Eli Roth’s new film, The Green Inferno, is, like the rest of the director’s oeuvre, decidedly not for everyone. Eyes are gouged, tongues are severed, and plenty good-natured young people are eaten. It is, essentially, what you’d expect from a Roth film, but that expectation comes with a second fold. Often derided for simply making a career out of throwing as much blood at the screen as he can, Eli Roth—with the release of The Green Inferno—offers another chance to see exactly how and why he is perhaps the most interesting mind in the horror genre today, with a self-awareness of the form that can, on occasion, rival the late Wes Craven. You come for the excitement and gore and horror, yes, but also for the little ways that Roth plays with the genre and its conventions. Roth’s films are unique in the landscape of modern American horror for the ways in which he plays with our subconscious to reveal and distort what it is we really think we’re afraid of, as well as showing us what we he feels we should be afraid of.
The Horror Formula
More than any other genre, horror films are bound to our cultural subconscious. In order to scare us, directors, writers, and creators of horror have to know what it is we’re afraid of—even if we aren’t aware of those fears ourselves. We all share certain fears: the fear of surprise leads to the jump-scare, that most basic (but often effective) horror gimmick. But on a deeper level, our real fears are molded by the world and society we live in. This gives birth to trends of horror that flourish over particular periods of time by preying on both the overt and subconscious fears of that particular zeitgeist. Consider the giant monster movies of the 1950s, or the Satanic Panic films of the late 70s and 80s. There are some things we will always be afraid of—home invasions, “bogeymen” (here we find the slasher genre, which, like its villains, never seems to die); others come and go with changes in the world around us. The Giant Radiated Monster movies of the 1950s rarely work now because we just aren’t scared of the bomb the way we used to be. Likewise, the sort of American horror that has come about in the wake of the most traumatic event of our time—9/11 and the persistent threat of terrorism—is unique to its period in how it milks the cultural subconscious to better scare us. The monster in Cloverfield is no longer a warning sign for the dangers of nuclear power, it now functions as a way to reinterpret the destruction and desperation in an under-attack New York City. The hand-held camera/found-footage craze is a direct reflection of the sort of news footage we see during terrorist attacks and other disasters both at home and abroad. And a film like Roth’s Hostel, the first in what we might call his “Trilogy of Dismemberment” (along with its sequel and The Green Inferno), speaks to the idea that we now feel that the rest of the world has it out for Americans, and wants to kill us.
The Inversion of the Norm (Hostel)
The difference between what Roth is doing and what other post-9/11 horror movies are doing is that Roth is always going one level deeper, to twist and turn the expectations of that subconscious fear. If the common structure of a horror film is Text + Subtext—i.e., the plundering of the subconscious through symbols, references, and other cultural signifiers to deepen the implications of the horror in the surface story—then we might be able to look at Roth’s films as Text + Subtext + Meta-Subtext—in which Roth is hyperaware of the cultural horrors he’s mining, and flips them on their head so that we don’t have a movie that simply reflects the fears of the cultural moment; rather, we end up with a movie that questions those fears, and offers what might actually be a more frightening scenario that we hadn’t previously thought of.
The first Hostel is the most detached from this formula; while it’s certainly very aware of itself as a film depicting the supposed horror of Americans Abroad, its subversion mostly comes through taking unlikable characters and twisting us until we’re sympathetic towards them. Instead of the traditional pure, virtuous and resourceful Final Girl, we get a Final Guy (named Paxton) who would probably be the first one axed in any other horror film. We are meant to loathe him throughout the first half of the film, as he drinks and drugs his way through Europe, degrading just about everyone and everything he sees. But by the time he’s strapped into the killing chair and desperate for escape, we find ourselves sympathizing with him even though we find him revolting. That itself is a twist in the standard genre formula, but it reveals a bigger idea: as Americans, not only are we scared that the rest of the world wants to hurt us, but maybe we’re just not be that likable, and perhaps, worth hurting.
Blood Money (Hostel II)
Hostel II, though the weaker movie in terms of its pacing and direction, finds Roth playing a far more subversive game. After Hostel was labeled “torture-porn”—the implication being that the pleasure of the film was derived from the dismemberment of its characters—Roth stages an incredibly outlandish and absurd scene where a woman literally bathes in the blood of her kill, as if to mock the “torture-porn” label by staging such an over-the-top connection of sexuality and violence. It’s a moment of brilliant (and bloody) satire, and again shows Roth as a director who most makes these films while winking at us at the same time. He’s in on the gag the whole time, and willing to let us know it.
But beyond mere jabs at critics of the first film, Hostel II reveals itself to be about much more than its predecessor. If the horror in Hostel was primarily culled from fear of the outside world in the wake of 9/11, Roth’s sequel is much more about a fear of the reach and power of capitalism. Yes, the torture scenes are still nasty, but perhaps the most disturbing scene in the movie is when a host of wealthy men bid eBay-style on the right to purchase victims from the safety of their mansions and country clubs. The film’s climax reinforces this idea, as the heroine (this time there is a Final Girl) buys her way out of torture by purchasing the rights to her would-be killer. What Roth is doing here is showing us that while the initial fear of the rest of the world is certainly real, the real horror is in the hands of those with trust funds and smartphones, who can buy and sell human beings like stocks and bonds, all without losing any sleep over it. The meta-awareness of the film in relation to its own subtext makes for a much deeper product; it’s not only there to scare and entertain you, but also to make you think about what you should really be afraid of. That the results of this fear are just as brutal only drives the point home harder.
Everything for Sale (The Green Inferno)
The fear of capitalism rears its head again in The Green Inferno, albeit in a much different way. Of course, on its surface the film is a bloodbath, a loving tribute to the Italian Cannibal Films (still one of the most bizarre movements in cinema history) of the 1980s, and references to notorious pictures like Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox abound. Likewise, the film’s primary subtext is the same: well-off Americans meet human-hungry natives and a bacchanalia of anthropophagy ensues, only to leave us wondering which group is truly made up of “savages.” This is a familiar trope in the Cannibal genre (which is, of course, a small one), and one that has been well tread before. The idea of questioning the boundary between the civilized and the savage isn’t all that far off from the sort of fear that the Hostel films are playing with: when “civilized” Americans leave the country, bad, “savage,” things happen.
But again, as in Hostel II, Roth adds a second layer to that below-the-surface reading of the film. It is perhaps more overt than in the Hostel II, in only that it functions as a major discussion point for certain periods of the film, but it still twists the root of the film’s horror so that it is more than just a meaningless bloodbath. [slight spoilers to follow] The college students traveling to the Amazon in Green Inferno are doing so to protest and shutdown a deforestation company guarded by contractors armed with assault rifles. The students seem to succeed in this task, only to have their plane crash on the way back to civilization, at which point said cannibalism begins. But, as the students learn, their entire mission was something of a ruse. Their leader, Alejandro, has actually been working with a different deforestation company the whole time. The mission he’s led them on—and which now finds them locked in a cage, awaiting their own consumption—has all been bankrolled by this second company in order for Alejandro’s social justice team to get a good photo-op and trend worldwide, in exchange for preserving the oil-rich land for the company’s own gain. It’s not executed as shrewdly as the bidding scene in Hostel II, but once again, Roth is giving us capitalism and opportunism as the real enemy. On the other hand, the statement Roth is making in Green Inferno is more disheartening than what he was doing in the second Hostel film. It’s easy for us to accept that the filthy rich might be corrupt enough to buy people for their own dark pleasure; it’s harder when we see how that sort of corruption has seeped into what should be the opposition to the sort of capitalist, “everything’s for sale” mantra of the Hostel films. The student rebels in Green Inferno are supposed to be the revolutionaries, the beacon of hope, and yet their leaders are just as easily corrupted used as pawns in the larger, big-money game. It’s not just an indictment that these kids' only goal is to become a trending topic—the larger crime is that some of them are willing to sell out their own cause to do so. The cannibals exist in the film as a mere fact of nature; this is their land, and they go about making their meals as they have been doing for probably hundreds or thousands of years. That it’s foreign and violent is scary to us, and to the characters who end up on the wrong side of dinner. But the real fear, as Roth has showed again and again, comes not from the outsiders we’ve all been so trained to be wary of, but rather from ourselves and the culture we’ve created, where everything’s for sale, anyone can be (literally) bought or sold, and anyone will do anything for their piece of the action.