Eli Roth is one of the most divisive filmmakers working today. Just uttering his name is enough for some film fanatics to fly into a fit of rage, citing the perceived slights against cinema. But here’s the thing -- he’s an unquestionably accomplished filmmaker, able to play audiences like a fiddle and make people deeply, deeply uncomfortable. And, for a craftsman who works primarily in the horror genre, what more could you ask for?
As he attempts to broaden his horizons with this week’s kid-friendly, Steven Spielberg-produced “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,” we look back on his entire, blood-splattered oeuvre. Not for the faint of heart.
7. ‘The Green Inferno’ (2013)
Mired in controversy and very nearly unreleased, “The Green Inferno” was Roth’s super-specific ode to Italian-made, South American jungle-set cannibal movies from the 1970’s. Of course, he updated it with modern day aesthetics (it has a grainy, found footage look) and equally modern politics (the victims of said cannibals are a bunch of self-aggrandizing hippie types).
Quite frankly, the movie is so bad, both in terms of its shoddy filmmaking and its over-reliance on stomach-churning gore effects (seriously, how anybody thought this could get a wide release is beyond me), that it probably should have stayed buried.
6. ‘The House with a Clock in its Walls’ (2018)
Well, it turns out that a whimsical, sub-“Harry Potter” family movie and Roth’s macabre sensibilities were just as awkward a match as you’d imagine. And it’s a shame, too.
“The House with a Clock in its Walls” feels like an attempt by Roth to expand his palette, both in terms of catering to a PG audience and in his handling a vast array of complicated visual work. Unfortunately, this is a complete dud. The lead kid doesn’t have much screen presence and both Jack Black and Cate Blanchett seem to be sleepwalking through their roles (Blanchett is sidelined during the big climax! You don’t do that to a living legend!) Worst still is how tonally off it feels, with dramatic moments about concentration camp extermination snuggled alongside a constantly pooping topiary animal.
But, hey, Kyle McLaughlan shows up as an evil wizard so it’s got that going for it.
5. ‘Cabin Fever’ (2002)
Roth’s first film put him on the map and earned him an unofficial place in the Splat Pack, a group of exciting genre filmmakers pushing the limits of extreme violence in their movies (other members included Rob Zombie, Alexandre Aja, and Neil Marshall). A relatively modest affair, “Cabin Fever” maximizes its limited budget in telling the story of a flesh-eating virus that hits a group of friends gathered at a lake house.
“Cabin Fever” nicely sets the table for the rest of Roth’s career, combining yuk-yuk jokes, gross out gags (the leg-shaving moment is a particular favorite) and a kind of casual sexism that is either repellant or purposefully provocative (depending on who you talk to). It’s a scream (mostly).
4. ‘Knock Knock’ (2015)
Somewhat restrained and mature, especially for a Roth joint, “Knock Knock” was the filmmaker’s first remake, loosely structuring the plot around the 1977 film “Death Game.” (Original star Colleen Camp makes a dutiful appearance here.) Thanks to the conviction of lead Keanu Reeves, “Knock Knock” could have probably come off a lot ickier, in its telling of an average guy (Reeves) who is faced with seduction and then retribution when a pair of seductive girls knock on his door (Lorenzo Izzo and Ana de Armas).
Spiked with Roth’s usual sex and violence, the movie is also a look at how moral ambiguity can curdle into something entirely unpleasant with the smallest push (and cutest smile).
3. ‘Death Wish’ (2018)
Not going to lie: I think “Death Wish,” Roth’s Bruce Willis-led remake of the Charles Bronson revenge thriller classic, is pretty underrated. The lean, muscular script by Joe Carnahan casually updates the tropes of the original for modern audiences, and Willis gives a more committed performance than we’ve expected from him in recent memory. He actually, like, emotes.
Most of the attempt at racial commentary is creaky and the movie had incredibly poor timing, with a seemingly upbeat tale of one man’s violent retribution being released during a string of mass shootings. But all in all, it’s a fairly thrilling throwback, with Roth display some expert technical skill alongside some nifty stylistic flourishes. Like most of Roth’s work, it’s controversy feels very unearned.
2. ‘Hostel: Part II’ (2007)
What makes “Hostel: Part II” so fascinating is that it is the rare sequel which exists as both an expansion of the first film while also serving as a dialogue with that film, too. In the case of the original, critics complained that it was overtly misogynistic and cruel. (Reviewer David Edelstein coined the term “torture porn” to describe movies like “Hostel.”) So for the sequel, Roth and executive producer Quentin Tarantino decided to flip the script, making the film about lecherous male behavior and making the heroes a bunch of plucky women (Heather Matarazzo, Bijou Phillips, and Lauren German). Also, the movie’s sole nude scene is of a man.
Ultimately, the sequel is more compelling and layered than the original, and gave fans a peek behind-the-curtain of the mysterious organization behind the killings. But its cerebral tone comes at a cost, and somewhat lacks the sheer, watch-the-movie-through-your-fingers thrill of original.
1. ‘Hostel’ (2005)
A lightning rod for controversy when it was first released, “Hostel” is the paragon of everything we think about when the term “Eli Roth movie” is brandied about. It’s disgusting, for sure, but also comical and raucous and scary as hell. It’s hard to diminish just how effective it is too, particularly in the way that it sets up a fairly conventional, Eastern European sex comedy before abruptly switching gears to something darker and far more sinister (but, ultimately, just as funny).
Pivoting around an irresistibly terrifying concept (what if a hostel was actually a farm for an underground murder society), Roth examines masculinity, privilege and class, even though it often comes across as a celebration of sexism and violence-against-women. Rarely are second features this assured and relentless, and it helps to have someone like Quentin Tarantino in your corner, to help guide you and bounce ideas off of. Honestly, it’s a modern horror masterpiece. Don’t @ me.
Ten-year-old Lewis goes to live with his oddball uncle in a creaky old house that contains a mysterious ticktock noise. He soon learns that Uncle Jonathan and his feisty neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman, are powerful practitioners of the magic arts. When Lewis accidentally awakens the dead, the town's sleepy facade suddenly springs to life -- revealing a secret and dangerous world of witches, warlocks and deadly curses. Read More