According to his IMDB creation myth, Eli Roth’s filmmaking career began at age 8 when he saw Ridley Scott’s Alien. To young Eli, it played like a magical combination of Star Wars and Jaws. He watched. He vomited. He decided then, at an age when most of us still believe the stork delivers movies, that he wanted to be a film director. A horror-film director at that, employing fake blood and his father’s power tools to make the many short films that paved the way to New York University’s film school.
When he was 22, Roth started writing the script to Cabin Fever, the film that would, eight years later, become his huge, independently financed dream weaver. Cabin Fever is about a group of college graduates who rent a cabin in the woods and get attacked by a flesh-eating virus. Reportedly, Roth’s own experiences with psoriasis and a flesh-eating virus contracted while working with horses in Iceland inspired the script. More importantly, to Roth’s career at least, the film ignited a bidding war at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival and prompted Quentin Tarantino to herald Roth as “the future of horror.”
If the future were measured in dollars, few would argue with Mr. Tarantino. In the early-to-mid 2000s, Cabin Fever and the even more bludgeoning Hostel films—in which rich folks pay big bucks to get off torturing and murdering post-collegiate travelers in a former Eastern Bloc country—earned hundreds of millions of dollars. The budgets were low, the blood-and-torture quotient high, and the films set the agenda for an era of horror. Other directors followed Roth’s lead; the Saw series, Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, Wolf Creek, Turistas, Captivity and others have earned more than many countries’ GDPs while trying to outdo each other in extremes of violence and gore.
Now Roth brings his sensibilities to Las Vegas with Eli Roth’s Goretorium. The $10 million, 15,000-square-foot attraction, which opened Sept. 27, is a sort of adult haunted house upstairs from a Walgreens on the Strip. It features laundry rooms for human skin, meat grinders for limbs, bloody tap water and a barbershop of horrors. The opening is strategically timed for Halloween, but the gore will continue all year long, the institutionalization of an increasingly libertine holiday in a libertine city. “These haunted attractions only happen maybe 20 nights out of the year, a short period in October,” Roth says. “I wanted to build a place that would be like Disney World for horror fans, that would be a mecca you can come to year round.”
The genre that inspired the Goretorium has gotten its share of critical splashback. Over-the-top gore intends to provoke—and provoke it has, on both cinematic and cultural grounds. Some critics don’t even consider Roth’s movies to be legitimate horror films. David Edelstein, the New York Magazine critic and horror-film maven, famously called Hostel “torture porn,” a label that has stuck to Roth’s and his “splatter pack” brethren’s oeuvre. George Romero, a hero to these guys, has also been unimpressed, telling The New York Times, “I don’t get the torture-porn films; they’re lacking metaphor.”
Roth and his legion of fans would argue otherwise. While zombies may be the ripest metaphor for the modern condition, Roth’s incurious and entitled American youths who get tortured and murdered in the countries they had hoped to exploit for kicks surely stand for something, don’t they?
In Las Vegas recently to promote the Goretorium, Roth held court on the construction-debris-cluttered balcony overlooking CityCenter that will eventually be the site of the Goretorium’s Baby Dolls Lounge (dismembered dolls and chain saws). He insisted that his films carry on the allegorical tradition of fairy tales—the original horror stories.
“They always have. Hostel was certainly a parable for my feelings about the Bush administration and the way that, sort of, Americans were taking over,” he said. “I think the movies that resonate with the public always touched on something that was kind of bubbling just beneath the surface … but I don’t try to write from that point of view. I write what I feel and sort of realize after what it was a reaction to.”
I must not be a genius, because the cognitive dissonance between the guy who feels something like Hostel and the guy standing in front of me is hard to reconcile. In person, Roth seems like nothing so much as the successful product of a stable home in affluent suburbia. Indeed, his father is a prominent psychiatrist/psychoanalyst at Harvard Medical School and his mom is a successful painter. Roth himself says his childhood was decidedly unsullied by transgressive acts, even of the time-honored adolescent kind.
“I never got in any fights, never got in any trouble,” he claims. “This is my way of misbehaving.”
There’s definitely a cheeky insouciance to his films, and Roth is eager to up the ante on the limits of onscreen violence. But whether capturing the most extreme castration on film accomplishes much beyond earning high-fives from fellow gorephiles is debatable. Roth has defended his work by saying that the best art should make you uncomfortable (another entirely debatable ontological question), but there are plenty of things that make us uncomfortable that aren’t art at all.
I should confess, first off, that horror films have never been my bag. I generally find them boring. Only a few in the annals of American filmmaking seem to actually be scary. The Exorcist, Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs and Poltergeist come to mind. These tend to be films with archetypal story arcs that tap into the resonant regions of our shadow selves. The ancient arcs force us to ponder the fragility of our psyches and the sturdiness of our souls. In these films, characters have backstories, and they develop; they don’t just go off to the meat grinder. There’s someone or something to root for—hero, a heroine, justice, God even. In other words, the aforementioned films have narratives, not just plots.
Such standards don’t seem to apply to the new school of gore-auteurs. Films such as Hostel unfold on flat, monochromatic interiors and exteriors. Here, even the non-murderous men are sociopaths of one variety or the other; the women are whores and the children deadly. It’s a landscape devoid of empathy. Protagonists arrive as louts and are killed by psychopaths who have no context. The heroes (if you insist) of the Hostel movies are un-actualized at the start and have learned nothing by the end, except maybe that one should never, ever leave college. When everything is already hell, there’s no descent.
I’d argue with Mr. Romero that it’s not metaphor these films lack; metaphor is easy. Rather, it’s context, motivation and empathy. So, instead of a stake in the story, we get the cheap thrill of evisceration. Butchery, of course, is metaphorical, but it’s not necessarily allegorical. We need more than the killing floor for it to be that; we need to know our animals.
Even at that, Hostel might just play best as a sendup of the food-processing industry. When I suggest this to Roth, an animal-rights activist who has done some commercial spots for PETA, he says it hadn’t occurred to him.
“Interesting. I hadn’t thought about that,” he insists. “You know, you follow the text, and the subtext makes itself evident, but now I’d rethink the movie from that point of view, and I’m not saying you’re incorrect. It’s not something I consciously did, but considering all the work I’ve done for animal rights and how I feel about those things, it’s in there.”
And maybe that’s how I should rethink this genre: not so much as horror but as satire—very graphic satire. Roth may be leaning in that direction as well. When I ask if he plans to stick with horror, he shows a sly grin.
“I just go with what I feel,” he says. “I have comedy ideas, too, that I’ll get to at some point. But I love horror, and I have so much fun with it. I used to think, ‘Well, I’m going to get pigeonholed,’ but it doesn’t really matter. As long as you make good movies that are good stories and appeal to people, then that’s what’s important.”
Meanwhile, if you feel a little melancholy between horror movies, you can soon make the pilgrimage to the Goretorium, a sort of lonely-hearts club for horror fans. “I always wanted my own haunted house,” Roth says. “I always wanted a place that could feel like home.”
And now, we have it.