Filmmaker Eli Roth, 33, is a true horror believer. Instead of doing the electric slide at his bar mitzvah, he had himself sawed in half with a chain saw and insisted on a fake-blood-splattered cake. In 1995, he won a Student Academy Award for his NYU thesis film Restaurant Dogs, which cribbed the title sequence from Reservoir Dogs and so offended his professors that several protested the prize, calling the movie “sophomoric, overtly offensive, and gratuitously violent.” In 2002, Roth’s feature debut, Cabin Fever, a sick film about teens stranded in the woods with a flesh-eating virus, grossed $100 million (in ticket and DVD sales) on a $1.5 million budget—and, perhaps as importantly, it got the attention of Roth’s idol Quentin Tarantino. Now the two are buddies, and Roth’s second, nastier feature, Hostel—about doomed American backpackers in Europe—is opening as a “Quentin Tarantino Presents” film this week. Logan Hill talked to them.
Quentin, I assume you’ve seen Eli’s homage to you by now?
Q.T.: It’s really funny. And to win that award and have professors mad at you? For a horror director, that’s perfect.
Eli, you decided to make Hostel while floating in Quentin’s pool, right?
E.R.: I was getting offered remakes, but one day Quentin says, “What are your ideas?” I told him about this one movie that would be really cheap, $2 or $3 million, and completely sick. He said, “That’s the sickest fucking idea—make that movie.”
You made it for less than $5 million.
E.R.: Horror audiences don’t need to see some TV actor they’re familiar with. So we said, let’s keep the costs low to keep the gore high.
Q.T.: One of the exciting things about Hostel is there’s this kind of new horror film right now: ultraviolent, get-under-your-skin movies. It’s really the first new wave since the eighties slasher films—even the Scream movies still owed stuff to that period.
Where does it come from?
Q.T.: Man, it all started with Takashi Miike [the Japanese director known for fast, cheap, and viciously out-of-control films like Audition]. He’s the godfather. And Seijun Suzuki, and of course Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale. It really heated up in Japan about six years ago, and America has been warming to it. Saw, Saw II, Wolf Creek, these are all a part of this subgenre. For Kill Bill, I had to make one version for Japan and a less violent version for America. Eli was able to make the Japanese version and release it in America.
Q.T.: Because audiences have had six years to absorb Japanese films on DVD. That level of intensity would have pushed people away. Now audiences have made it mainstream.
But isn’t it still just teenage guys in the theater?
E.R.: No! They say half the audience for Saw II was teenage girls.
Quentin, how does Eli fit into this new scene?
Q.T.: He’s what horror films have been waiting for: not a video director trying to make his first movie and then move on or the older guy who resents the fact that he’s still doing horror films. Eli wants to make horror films.
How do you rate his gore?
Q.T.: The problem is, if you go to see an ultraviolent movie, you’re buying a ticket to contraband. Only, most are rarely as shocking or intense as their trailers. But this new group of films is really scary—and I think Eli’s made the most horrifying entry.
A lot of genre filmmakers seem—annoyingly—to be sticking metaphors in their films, like George Lucas inserting Iraq commentary. Does yours have a message, too?
E.R.: Well, I think you’re really talking about that feeling people get when somebody’s doing a terrible job of it, trying to cram a message down your throat. At Crash, I couldn’t breathe. But you know, a lot of people read Cabin Fever as a metaphor for AIDS. I’m just not going to spell it out.
What about Hostel?
E.R.: Look, I just want to scare you. But maybe you watch it a second time and you see that all the stuff the American backpackers are saying about Amsterdam hookers in the beginning of the movie could be said about the Americans at the end. That this slaughterhouse they end up in is a demented version of Amsterdam’s brothels and the movie’s really about exploitation.
Is that why it’s so scary?
E.R.: I was really just thinking about how terrifying those Al Qaeda videos are—that idea that no matter what you say, they’re still going to torture and kill you. And I thought, Wouldn’t it be more terrifying if it wasn’t a political act but a sexual act? Like those Americans paying for a hooker in Amsterdam.