In Cabin Fever, it happens when the clean-cut hero takes a shovel to his sweetheart’s face. (It’s a mercy killing.) In Hostel, it happens when the frat-ish Paxton is kidnapped overseas and sold to a john, who then tortures him for fetish’s sake. And in The Green Inferno—one of two new films by Boston-born horror filmmaker Eli Roth—it happens in the jungles of Peru, just as the cannibalism begins. Before these moments, his characters are beholden to maintaining their identities: middle-class, American, heterosexual. But after those scenes, all they worry about maintaining is their own consciousness. These Roth films don’t have turning points. They have points of no return.
Hostel, the most notable of the bloody bunch, got tagged as the granddaddy of “torture porn.” But it was cinema nonetheless: We spent the first half of the movie gallivanting through the bordellos of Amsterdam with two Americans—one ecstatic, one hesitant—who were searching for Europe’s best breasts. The second half sent the pair to the other side of that transaction: They became unwilling products, with johns drilling and killing them for kicks. All the hallways in the torture dungeon were designed to look exactly like the ones seen in the brothels. So we smartened up. We realized we were watching a morality play about two men paying back their sins. The misbehaving one will die horrible, and the hesitant one will leave scarred—but alive. But then the hesitant kid dies horribly. And Paxton, the ecstatic one, survives only because he abandons that which normally saves people in horror movies: his dignity, his morals, his innocence. He survives because he has the capacity to get even worse.
There are horror films. There are books about horror films. And then there are horror films that have read the books about horror films. The first couple Eli Roth movies fit into that category. They don’t indulge the studied mind—they play with it. And at first glance, The Green Inferno looks like it does too. Justine (Lorenza Izzo) is an NYC college kid who hangs out with the kind of people who like to say “that’s so gay.” But she gazes out her window at Alejandro (Ariel Levy), a student-activist who protests daily, as though he were a bird perched outside her jail cell. These stateside scenes have a blueish tint to them. That would be a callback to Cannibal Ferox, one of the handful of late ’70s/early ’80s Italian horror films that featured the titular act. Cannibal Holocaust and Jungle Holocaust are two others. Any of those titles would work as an alternative moniker for The Green Inferno. And that’s the raison d’etre, really. Hostel and Cabin Fever fucked with us when they disregarded all the “rules” that horror academics had identified in their books, and gave us brutal realpolitik instead. But Inferno—well, it’s more like a footnotes page.
What Roth does to modernize Ferox and Holocaust is the same thing most filmmakers do when they modernize an old idea: He works social media into it. Alejandro and his crew—among them are the Smitten Fat One (Aaron Burns), the Incorrigible Pothead (Daryl Sabara), the Street Smart One (Nicolas Martinez,), and Alejandro’s Mean Girlfriend (Ignacia Allamand)—are what you might call “hashtag activists.” The plan is to elevate themselves (into both the real world and the trending ranks) by blocking the razing of untouched rainforest in Peru. A militia is protecting the corporate interests, wiping out any natives who come into the bulldozer’s path. And these guys figure they can stop it via streaming video.
One of the prevalent forces driving Eli Roth narratives—alongside misdirection—is irony. Every Roth film thus far concerns creatures of privilege stranded in a locale where the “natives” are far more barbaric than the “heroes” can comprehend. (As an interpretation of “check your privilege,” that’s solid irony in its own right.) So the kids save the rainforest. Their plane home crash lands. They’re taken into the hands of the very tribe they just saved. And that tribe—seeing people who look exactly like the loggers destroying their environment—decides that it’s hungry. Roth works in a few more nihilistic surprises (there was a hidden motive for the trip, as there often was in the cannibal films of exploitation cinema past), but it’s mostly reversal-of-fortune stuff—everyone’s explicitly professed worst nightmares come true—engineered for the sake of maximum bloodletting.
Roth’s technical talents have not receded. The cinematography, by Antonio Quercia, makes the most of the provocative imagery provided: the white bodies covered by the painted-red hands of the native tribe, or the crayon-red bloodshed against the puke-green of the overgrown trees. And the makeup work, by the legendary team of Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger, is pleasurably revolting. (There’s a disturbingly unprecedented tenderness to the skin being skinned.) But the crimes committed against cinema are nonetheless galling. Roth takes a scene from Apocalypse Now—the one where the soldiers venture into the jungle for quotidian reasons, only to almost be eaten by a tiger. In Roth’s version, the pothead has to take a leak, and his penis is nearly bitten by a tarantula. All sorts of movies are getting referenced here. Apparently what they needed was more dick jokes.
The pleasure of Cabin Fever and Hostel—if you’re the type of person who derives pleasure from Cabin Fever and Hostel—was that they removed all semblances of human decency from horror movie formulas. They worked themselves up into rabid states, drawing their characters into bloody, all-must-go conclusions, leaving no sensibility or ideology unoffended. The Green Inferno works the same playbook. It draws everyone into a bloody battle royale—then doesn’t know what to do with them. Roth abandons the misdirection and doubles-down on the irony, paying things off with a punchline instead of a gut-punch. Then he borrows his ending from Ferox, instead of topping it. His first films really were fevered—morally, structurally, conceptually. But Inferno just has a mild cold.
The other Roth movie opening this week is Knock Knock. It’s another retread: a remake of the ’70s feature Death Game. This one has Keanu Reeves as a married gentleman architect who opens his doors to two young women (Izzo and Ana de Armas). They’re very lost, and very hot. Roth, again, updates the script via technology: They ask for an iPad to find an address. Then they needs to wait 45 minutes for an Uber driver. Then they’re blown away by Reeves’ record collection. They spend the time seducing him. And it’s a great start: Reeves darts about the frame while they close in on him. He keeps retreating to the corner of the frames, playing the responsible man. Then the girls corner him within the compositions, looking like a pair of Nosferatu’s. Reeves plays the victim, always backing off—but never too much so. The unacknowledged fact is that he wouldn’t be so accommodating if they weren’t so attractive. This is a formal consideration of the unspoken mind of the penis.
This being a Roth movie, the dynamic inevitably shifts. The pair finally get Keanu’s pants off, in a scene that would certainly be considered criminally forceful if the genders had been reversed. And then, for his sexual slight against his family, they terrorize and torture the bastard. (The ladies do it the way that vandals terrorize a store owner—they smash all his property, and then they spraypaint what’s left standing.) The seduction is his start, and the torture is the turn, but Roth has no reveal at the finish line. He just watches—with none of the opening act’s compositional ingenuity, we might add—as Reeves endures his suffering, until the running time runs out. Like Inferno, Knock Knock ends with a punch line. Roth’s films have been saying the same things about human decency—that it’s something only the privileged can afford, and that it will always be abandoned for the sake of self-interest—since movie number one. And those points-of-no-return used to induce delirium. But now they’re just funny.
THE GREEN INFERNO. RATED R. NOW PLAYING AT AMC BOSTON COMMON.
KNOCK KNOCK. RATED R. OPENING AT HOLLYWOOD HITS 7 (DANVERS) AND AVAILABLE VIA VOD OUTLETS ON FRI 10.9.