Friday, September 25, 2015

In Theaters: THE GREEN INFERNO (2015)

(US/Chile - 2015)

Directed by Eli Roth. Written by Eli Roth and Guillermo Amoedo. Cast: Lorenza Izzo, Ariel Levy, Daryl Sabara, Kirby Bliss Blanton, Sky Ferreira, Richard Burgi, Aaron Burns, Magda Apanowicz, Ignacia Allamand, Nicolas Martinez, Matias Lopez, Ramon Llao, Antonieta Pari, Eusebio Arenas. (R, 100 mins)

For being as ubiquitous a cult horror figure as he is, Eli Roth's filmography has been surprisingly sparse. THE GREEN INFERNO is just his fourth feature film as a director, arriving eight years after his last, 2007's HOSTEL PART II, though he's produced and "presented" several others and co-starred as Sgt. Donny "The Bear Jew" Donowitz in buddy Quentin Tarantino's INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009). Part of the delay was beyond Roth's control: filmed back-to-back with AFTERSHOCK (co-written by and starring Roth, and utilizing most of the same cast and crew) in 2012 and shown at festivals in 2013, THE GREEN INFERNO saw its September 2014 release abruptly cancelled by Open Road Films. They sold it to High Top Films and Blumhouse offshoot BH Tilt, who have finally gotten it into theaters three years after it was completed, still sporting a 2013 copyright. A longtime pet project of Roth's, the film is homage to the most vile of Italian horror subgenres, the cannibal film, itself an offshoot of the 1960s mondo craze. The Italian cannibal film was born with Umberto Lenzi's 1972 adventure MAN FROM DEEP RIVER, a more violent ripoff of the 1970 Richard Harris hit A MAN CALLED HORSE. There were other cannibal films that followed--Ruggero Deodato's THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD, aka JUNGLE HOLOCAUST (1977) and Sergio Martino's foul MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978), but it really exploded with Deodato's groundbreaking, found-footage-inspiring CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980), and consecutive Lenzi assaults, EATEN ALIVE (1980) and CANNIBAL FEROX, aka MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY (1981). The latter three, in particular, took the cannibal subgenre as far as it could go and even today, remain so extreme in their content that they still shock and repulse even the most jaded of uninitiated present-day gorehounds raised on post-SAW torture porn and hipster snark. I attended a midnight showing of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST about 11 or 12 years ago and the packed theater was ready for a good time. They wasted no time talking back to the screen, making fun of the dubbing, and mimicking one particularly cheesy synth cue in Riz Ortolani's score. Around 25 minutes in, something happened that quieted down the audience. The discomfort escalated over the next half hour. By the one hour mark, many were leaving. When the closing credits rolled, those who remained exited the theater in traumatized silence. 35 years after it was made, the snark-proof CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST still separates the players from the poseurs in horror fandom, and approaching it with a derisive MST3K attitude won't cushion the blow. You don't just watch CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.  You survive it.

So in that respect, Roth is to be commended for daring to bring that kind of experience to the multiplexes of today. THE GREEN INFERNO (named after a documentary film-within-a-film in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST) stretches its R rating about as far as it can go and more often that not, Roth and co-writer Guillermo Amoedo make a concerted effort to replicate the intensity of their influences. Alas, Roth is a director who has always straddled the line between fanboy and dudebro, and those conflicting identities trip him up throughout the film. His heart is in the right place: the jungle locations in Chile are stunning, he stays with practical effects as much as possible (though one CGI ant attack is just embarrassing to watch); in one shot, he frames his heroine (wife Lorenza Izzo) in a way that very purposefully recalls a memorable image of final girl Lorraine De Selle in CANNIBAL FEROX; and the closing credits feature a list of recommended Italian cannibal movies and end with a "Per Ruggero" dedication to the still very-much-alive Deodato, clearly a huge influence on the director (he also gave Deodato a cameo as "The Italian Cannibal" in HOSTEL PART II). But Roth also can't resist the temptation to play to the lowest common denominator, with comedic detours into a grossout humor involving vomit and diarrhea and a Scooby-Doo plan of stashing a bag of weed into the corpse of a soon-to-be-eaten character in order to make the natives high and allow the heroes to escape. That one character even derisively refers to it as "a Scooby-Doo plan" doesn't get Roth off the hook, nor does the resulting attack of the munchies that thwarts the escape when the buzzed tribesmen start chowing down on one guy like he's a bag of Funyuns.

Roth takes some shots at the college culture of hashtag activism and the political correctness of Generation Trigger Warning with mixed results. College freshman Justine (Izzo), the daughter of a big-shot U.N. attorney (Richard Burgi), falls in with a group of SJW campus activists led by the charismatic Alejandro (Ariel Levy). Alejandro and his buddy Carlos (Matias Lopez) are orchestrating a trip deep into the Peruvian rain forest to chain themselves to bulldozers to prevent an evil corporation from destroying the land and displacing the indigenous people to get to the natural gas supply deep underground. After successfully shaming the construction workers and their protecting militia via a live stream online, the group's plane crashes in an even more remote part of the jungle. While some die on impact, the survivors are soon abducted by a terrifying tribe, with one being eaten alive by the natives as an example of atrocities to come. The long sequence where the crash survivors watch in horror as one of their own is devoured limb-by-limb does a very credible job of replicating the brutal intensity of Deodato and Lenzi. Roth also makes the wise decision to avoid one troubling and indefensible element of Italian cannibal films that have always dogged them and rightly so: he doesn't even flirt with the idea of depicting on-camera animal killings, either for real or by special effects. The animals in THE GREEN INFERNO are treated with dignity (the tribe's pigs are pets who actually eat human flesh as well) and reverence, as shown by the respectful attitude displayed toward a majestic, beautiful jaguar resting near the river.

But then there's the juvenile, played-for-laughs diarrhea scene, where even the native kids are holding their noses and waving their hands in front of their faces. And there's the whole "stoned natives" sequence and the subsequent munchies. And a completely baffling scene where one character has committed suicide and Alejandro responds by vigorously masturbating in front of everyone in order to keep his mind focused. The standard-bearers of the Italian cannibal genre--CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and CANNIBAL FEROX--depict generally docile tribes goaded by cruel white interlopers into committing the horrific atrocities they do. In CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, a documentary team needs to sensationalize their film, so they burn down a village and rape a native girl, who's punished by the tribal elders by being impaled on a pole that goes through her vagina and exits her mouth. In CANNIBAL FEROX, a doctoral student (De Selle) ventures to the Amazon to once and for all disprove cannibalism, but first she encounters a fugitive, small-time NYC coke dealer (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) who also rapes a native girl and tortures another tribesman to death, and the tribe rises up to attack the white invaders and give them what's coming to them. Alejandro fills that "white villain" role to a certain extent, at least in terms of his increasingly sociopathic behavior, but in an unexpected switch that's either Roth subverting genre expectations or keeping the door open for a sequel, Alejandro never gets what's coming to him.

Like Tarantino, Roth wears his love of grindhouse trash on his sleeve and his sincerity is never in doubt. But he's neither the stylist nor the writer that Tarantino is, though of course, QT's is a unique voice in contemporary movies. Roth wants to make THE GREEN INFERNO his CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST or CANNIBAL FEROX, and while he occasionally succeeds, he too often doesn't have the courage of his convictions, whether it's his handling of Alejandro or in the way the film repeatedly brings up the subject of female genital mutilation and seems poised to present it, much like those old Italian cannibal films always had some poor schmuck getting his dick hacked off and eaten by a cannibal. Not that I'm advocating female genital mutilation, but if Roth really wanted to push the envelope like his genre heroes did, he would've crossed that line. Deodato's and Lenzi's films aren't the infamous transgressions they are for holding back in the name of good taste and a desire to treat the audience with kid gloves. All in all, THE GREEN INFERNO is...alright. It's doubtful it's going to catch on with mainstream multiplexers, but the hardcore cult aficionados who form Roth's base will eat it up, pun intended. When Roth approaches the story seriously, the film works quite well, both as a tribute and as an intense experience in horror cinema that perfectly exemplifies what Roth is about. When he doesn't, then, well, you get some smirking dudebro jerking himself off for no reason, and to a certain degree, that also exemplifies what Roth is about.

Original 2014 poster art when the film was still being handled by Open Road

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