SFX Issue 116

April 2004

Profile:

Eli Roth

Director, Cabin Fever

When he says it’s a sleeper hit, he means it in a totally different sense...

“Now that I get my porn in ten-second clips, if a porn movie is longer than ten seconds I lose interest. I’m so used to just downloading free clips...” Fifteen minutes into a phone call with up-and-coming horror director Eli Roth, I already know more than I frankly want to know about the sticky details of his personal life. But that’s Eli. Talking to him, you can easily imagine cracking open a few cans of beer, stuffing your face with nachos, and watching a dumb slasher flick together. He’s not some dull industry drone. He’s a fan, like us.

Cabin Fever , Roth’s sleeper hit of last year, proves that. It wears its influences on its sleeve, homaging ’70s and early-’80s classics such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Evil Dead . So what is it about that period that Roth wanted to emulate? “Well, they made movies about stuff that was really scary, y’know. They also weren’t afraid. They weren’t afraid to kill off their character; the girls showed their tits when they were having sex and, y’know, they felt like horror movies. They weren’t edited like MTV videos!

“In the ’70s you had every major director in Hollywood making a horror movie. Spielberg with Jaws , Kubrick with The Shining , Ridley Scott making Alien ... everyone was doing it. And they called them horror movies. Now, if you make big-budget horror movies, they call them ‘thrillers’ because ‘horror’ has become a dirty word. In the ’70s you had these young guys like Cronenberg, Carpenter and Wes Craven kicking down the door of Hollywood, making these really terrifying films. And what people realised was that the low-budget ones like Halloween were just as scary as the big-budget ones. Audiences don’t care what you spent on a horror movie. We made Cabin Fever for $1.5 million. People don’t care, as long as you deliver the goods.”

When it comes to the question of why horror films are so enduringly popular, Roth has an entertaining – if crude – theory. “Horror movies are the best date movies. If you wanna shag your date, you take her to Cabin Fever and not Love Actually . If you go see Love Actually it’s like, ‘When do I put my arm around her?’ You’re not watching the movie, you’re thinking about making your move. It’s like, ‘It’s sweet, and we can hold hands...’ Fuck that! In a horror movie, every five minutes she’s grabbing you. There’s a scare, she grabs your arm; you’re totally in each other’s arms the whole movie. Then after the movie she’s so freaked out she’s like, ‘I don’t wanna sleep alone, come on back to my place.’ That’s when you put on Love Actually ... And then you shag her, and everybody wins!

Cabin Fever is engineered to get you laid, that’s what it was made for! It works!”

They should have splashed that on the DVD cover: Guaranteed to get you a shag. “Believe me, I tried to market it that way,” Roth declares. “They wouldn’t let me! I wanted to have, like, a ’70s warning: ‘Warning: if you have an aversion to beautiful naked breasts, do not see Cabin Fever ! If you don’t want to have sex, it will cause you to have sex with your date, do not see it!’”

I tell Eli I’m starting to suspect he only made this movie ’cause it was cheaper than buying a big pile of jazz mags. (Across the desk, Steve chokes on his tea. This is, I reflect afterwards, probably not a line of enquiry you’d try on Spielberg.) “Well yeah, pretty much. Considering if you total up the amount of money we spent on Cabin Fever , and the amount of money I’ve spent on pornography, they’re pretty close!”

It’s at this point that Eli decides to share his internet browsing habits. I suggest we reverse out of this hole we’ve fallen into. “Hey, you were steering me in this direction!” Roth protests.

Okay, what does he think of the current state of horror? This turns out to be the interviewing equivalent of lighting the blue touch-paper on an illegal Chinese firework. Stand well back if you don’t want your eyebrows blown off. “I think they’re shit! Everyone thinks horror’s back, but I think they’re not making good movies. They’re awful. I mean, I like remakes. I love The Thing . I love The Fly . Now they’re doing The Hills Have Eyes , Scanners… Dawn Of The Dead looks awesome. But that can’t be everything. There’s got to be some originality.

“Here’s the real problem: it’s bankers that are making movies. I’ve been in these meetings. You ask these people what their background is: it’s in finance. They don’t f**king know what a good movie is! So the way they make decisions is, they ask, ‘Will this make money or not? And if it doesn’t make money, will I get fired?’ That’s why they say, ‘Let’s make a remake’.”

Roth reckons there’s a repressive climate in Hollywood, an obsession with playing safe that hampers creative freedom. “The problem is that in American horror movies they have all these rules. The suit is like, ‘No, you can’t kill kids, you can’t have an unhappy ending, you can’t have an ending where everyone dies; it’s...” Roth pauses, then explodes in frustration: “Argghh!”

Thank goodness for people like Eli, who make horror movies because they love ’em, not because they’ve calculated the potential gross. As long as there are guys like him, there’ll be movies that scare the bejeezus out of the audience like horror used to... and get you a shag. Possibly.