June 10, 2007|I pretty much disagree with most of what Eli Roth has to say about Hostel Part II. An unabashed fan of his work for its delicate balancing act of depravity, deathly-black humour, and loving homage, I found his latest film an exciting self-reflexive exercise--a casual question mark thrown at moviegoers who would knowingly pay to see graphic depictions of torture. But the man himself insists that his primary goal lies in pleasing the audience with his specialized brand of perversion--and if, in explaining his technique, he comes across as abrasive, self-important, and longwinded, it's because he's got a lot of set ideas about what his films are saying and at whom they're targeted; furthermore, he's unafraid to expound on those ideas in excruciating detail. And yet, his aversion to accepted subtext--as well as his somewhat wishy-washy consideration of critical reaction--neatly encapsulates one of the most admirable aspects of Hostel Part II, i.e., how its finest (read: grisliest) moments at once point to something bubbling under the surface and somehow thwart a deeper reading of the Guignol thrills. Roth certainly lays a great deal of his personality and excitement for cinema on the table for all to see, but still I wonder what he's keeping hidden. I'm reminded of how his mentor David Lynch deadpanned a challenge to viewers to find the "correct" interpretation of Eraserhead.
I previously interviewed Roth when he came to Philadelphia for the original Hostel with co-star Barbara Nedeljakova in tow, and the excitement that permeated the attendant screening of the film remains fresh in my mind: the audience awaiting God-knows-what with baited breath, not to mention the occasional, anonymous cry of "shut the fuck up!" that quickly silenced whatever idle chatter prompted it. Roth was off in the wings, giggling and pointing out individual reactions from the crowd, his giddy enthusiasm being a topic that dominated the conversation the following day. A year-and-a-half later, after an explosively successful screening of the sequel (at which the much-hyped ending received all the hoots, hollers, and vicarious moans of pain Roth had hoped for) and armed with a better understanding of the man's cinematic influences, I met Roth, this time traveling solo at the Four Seasons Hotel. The location prompts a joke, based on a throwaway line in the film claiming that the hotel chain is "for old people," and that breaks the ice to talk about Hostel Part II, his constant rotation of artistic inspirations, and the charges of hatred that are so often levelled against his films. Our discussion began with some of Roth's general thoughts on Hostel Part II.
ELI ROTH: The nice thing is that [it's] not for everybody, and that the people who wanna go see it, go see it--love it. I was really happy with how the movie played last night, I felt like the ending just brought the house down and that's what you want--the whole movie is about that ending. That ending has to be the denouement, that has to be the showstopper. There's a lot of competition this summer, and I think if you have a great horror kill, and a great horror ending, it trumps everything. If you can do that--Psycho shower, that opening of Jaws--I think that these other movies that are out there, no matter what major movie stars they have, or $250M budgets, I don't think any of them can fuck with the end of Hostel Part II. I think it's gonna be that movie moment of the summer, that people are gonna [say,] "Okay, all these movies are great, but--I can't fuckin' believe someone did this in a movie."
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: How much of a restriction do you think can be placed on those kinds of "money shots"?
I think that, when [you're] filming a violent scene, or a kill scene, you shoot everything. But I think if you do it too much, it's like cooking with your favourite ingredient--if you add too much of it it loses its power. The key is, you can't just make a movie that's more gross. If you want to make it more gross, it's easy--you can add another tool and another body part. Anybody can think of ways to be disgusting. What's difficult, what's the real challenge, is making a horror sequel that's better made, that's scarier, that the audience is more invested in, that people are on their edge of their seats...just cheering and going crazy for. That's what you want, is to get people to care about the character, so when those big moments happen, the whole audience is into it, and people are vocally reacting. I wanted people to come out of this movie the same way I felt when I came out of Road Warrior and Aliens, where I was so psyched, I was so pumped up--I was like, "Oh my God. I think I liked that better than the first one." But it's also a perfect companion piece.
Do those desires conflict at all with what you did in Thanksgiving?
Not at all. The whole purpose of Thanksgiving was to be fun, and to have fun, and it was an exploitation trailer. You're making an Eighties slasher movie. Thanksgiving got me the best reaction and the best reviews I've ever gotten in my career. The whole point of that movie is that you're parodying the style of those early-'80s, sleazy slasher films. The purpose of Hostel II isn't the same purpose as Thanksgiving--Thanksgiving was to get everyone laughing and to do something that really felt like an old-school movie. The purpose of Hostel Part II is to make a better, smarter, scarier movie than the first Hostel, to raise the bar on what horror sequels can be.
But you certainly don't shy away from referencing your sources in Hostel Part II.
[Well,] it's not parody. The source of the movie is Hostel "part one," but obviously I love early-'70s Italian giallo cinema. You know, you're always influenced by what you're into at the time. I mean, Cabin Fever was very much my love for late-'70s, early-'80s American horror. Hostel was very much my being so into--being blown away and taken by--films like Audition, and Battle Royale, and Suicide Circle, and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and Asian New Wave. While I was [writing Hostel Part II], I saw a whole bunch of '70s Italian films that I had never seen before. I saw Sergio Martino's Torso, Aldo Lado's Night Train Murders, and a Fernando Di Leo film called To Be Twenty. These films are so incredible--a lot of them are now starting to come out on DVD here, they're very underseen films. They all have [as their] lead actors young, college-aged girls, and they're very well-written, very well-acted--and the girls are smart. That's what I wanted, for the girls to be smarter than the guys in Hostel, and you care about 'em.
What I'm referring to specifically is how the opening of the film overturns horror clichés in presenting so many in quick succession--the "day after" conceit from Halloween II, "it's only a dream," and the invalidation of the happy ending of the original.
Well, a lot of people wouldn't say there's a happy ending in the first film--the first ending is pretty fuckin' dark. He becomes the very thing that he was afraid of and he's really fucked up by it, and he just took this guy's life and there's gonna be repercussions for that. I wanted the film to continue exactly where we left off, but I needed a way that would hook the audience, let them know what's happened since the first movie, and also the people that might've missed the first movie, give them a wrap-up. Some kids, their parents wouldn't let them see Hostel 'cause they weren't old enough, and now they're gonna see Part II without having seen "part one," and you've gotta include them in on the story. The way everyone screamed in the theatre last night, [they're] not horror clichés, they're storytelling techniques, and I've incorporated several of them in a way that people haven't seen before, and that suddenly gets everyone hooked into the story and caring about the characters and gets you back into the movie. That's what you have to do. The last one was a very clear tonal shift, you're taking the first half of that movie, it feels like you're in a sex comedy. It feels very safe. It's very colourful, very bright, it's shot with wide lenses--you feel like you are with these guys, and then suddenly the tone shifts, your main character is brutally taken out, you don't know what the fuck's going on. And you are left in a strange country and it's dark and it's scary and the colour's been drained out... I wanted people to feel uncomfortable. Well now we gotta start off Part II kind of in that same tone.
Going back to the idea of a "happy ending," though, it can be argued that the happiest ending to be found in this world is in survival.
It's a satisfying ending. But I wanted to take people from the place where they'd see the violence of that first torture, it's so horrifying, they're shocked and dead silent--to the end, [where] they're cheering for blood. More people told me that what scared them about the movie was they realized that they had it within themselves to cheer for wanting to see someone getting killed. That we took everyone from this place of being repulsed by the violence, to cheering for the violence, and then people kind of felt, like--wow, everyone is capable of being brought to that place. But it was an adrenaline rush, and it was fun, and you loved seeing that guy get it, seeing Jay Hernandez get his revenge. It feels great, and that's what I wanted at the end of the first one. But there's gonna be repercussions for his behaviour, and he's messed up by what he did--and we're gonna see that right off the bat in Hostel Part II.
A typically heartwarming image from Hostel Part II
"If people say that they think the films are misogynistic, well, you see Hostel Part II and that will clear all of that up. No one will feel that way after they've seen this film."
The relationship between sex and murder is obviously a popular topic throughout horror in general. How do sex and death, in particular, relate to you and Hostel Part II?
In "part one," it was very clearly violence replacing the sexual act, [which is] why I had the first act and the second half of the film parallel each other. That's why you had these guys making fun of these hookers in Amsterdam. They don't even want sex. They can have it in America, they can get sex in the clubs with the girls, but they wanna control someone, they want to rent someone, like a ride. And they go to Eastern Europe, and they meet these girls and they think they can buy 'em and sell 'em, 'cause they're American. And they get them...and it's still not enough. Nothing is enough for these guys. That's when they get in trouble--they wanna have sex with them a second night, even after their friend's disappeared. But it'll be a better story if they can have sex with them more. "Well, you know, we're here, so we might as well fuck 'em once more." They don't care. Continuing that theme, these guys who are going to [kill them] are very disconnected. It's much more about the--not just the violence becoming a substitute for sexuality, but going deeper into the theme and seeing people who are unhappy in their own lives and are going to take that out on someone else.
In that case, is the only pleasure to be found in the world of Hostel the act of murder?
No, I'm not saying that at all. I'm just showing people who are so unhappy with their own lives that they feel that taking it out on someone else will somehow empower them. If you look at the history of human behaviour, look how people behave when there's no rules, and no one's looking, and you have total power over someone: people get very sadistic. They get animal-like. That feeling, that need, to control someone another person--it's a sick need in our genetic makeup that everybody has in them if they're pushed into the right circumstances. But I think, ultimately, the [film's message] is that, treat people the way you wanna be treated. In the first one, these guys make fun of the hookers and then they become the hookers. They get treated exactly the same way, just to a more extreme version of the way they're treating the...girls. They're looking at them like pieces of meat and then they become the pieces of meat.
Your critics have accused you of being racist, homophobic, and misogynistic.
You hear people react, but that's because I'm writing...realistic characters. I think that Hollywood has become so sanitized that nobody wants to offend anybody. It's not that I'm out to offend people, but--the joke in Cabin Fever, it was amazing that for all the violence, having a character say the word "nigger" was what freaked people out. But it's the same thing that Tarantino went through with Reservoir Dogs, and Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown. And you know, if you kill a female character, oh, suddenly you're misogynistic. Well, if you see Hostel Part II, you'll see these are great roles, and it's actually very much more of a feminist film than anything. And homophobia--it's amazing to me that people would attack, out of all the things in Hostel, the characters. It's actually very carefully thought out. When they're like, "Oh come on, quit it, you fag," I don't think friends are politically correct when they're around each other, and I don't think that they're worried about being judged for being politically incorrect. It doesn't mean they're homophobic when they say words like that. That's just [the jokes] that these types of guys make. So I even wrote a character, Josh, who's questioning his own sexuality, and he meets this guy who has some serious issues of why he needs to go and torture people. When I was in college--I don't know if you were there last night, I was telling this story--there was a kid in my film-school class who did a seminar on "recovering homosexuals." And there were about 800 guys who went to speak, and these guys were taking about how Jesus cured them of "homosinuality," and how they led a good life because of Jesus, and they had wives, and they lapsed every now and then--and you thought, God, these poor guys are so tortured. Years later, I ran into him, and I was like, "Whatever happened to these recovering homosexuals?" Well, one of the guys stabbed someone to death in a gay bar, somewhere. This poor guy who was so tortured that he had to go and kill somebody and take it out on someone. That's what I based the character of the Dutch businessman [on]. It was based on real people, and real things, and I'm just putting it out there like it is. It doesn't mean [I'm] homophobic, but the truth of the matter is, if you're making films like that, people are always going to go after you for something. But I think when people watch my movies, that's what people love about them. The films are honest movies.
Does that drive you to maybe be a little more direct in responding to that kind of criticism, something like what Argento did in Tenebre?
In terms of the criticism, you can't make movies for critics. You're making movies for audiences. You're telling a story, and you have to stay true to that story, and you have to stay true to that character. If it's honest to that character, people respond to it, and people get it. Audiences are not stupid. But I don't make movies with critics in mind. I don't. I make them with audiences in mind.
When I say "criticism," I mean in general--not just from professionals--and I mention Argento and Tenebre because of how he has a character sit down with the author of Tenebrae to say, "Why do you hate women so much?"
I'm not interested in being caught up in what the perception of my other movies are. I'm interested in following the story. The only thing that matters is the story. I know that M. Night [Shyamalan], in one of his movies, had a critic that he went after--and it's just like, I'm not interested in getting caught up in that. I'm really not. If people say that they think the films are misogynistic, well, you see Hostel Part II and that will clear all of that up. No one will feel that way after they've seen this film. Some people will go, "How could you do this, how could you do that?" They're characters in a movie. Look at Halloween, look at your favourite horror films. There have been girls that have died before in horror movies before in far worse ways than in Hostel Part II. So for me, I don't get caught up in, "Oh, the critics say that, the critics say that..." What I'm doing, I'm doing the impossible--which is bringing really violent R-rated horror movies without major movie stars to mass markets all over the world. And audiences are really responding. I get messages through MySPACE from people that are so excited to be filmmakers now, and I get letters from soldiers in Iraq that tell me Hostel and Cabin Fever are hugely popular on a military base. They're not allowed to be scared on the battlefield, and it gives them permission to be terrified for ninety minutes. It means they're not a coward, they're just afraid of the film.
Absolutely. One guy wrote me through MySPACE, telling me that his friend that day had gone out and seen someone with their face blown off. And, no reaction. Then they watched Hostel, and he couldn't even look at the screen. It was with 400 other guys and they were screaming. I realized that when these guys are on the battlefield, they have to be the brave ones. They're machines. They are not allowed to emotionally respond, they have to tactically respond to a situation. But that shit gets stored up, and you have to let it out somehow. Watching this movie, for ninety minutes, not only are you allowed to be terrified, you are encouraged. Everyone's terrified, and it feels great. Look at Grimm's fairy tales, they are so violent. Kids being eaten by monsters, being cooked in ovens, and the kids love it because they're thinking about these things--and hearing it, they're allowed to get it out, they're allowed to be scared. That's what I wanted with Hostel Part II. I didn't want people to feel bad, or feel like they got punched in the stomach--it's not a meanspirited, sadistic movie. I wanted to build the scariest roller coaster in the park, and I wanted to push the limits of on-screen violence and get away with shit that no one's ever gotten away with before--which is the ending of the film--but ultimately give people a great time at the movies.
There's a scene early on in Hostel Part II where the American tourists are drawing a nude man and woman in an art class. How does that relate to the perceived "boundaries" of art?
You know what? You asked about Tenebre and the critic, and I did do it, you're right, and that was the place I did it. People say, "Are you objectifying women?" I thought, Okay, what if I had just filmed a nude guy there? If there was just a naked guy there, people would say that I'm objectifying and exploiting men. But let's put a sketchpad in their hand. Oh, it's suddenly art now. These girls don't care about art--they're just studying abroad for the year. They're taking art classes 'cause they think it'll make them sophisticated. They're looking at the guy, they're checking him out, they're having fun. The movie is very much about looking at someone else as an object, and exploiting people. Because it's under the guise of an art class, it's art--and [there's] a fine line between art and exploitation.
Do you think there's a divide in perception between cinema and the fine arts, then?
Sure, there's no question. It's just hilarious to me that people will look at a film...and go, "Oh, that's an art film." Well, I will make a thousand arguments as to why Hostel Part II is an art film, and has artistic merit. But somehow, because it's entertaining, because there are kills in it and really violent scenes, people are like, "No, it's exploitation." It's interesting that the critics in Europe saw the film with such different eyes. LE MONDE, in France, named it as the best American film of the year. [In] their top ten, there were only three American movies--Hostel was the number two film of all, the best American film, ahead of The Departed and The New World, the only other American films on the list. They saw it as the smartest comment on American imperialism and capitalism gone too far--that's the eyes they were seeing it through. So I think that first and foremost, your job is to entertain, and to make an entertaining movie. Look, I watch The Thing now, John Carpenter's The Thing, that movie is a work of art. It is a fucking masterpiece. It is perfection, in the lighting, in the design, and the style, and the performance, and the characters--but at the time, the movie was a box-office failure. Even The Shining is a work of art, but people at the time didn't appreciate it. So look, the nice thing is that I've been very lucky that Cabin Fever and Hostel have been appreciated in their own time, and so far the reaction [to Hostel Part II] has been amazing.
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