that people want just violence and sex. It’s that they want stories told honestly. If you have a movie where the characters are going to Europe to get laid, I want to see what happens. There are supposed to be beautiful, naked girls in a brothel, I want to see that.”
Hostel opens January 6.