Eli Roth is a polarizing figure in the world of horror. To some, he’s a genius; to others, he’s an overly-funded, douche-bro hack. There’s few people in the middle, which makes the debate all the more interesting (as well as passionate). Now from the description above, I’m willing to bet that you’re thinking I’m in the douche-bro camp. You couldn’t be more wrong. While I don’t love everything he does – nor should you love absolutely everything that someone does, because there needs to be a healthy voice of realistic dissent – I do find that Eli Roth’s work is necessary to the main goal of horror: push boundaries while making a statement on the things that terrify us the most. Case in point: both Hostel and Knock Knock, both of which tap into fears with a technique that renders them expressions of deep-seated anxiety.
Let’s start with 2005’s Hostel. On the surface, Hostel represents a tourist’s worst nightmare: that a beautiful person is going to sleep with you, then trap you in circumstances that will result in an inordinate amount of physical pain before you are brutally murdered. Films like this crop up every so often to completely prey upon the fact that we’re scared of something bad happening to us in a foreign land – hell, the ridiculous Taken films use this concept as bread-and-butter, while completely missing the point on saying something relevant about the need to battle the sex trafficking industry. However, this isn’t really what Roth is attacking in Hostel. Roth goes after something far more insidious: the notion that someone who thinks he’s the master of the universe can use money to harm another living creature with absolute impunity. Chuck Palahniuk touches on this principle in Fight Club: “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” Written in 1996, it reflected male anger and aggression in ways that still persist to this day; it’s within reason to think that this concept has been translated into Roth’s work as well with the character of the Dutch Businessman. The Dutch Businessman laments his unrealized dreams of becoming a surgeon, settling instead for the torture and murder of poor Josh. This is someone who wanted to become a surgeon – a special snowflake. The problem here is that this snowflake doesn’t have to sit around and feel angry that he can’t be what he really wanted to be; he has the funding to carve someone up in his rage, and he doesn’t have to pay malpractice insurance. Roth used extreme gore – the likes of which hadn’t been seen in a long time – to accomplish his condemnation of the notion that money can get you whatever the hell you want without consequence. It’s no surprise that Roth’s Paxton claws his way through his captors and finally takes revenge on the Dutch Businessman. He takes something horrifying, makes it explicit, then punishes it. In this respect, Roth tucks his audience back in at night. He reassures us that someone is going to punish the bad guys. There’s hope for us yet.
Now let’s look at the other side of the coin with 2015’s Knock Knock. I’ve heard this one described as every man’s worst nightmare: the chance for a threesome marred by the fact that the girls are cruel and manipulative. One guy I know assessed it as “the reason I will never have a three way.” What happens in Knock Knock? Not only does Keanu Reeves’s Evan succumb sexually to Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Arma’s Genesis/Bel duo, but the women proceed to wreck his wife’s livelihood, murder his assistant, and upload a video of Evan having sex with an underage girl to the internet. While not as gory as his other offerings, this one is wrought with social commentary as well, and it’s commentary that’s designed to start a conversation in terms of how we treat infidelity. This scratches the surface of the underlying theme: Roth explores the damage that ripples through one’s life when the chance to cheat on your spouse is taken. In American culture, infidelity is viewed through a pretty harsh lens. One only needs to look at a random gossip column to see how it’s treated here: we need to make sure that the offending spouse is tarred and feathered publicly, with an expectation of apology and continual, head-hanging atonement. There’s an expectation that one’s life will be completely ruined if you make a mistake. We can debate the consequences of infidelity all we want, but now isn’t the time or the place. Roth tackles not only the American attitudes toward cheating, but the fears of a ruined life in the digital age, which is something that’s impacting people on a global level. It’s not so simple as it used to be: twenty years ago, a mistake in your life – ranging from an affair to a poor child-rearing decision – was able to be dealt with privately. Gradually, though, our actions have been robbed of the expectation of privacy, and this is what Roth is attacking. We can’t put a toe out of line without dire consequences, from a wrecked social standing to loss of human life and career. The tiniest thing we do will have far-reaching impact because everyone is privy to it. It’s no accident that we watch helplessly as Evan attempts to claw himself out of a literal hole in the ground while his family bears witness to his wrecked world. We feel as though we’ve watched someone’s dirty laundry being aired. This isn’t an accident. Roth wants us to question this.
Where I find the most resistance to Roth stems from the fact that he is so clearly influenced by the gore masters of 1970’s Italian cinema. One could make the argument that he’s a fan boy copying the style of directors such as Bava, Fulci, Martino, Deodato, and Argento. To a certain extent, that argument is valid: there’s flat out references to their works in everything from the gore effects to the breasts for days. Some argue that the violence is unnecessary and the nudity is sexist. However, let’s not forget that the works of these directors spawned a movement that not only criticized government, but social convention. That’s the spot that Roth is hitting so acutely, and it’s making people uncomfortable. Roth is holding up a mirror to our society, and the visceral reaction is indicative that we don’t like what we see. It’s easy to see something as tasteless, but he goes to the extreme because we live in an extreme world. We live in a world where justice and legality is for hire, and the smallest infraction on social – especially sexual – convention is publicly flogged. We still have a ways to go with gender equality, and on top of it, there is a deep terror that we will never receive justice when someone wrongs us. These are scary concepts; of course we’re going to rebel against the person that forces us to stare those very things in the eye.
Is Roth perfect? No. But he’s doing what a good director does: he’s translating what makes us afraid and what needs to be changed into a medium that literally demands sacrifice in order to reach a resolution. Upon closer inspection, Roth does punish his bad guys, and he does invoke those angry reactions to things we think are bullshit. The trick is looking beyond the surface – beyond the perception of the party boy that spent too much time watching videos from a mom-and-pop store in his adolescence – to see and hear what he’s driving. Roth is sick of our shit, and he’s challenging us to change it while documenting it. It’s the hallmark of a storyteller.