‘If you can’t have a root after taking a sheila to Cabin Fever you’re pathetic.’
That’s Eli Roth, horror fanboy and director of the upcoming hit prediction Cabin Fever, trying out his Australian to explain the artistic motivation behind his work.
An unapologetic horror film fan for the reasons most teenagers are, he spent the 1970s and 1980s watching the masters of the low budget horror movie genre before they were swallowed up by the Hollywood studio machine. A film buff rather than a purist, his tastes are as varied as any horror fan.
‘I judge every film for what it’s trying to achieve,’ he says. ‘I don’t expect gore when I watch The Ring, so it met my expectations. One of my favourite all time films is Robert Wise’s The Haunting, and that’s rated G! I’m the guy who’ll watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Cannibal Holocaust in the same night.’
Following an auspicious start at age 11 with his first feature Splatter on the Linoleum (in which he dismembers his little brother in the family kitchen), Roth’s career developed while he worked with legendary auteur David Lynch, producing shorts for the latter’s website. Cabin Fever is his first feature, but it’s already been compared in the US to Kill Bill; a loving homage to a filmmaking institution (that of the low budget splatter movie) in the same way Tarantino referenced the Asian action films he grew up on.
‘Kill Bill is a very flattering comparison, and when I saw that film, I felt Tarantino and I had very similar intentions with our films,’ Roth says. ‘He came to a screening of Cabin Fever and was such a huge fan he invited me to his house to watch War of the Gargantuas.
‘Tarantino’s one of my heroes. He gave me incredible advice on how to handle the success of the movie and how to promote it all over the world. He invited me to his director’s screening of Kill Bill and I was absolutely floored. That guy owns cool, everyone else is just renting from him.’
And, like Kill Bill, is Cabin Fever a reverent form of worship to an all-but forgotten craft, or shallow trash? ‘That’s up to the individual viewer,’ Roth says emphatically. ‘Some critics have read volumes into the film, others think it’s a mindless exercise in gratuitous gore. The film has many personal, specific meanings to me, but I’m not interested in spelling them out for viewers. I want to hear how the film affects other people — that’s far more interesting to me.’
Unlike Tarantino’s magnum opus, however, Cabin Fever almost lulls you into a false sense of security before the payoff. In the first 30 minutes, there’s so little bloodshed and so much classic horror film tension in the forest campsite location you might think you’ve stumbled into a Deliverance retrospective by mistake.
But then, with a suddenness that makes it all the more impactful, Roth the careful thriller director turns into Roth the Romero/Raimi-inspired psychotic, gleefully showering every scene with blood and brains (to the point of high comedy in some instances). Did he mean it that way?
‘The shift is definitely intentional’ he reckons. ‘The first half hour of the movie’s just kids being kids off in the woods, fucking around and having fun, but as things get worse they turn on each other. At the end it’s just a bloodbath.’
It’s also hard to tell which is the better filmmaker, Roth in Blair Witch mode or Roth in Evil Dead mode, spraying the screen with bits of his young and attractive cast. One thing’s for sure though, the latter is his favourite ‘I love movies that are so sick and disturbing you can’t help but laugh,’ he smiles. ‘I wanted to pile in scenes where people would have to turn their heads away but in some awful masochistic way be drawn to the violence on screen. You want people screaming one minute and laughing the next — it’s supposed to be a roller coaster ride. The key to keeping it scary is that the film always takes itself seriously, and never makes fun of itself or makes fun of the fact that it’s a horror movie.’
By all accounts, his knowledge of what makes a horror film great — together with the enviable business Cabin Fever is doing in the US and Europe — make Eli Roth a director to watch.