Eli Roth, a larger than life film geek with a big personality and a penchant for British TV comedies such as Little Britain and Alan Partridge, recently made history by being nominated into the Fangoria Magazine Hall of Fame with only two feature films under his belt – quite a feat! A member of the ‘splat pack’ (alongside James Wan, Alexandre Aja and Neil Marshall), a term coined by Alan Jones of Total Film for the collective of new up-and-coming horror filmmakers whose work is invariably characterised by visceral and brutal violence, Roth graduated from NYU film school and has paid his dues occupying every conceivable role within film production before hitting it big with his debut feature Cabin Fever in 2002. Over the years he has worked closely with such heavyweights as David Lynch, an influence who can be detected in the absurd black humour which characterises Roth’s work.
After making his name across the pond with the animated TV series Chowdaheads in 1999 – in which Roth multitasked as director, editor, writer, producer and as the voice of Walter - Roth turned to directing his debut feature film, Cabin Fever. This yarn, inspired by a nasty bout of psoriasis, about a group of friends who take off for a debauched vacation in the woods and become debilitated by a flesh eating disease was the highest selling movie at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival - selling for a reputed ‘high seven figures’ and becoming the highest grossing film for Lion’s Gate Films in 2003. Roth’s humorous horror garnered critical acclaim from Rolling Stone and The New York Times and caught the attention of hugely influential cult filmmakers Tobe Hooper, Quentin Tarantino and Peter Jackson. Rumour has it Jackson even stopped production on LOTR: Return of The King three times to screen Cabin Fever to his crew and Tarantino found a kindred spirit and protégé in Roth who he has referred to in interviews as ‘the future of horror’. Tarantino then got on board Hostel as executive producer.
Hostel, starring Jay Hernandez and Derek Richardson, is the cautionary tale of three backpackers who make the ill advised choice to head to a Slovakian city intent on indulging in a hedonistic orgy of sex and drugs. Described by conservative critics as ‘horror porn’ Hostel has just been nominated for a slew of Scream Awards – a newly established televised awards show for genre films – including Best Horror Film and Best Flesh Scene.
In the midst of a horrible LA heat wave I caught up with Roth, taking a break from casting for Hostel: Part II, to talk about the recent DVD release of Hostel, filming in Eastern Europe and the resurgence in popularity of the horror film.
Watching the DVD it looks like you were filming in some interesting surroundings in Prague. How was the shoot?
We had a great time. If you watch the behind the scenes it really gives you the feel of what it was like during the shoot. I had the best time of my life doing it, which is really the biggest reason for wanting to do the sequel.
A lot of the torture scenes were tough but asides from that everyone was laughing and joking around… when poor Jennifer Lim gets her eye cut out – everyone jumped in to take pictures with her. Everyone was standing around the monitor screaming. We had a great time. It was a really fun shoot.
Hostel delves into some pretty seedy and disturbing areas. How did you keep spirits up during the shoot?
This location was so gloomy that people were really creeped out. We were in the basement of a mental asylum. It was built in 1912 and this particular building we were in had been shut down for 75 years. While we were scouting we saw, like, dead cats in this one part so we referred to that part as ‘dead cat alley’. We were like ‘’you know where the dead cat is?...You go left…and then right past where we saw the dead rats…’’ We were using dead animals that we had found as sort of references for rooms. There was this incredible network of underground tunnels and it was so creepy that I said don’t worry we are going to have a string quartet playing and on the last day we got it. It was great. My sound guy knew people in the Prague Orchestra and they came in and played for us. So while we were filming bodies being chopped up they were playing classical music.
It felt like we were operating a haunted house – we were controlling the blood and the lighting and we were enjoying watching new people get scared.
Did the morbid and sombre surroundings enhance the actors’ performances?
It definitely helped. Especially since we had insane people that got onto our set. We were like ‘’Cut! – Who is walking through the shot? Oh, that’s actually a crazy person!’’ It’s a functioning village where 1500 mental patients live!
So – what can you tell us about Hostel: Part II?
Unlike the first one – it’s not going to be a family film! I went a little light on the violence and the tone and spirit. This one’s going to be scary – for adults.
The first one is really this descent – this journey into hell and it starts off - and I did it very purposefully - where the colours slowly got drained away and the sequence in Amsterdam is mirrored later in the slaughterhouse. The brothel and the torture house mirror each other. And these guys are making fun of the hookers and they eventually become the hookers and in the second one I want to pick up where the first one ended. So it’s going to start off dark in that dark, scary tone and continue from there.
This time it’s going to star girls, which is going to make it that much more horrible. People love watching dudes get tortured but girls in that situation is just awful. You are going to see these girls and just know something horrible is going to happen to them.
Looking at both Cabin Fever and Hostel – there seems to be a switching of traditional gender roles in your films. There is a marked absence of the typical ‘final girl’ from 80s slasher films with men adopting more vulnerable positions. Was this a deliberate choice on your part?
Yes… it’s not that I want to make men look castrated but you know everyone has seen every 80s movie. It gets harder to scare people. The scares change. People right now are scared of George Bush and they are scared of Iraq and they are scared of getting blown up at any minute. They want to scream. The things they are scared of right now are different to the 80s and people are so familiar with the slasher films that you can’t do that anymore. You can’t have a girl come out standing and have her be the nice girl who doesn’t have sex and have everyone know that she is going to be the last one alive because then there’s no tension and you are just waiting for the other people to go and get picked off. But if you know the audience thinks that and you can take that last girl and you kill her horribly then everyone feels like ‘Oh my god! Anyone can die at any moment cos the person I was certain was going to live till the end actually didn’t. Now I am stuck with this other person who I don’t really know, and frankly don’t even like, and they are going to have to win me over now!’ I like that, I like the misdirect – like the way they did in Psycho and the way you think the movie is about Janet Leigh and they just kill her off.
I feel like a lot of directors who make horror films aren’t really very familiar with horror films. I think finally we have a wave of directors that Alan Jones (from Total Film) refers to as ‘the splat pack’ who are familiar with these movies. We know which clichés we are tired off and we know what the fans are sick of seeing because we are fans so we can give people something different.
The resurgence in the popularity of the horror film in the last few years seems connected to the current disillusionment with Iraq just as films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre etc were influenced by Vietnam back in the seventies.
Absolutely. I can tell you right now America is terrified because they have no idea when any of this is going to end. Until 9/11 we had never been attacked on our own soil. Look at the rise in R rated horror post 9/11. It started with House of a Thousand Corpses, Cabin Fever, then The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dawn of the Dead remakes and now all these violent visceral films like Saw, Saw II, The Hills Have Eyes. These movies got more and more violent and more and more popular. George Bush has everyone terrified because of all these terror alerts – terror alert orange – every holiday there is a terror alert and every time you travel it’s a nightmare. I mean, you are practically strip-searched! You are made to feel like a terrorist and you are made to feel like the person next to you is a terrorist. You want to scream. All that terror that you feel, all that anxiety. It gets stored up and you have to let it out. That’s part of the human condition and there is no place to scream. You can’t walk around the street screaming, you can’t do it at work, you can’t go home with your family and have everyone scream at the top of their lungs. You need an outlet to be afraid and experience fear, where it’s okay to be screaming. It’s an incredible release, which people need desperately right now and that’s why they are flocking to these horror films. And they have become the date movie. Its teenage girls that are going to see these films and they are dragging their boyfriends along.
Is it true that you issued formal apologies to Iceland for your portrayal of Oli?
It was a joke. I was with Quentin at the President’s house and we were joking and I was like ‘Sorry’. I was at dinner and I made a big toast and they were all laughing hysterically and they actually told me that my portrayal of Icelanders was frighteningly accurate.
What about the portrayal of Slovakia –has Hostel boosted the country’s tourism industry?
I think so. In fact there were some cabinet member who hated it and were panicked and thought it was, like, a national disaster but the tourist board were pretty cool about it. They invited me to come to Slovakia and they are going to give me an all expenses trip there when I am shooting Hostel: Part II. I definitely think it helped because nobody knew where Slovakia was before. I know guys who will risk death to go to Slovakia to see if the girls are actually that beautiful! And they are! And, as I told a room of 80 Slovakian journalists, don’t worry – there have been seven Texas Chainsaw Massacres and people still go to Texas. It’s only a movie!’’
HOSTEL is available to buy on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.The DVD version of the movie boasts extra unseen footage and is packed with special features, including four commentaries, three making of features and multi-angle scenes.