What Happened to Eli Roth?
After a string of failed projects, Roth looks to rebrand.
Eli Roth is one of those filmmakers that divides those who watch his work. Roth has made a living off of being the “shock and awe” director with films like Hostel (2005) and Cabin Fever (2002) that helped to push the “Splat Pack” era of the early 2000s. For awhile it seemed like Roth was going to be one of the greatest horror directors of this generation. However, the art of filmmaking has passed him by, and between 2007 and 2013, it really feels like Eli Roth has forgotten how to make a film. I want to be clear from the start, I am a fan of Eli Roth and his early projects provided inspiration for my own films, but I can no longer defend his work. It pains me to say this, but Eli Roth needs a rebranding, or he will fade into insignificance (if he already hasn’t). However, I think he knows that.
Roth entered the industry with a cult home run with Cabin Fever, a film focused on a skin eating disorder that overtakes a group of unsuspecting campers. Structurally similar to the slasher films that were prevalent in horror during the 1970s-80s, Roth made a quick image for himself as a gross-out director that had a campy tone to his characters. Inspired by his own run in with a flesh eating disorder, Roth used Cabin Fever‘s new found cult following to launch his next project, Hostel. This is Roth’s true claim to fame that came a year after James Wan’s Saw. Hostel helped to solidify the “gore porn” genre, and put Roth’s affinity for violence on the national stage. Following a group of students travelling abroad, the film is an observation of the depravity of humans, and is actually based on true events. The film is the strongest in Roth’s catalog, and is proof that at one time he knew how to make an impactful film in the horror genre. However, as the genre progressed, Roth stayed stagnant and his films would suffer.
Hostel: Part II (2007) was not anything special, acting as a retread of the shock factor that made the original so popular. The film was the beginning of the end for Roth, and he did not make another feature film until 2013. The problem is that, while Roth continued his career in acting and producing, the film industry continued to evolve, especially in horror. A viewer no longer wanted to see two hours of gore with a ham-fisted attempt at exposition. Instead, the horror audience has moved into the art-house era. This is essentially the polar opposite of Roth’s brand of horror, and it was apparent with the release of The Green Inferno (2013). While the film did not lose any money, the critical reception was not pretty, and the fans that had stuck by Roth’s side for so long saw their loyalty begin to falter. The building of tension is something that Roth has mastered, but his shortcomings in writing have only gotten worse. Dialogue from the film that includes the notion that “Bush did 9/11,” and that the cannibal tribe “has the munchies” is just cringe worthy. While this campy vibe may have passed in the ’80s, it is impossible to take it seriously in the scope of filmmaking today. It is unfortunate because Roth’s gore pieces are some of the best the genre has to offer, as showcased in this film, but the overall presentation comes off as archaic. This is problematic because it is clear that these are intentional choices as he continues to attempt to resurrect a style that no longer fits in the landscape of film today.
The inspiration for The Green Inferno comes from a 1980 film titled Cannibal Holocaust, which gives perspective on Roth’s influences. Coming from the 1980s era of campy horror films, one can pick up on the stylistic similarities he tries to emulate. Another film that gives perspective into what Roth is going for is his 2015 film Knock Knock, which is a remake of the 1977 film Death Game. Another attempt at schlock comes up short, and the film was not received well (to no one’s surprise). This rooted ’80s mentality has been detrimental to Roth’s later career, as he continues to focus on concept rather than character. His “quirky” characters are left in the wash compared to the high concept ideas he tries to emulate, and this isn’t just in his recent work. Going back to his early films, where it is clear Roth has no desire to develop characters. Instead, using them as sacrificial pawns to whichever violent means he wants. While this may have been sufficient in the early 2000s, horror has moved into a more metaphorical state that is grounded in human emotion and experience rather than the literal violence that made Roth so popular. Roth obviously did not get the memo, as his recently released remake, Deathwish (2018), stumbles through all the same pitfalls that have doomed him for years. Although, the difference being that this time it is borderline unwatchable.
Following his unsuccessful efforts as of late, Roth has not stayed out of the headlines. The Meg (2018) is a film that originally had Roth attached to direct, but due to his desire to both act in the film and maintain its 150 million dollar budget, he was replaced. This was the first wake up call for Roth that he no longer had the influence of doing whatever he pleases, and maybe this is for the best. Currently, Roth is treading in uncharted waters as one of the most violent American directors that is now taking his talents to children’s films. That’s right the director that brought us this scene is going to try and repurpose his career. Releasing later this year is The House with a Clock in Its Walls that is directed by Roth and stars Jack Black. The film is based on a book, and seems to sport a similar tone to Goosebumps (2015). Whether or not this was Roth’s first choice, it is encouraging to at least see him try something out of his comfort zone.
Other than that, Roth is contributing to whatever means of entertainment he can, including being a television host. Roth has always been willing to step in front of the camera, as shown by his role as the “Bear Jew” in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009), but rather than acting, he now seeks to educate. This pursuit has led him to host shows for Shark Week, and recently he has announced his newest project, which is an AMC produced History of Horror. AMC Visionaries: Eli Roth’s History of Horror is set to air October 14th at midnight, and features Roth interviewing both icons and newcomers to the genre, but also shows his affinity with himself is still present. This may be the best for his career, as he is very charismatic on camera and sports a wide knowledge of the horror genre and its roots.
Eli Roth’s contribution to the horror genre cannot be understated. He is a pioneer of the gore era, and (for better or for worse) is attempting to preserve the campy style that he grew up on. While the stylistic and tonal tendencies of horror may have passed Roth by, I credit him for his attempt to stay relevant. He continues to be a supporter for up-and-coming genre filmmakers, acting as a producer on multiple projects like Clown (2014) and The Stranger (2014). I look forward to his future AMC show and indulging in his filmic knowledge, but I have given up on him as a filmmaker for the time being. It is clear Roth has a love for the genre that is unmatched, and I genuinely appreciate that. However, his particular brand of horror is unfortunately no longer relevant, and as of late, I question if he still knows how to make an impactful film.