A queasy-does-it guy

Times Staff Writer

A gore merchant isn't born, he's made.

Consider the case of Eli Roth, whose gory, lucrative films are often described as "torture porn" or with an especially pungent new term: "gorno." This Friday, Roth's latest, "Hostel: Part II," will land in theaters with a splatter -- the plot finds three nubile coeds trapped in an Eastern European sadism club where fiends on vacation pay to slowly carve up strangers. If the thought of watching that makes you nauseated, well, Roth can understand. He's been on the other side of that popcorn bucket.

Roth spent years vomiting in the middle of matinees; he threw up so often that the theater ushers near his home in Newton, Mass., would groan when they saw him coming. He was easy to spot too, because he was so young. He was all of 8, for instance, when his parents (a Harvard University Medical School psychiatrist and a New York artist) took young Eli to see a creepy science-fiction film called "Alien." In no time, the boy was racing for the lobby with his mouth covered. That also happened to be the day Roth decided that he wanted to be a filmmaker.

"That was the one, I left there and knew that was what I wanted to be when I grew up," he recalled as he cruised around the Warners lot in a golf cart. "It sort of took over my life." He started making Super-8 movies with brothers, friends and pets as stars and, by his bar mitzvah, he asked the rabbi to introduce him as a film director-producer ("I was already a hyphenate"). The cake was shaped like a director's clapper and, in case anyone thought he wanted to make romantic comedies, was splattered with red food-coloring.

All of this would be merely quaint if Roth wasn't making some of the most disturbing films in memory. He is at the forefront of a movement in Hollywood to not only resurrect the blood-and-breasts-style slasher films of the early 1980s but also take them to new heights of realistically based narrative. Many have drawn-out murders, usually of bound victims who sob, hyperventilate, shriek for mercy or (here's that word again) vomit. It seems audiences can't get enough: The three movies in the delicately titled "Saw" series cost a combined $15 million to make and have grossed $222 million in U.S. theaters.

The filmmakers are called the "Splat Pack," of course.

"We have a friendly competition, and we have to keep in touch while we're making the films just to check on what scenes everyone is doing," Roth said of the club. He added that he reworked the script of "Hostel: Part II" and a scene of a girl getting her stomach-piercing jewelry ripped out when the filmmakers of the upcoming "Saw IV" cheerfully bragged that they had already covered that creative ground. It was a shame, Roth said.

"I had been looking for stuff you could do to girls that would be awful but not so horrifying that you felt like you couldn't watch it or you felt like you had been kicked in the stomach. I want people to be scared and walk away upset, but I don't want them to feel like they need to take a shower."

It's a fine line -- but that's "gorno" for you.

Best of the worst

HERE are some choice moments from the Roth highlight reel: A half-naked cheerleader on a trampoline does a leg split and lands, crotch-first, on a knife, in a spoof scene he contributed to "Grindhouse;" in the first "Hostel," a young woman loses an eye while she is being tortured with a blow-torch, but it still dangles from the socket -- until her rescuer uses scissors to snip it off.

There's another scene in the faux trailer he made for "Grindhouse" where a young guy with fresh-scrubbed features is parked in a convertible with his gum-chewing girlfriend. He talks her into performing oral sex on him but a heartbeat later she looks up to see that his head has been lopped off. Oh, by the way, in that last scene, Roth himself played the bad-luck lothario. He kept the head prop as a souvenir.

Roth describes his films with the pride of a young man who has just won the science fair and can't understand why everybody is so upset. Understanding his movies and its audiences, he said, is as simple as understanding the difference between a merry-go-round and a roller coaster. "If you're going to see a movie like 'Cheaper by the Dozen,' at the end you're supposed to feel good. The point of a horror movie is you're supposed to feel terrible."

Mixing blood and lust is a trademark of Roth and his contemporaries, as it was for the 1980s splatter films that influenced them. That has made him the target of women's groups and media-content commentators.

Given all this, you would expect Roth to be a creepy guy, but he isn't -- which, come to think of it, may be the creepiest thing of all. Roth is 35 and comes off as a sunnier Ben Stiller, or maybe Carson Daly's perky brother. He is more film nut than nut job and more fan boy than bad man. He gets excited about going to horror-fan conventions. He also has some weird medical history: He endured a painful skin disease that flared up in his early 20s -- it directly inspired the flesh-eating virus story of his first film, "Cabin Fever," in 2002. He doesn't live in a cave, though. Last year, the bachelor was named "fittest director" by Men's Fitness magazine and he has a horse named Bara that he keeps on a ranch in Iceland.

But to most fans his name is synonymous with grisly, sexualized horror. That's why a young woman walked up to him not long ago and rubbed her bloodied hand on his shirt as a flirty overture. "It was so disgusting," Roth recalled. "She said, 'You like blood.' I shouted at her, "I like fake blood, not real blood." I mean, c'mon. The bad thing too, she was really hot."

Even horror fans are divided. When "Hostel" hit No. 1 at the box office in 2005, movie critic (and self-proclaimed horror fan) David Edelstein wrote in New York magazine that he was alarmed by the flurry of torture films. "Some of these movies are so viciously nihilistic," he wrote, "that the only point seems to be to force you to suspend moral judgments altogether."

Rose McGowan, an actress who had a gun for a leg in "Grindhouse," surveyed the influence of the Splat Pack and spoke for many when she told Rolling Stone: "All they do now is think about ways to torture women, primarily. I don't really get that. What is this, a manual for young, budding serial killers?"

But to dismiss Roth as a hack would ignore the opinions of some impressive peers. "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson hailed "Cabin Fever" as "brilliant" and invited the then-unknown Roth to the New Zealand set of "Rings." Quentin Tarantino saw that same film, labeled Roth "the future of horror" and signed on as a producer for both "Hostel" films.

Young movie-goers are certainly buying in and, according to audience surveys, the crowds are split fairly evenly by gender. Hollywood is on board, and no company more so than Lionsgate, which is the brand behind the "Hostel" and "Saw" movies. A turning point for the company was "Cabin Fever," which cost $1.5 million to make and has grossed over $20 million in the U.S. alone. Its success led the studio to expand significantly and specialize in horror.

The men behind these movies have a club called the Masters of Horror. Roth is a member; so are filmmakers Alexandre Aja ("The Hills Have Eyes"), Darren Lynn Bousman ("Saw II," "Saw III") Neil Marshall ("The Descent"), James Wan ("Saw") and Rob Zombie ("House of 1,000 Corpses"). Each is young, well-educated, hyper-aware of film history and proud to the point of giggling that they have slightly tilted Hollywood away from big-budget action movies.

Roth says that his films are political commentary. On a Fox talk show he created a stir by blaming President Bush for the recent torture horror. He called it all art responding to a world of ugly violence and a country disdainful of other cultures.

In "Hostel," Roth said, the ugly Americans who get carved up (or carve others up) are purposeful examples of "consumption in our culture." The slow-rip murders are also meant to help us deal with the blood of the real world. "You look at the war, you look at 9/11, the tortures at Abu Ghraib, the things going on down at Guantanamo -- these are real horrors and we are all scared. There's no place left to scream in public. I think these films help people deal with the real world."

That presumes quite a bit. Look on the Internet at the chats of Roth's fans and geo-politics and cultural angst are not exactly frequent threads. Roth shrugs that off.

"There were things I saw in movies that resonated with me later, like in 'Night of the Living Dead,' the fact that people were killed and turned into zombies and just by habit went to the mall and just look for living things to consume," he said. "It was about American consumption and dehumanizing effects of technology and corporate America."

Sitting next to little Eli through most of those horror films were Sheldon Roth, the noted psychiatrist and professor, and Cora Roth, a well-regarded painter. The filmmaker's father dismissed any guff he took from other patrons as "that bourgeois sensibility.... We knew Eli was a good boy." The thing he remembers is seeing the passion in his son's eyes for the stories he witnessed there in the dark.

At his bar mitzvah, Roth talked his parents into having him cut in half by a nervous magician with a chain saw. Marvello the Magnificant was sweating bullets because he had never done the trick before, and his "victim" kept screaming that the blade was really ripping into him. Roth loves telling the story. "He kept whispering to me, 'Just hold still, for God's sake.' But I just kept screaming."

The father has a theory on why his nice-guy son is so good at peeling flesh. "It's as Plato said, 'Bad men do what good men dream.' My son puts his dreams on the movie screen."

But is there film life after all that blood? Filmmaker Roth has long modeled his career on Sam Raimi, who made "The Evil Dead" and other horror classics before putting the knife down and going into the crowd-pleasing "Spider-Man" franchise. Roth may do the same, but his next project, an adaptation of Stephen King's bloody novel "Cell," is certainly staying in his old familiar red zone.

These are good days but not perfect. "I feel like nothing really scares me anymore. I don't want to be jaded, I don't want to be bitter," Roth said glumly. "But not a lot of movies freak me out. It's sad, really."

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geoff.boucher@latimes.com

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday June 07, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction 'Hostel': An article in Sunday's Calendar section about filmmaker Eli Roth said his film "Hostel" hit No. 1 at the box office in 2005. It was in early 2006. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday June 10, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction 'Hostel': An article in the June 3 Calendar section about filmmaker Eli Roth said his film "Hostel" hit No. 1 at the box office in 2005. It was in early 2006.
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