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The Return (and the Other Return) of Eli Roth

Eight years since his last film as a director, the erstwhile torture-porn auteur is releasing two new movies in two weeks — a cannibal gross-out epic and an unhinged erotic thriller. After that, he says he’s ready for his Hollywood close-up.

“I wanted to go further than anyone had taken a film crew before. I wanted a movie that everybody watched and went, ‘The people that made this are absolutely insane.’ A film that looked and felt dangerous, the way I watched Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Like, ‘How in the hell did Werner Herzog make these movies?’”

This is how I imagined Eli Roth — brash, referential, prone to self-mythology — and he doesn’t disappoint. In the mid-’00s, Roth positioned himself as the era’s preeminent auteur of gross-out horror, and critic David Edelstein obliged him by coining the sobriquet “torture porn” to describe his brutalist “ugly American” satires, 2006’s Hostel and 2007’s Hostel: Part II. In the press, however, Roth always seemed to get the last laugh, affecting a menacing, sideways smirk that projected borderline-sociopathic mirth. Perhaps he just has resting droog face.

Roth phoned earlier this week to discuss his latest film, The Green Inferno — his first release as a director in eight years — which he calls the last installment in his “travel trilogy.” Just as the unlucky American visitors trawling for sex and drugs in the dimmest corners of Slovakia were served up to homicidal 1 percenters in the Hostel films, a group of do-gooder college kids are literally chewed up and spat out in The Green Inferno after they venture to South America to protect a native tribe from land developers.

Like every Eli Roth movie, The Green Inferno is a relatively smooth ride until around the 40-minute mark. Then body parts of all sorts start getting hacked off and buckets of dark crimson blood fill the screen like vases loaded with freshly cut flowers in a Nancy Meyers film.

Without giving too much away, let’s just say that Roth cites the canonical ’80s gore fests Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox as influences on The Green Inferno. So, if that kind of movie isn’t your thing, consider this your final warning.

Roth shot The Green Inferno in the jungles of Peru three years ago. “We all got yellow fever shots to go there, and malaria. Everybody had to get de-parasited,” he says, “and people almost died doing the shoot.” The movie premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013, and then Roth watched helplessly as a planned 2014 release fell through after one of the film’s distribution companies imploded. Inferno was eventually picked up by Blumhouse Productions, the company known for spinning low-budget genre fare like the Paranormal Activity and Insidious franchises into horrifically efficient moneymakers.

‘The Green Inferno.’

Blumhouse Kirby Bliss Blanton in ‘The Green Inferno.’

For Inferno, Blumhouse is test-driving a new release strategy — the film will open in about 1,500 theaters after being marketed primarily online, saving millions in broadcast advertising and therefore lowering opening-weekend expectations. (An open of between $4 million and $5 million will be viewed as a success, according to Blumhouse executive John Hegeman.)

Blumhouse is pitching the Inferno release as “a middle ground” between a traditional theatrical open and the increasingly common VOD option used for many indie horror films.

“My best experiences watching horror movies is really going to see them in the theater. And Green Inferno certainly is that kind of experience, where you want to see this movie that we shot where no one has ever taken a film crew before,” Roth says. “That’s part of the intensity of the movie — watching people freak out in the theater is part of the fun. We had someone fainting during the screening in France. People are running out of the theater.”

That might sound like more of the same old Eli Roth, but he insists he’s in the process of moving on. Roth regards The Green Inferno as a “mic drop” on the relentlessly depraved films with which he’s associated. That period of his career, Roth says, is now over. The next phase will commence not long after The Green Inferno: A much different Eli Roth movie, Knock Knock, opens in just two weeks.

In contrast with The Green Inferno’s convoluted release history, Knock Knock benefits from uncommonly fortuitous timing. It is perhaps the first example of a post–Ashley Madison erotic thriller, where the dread derives not from the threat of physical violence but rather from fear of being shamed for despicably impulsive behavior.

It stars Keanu Reeves as a ridiculously handsome architect who lives in a ridiculously opulent house with a ridiculously beautiful wife and two ridiculously beautiful kids. One weekend, the wife and kids head out for a beach vacation, leaving Reeves to his blueprints and cool-dad vinyl collection. Then comes that eponymous sound at the door, and Keanu is visited by two sexy strangers —Ana de Armas and Lorenza Izzo, also the star of The Green Inferno and Roth’s wife — who are lost and need to use his phone. Then they ask to use his shower. Then they send away the Uber that Reeves has chivalrously ordered.

By now the customary 40 minutes have passed, and Knock Knock makes its expected shift. But even if the setup is squarely in Roth’s disreputable, pulpy wheelhouse, he ramps up the tension in unexpected ways. For instance, a scene in which one character is buried alive is merely a preamble to the real horror, which involves the devastating disclosure of an incriminating secret on Facebook.

What’s ultimately shocking about Knock Knock is how little gore there is. The violations are metaphorical — it’s a home-invasion movie in which the villains are reminiscent of hackers penetrating a supposedly clandestine database.

“I really wanted to make a movie that was not a horror film, that was a thriller, that was a sexual thriller, that was a throwback to the really brilliant Paul Verhoeven movies,” Roth says. “That sexual thriller, that Fatal Attraction, that film doesn’t exist in the marketplace anymore. So I wanted to make Fatal Attraction for the millennial age.”

Izzo and de Armas in 'Knock Knock.'

Lionsgate Izzo and de Armas in ‘Knock Knock.’

Knock Knock is Roth at his most restrained and accessible — 10 years after he brought the gonzo sensibility of bludgeoning Japanese films like Audition and Battle Royale to American cineplexes, Knock Knock could even be viewed as a concession to the mainstream. (It’s the first Eli Roth film that can be suitably described as a “date movie.”) After more than a decade as a scrappy independent, Roth is open about his desire to leave behind the indie-horror ghetto.

“When you’re making movies that push the edge, everyone is challenging you at every turn and it’s very frustrating,” says Roth, 43, who admits he was burned out with directing after Hostel: Part II.

“I needed to recharge my batteries creatively, and Quentin offered me this great opportunity on Inglourious Basterds,” he says, referring to his role as Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz in pal Quentin Tarantino’s World War II film. “I remember reading about Jodie Foster when she went off to Yale graduate school and she came out and wins the Oscar for The Accused. I thought, I need to do that. I need to stop, hit the reset button, really assess where I am in my life and in my career, and come back and reinvent myself and come out stronger.”

After Basterds, Roth busied himself with odd jobs — he was executive producer of the Netflix series Hemlock Grove, he cowrote and starred in the 2012 disaster film Aftershock, he hosted a show about sharks on the Discovery Channel. In 2014, he married Izzo, whom Roth credits with refocusing his energy as a director.

Roth and Brad Pitt in 'Inglourious Basterds.'

Universal Roth and Brad Pitt in ‘Inglourious Basterds.’

“Every director that gets married right away has a much deeper filmography, because the part of the brain that’s occupied with chasing girls is taken care of and they just focus on making movies,” Roth says. “Guillermo Del Toro and Christopher Nolan and all these directors that married young — [you see] how much deeper and richer their filmographies were.”

Also pivotal for Roth has been working in Chile and aligning with “Chilewood” filmmakers like Aftershock director Nicolas Lopez, a cowriter of Knock Knock. Making his films in Chile has allowed Roth to work cheaply — the country’s crews are nonunion — and given him freedom to move from project to project with greater ease.

“The environment has certainly changed,” Roth says of Hollywood. “It’s harder to get your movie released now. Because what’s happened is that you’re not just in competition with other horror movies, you’re in competition with the four other major releases. And if you have a movie that’s going to alienate or offend people, nobody’s going to spend 35 million dollars on it because they’re worried that it’s got to make 70 [million] to make its money back. If you’re making a horror movie, the nature of horror is to provoke. You can’t make safe horror. You’ve got to make something that has an opinion and might upset people. And that’s what scares studios, because [if] they spend that kind of money on a movie and the movie doesn’t work, someone’s going to lose their job.”

Old habits die gruesomely for Roth — he’ll slip easily into his anti-Hollywood stump speech even as he readies his first big Hollywood film. This summer, he signed on to direct an adaptation of Steve Alten’s monster shark best seller, Meg, a property that Warner Bros. views as a potential summer tentpole for 2017.

“I really want to have fun, work my ass off, and create a franchise,” Roth says unequivocally. “This is going to be a huge amount of movie — 20 times the budget of Hostel or Knock Knock. The fun in showing that I can make the summer tentpole movie, that’s what I want to do. I’m not out to, you know, make an Eli Roth movie. If I’m going to do that, I’m going to do it with a low budget and totally control every aspect.”

Eli Roth the provocateur still lingers. Late last year, Roth was thrown into the 24-hour social media outrage cycle when footage he purportedly shot for a Marilyn Manson music video that depicted Lana Del Rey being raped leaked online. Roth waved off the controversy when I brought it up. (“That was not something that’s supposed to be out there and something that’s incomplete — there’s nothing really to say about it.”) The only conversation topic that gets Roth more rankled than Hollywood cowardice is the persistence of “social justice warriors” on the Internet. The Green Inferno represents his parting shot at those critics.

“I feel like we’ve gotten to this politically correct culture where everybody has to act like they’re not allowed to say anything that might offend anybody because they’re worried about some Internet boycott,” Roth says. “And I just think it’s all nonsense. I think it’s the death of creativity.”

In the film, an American activist group documents online its efforts to save a village that’s about to be bulldozed, though it’s unclear just how altruistic the protest really is. While The Green Inferno predates the Manson controversy — Roth says the script was inspired by Occupy Wall Street and Kony 2012 — the movie nonetheless articulates Roth’s withering view of social media activism.

“I’m just making movies reflecting on what I see going on in the culture. The kids in Green Inferno [are only] happy when they’re trending on Twitter or when they’re on the front page of Reddit. And that’s what I see happening,” Roth says. “I love the irony of those people just crashing in the jungle and then getting eaten by the very people they think they’re saving.”

I wish I could’ve seen Roth when he said this — I suspect that sideways smirk had suddenly made a comeback.