September 14, 2003|Debuting with a splash at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival, Eli Roth's zero-budgeted Cabin Fever sparked a bidding war won by Lions Gate Entertainment to the tune of $3.5M. A throwback to the Spam-in-a-cabin flicks of the early 1980s, the picture, for all its references and debts to films like The Evil Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and John Carpenter's The Thing, bears the unmistakable mark of a young Joe Dante: equal parts Roger Corman and cartoons. Cabin Fever is energetic and puerile, best when it apes Dante's energy and sense of humour, worst when it takes on Dante's occasional sloppiness and lack of cohesion. It's dedicated, in either case, to providing a nostalgic glut of gratuitous nudity and gore while offering something I've been missing for a while now: a special-effects movie reliant on karo syrup, KY jelly, and imagination uncorrupted by the perfect lines of a mainframe. That there is the possibility for a deeper analysis of the picture, centering on menstrual anxieties and banning rituals, is almost beside the point when the picture boasts of a scene involving a lady Bic, a bathtub, and a girl infected by a flesh-eating virus.
On the telephone from Los Angeles, Roth laces his conversation with profanity and references to horror films and directors--his love for the genre equalled only by his affection for the teen sex comedies of the same period (The Last American Virgin a frequent topic). The advantage of chatting with a filmmaker early in his career is that no matter how often they've been interviewed (and Roth seems ubiquitous lately), they still maybe haven't learned the hard lessons of being opinionated and passionate in a business that favours disingenuous non-committal bland in its artists. It's a spark in Roth, evident in conversation, that carries his film over its rougher spots--the same sort of enthusiasm that won Roth sponsorship from one-time employer David Lynch (who receives a "special thanks" credit after removing his name as "executive producer" to avoid unfair/unwarranted comparisons). Roth is at the top of the world with no fewer than four projects already in the works; I challenged him to identify what it is that's his in a film that's almost exclusively been compared to other films, if he's resistant to deeper reads of horror films in general (and his in particular), and what he thought was the bond that tied sex and gore together.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Why are horror movies in ascendance?
ELI ROTH: I think that people want "R" rated horror--the appetite for it has never gone away, it's just that people stopped making horror films.
The most successful horror films recently, though, are PG-13--I'm thinking of The Ring, The Sixth Sense, The Others...
Well, the truth now is that I think that people are sick of that, a little--for as great as those movies were, you know, now you go into a movie and a girl is fucking with her clothes on, that really pisses people off--it pisses me off, I know. I don't want to go to a certain kind of horror movie where people are getting killed but you don't see the blood--fans want to see the good stuff, you know, the sex and violence. Even the R-rated movies, there's such a backlash against the violence in there that studios are gun-shy about it.
There's more sanctioned bloodshed than nudity, though--not a bare breast in Bad Boys II except for one on a cadaver that's about to be desecrated.
(laughs) Right, right. There's hypocrisy, too, in how films are labelled. I should be more specific in saying that for whatever's happening in other genres, the horror genre has been branded the last fifteen years with this squeamishness, I think, mainly because horror movies are identified as the lowest of the low and needing to redeem themselves somehow. But the strength of horror movies is their lack of boundaries--when you restrict them, you rob them of what's effective about them. I mean, there's a whole generation of people out there--me, you--who grew up watching blood and sex and gore on videotape. Stuff like The Texas Chain Saw Massacres, the Evil Deads, slumber party stuff and illicit stuff. But that same generation of folks have probably never had the experience of having those wrong feelings in the movie theatre.
What's the relationship between gore and sex? Why do the two go hand and hand, do you suppose?
Well, people have forgotten, I think, that horror films are the ideal date movies. You have a better chance of getting laid going to a movie like Cabin Fever than you do when you go to something like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. I have a theory that I've been developing, and that theory is that teenagers like to fuck (laughs)--so they go to the movies because they want to get laid, right? But you go to a chick flick or something like that and the girl's wondering if they should hold hands, and the boy's wondering if he should put his arms around her shoulders, but in a horror movie, you grab her hand every two seconds. She puts her head on your chest--you go to Cabin Fever and every two minutes, I guarantee you'll have an excuse to grab your date. If you can't get laid after Cabin Fever, you're pathetic--the movie is engineered to get you laid. To answer your question, though, I think that the thing about sex is that you're in a very vulnerable situation...
Hitchcock filming in a bathroom during a shower...
Exactly, exactly--with sex and death you have this ecstasy in both that's really similar, you know, very closely related. In horror movies there's this natural distraction--you have two people really into each other so they're not paying attention to the guy with a machete in his hand.
You're working with Richard Kelly next.
Yeah, we're writing something together called "The Box" based on a Richard Matheson story--and then I'm starting a company with Scott Spiegel and Boaz Yakin called "Raw Nerve" and we're gonna' produce three low-budget, hard "R" horror movies a year--then I'm doing Drawn for Lions Gate, casting right now--sort of a Shining, twenty-million dollar horror movie--very dark, very fucked up. Then I'm writing something for Universal called Scavenger Hunt that I'm going to direct--it's going to be a balls out teen sex comedy like Last American Virgin, Porky's..
For all the comparisons you've been drawing to other films, comparisons that you've made yourself, what of Cabin Fever is yours?
I don't know. I mean, what I hope that people might pull from Cabin Fever is that when people see my name on a movie, that they know that the movie's going to be balls-out on all levels--that I'm not going to pussy out on anything, it's going to pull out all the stops in every regard: sex, gore, profanity--it's going to be extremely politically incorrect, a fucking fun, entertaining movie. That it'll take risks and try to break from the pack.
I watched The Howling again recently and charted a lot of similarities to it and Cabin Fever.
I love The Howling, I love Joe Dante--he loves cartoons, y'know, and I started out as an animator--more than just his horror films I love stuff like Innerspace, Matinee, Gremlins and, of course, I love all things Roger Corman. I'd be pleased if I could produce some of the things that Joe Dante produces--I mean, there are a number of directors that I follow, guys like Dante, Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, David Cronenberg, Sam Raimi, but I've always loved Dante--just his sense of humour, and his knowledge of classic horror.
|Jordan Ladd puts her best face forward in Cabin Fever|
Similar to both your film and Dante's is the use of traditional F/X work as opposed to CGI.
Well, CGI is a tool and you've got to know when to use it. Right now, there are very few directors who really know how to use it--I mean, there's Peter Jackson, really--but, actually, I think the CGI work that they did on Final Destination 2 is really very good: smart, you know, it's not the effect, but it amps it up to eleven, just sort of punches it up a little. I think that what I love about those old F/X shop movies like Carrie is that when you see her covered head-to-toe in blood--that's for real in a way, Sissy's gotta be pretty miserable in that shot. There're certain movies now that really make me fucking furious--like Wrong Turn? I mean, here's a fucking Stan Winston movie and he's using CGI instead of make-up. Our standards have to be better than that, I mean, that's fucking sad--if we can't depend on Winston to do great makeup effects, who can we depend on? That being said, I'm not against CGI, but you have to look at your movie and for a cabin flick about rotting bodies and eroding friendships, it's just something that's crying out for karo syrup--you don't want to see computers doing that.
You mention Peter Jackson, his smart use of CGI in The Frighteners is maybe the best that I've still ever seen.
I love Peter Jackson so much. I recently had a great experience with Peter Jackson--I was in New Zealand for the Wellington Film Festival and a few people from WETA digital came to see it and told Peter about the film. So I got him the print, he watched it, and liked it so well that he invited me for lunch--I went to the WETA workshop and met Joe Letteri, the visual effects supervisor, then Peter's partner Richard Taylor took me around and I met every artist working there. So fucking cool. Then I had lunch with Peter and Fran Walsh and he offered to give me quotes for the poster! I mean, I don't think he's ever done that before--he's so fucking awesome, that guy, I love him so much--he kept saying that he couldn't believe that someone had done a cabin movie, that he hadn't seen anything like that come out of America in twenty years. Sitting there with your idol, you know, and having him like your film is indescribable. But we talked a little about The Frighteners and how they released the picture in August--it was going to be a September release, but they were over-excited and opened it in August, which was the wrong decision, the wrong time.
Any chance of collaboration with him or WETA?
Well, for Drawn and I'm talking to WETA about doing the visual effects--I want to do all my films in New Zealand now. (laughs)
What's lost about most discussions about the decline of modern horror is the decline of the modern horror soundtrack. Tell me about your decision to score Cabin Fever with David Hess's creepy backwoods ditties from Last House on the Left.
Absolutely right--they put in this really shitty rock music.
Even Argento stopped using Goblin after a while and started using speed metal.
Total fucking crime--Goblin's the greatest. I used to sit there with my stereo hooked up to the VCR and record the songs off Last House on the Left. There's something about the early Seventies where you turn on the radio to hear this weird Harry Nilsson folk music and you roll the channel a little and there's all this stuff about Charles Manson and Vietnam--these incredibly violent images scored to this bizarre music, and I think that's what those movies reflected of that time. I was really fortunate to work with Angelo Badalamenti and Nathan Barr--you know, we sat there talking about The Shining and Texas Chain Saw Massacre and their scores that blurred the line between score and sound design, that aren't these bad rock scores that date the movie two years later. Have you seen The Grudge?
Right, right. The score to that flick is fucking terrifying man--the television version is fucking awesome. It's shot on Betacam, man. Ringu, Audition--the score--the Japanese really understand sound design--it's almost unconscious, you almost don't notice it.
Exactly--that's what I like about Lynch's stuff--Mulholland Drive, this creepy industrial symphony, it's almost subliminal, another universe. Most of the filmmakers making horror movies nowadays they truly, genuinely don't know how to use score--it's so mechanical, that plugging in of top metal hits: kill here kill here kill here, print it, sell it. Too few are looking at sound design and score--but then you look at The Sixth Sense.
Ah, but that's not a horror movie, right, that's a "supernatural thriller."
(laughs) God I hate it when they do that--these marketing people who make up terms to avoid calling something a horror movie because, after all, horror movies don't win Oscars, right? That's something that they figured out with Silence of the Lambs--it's not a horror movie, it's a violent thriller. It's bullshit is what it is. Thrillers are smart--horror movies are from Mars, but thrillers are Hitchcockian--you call Misery a "thriller" and Kathy Bates goes home with an Oscar. Then you have 28 Days Later and Danny Boyle comes out and calls it a "viral thriller"--what the fuck's a "viral thriller?" Dude, you steal the last third of your fucking movie from Day of the Dead and the rest of the film from Day of the Triffids, and it's not a horror movie? That's spitting in my face. All the same, I have a little sympathy, I mean, why would you align yourself with I Know What You Did Last Summer and Valentine and shit like that--and They, or whatever horrible teenybopper stuff carted out there as "horror" now for 14-year-old girls.
What do you think is the influence of The Blair Witch Project?
Such a great movie, such a great movie. You know, what that movie should have done is say that this is the minimum standard--that for all the bitching that people do about he lack of "original" horror or "old school" horror, all these assholes on the Internet trashing movies before they've seen it need to go to the theatre and support original horror, low-budget, innovative stuff in the theatres, to send that message loud and clear that you don't need a lot of money, a lot of marketing, to get this fix. I mean, the best horror movies were made for less than a million dollars. You look at Blair Witch, at Cabin Fever, and it's no stars, no budget--dead kids in a cabin, dead kids in the woods--and if it makes a lot of money, suddenly there's hope for everybody out there to turn this fucking car around.
Do you reject deeper analysis of horror films?
No, not at all. Guillermo Del Toro has this amazing dissection of Mother's Day--one of my favourite films. Are you aware that there's an entire sequence lifted from Mother's Day by Boogie Nights. Nine minutes into Mother's Day at Tina's party and compare it to that scene at Burt Reynolds' house, the party--it's the same, down to Roller Girl. Amazing the connection between the two--music, style, clothes, cutting. I think that for me, I don't like telling people what the movie's about or what to look for--I like for people just to go and have a good time, but people have been seeing AIDS metaphors and what have you and that's fine if you can support it, but you get into dangerous ground as a filmmaker when you start talking about the big picture and shit. It's just my first movie, you know. I mean, for me, really, the film's just about how people treat each other--how we treat sick people, sick friends--you want to help but you don't want them in your car. That's just people, man.