Hack-Off: Eli Roth

The Bloody Good Horror Crew goes at it on a new topic every Friday afternoon, we call it the "Hack-Off". Feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comments.

Eli Roth: Genre savior, or played out poseur?

If nothing else, one has to admire Eli Roth's meteoric rise to notoriety. He may be more notorious than actually famous, but he's a name that everyone knows these days, and that's worth more than one might think. Think about it: can you name the director of "Final Destination"? How about "Wrong Turn"? "Saw II"? These are popular films, at least financially, yet most of us can't name their directors.

"Cabin Fever," "Hostel," and "Hostel: Part II" on the other hand... Now obviously a name isn't everything, but in Hollywood it definitely is something, and that's a testament to Roth's skills not only as a director but also as a shameless self-promoter. It's typically the later of these two that gets him into trouble. For see Roth is quite a talented director—his films display a depth of thought not found in every genre picture—but in his mind he's the finest director since Hitchcock, and that's just lunacy. Personally, I ignore most everything that comes out of his mouth, and I freely admit that I'll be the first in line to buy a ticket to his next horror film; if that is, he hasn't left the genre, as he's bloviated about in the past.

See, I'm torn. I can dig what the guy's trying to accomplish. He's got a love and respect of the exploitation of the 70's, and it shows. He's attempting to make a comeback for the genre and in many ways, he's done a good job. For both "Cabin Fever" and "Hostel II", the camp was there, the gore was there, the fun was there. I got it. "Hostel", well that one fell victim to it's own hype machine. Still, respect for what he wanted but I found it nowhere near as disturbing as they promised. For that, I give the guy props and it's what keeps me in line at the movie theater whenever he has a new flick out; he's got a good mind for the genre.

What I don't like about him is his pompous claims to be the savior of horror, etc. etc. As I said, the guy's good, but he's not all that and a bag of chips. Not by a long shot. Granted, his movies are generally better written and with a lot less spit shine than a lot of the horror that Hollywood's shitting out, and he's trying to keep it real. Just don't get ahead of yourself there Eli. You've got a long way before you can rank yourself up there with the Carpenter's and Craven's of the world. Hell, you've even got some road to travel until you catch up to Tarrentino.

Honestly, I didn't even bother to see either Hostel films (shenanigans), but a lot of me feels like I don't have to. I was just as excited about Roth after "Cabin Fever" came out as everyone else, and came relatively close to meeting him at one Fango weekend, but was distracted by large costumed people on stilts. I think that he's at the very least a competent director with a keen, though slightly douchey, sense of of humor.

Like I said I took the "Hostel" films as farts in the wind but also laughed out loud in the theater during the "Thanksgiving" trailer. I much preferred "up and coming, brash new director" Eli Roth to todays "king shit of fuck mountain" (so to speak) Eli Roth. To me, he's much better suited for fanboy horror comedies with tons of boobs and gore than any serious directing. I have a feeling though, that his ego has become so bloated at this point he couldn't take a step back to make another movie like "Cabin Fever," even if if wanted to.

Ya, I think we're all in the same boat here. Although Jon, I can name the directors of all of those films ;) That said, I have a sort of unique take on the whole Roth thing. At the time of "Cabin Fever" I would have gladly told you he was the savior of horror. In the lead up to that film, Roth did something that, as a webmaster, I had never seen before. He, as a director with a film about to go to a wide theatrical release, hit the internet hype machine from every angle. Everyone with a horror site, movie site, or blog about their cats got a chance to chat with Roth, including our site. At the time, he was our first interview with anyone involved in a major release, and the excitement it caused around here was not insignificant.

Also, it really in a lot of ways heralded the end of the much maligned "Post-Scream" era of horror, something Roth ranted on for a long time in our interview. Stuff like "Cabin Fever" and "House of 1,000 Corpses" was revolutionary at the time. And although it seems tame by today's standards (a mere 5 years later) it must be said that at the time it was pretty shocking.

Here's the rub... much in the way that "Scream" spawned a billion imitators, so too have those films of Roth's and Zombie's that I just mentioned. If I see one more torture-centric film, or one more movie with a crazy backwoods cannibal family, I'm going to gouge my fucking eyes out. And so now Roth finds himself in the wholly unenviable position of having spawned a movement that's out of control. As I've said earlier, my biggest issue with most films (especially Indie) of today is that the gore and violence have taken precedence over whether or not the film is any good. In that sense, Roth has created a monster with his whole "Splat Pack" thing. Plus, as the others mentioned, the adulation from horror fans has caused his head to balloon to a size larger than that fake penis in that infamous photo he took a few months back.

To be blunt, Roth was the savior of horror... Now he just sounds like an overgrown man-child obsessed with boobs and blood. And if he ever hopes to win back my respect, he's certainly going to have to bring something else to the table. Will "Cell" be it? Who knows. The one thing I do know is, if artistic growth is his goal, his first step towards it would probably be to stop hanging out with Quentin Tarantino.

Sweet fancy Moses, Eric! You just threw down a number of gauntlets. Congratulations on having memorized IMDB, by the way, I think you got my point though. What you've done in equating Roth to what you perceive as problems in the genre, is similar to what a lot of folks do in film circles. You don't like where a particular artistic innovation has taken the genre, so you go back to the source and bash away. But you have to understand that Roth is not responsible for torture's rise to prominence any more than Craven was responsible for "Urban Legend," "I Know What You Did...," "Valentine," etc. Hollywood is a fucked up "artistic" system that thrives on one thing: money.

So when audiences respond to a certain film, you can expect many more instantiations of it, and usually ones that aren't nearly as good. By going after Roth as the spawn of something distasteful, critics undermine just how much he's pushed himself. Casey offers up the perfect example in comparing the two "Hostel" films. Far and away, the second of the two was superior, and in many ways knowing of the horror climate of the time. That's because while Roth is a great self-promoter, he's also a solid reader of current trends. He's not oblivious to what's out there being said about him, and he's taken that to heart in each film. If you have to attack anyone as endemic of torture's prominence, take a look at the producers behind "Saw," which will be rolling out a fifth sequel this fall.

In all honesty, when talking about Roth, it's important to keep a number of things in mind: 1) the guy's made essentially 3 films, 2) all three have been solid to quite good, and 3) most importantly, all three of those films have been original creations; no remakes, no adaptations. "Cell" will be a whole new animal for him, and I'm quite anxious to see how he responds. Working off someone else's idea, and particularly one tied to the biggest name in horror literature, will be a change, and it will be a test of Roth's maturity as a filmmaker to see how he handles it.

Of course, no amount of success warrants the kind of talk we've heard from Roth, but as I said before, you really have to separate his personality from his films to do justice to what he's accomplished thus far. Finally, if, Eric, you were implying that Quentin Tarantino somehow exhibits stifled artistic growth, or that he stifled growth in Roth, I seriously suggest taking a step back and examining Tarantino's full oeuvre. Not liking his films is one thing, but there's many a "horror master" that never displayed as much artistic flexibility, creativity, or sensibility in their entire careers as Tarantino has over the last 15 years.

Jon said it best. The true test here is going to be with "Cell" finally hits the theater. That will be the point that we know if Roth is a real director or not. He can come up with all the messed up crap that he wants, but what can he do with King's material. Stephen King's books-to-movies is another Hack Off all together, but the guy's got a hit or miss track record on the translations. Can Roth make it a good one? We'll have to wait and see.

That said, I too laughed my ass off at the "Thanksgiving" trailer in "Grindhouse" and I'd be tickled pink to see that come out as a full feature.

This is where I step out, because I can't really speak to the "Hostel" films. I will say that like Jon, I'll go out and see whatever he puts out, especially since it's been a while, but like Eric, I share the hope his skill can catch up with his marketing prowess and hype. That being said, get a room you two!

Editor's Note: At this point in the proceedings, Jon and I continued our bickering over email. It was interesting enough that I've decided to reprint most of it here. Enjoy! And as always, please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Eric 10:36 AM:

I hear ya. My point about Tarantino was that, although he's a great director, nothing he has ever done has really been his own. It's all just sort of a mish-mash of other people's work put together in a really pop-culture-friendly type of way. Which is cool, but if Roth wants to expand his horizons, hanging out with Tarantino isn't the way to do it. They're all about hanging out and fellating each other... how else would you explain "Grindhouse"?

Jon 10:47 AM:

You're treading into dangerously theoretical territory here, and bringing up major questions about "what is art?" and all that. What you're saying about Tarantino isn't wrong, per se, but it's no different than what detractors of modernist and post-modernist art have been saying since day one. Christ, look at Warhol. I think you just fundamentally disagree with me about the nature of creative expression and what constitutes art.

And, I certainly wouldn't call Tarantino pop culture friendly, if anything he's far more impenetrable than most. He uses low-brow cultural references, but that doesn't mean their pop-culture friendly.

At the end of the day, Tarantino has more to teach an up and coming director than virtually any Hollywood director, and the emphasis there is on Hollywood because, as I tried to make clear in the Hack-Off, Hollywood (which is responsible for 99% of horror films) is a system that suppresses creative expression, and Tarantino has found a way to do pretty much whatever he wants while still existing in that system. Certainly "Grindhouse" was solipsistic, almost to a fault, but I still thought it was one of the finest films of 2007 (maybe even because of Tarantino's hubris). It flopped, spectacularly so, but that doesn't take away (for me) from the grandness of vision and final achievement.

Eric 11:00 AM:

Alright Schnaars, I don't want to get you too riled up here.

My point about the "pop culture friendly" thing is this. Look at a film like "Resevoir Dogs", or even "Kill Bill". He's absorbed all of these gangster/chop socky films, and regurgitated them into something that the masses ate up with a spoon. Those same people, the mainstream audiences, would most likely not be able to sit down and enjoy the films that inspired Tarantino to make Kill Bill. That's all I meant.

And the man is certainly talented. But so far, all he has done is move from genre to genre and congeal his influences into very stylistic homages... which I LOVE. But I don't really consider that pushing boundaries of any kind, or even growing as an artist. That's what Roth needs right now, to grow as an artist, not to start doing what Tarantino is doing.

Jon 11:14 AM:

That's fair, but I still tend to disagree if only because you're making it sound like what Tarrantino did wasn't a big deal. It's not like there were tons of writer/directors out there trying to push through their post-modern homage's to old genre films. It's also pretty dicey to call him some sort of crowd pleaser, when the films themselves weren't really that successful ei I mean. Pulp fiction is the only one that broke 100 mil, and Reservoir Dogs made less than 3 mil at the box.

It's just too early in Roth's career (as I mentioned in the hack off) to start running him down as needing to push his boundaries, after three films, he's brought us nothing but quality, and it's not like he's an idiot who's lapping up Tarantino's leftovers. If anything his own ego will push Roth to continue trying to experiment and find new areas of horror to exploit.

Eric 11:17 AM:

Valid, I just haven't seen that yet. I wouldn't call Hostel 2 "quality" per say... it was alright. All I've heard so far is him making excuses as to why it failed, not asking how he can push himself.

And again, I love Tarantino, but I think there are certain flaws in his vision. I would love to see him do something completely original and see how it would turn out. That's all.

Alright bro... hug it out.

Jon 11:19 AM:

Hug it out!

We're actually a lot closer on this issue than it seemed from reading your 1st pass at the hackoff, although, I always look forward to your return fire.

Have thoughts on Eli Roth? Leave them in the comments.

Jon Schnaars

Writer/Podcast Co-Host/Business Guy

If you have questions about doing business with BGH, this is the man to speak with. Jon also enjoys the fancier things, like monocles and silent-era horror films.

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