Eli Roth, Knock Knock, and his impact on horror

Eli Roth returns to the big screen with the Keanu Reeves-headlined Knock Knock. Wil looks back at his impact on horror...

It’s 13 years since Eli Roth made his debut with the grisly, inventive virus thriller Cabin Fever. And despite only directing four other full features since then — the latest of which, Knock Knock, is about to be released on June 26th — he’s made an indelible mark, a gory, bloody mark, on American horror cinema. He’s one of that rare breed of directors, like a Scorsese or a Tarantino or a Hitchcock, that you know what they look and sound like. That aren’t just names behind a camera, but faces in other people’s movies, chat show guests, and have celebrity other halves. It doesn’t always mean that they are a great filmmaker, but it usually means that they are far more than just a person with technical skill. Someone with visions and ideas and imagination, Roth is certainly not short of some fascinating ideas. It’s hard to forget how good a film Cabin Fever actually is.

When he first broke onto the scene, Eli Roth was pegged as part of the so-called ‘splat pack’, a loose-knit group of directors that included the likes of Neil Marshall (The DescentDog Soldiers), Rob Zombie (House Of 1000 Corpses), and Alexandre Aja (Haute Tension). Like a lot of these groups touted by the press, it wasn’t really a real thing, as these guys were all working in different countries, and in different film industries. But it gives a lot of context as to where horror cinema was at the turn of the century. The defining American horror movie of the 1990s is basically Scream. And while Screamhas some violence in it, it’s not what you’d call a super-violent movie. The violence isn’t the point, it’s all about Kevin Williamson’s then-revolutionary script. You laugh when people die. You don’t get repulsed. Scream kicked off a second wave of teen slasher movies, this time with a knowing ironic kick missing from ’80s VHS trash. Some were great (The Faculty), some less so (I Know What You Did Last Summer). But just look how Cabin Fever squares up to those films. Cabin Fever is about a killer flesh eating virus. It centers around four kids, who get picked off one by one, transferring the virus to each other. It’s a slasher film, without having an actual slasher in it. That’s some clever sly subversion on the formula.

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But more importantly, it’s really goddamn gory. When someone gets killed in a Scream knock-off, they get stabbed and that’s it. It’s a plot point. The generation didn’t have its Tom Savini or anything. In Cabin Fever body parts slowly fall off. It is horrific. It’s disgusting. Character deaths get a visceral reaction, rather than a laugh. By the time Eli Roth got to the two Hostel films, it got to the point where we had the unfortunate term “torture porn.” To other trashier films, that’s a fair enough accusation, but it’s a reductive take on Roth’s films.

Hostel is about an eastern European establishment where the super rich can experience what it’s like to take a human life. The stock is kept up by luring dumb American backpackers (including a young Justin Long) who think Slovakia is just a place for you to get cheap beer and girls with sexy accents on your gap year. It’s not a real country where people live. That satire might be a tad on the nose (and it’s a theme he returns to in The Green Inferno), but it’s actually about something. It’s about the world, and America’s place in it. Scream and The Faculty are just about other horror movies. There’s an argument to be made that the wave of extreme horror that Roth helped spearhead was a reaction to the social climate of the early 2000s. The AV Club’s Scott Tobias, a great defender of these much maligned films, once famously argued that Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects was the first great film about 9/11. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s a worthwhile point. The ’90s were characterised by being about the most carefree decade in living memory. For most people in the west, it was a time of relative peace and economic prosperity. The biggest thing America had to worry about was the President sleeping with someone who wasn’t his wife. We had time to chill and discuss the wacky rules of horror movies.

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Come the 2000s though, we’d be scared of being blown up on home soil, and the financial crisis would put your home and job at risk. The world became a darker a place, and darker entertainment was to be expected. There’s another potential source of this violence though: foreign cinema. Japan had long provided bizarre transgressive pleasures for the western film nerd to seek out, but at this point was producing things like Audition and Battle Royale. However, South Korean action and horror cinema was just starting to hit its stride, with the movement that would lead to things like Oldboy and The Host. France was also having an extreme cinema moment, with Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day, Gaspar Noe’s early work, and the aforementioned Alexandre Aja. There are always crazy films being made somewhere in the world, but this was the late 90s and early 2000s, the burgeoning days of the internet. While you might not have been able to stream this films yet, you were able to find out about them. It was only a matter of time before they broke through into mainstream American cinema. And Eli Roth was an unashamed fan of extreme Asian cinema. He gave Takashi Miike a cameo in Hostel and acted in Fruit Chan’s J-horror remake Don’t Look Up.

Until this month’s Knock Knock, Eli Roth hadn’t released a full length feature since Hostel 2(The Green Inferno was completed in 2013, but will finally see a release later this year after multiple delays). But he’s still been a prominent face, pushing horror and genre cinema forward. He had a large role in Inglourious Basterds, and directed the fake Nazi propaganda film Nation’s Pride that’s showing during the climax. He also contributed one of the wonderful fake trailers to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s ill-fated Grindhouse, the pitch-perfect period slasher promo Thanksgiving. He’s delved into genre TV with Netflix’s Hemlock Grove. And most importantly, he’s helped other filmmakers get their films off the ground. He produced The Last ExorcismAftershock, and Clown, and acted in the latter two. He produced and co-wrote rapper The RZA’s debut feature, the brilliant – and underrated – Shaw Bros throwback The Man With The Iron Fists. And he also gave a co-sign to the next wave of interesting American horror, the so-called ‘mumblegore’ movement, producing Ti West’s excellent cult faux-documentary The Sacrament (West’s first big movie was actually the DTV sequel to Cabin Fever, which he disowned after studio interference, so it’s nice to see Roth help him make things on his own terms).

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With both The Green Inferno and Keanu Reeves-headlined Knock Knock finally heading to cinemas, we’ll hopefully see Roth enter the second stage of his career. He’s a guy who can be divisive, but if you’re a horror filmmaker and you aren’t pissing some people off, you’re doing it wrong, really.

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