"I think the public doesn't care about reviews," says Eli Roth, writer-director of Hostel Part II, which—surprise!—isn't being shown to the press before it opens Friday on more than 2,500 screens. Still, the 35-year-old perpetrator of high-grossing "torture porn" does appreciate critical kindness when he sees it. "When Artforum called Hostel one of the smartest comments on American imperialism," Roth recalls, "I thought, 'Wow—it's nice that they noticed.'"
That Roth's highly unfortunate American tourists are female in the sequel hardly gets in the way of his insatiable desire to provoke. A die-hard fan of brutal horror cinema from the '70s, Roth—whose Freudian psychoanalyst dad teaches at Harvard—digs this wicked genre for its sensational potential, not least in commercial terms. "The end of Hostel Part II will shock everybody," he promises during our recent phone chat. "There's all this money being spent on gigantic special effects in $300 million franchise movies, but I think I'm gonna steal the summer with one moment." Here, more of our conversation:
City Pages: Did you and your distributor move the release date from horror-heavy January to June in order to play up the counter-programming angle?
Eli Roth: You know, [Part II] never was going to come out in January. Lionsgate announced [a January release] before they had even talked to me about when the film was realistically going to be ready. I said, "Guys, you need to talk to the filmmaker to see if this is even possible. If we put people [in the editing booth] around the clock, maybe we could have it for April, but January is not realistic."
CP: Opening opposite Ocean's Thirteen—"The Rat Pack versus the Splat Pack," you've said—Hostel II seems destined to promote the generation gap. You think your audience doesn't want to see actors older than 30?
Roth: Well, yeah, there's that. And also I think the horror movie has become the new date movie. I mean, if you take a date to see Ocean's Thirteen, your date is going to be looking at you and going, "You're not George Clooney!" But if you take her to see Hostel, and there's a scary Russian dude on the screen, she's thinking, "Well, at least you're hotter than that guy."
CP: Women are the main victims in Part II. As a horror filmmaker, you see that as a different kind of exercise, right?
Roth: You have to. When you say, "Okay, it's women [getting tortured] this time," immediately everyone gets upset. It's the difference between hunting a lion and hunting a deer: Someone shoots a lion and they're a brave hunter; they shoot a deer, and you go, "Oh, that poor deer! How could they do that?" I'm very sensitive to that. I wanted to write scenes that were scary, but also entertaining and fun. A huge portion of the audience for Hostel was young women, and [this time] I wanted to make a film for them. I actually believe that [Part II] is a feminist horror film.
CP: How is it feminist?
Roth: I don't want to say too much and give away the plot, but I think that anyone who's critical of the film because of what they hear about it will really get what I was doing after they see it.
CP: Where's the line with this stuff? Do you ever sense that audiences could be getting tired of ultraviolence?
Roth: I think audiences are getting tired of bad movies. If there's fatigue with horror, it's because there are dumb, lazy films out. Before Saw II came out [in 2005], there were a number of horror films that had really done badly. And then The Exorcism of Emily Rose came out, it was rated PG-13, and it was a big hit. Everyone said, "See? R-rated horror is dead." I said, "No, shitty movies are dead."
CP: What do you think killed the horror genre in the '80s?
Roth: The audiences stopped caring and the filmmakers stopped trying. The glut of sequels back then showed that audiences didn't care how Jason came back from the dead, whether it made sense—they just wanted to see Jason. For the first time, around '85 or '86, audiences were going to movies and rooting for the killer. Then you had Freddy Krueger making jokes: "Have a nice day—and don't lose your head!" Nobody cared anymore about what's scary; the movies started going straight to video, and the genre had a real stigma about it. Finally we have a new wave of filmmakers in power who really care about making great horror movies.