Eli Roth directed the smart, infamous gore movie Hostel, played the violent "Bear Jew" in Inglourious Basterds, and just produced horror-suspense flick The Last Exorcism, opening Friday. We talked to him about horror movies, and what he's working on.
Roth's work is in the tradition of gore exploitation started in the 1960s by exploitation filmmakers like Herschell Gordon Lewis (2000 Maniacs, Wizard of Gore), but he's also an auteur who uses extreme violence to make a point (Hostel, for example, deals a lot with class conflict). I asked him why he was drawn to produce The Last Exorcism, which - despite what you see in ads - is actually a character-driven suspense film with very little viscera. Most of the horror comes from atmosphere and tension.
I love Herschell Gordon Lewis' gore, of course, but I also love George Romero's gore, where you get a whole layer of subtext underneath. I've always wanted to bring back blood to the screen. And you know, mission accomplished. [laughs] I love horror movies and I'm attracted to stories - and every story has its own appropriate level of gore.
When I read the script for The Last Exorcism, I couldn't put it down. It was so unbelievably smart. The Exorcist traumatized me as a child – ever since then, I've been fascinated by possession. I realized that Cabin Fever is about that - the disease takes over your body and possesses you. And in Hostel – the horror is somebody taking control of your body. My movies are about the fear of losing control of your body. But then I was like how do you make a possession movie in same space as The Exorcist? You can't. But you can tell a great story in subgenre. And that's when I thought all these other subgenres that are getting revived, like vampires with Twilight and True Blood, and the rebirth of modern zombie movies. This could be the rebirth of the possession movie.
Roth added that he was pleased The Last Exorcism didn't get an R rating - "It must have been helped by the fact that the ratings board watched Piranha 3D the week before," he chuckled. He said, however, that they'd put no limitation on director Daniel Stamm - he told Stamm that the movie could be as gory as he wanted, to tell the best story. In the end, the movie wound up being less of a gory horror movie than a suspenseful thriller. "It's scary, but it's much more of a psychological thriller," Roth confirmed. "It presents both sides of exorcism - the scientific and religious. And it doesn't take sides. We just see both sides clashing, refusing to see each other's positions."
Since Roth has worked on so many gory films, I asked him how he knows when he's gotten the gore or mayhem right in a film - how does he know when to stop with the bloodletting?
With everything you do, you have to ask if this moves the story forward. You know you've gone too far if you're fetishizing the effects. Anytime you get caught up in the gimmick, that's a problem. You always have to think about the audience - you want them to be asking what happens next. So everything has to be in the service of stories. And if you do get too caught up in the gore effects, that's something you can pull back on in editing, too.
I can only do the kinds of movies I want to do – but I think any kind of movie can be smart, even a remake, as long as it's something that makes people think on multiple levels.
And then I had to ask about Endangered Species, the science fiction movie that Roth has been rumored to be working on, and which he once compared to Cloverfield. So what's happening with that? Is there a giant monster?
Roth said, mysteriously:
I'm just trying to write it. To get the script right takes time – I'm working through every story beat. There's no giant monster - my comment about Cloverfield was just just about how I wanted to do something with mass destruction. So there is mass destruction. But I do love giant monsters and wouldn't rule out doing it one day.
So the movie is definitely happening, but don't get your hopes up for a 2011 release.
The Last Exorcism comes out this Friday.