Purveyor of blood and lust films

Spotlight

Even as a teen, director dipped into gory flicks

Spotlight on: Eli Roth

June 08, 2007|By Geoff Boucher | Geoff Boucher,Los Angeles Times

A gore merchant isn't born, he's made.

Consider the case of Eli Roth, whose gory, lucrative films are often described as "torture porn" or with an especially pungent new term: "gorno." Today, Roth's latest, Hostel: Part II, will land in theaters with a splatter - the plot finds three nubile coeds trapped in an Eastern European sadism club where fiends on vacation pay to slowly carve up strangers. If the thought of watching that makes you nauseated, well, Roth can understand. He's been on the other side of that popcorn bucket.

Roth spent years vomiting in the middle of matinees; he threw up so often that the theater ushers near his home in Newton, Mass., would groan when they saw him coming. He was easy to spot too, because he was so young. He was all of 8, for instance, when his parents took young Eli to see a creepy science-fiction film called Alien. In no time, the boy was racing for the lobby with his mouth covered. That also happened to be the day Roth decided that he wanted to be a filmmaker.

"That was the one, I left there and knew that was what I wanted to be when I grew up," he recalled as he cruised around the Warner's lot in a golf cart. "It sort of took over my life."

He started making Super-8 movies with brothers, friends and pets as stars and, by his bar mitzvah, he asked the rabbi to introduce him as a film director-producer ("I was already a hyphenate"). His cake was shaped like a director's clapper and, in case anyone thought he wanted to make romantic comedies, was splattered with red food-coloring.

All of this would be merely quaint if Roth weren't making some of the most disturbing films in memory. He is at the forefront of a movement in Hollywood to not only resurrect the blood-and-breasts-style slasher films of the early 1980s but also take them to new heights of realistically based narrative.

Many have drawn-out murders, usually of bound victims who sob, hyperventilate, shriek for mercy or (here's that word again) vomit. It seems audiences can't get enough: The three movies in the delicately titled Saw series cost a combined $15 million to make and have grossed $222 million in U.S. theaters.

The filmmakers are called the "Splat Pack," of course.

"I had been looking for stuff you could do to girls that would be awful but not so horrifying that you felt like you couldn't watch it or you felt like you had been kicked in the stomach. I want people to be scared and walk away upset, but I don't want them to feel like they need to take a shower."

It's a fine line - but that's "gorno" for you.

Mixing blood and lust is a trademark of Roth and his contemporaries, as it was for the 1980s splatter films that influenced them. That has made him the target of women's groups and media-content commentators.

Given all this, you would expect Roth to be a creepy guy, but he isn't - which, come to think of it, may be the creepiest thing of all. Roth is 35 and comes off as a sunnier Ben Stiller, or maybe Carson Daly's perky brother.

He is more film nut than nut job and more fan boy than bad man. He also has some weird medical history: He endured a painful skin disease that flared up in his early 20s - it directly inspired the flesh-eating virus story of his first film, Cabin Fever, in 2002. He doesn't live in a cave, though. Last year, the bachelor was named "fittest director" by Men's Fitness magazine, and he has a horse named Bara that he keeps on a ranch in Iceland.

But to most fans his name is synonymous with grisly, sexualized horror. That's why a young woman walked up to him not long ago and rubbed her bloodied hand on his shirt as a flirty overture. "It was so disgusting," Roth recalled. "She said, `You like blood.' I shouted at her, `I like fake blood, not real blood.' I mean, c'mon."

Even horror fans are divided. When Hostel hit No.1 at the box office in 2005, movie critic (and self-proclaimed horror fan) David Edelstein wrote in New York magazine that he was alarmed by the flurry of torture films. "Some of these movies are so viciously nihilistic," he wrote, "that the only point seems to be to force you to suspend moral judgments altogether."

Roth says that his films are political commentary. On a Fox talk show he created a stir by blaming President Bush for the recent torture horror. He called it all art responding to a world of ugly violence and a country disdainful of other cultures.

His father, Sheldon Roth, the noted psychiatrist and professor, has a theory on why his nice-guy son is so good at peeling flesh. "It's as Plato said, `Bad men do what good men dream.' My son puts his dreams on the movie screen."

But is there film life after all that blood? Filmmaker Roth has long modeled his career on Sam Raimi, who made The Evil Dead and other horror classics before putting the knife down and going into the crowd-pleasing Spider-Man franchise. Roth may do the same, but his next project, an adaptation of Stephen King's bloody novel Cell, is certainly staying in the familiar red zone.

Geoff Boucher writes for Los Angeles Times.

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