Eli Roth. Is there anything this man can’t do? Eli is a director, a producer, an actor, an animator, a fashion and fitness enthusiast, and absolutely a modern horror icon. Something I seek out when it comes to film is authenticity and realness, and this stands out through Eli’s work. Through his films, the audience comes to realise that the real horror is what could happen in our everyday lives. Fear is surrounding what we do constantly, and movies like Cabin Fever and Hostel shine a light on that.
Eli loves to shock his viewers. He often did this through the level of blood and gore in his films. Intense scenes of sexual violence, vivid imagery of mutilation, and blood and guts left viewers in a total state of surprise. People were sick with excitement. This is what he loves to do through his films, and has never failed to take effect.
In 2002, Eli released his first film Cabin Fever, which was an instant cult horror classic. Before it was made, the film had been rejected by production companies multiple times. However, through investors, Eli raised $1.5 million, which was the entire budget for the movie. Considering the low budget, this film is incredibly well made. Eli has talked about the low budget of the film influencing the actors he had on board. He has stated that those who were willing to shoot the type of violent or erotic scenes in the script for what he was able to pay must have done it out of passion for the style and genre. This led to a great cast to work with.
Once the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, distribution rights were sold to Lionsgate for $3.5 million. The film was critiqued positively on the acting; however, reviews were not so kind to the overall story. Critics seemed to hold the impression that it was inconsistent in its genre, and was overall a bit of a mess. Eli lists some of his inspirations for Cabin Fever as Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Evil Dead (1980). In fact, it was often compared to such films in reviews but seemed to pale in the comparison.
I was overall impressed with Cabin Fever for the fact that it was the first film for the director. It clearly expressed the passion that Eli had for horror throughout his life. The location of the cabin shows an obvious resemblance to that of Evil Dead, which I love, and the supporting cast were sourced from the local area. Some hadn’t even acted before but were chosen because they look the part, which really piled on to the authentic factor.
Cabin Fever follows a group of friends on a retreat to a cabin in the woods. The group encounter a flesh-eating virus that infected the water supply. They become stuck in a backwards, small country town with no one to call for help. Eli himself made an appearance in the film as Justin, a guy who shows up while the group sat around the campfire with a huge bag of weed.
Eli gained inspiration for Cabin Fever through a disease he encountered himself in Iceland. He made the discovery when scratching at his neck only to realise he had scratched off pieces of his flesh. Later while shaving, he seemed to uncontrollably shave the skin off one side of his face. This experience inspired the scene with Marcy (Cerina Vincent) shaving over her skin wounds and sobbing in the bathtub. Interestingly, Eli Roth used music by Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks) for Cabin Fever. Eli met Angelo through his work with David Lynch (Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks) with whom he had formed a friendship over the years, and Angelo composed music for Eli to use for free. In 2016, a remake of Cabin Fever was released, directed by Travis Zariwny using Eli’s original screenplay. Eli served as an executive producer.
In 2005, Eli’s second feature film hit our screens: Hostel.
Hostel is a well-recognised feature. It contains a high level of erotica, nudity and contains unique methods of physical torture and gore. It is also one of the films credited for starting the “torture porn” craze in horror.
The story follows three friends travelling in Europe who are lured into a hostel in Slovakia by the promise of perfect women, free sex, and fantasies beyond their wildest dreams. It is revealed throughout that the women they meet are workers whose purpose is to entice and give travellers a good time before leading them into a factory where the worlds richest have paid to torture them however they please and ultimately kill them.
In Hostel II (2007), we witness the other side of the operation. The audience discovers that the system begins when they check into the hostel. Their passports are scanned and sent out to clients, and the highest bidder wins. These people pay big bucks to live out their fantasies of torture with any scenario they desire.
Eli Roth describes the story of Hostel as a “really violent journey into Hell” that doesn’t start off with the horror. You are fooled into the fantasy along with the guys in the film and are hit with the horrifying truth as they are. It really is a journey. Hostel is a horrifying story because it could so easily happen to you or I. Thousands of tourists travel to Europe from all over for the idea of drugs and women and things they can’t find anywhere else…especially to Amsterdam, where the movie begins. If you were promised the most beautiful women who would fulfil your every wish, you would get drawn into that fantasy too.
Eli took some inspiration for Hostel from Asian horror cinema, especially directors like Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichii The Killer), who actually gives a cameo in the film. Eli discovered Asian horror cinema and the levels of violence they would show when not trying to water down the films they create for the audience. They truly use horrific images and those who watch them want to leave horrified. Eli decided to take that role upon himself to introduce this kind of horror to the United States.
Another interesting fact with the script for Hostel is that Quentin Tarantino backed it. He encouraged Eli to write the script, and they went through it together, identifying parts that could only ever happen in the movie and worked on them to make it believable and authentic. This is part of what creates the truly horrifying feel of the film. Tarantino was a huge fan of Cabin Fever and executive produced Hostel, stamping it as a “Quentin Tarantino Presents.” This led to a great friendship between the filmmakers.
Eli Roth has worked closely and developed relationships with incredible filmmakers who have shared their knowledge and backed a lot of his projects. From this, Eli has used his wisdom and success to promote new and upcoming filmmakers himself. He has always supported Canadian horror filmmaker twins the Soska Sisters and speaks very highly of their work. In a great interview with The Guardian, Eli describes himself as a friend and mentor to them and talks about how he believes the horror industry needs a female voice. In gratitude for his support and advice, the Soska Sisters dedicated their 2012 film American Mary to Eli.
Six years after Hostel, Eli released a movie that was so ‘gruesome’ that it was banned in multiple countries for its scenes of violence and cannibalism. The Green Inferno, released in 2013, tells the tale of a group of young activists who travel to the Amazon to save the rain forest. On their return, their plane malfunctions and the group are left stranded in the jungle. They are captured by a group of violent cannibals who show no mercy in grabbing a stranger, tearing them limb from limb and cooking them to feed the village.
For this feature, Eli had to channel a completely insane filmmaker and had to deep-dive into his own story. He travelled to Peru with a co-worker and travelled up the river for hours to see the jungle in order to find the perfect filming location. Eli has told the incredible story of spotting a young girl washing clothes by the river, a little girl who later appeared in the movie as the young girl who tries to save Justine (Lorenza Izzo). Eli visited her village and discovered the most authentic location; a village of straw huts and hammocks. He gained permission from the villagers to film there.
In a village that had not yet been introduced to electricity, Eli’s crew introduced the villagers to movies. They held a screening of Cannibal Holocaust (1980) to let them know what they’d be signing up for. So many loved the idea of acting as cannibals and chose to be in the movie. When you’re watching The Green Inferno, it feels so real because it’s real people from an authentic isolated village in the jungle. They are not, however, real cannibals. In fact, they were a farming community who had a passion to get involved with a new and exciting project, and that really paid off. Cannibal Holocaust is a film that will be brought up every time a discussion of cannibal horror presents itself. I have to say The Green Inferno offers just as much, perhaps even a higher level of gore and is certainly high in the rankings of cannibal horror (and horror in general).
I love The Green Inferno for its message about the Amazonian Rainforest and its destruction and its authenticity the entire way through. I also loved the actual struggle the cast and crew had to deal with: travelling five hours each day to and from the village and having insane weather conditions wash away the schedule along with the land. So much hard work and research went into this feature, and it is so obvious. It’s all tied together as a horrific story that hits hard on the realisation of the life of tribes which still exist today, and the danger involved in activism.
After The Green Inferno, you find yourself thinking what else could Eli Roth bring to the table? He certainly didn’t disappoint when Knock Knock was released in 2015. Knock Knock is entirely different from Eli’s previous directing projects. You’ll find no gore here. It isn’t what most would classify as ‘horror,’ in reality it is. It’s about the horror of completely losing control of your own life and your own home and discovering the dark side of your own behaviour.
Keanu Reeves plays Evan, a middle-aged man who portrays the perfect family guy, with pictures of his family all over the walls and his proudly displayed vinyl collection. He loves his children and his wife, but we see at the beginning of this film that he’s not having sex with his wife anymore. There are issues and he is keeping what he wants bottled up. When his wife and kids are away, two beautiful girls show up at his door, essentially offering themselves to him. Despite his efforts to be a faithful husband and proud father, he inevitably succumbs to the temptation to cheat on his wife. He is then faced with the punishment of two insane girls who won’t leave his home and completely turn his space upside down. All the while, he is under the threat of being reported for sleeping with underage girls.
Eli plays into the fact that today, with the availability of technology and social media, it’s impossible to tell how old a girl is because of how she presents herself. It’s an easy thing that people fall for on a daily basis that could completely tear your life apart. Knock Knock definitely encapsulates the horror of real life and mistakes we can make have consequences. This movie also points out that previously directed features by Eli Roth often follow the story of punishment. With Cabin Fever it’s punishment for leaving a man to die, with Hostel it’s the similar temptation that leads to consequences, and in The Green Inferno, it’s the punishment of being an activist only for vanity’s sake.
Following Eli’s work with such a talented actor as Keanu Reeves, he next went on to feature the incredible Bruce Willis in his 2018 remake of Michael Winner’s 1974 thriller Death Wish.
Following Eli’s work with such a talented actor as Keanu Reeves, he next went on to feature the incredible Bruce Wilis in his 2018 remake of Michael Winner’s 1974 thriller Death Wish. The film for Eli is a turn away from the horror direction. It is an action/thriller in which Bruce Willis portrays Dr Paul Kersey, a man whose wife and daughter are the targets of an attack and shooting at his home. Paul takes the responsibility upon himself to seek revenge by killing the criminals of the city.
Death Wish has received very mixed critiques, and while I do find the film to be rather low energy for an action feature, I do find how Eli worked with the story fascinating. The audience, as always, is taken on a path and forced to push the boundaries of the moral high ground along with the main character. No matter how far Dr Paul Kersey takes matters into his own hands to end the lives of those who he has realistically no right to we are still on his side. We sympathise with a man who has essentially descended to becoming a murderer.
Eli continued to follow a different direction with his next film after Death Wish, his latest being a children’s film. I have to admit that even I didn’t watch The House with a Clock in its Walls when it was first released last fall. You might be put off by the idea of watching a children’s film, but with this one, I’m so glad I gave it a chance. First of all, The House with a Clock in its Walls has a terrific cast. Jack Black (School of Rock, Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny) can be both creepy and comedic, and it seems to come so naturally to him. He is such a fun actor to watch. Cate Blanchett (Carol, I’m Not There) really knows how to make you fall in love with a character’s personality, and I was completely in love with her Florence Zimmerman. You feel such genuine sympathy for her character throughout the film and share in her confidence towards the end.
Owen Vaccaro is a 13 year old really taking Hollywood by storm. He is an incredible actor and does an excellent job portraying the star of the movie Lewis Barnavelt. Lewis is a child who loses his parents in an accident and is sent to live with his eccentric uncle in a house that turns out to be full of magic. Owen discovers that his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) and his neighbour Mrs Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) are warlocks. The previous owner of the house Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) was a warlock who had hidden a clock within the walls of the house that contained a curse that could destroy humanity.
Eli Roth addressed the fact that his fans may be surprised by him creating a film aimed at children. He explained this in an awesome way. Eli pointed out that when you surprise people with violence and gore in your films, it’s expected of you to come back and top that every time. The real surprise would be to change the game entirely and create a kids’ film. But of course, The House with a Clock in its Walls isn’t an ordinary kids film. It’s a film that will make you laugh while also being genuinely creepy. It lives up to the idea created by Eli of kids watching this movie. It is their introduction to horror, and they grow to love the genre from here.
Besides directing his own feature films, Eli Roth has acted and produced some of my favourite films too, such as Clown (2014). Eli acts and is a producer in Clown, a completely new fantastic idea of a clown horror film, and is genuinely scary. Eli also wrote the adventure/horror Aftershock (2012) in which he stars and is a producer. Aftershock is another film with the Eli Roth authentic trademark. It encounters the topic of natural disasters and their consequences. It is one of my favourite films and also stars the amazing Lorenza Izzo (The House with a Clock in Its Walls). She is Eli’s former spouse and appears in many of his projects.
Eli Roth is a filmmaker who very clearly has researched and experienced horror his whole life. His wisdom and entertaining stories are endless, and you could spend days simply watching his interviews. Eli has an incredible series called Eli Roth’s History of Horror, and this isn’t him just listing his favourite films. This series features incredible guests such as Rob Zombie, Stephen King, Elijah Wood, Quentin Tarantino, and others who come onto the show to talk with Eli about the evolution of horror film and the industry itself. They discuss the target audience of horror movies, and the effect that film has on them. This series is really for every horror fan out there.
During the process of writing this article, I have truly been reminded again and again why I love Eli Roth so much. Apart from the fact that he is just the coolest guy on earth, he really has a passion for horror. He knows exactly what we want as an audience, and he has fun with it. He isn’t afraid to push the boundaries with erotica and violence. In fact, he takes pleasure in knowing that people are shocked by it. He also creates horror out of everyday life. His horror films come from experience and real ideas and are as authentic as you can get, which is what really makes them scary. Eli Roth is my horror icon, and I’m going to be waiting for his next surprise.