Eli Roth’s parents knew their son was different when he asked to be sawn in half for his barmitzvah. “They couldn’t have been more supportive,” says the gore-fixated director, who grew up to make Y2K splatter classics such as Hostel and Cabin Fever. “In fact, my parents were worried about me [before then], because I never did anything wrong. I was the model kid. I was the camp counsellor. I was the babysitter. So when I got interested in horror, they were like, ‘Oh, this is a healthy expression of his creativity … This is Eli’s way of being mischievous. This isn’t, ‘he loves blood’, this is Eli finally doing something a little shocking and inappropriate, but in a smart and clever way’.”
The magician Roth’s parents hired for his 13th birthday did indeed pretend to cut him in two using a circular saw. And Roth’s mother did indeed have to explain over the years that her son wasn’t interested in “real violence” but rather “representations of violence”. And when Roth started making films – which featured not only women shaving their legs to the bone with pink razors, but men losing their appendages in Slovak torture chambers – his mum and dad were first in line to watch.
I don’t have all day with Roth, so unpacking the cosily viscera-sodden dynamics of his immediate family will have to wait. But they do speak to the conundrum at the heart of Roth’s work – his latest is a Scream-style slasher titled Thanksgiving – as well as his prolonged appeal: what’s a nice Jewish boy like him doing producing some of the most disturbing images of torture and bloodshed in mainstream cinema?
The Hostel movies, about cocky American backpackers seeking hedonism in eastern Europe and getting nothing but flesh gouging and limb removal in return, were stacked to the eyeballs in gnarly, grungy violence. But these films weren’t confined to the top shelves in sleazy VHS rental shops – they were in multiplexes and opening to $20m (£16m) at the US box office. Roth, too, didn’t come off like some oleaginous oddball back then. He was jocular and handsome and best buds with Quentin Tarantino; Halloween maestro John Carpenter once mouthed off about Roth’s “Hollywood hair” and the women perpetually on his arm. “I was so envious of him,” he sighed.
Down the phone from Los Angeles, Roth speaks fast and confidently, though there is a restricted area: questions about politics or his personal life are forbidden. Ask him about whether his films incite violence, meanwhile, and he’ll quickly deflect. “Everybody knows it’s a movie and as a filmmaker, you’re making a movie for the fans,” he insists. “The world’s gonna be the world. Things are gonna happen.”
Roth’s horror ethos, especially back in the day, is to be as outrageous as possible – both on screen and off. “There’s something transgressive and punk rock about horror films,” he says. “You’re seeing stuff you’re not supposed to see. It’s gotta have that little bit of danger. It’s gotta p*** off your parents a little bit. It’s gotta have a little bit of a shock factor.” Today, though, he says he’s grown up. “I don’t have to prove to the world that this is who I am. I don’t have to be obnoxious in interviews the way I thought I did 20 years ago, just to get attention.”
While critics have largely warmed to Roth’s work in recent years – Vice declared in 2018 that the gratuitous violence of his films merely acted as a cinematic mirror to the gratuitous violence of the War on Terror – they tended to be more hostile early on. In a review for New York Magazine in 2005, David Edelstein labelled Hostel as “torture porn”, and that the violence seemed to get in the way of an otherwise “not bad little thriller”. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw was more scathing, calling the film “silly, crass and queasy”.
For my money, at least, Roth is also a better filmmaker these days. Knock Knock, his outrageous 2015 take on the erotic thriller, saw Keanu Reeves go full ham as a cuckolded single dad terrorised by the insane seductresses (Lorenza Izzo and a pre-fame Ana de Armas) who show up on his doorstep. Thanksgiving, in cinemas now, swims in similarly campy waters. It’s a slasher movie about a killer in a pilgrim’s outfit, who at one point seasons someone with herbs and spices before tossing them into an oven. In another scene, a character gets scalped by the wheel of a shopping trolley during a Black Friday rampage.
Thanksgiving started life as a fake film trailer sandwiched between Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof in their double-bill movie Grindhouse – an experimental flop in 2007, but one that has since developed a cult fanbase. Roth’s feature-length Thanksgiving expands a number of the trailer’s most arresting set pieces (one involves a trampoline, a knife and a topless cheerleader), many of which were sparked when he and his co-writer Jeff Rendell were childhood best friends.
“We were kids growing up in Massachusetts, where Thanksgiving is the biggest deal,” he remembers. “And it drove us nuts that there was never a Thanksgiving horror film, so we started thinking of all these deaths for it. Like, what if someone got roasted as a human turkey? And what if someone was dressed in a turkey costume for a Thanksgiving parade, and then someone decapitated that person – would they run around like a turkey with its head cut off? We just got obsessed with it.”
It wasn’t just critics who’ve historically been outraged by his films. The censors, too, have long had a field day with them. Hostel II was notoriously banned in New Zealand, and was cited by the Conservative MP Charles Walker as “horrible, nasty and unpleasant stuff”… based on what he’d heard. “Charles Walker said he wanted to ban all materials related to Hostel II,” Roth smirks. “Even though he hadn’t seen the movie! But he was assured it was, you know, ‘90 minutes of pornographic violence.’ Honestly, that was the greatest trailer quote I could ever get for that film.”
He adds that international film censor bodies have been far more frustrating to deal with than the one in America, known as the MPAA. “In the UK, literally three people make a decision, and you can’t appeal it and they don’t talk to the filmmakers,” he says. “Plus they work for the government, so they’re never going to actually advocate for violence.” He says both of his Hostel films, along with his smug-Americans-get-cannibalised movie The Green Inferno (2013), “got butchered” in the UK, Germany and New Zealand. “The fans are the ones who get screwed,” he says. “But it also depends on what’s going on in the world. If there’s some kind of violent incident in the country, the first thing they do is take it out on the movies – it’s the only thing they can control, and they have to look like they’re doing something, as ridiculous as it is.”
I tell Roth that I’m curious about his dedication to the horror genre, particularly when many who start out in the gory trenches end up taking on franchises and studio films, from veterans such as Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson to relative newcomers such as Candyman’s Nia DaCosta, who immediately leapt to The Marvels. Was that path ever laid out for him?
“Definitely after Cabin Fever,” he says. “I was offered $350,000 to direct a movie – and I’d never heard of that amount of money being paid to someone. But I turned it down. I just didn’t know how to make it good. I said, ‘That little bit of money is going to ruin me – I will be the guy who made a s****y movie’.” Roth said no to the film, rumoured for years to have been (of all things) the big-screen version of The Dukes of Hazzard, after Tarantino shared his directorial wisdom. “He’s like, ‘I didn’t buy a house until after Jackie Brown – all these guys run out and buy a house, and then every decision you make is about this house that you now have to afford. You become an employee of your house’.”
Roth made Hostel instead, then Hostel II, then retreated. “I needed a break,” he says. “I didn’t know who I was. I’d been so focused on becoming a director that I just had no life experience. So I went to Chile, I got married – your life evolves, and then it’s nice to come back to this place of horror as an adult.”
He’s also become a little more familiar with studio budgets, directing the children’s fantasy movie The House with a Clock in Its Walls in 2018, and next year’s curiously delayed video-game adaptation Borderlands, starring the unexpected pairing of Cate Blanchett and Kevin Hart. He is upbeat, if not exactly forthcoming, when I ask him to clear up the speculation about the film being substantially reshot. “I love Borderlands,” he says, “but they’ve asked me to hold off [talking about it] until the release because they don’t want to let the air out entirely. It’s a big, fun summer popcorn movie and I’m really proud of it. All [the rumours] are gonna get cleared [up] by the time it comes out. It won’t even be a thing.”
He’s more enthusiastic about the potential of Thanksgiving launching a franchise of movies. I note that it won’t be tricky – a decent amount of the film’s main cast manage to avoid becoming turkey meat. “I didn’t want to wipe everybody out just for the sake of it,” he says. “You can’t just kill people! And if the characters are clever and outsmart the killer, I sort of feel like they’ve earned the right to live, you know what I mean?”
It’s a strict, surprising moral code. But it’s also befitting of a man who’s been horrifying people since he was a child – one who was wholesome, responsible, and daydreaming of decapitation.
‘Thanksgiving’ is in cinemas