Sunday, October 7, 2018

Rothtober

October is, of course, the month when cinephiles, and even some non-cinephiles, prioritize watching horror movies. The difference is that non-cinephiles might think to watch one or two horror movies leading up to the 31st, while cinephiles pride themselves on watching at least 20, if not one per day.

I'm not going to get to that level this year -- in fact, I've probably never watched more than ten. The horror offerings on my various streaming services are fairly pathetic, and in many cases have not changed significantly year over year, meaning that I've already scrubbed them pretty clean in past Octobers. I think on Stan, our Australian streaming site, there are literally fewer than five movies they've classified as horror that I haven't seen.

I did find one, though, even though it's not the type of "thing that go bump in the night" horror movie that I usually think goes hand-in-hand with Halloween. That was Eli Roth's The Green Inferno, which is about South American cannibals and is mostly set in the daytime, and had been on my radar the year it came out. In perusing my options, I noticed there were also two other Roth horrors available that I'd already seen, those being Hostel and Knock Knock (the latter being more of a home invasion thriller than a horror movie, though you could call it "domestic horror").

So having watched The Green Inferno on Friday night, I decided to make it a Roth weekend by watching Hostel on Saturday night for the first time since I originally saw it (at a screening in which Roth spoke afterward in a Q&A) in 2005. (And in looking this up in my records, I see this screening was only six days before Christmas -- strange timing indeed for such a thing. I ranked it with my 2005 films, but others may have ranked it with 2006 as it was formally released on January 6th of 2006, and likely did not receive an Oscar-qualifying run -- heh heh -- the year before.)

But my real Roth reckoning began a few weeks ago when I saw his latest, The House With a Clock In Its Walls, which is about as different from Green Inferno and Hostel as a movie can be. I haven't read into why Roth would decide to direct a family-friendly haunted house movie starring Jack Black, but suffice it to say it was not a good fit. That's a weird ass movie, but not in a good way. You can read my full review here if you like, to save me going over the failure of that movie a second time. (One thing I'll spoil that wasn't in that review: There's about five minutes of this movie where Jack Black's head is on the body of a baby.)

Roth is someone I generally think of in a positive light -- I like Knock Knock quite a bit -- but Clock was not the first movie of his I hated. In fact, I really did not like his debut, Cabin Fever, which I saw after I'd already seen Hostel. Learning he also made the much-reviled remake of Death Wish earlier this year, which I have not seen but may see just for his involvement (this month, even, to continue the theme?), it started to make me wonder if the "real" Roth is talented or a hack.

Seeing one movie I hadn't seen, and revisiting one movie, seemed like a good way to interrogate that.

Which brings us to Green Inferno. This one worried me right away. The opening credits are in this cheap typeface that could have been made on the same titling machine my friend bought when we made our own 30-minute kung fu movie back in 1990. As they fade in and out they appear to pixelate. The early scenes of the movie are in New York, where the interiors need to be lit. And the lighting is awful. The whole thing looks like bad TV, or possibly even homemade TV.

When they get to South America, lighting is no longer a problem and the actual cinematography improves overall. However, this is when the cultural insensitivity kicks in. The tribe of cannibals are bloodthirsty (literally) and without any measure of pity or remorse. Among all of them there is only one small child who shows enough humanity to try to help the protesters whose plane crashes while returning from a protest to save the rainforest. The rest of the tribe eat them with relish -- eat some of them, anyway.

Someone with whom I discussed this online argued against this charge of cultural insensitivity, and since he has a point I'll give his position a platform here. He argued that everyone here is either an asshole or an idiot, both the natives and the protesters, and there's no doubt he's correct about that. The protesters are so caught up in their own deluded sense of importance, in their ability to change the world, that they appear as guilty of usury, a different kind of usury, as those who would bulldoze these natives' homes. His argument is that the whole thing is a bit of a comedy -- a very grotesque, bloody, dismembery comedy -- and that Roth is in on the joke.

His thoughts allowed me to elevate the film from 1.5 stars to two stars on Letterboxd. But really -- blecch. It's not good.

But I decided to give Roth another shot the next night. It'd either be a chance at redemption or a realization that maybe he'd never really had anything worth celebrating in the first place.

I started out a bit skeptical about the enduring value of Hostel, one of the earliest of the torture porn movies. (I tend to think of that genre as having begun with Saw the year before, though of course there would be earlier examples). I found myself critical of technical elements like lighting and cinematography, and the movie also felt very dated with a lot of douchebaggery and gay panic humor, including the use of the word "faggot."

However, as I kept watching and as we got to the actual hostel, I felt most of my original grisly affection for the movie return. For a film that is indubitably an entry in the torture porn genre, and a seminal one at that, it's lighter on the actual torture part than I would have thought. Each individual scene of torture is relatively short and more discreet than it could have been on graphic detail, as we get more of the before and the after, leaving the rest up to our imaginations.

It's the details within this, however, that require us to give Roth credit. Two moments stand out for me. For one, there's the part when (spoiler alert) Derek Richardson's character is getting his Achilles tendons sliced open. A less imaginative filmmaker would have gone right in on the knife sawing the skin, to show us how effectively they could recreate a man's tendons being sliced. Instead, all we see is Richardson screaming in an unimaginable agony, the exact nature of which we only know when he tries to stand up. It allows us an uncomfortable few moments when our imaginations are indeed more powerful than the visual stimuli being provided to us.

Then there's the moment when Jay Hernandez' character pleads for his life with the German client. One thing I like about this movie is that Hernandez' character speaks German, something our preconceived notions about his ethnicity might prevent us from considering likely. I mean, it's not like a man of Latino descent would never learn German, it's just that this movie is reasonably creative for giving him that unexpected trait. Anyway, we think his impassioned pleading for his life -- which goes untranslated -- is the thing that might actually save him, and gives Hernandez a moment of real dramatic power within a tawdry genre movie. When the German client slaps him and leaves the room, we figure he's been successful. Instead, an attendant enters with a ball gag so he can no longer talk. In another clever reveal, we see that the attendant has been applying something to Hernandez' face, but we don't see it's this ball gag until the camera pulls back.

I do have one question about the ending of the movie, since we're into spoilers anyway, which I think is a plot hole but I can't say for sure. So Hernandez is on the train at the end and hears the client who tortured and killed his friend eating his grotesque meat salad in front of a couple other unwitting travelers. He then disembarks the train to go kill him in the train station toilet. Does he actually know that this man was his friend's torturer? All he really knows for sure is that they were sitting together at the bar, isn't that right? It's one of those cases that I'm sure are fairly common if you look for them, where the screenwriter gets confused about whether his characters know a piece of information, or only the audience knows it.

Some of the shock of Hostel was certainly due to its concept and the comparative infancy of the torture porn genre, and the fact that it "went there" on things we hadn't allowed ourselves to imagine, cinematically. However, its tension and its underlying sense of horror are still effective 13 years later, long after torture porn has become passe. Combine that with the mood setting and mystery of the rest of the scenes in that town, and you've got a portrait of a demonic Eastern European milieu that adds portent to the already exotic endeavor of traveling off the grid far from home.

Come to think of it, the punishment meted out to the American tourists here is similar to that meted out to the American do-gooders in The Green Inferno. In both cases these are kids with an overdeveloped sense of their entitlement to traipse around in places they were never invited, without worries of the consequences of showing less than the proper respect for their surroundings.

There's comedy in both of these movies -- don't forget the part when the girls get run over multiple times by Hernandez in his car -- but Roth varies in his ability to deliver the right tone. He succeeds in Hostel and doesn't in Green Inferno, just as he didn't in Cabin Fever but did in Knock Knock. Perhaps I should have realized this was Roth's MO before now, and perhaps if I watched Green Inferno again and viewed it through this lens from the start, I'd "get it" a bit more.

But there are too many other horror movies to watch this October to worry about that right now.

Well, some, anyway. If I want more, I might have to go beyond my streaming services.