The scene from Hostel opens with a keyhole shot of a tabletop strewn with tools of torture: saws, pickaxes, knives, hooks. Cue sound effect — an ominous, metallic whine — and the camera opens up on an electric drill wielded by a sadist in surgical mask, black rubber gloves and black rubber apron. He approaches a screaming, bare-chested man who is chained to a chair. Cut to closeup: flesh being chewed up by the drill bit, replete with dangling chunks of gore.
That's entertainment! It comes from the twisted mind of filmmaker Eli Roth, a new prince of horror in Hollywood. Roth, 35, makes cheap, grisly films — "Cabin Fever," "Hostel" and the new "Hostel: Part II" — as tightly written thrillers that build to extremely graphic bloodbaths. His detractors call it "torture porn." " Hostel's purposeful but mindless carnage unfolds into a ridiculous moral. Awful. Offal," a movie critic for the Denver Post decreed. "This is one of the most misogynistic films ever made," as the New York Times put it. Horror fans clamor for more.
Which is one reason Eli Roth endeavors to scare the bejabbers out of theatergoers. "I set out to make a sick, scary move," he says of Hostel, the story of three college boys who backpack across Europe, get seduced by three comely gals and end up on the wrong side of a torture den. "But also a film that hits different chords, like Americans' fear of other cultures, our feelings of superiority and people's need for control."
Horror is hot — again — in Hollywood, capable of turning low-budget violence into a box-office bonanza. In the past three years horror films have populated the top 50 international box office lists and turned in combined ticket and DVD sales of an impressive $1.5 billion. Roth's first feature, "Cabin Fever," about campers threatened by flesh-eating bacteria, cost $1.5 million to make and returned $43 million in ticket and DVD sales. He made "Hostel" for less than $5 million, and it reaped $20 million at the box office the weekend it opened and a total $101 million from theaters and DVDs.
The sick thriller "Saw" and its spawn, "Saw II" and "Saw III," cost a combined $16 million to make and grossed $416 million worldwide, spurring its producers, Mark Burg and Oren Koules, to form a production company devoted exclusively to horror: Twisted Pictures. "Saw IV" is set for later this year, and scripts are being written for versions five and six.
"The horror audience is a lot smarter than people give them credit for," Burg says, "and if you want to be successful, you've got to be edgy." Edgy, these days, translates into onscreen torture (two "Hostels," three "Saws"), rape (the recent remake of "The Hills Have Eyes") and dismemberment (all of the above).
Burg considers Roth a friend and cheers his success, but he gloats nonetheless: Roth was forced to rewrite a scene in the script for "Hostel: Part II" when he discovered a similar bit had just been shot for "Saw III": a young woman's belly ring gets ripped from the flesh of her comely tummy. "We beat him to it," Burg says.
"Horror films tell us a lot about our culture," says Aviva Briefel, a professor who studies the genre at Bowdoin College. "They make us think about violence, fear and danger, but from a safe distance." She praises Eli Roth for his "smart and provocative" films and calls him the "next Wes Craven," the iconic director of such venerated slashfests as "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "The Hills Have Eyes" (the first one, in 1977).
Roth's fascination with scary movies began at age 8 when he watched "Alien," a sci-fi thriller about a monster that kills the entire crew of a doomed spaceship (except for the requisite damsel-in-distress, Sigourney Weaver). "That was the day I decided to become a director,'' he says. He persuaded his parents to buy him an 8mm camera, and by the time he entered New York University's film school in 1990, he had made 50 short films. In one sequence his brother is attacked with a circular saw and blood (ketchup) splatters all over the floor.
Roth graduated in 1994 and spent two years assisting producer Frederick Zollo, the money man behind "Quiz Show" and "Mississippi Burning.: Then he moved to L.A. to write full-time. While collecting unemployment, he wrote the script for "Cabin Fever," about a group of friends on vacation at a mountain cabin; one contracts a flesh-eating virus, and ultimately the friends kill each other out of fear and paranoia. Grim. He says the idea arose from having spent his adolescence coming of age in the era of aids.
"Everyone passed on it," he says. "They said it was too weird and that you can't have a disease as a killer." So Roth later vowed to produce it himself, spending the next six years refining his script while working as a production assistant for films including Howard Stern's "Private Parts" and "Meet Joe Black" and as a stand-in for small-budget art films.
In 2001 Roth started the movie with $50,000 in a bank account. Investors had agreed to put in $400,000, but some bailed three days before the start of filming, and Roth got his father to throw in $110,000 from a retirement fund. (Dad ultimately got his money back plus an additional $300,000.)
Shooting began in October 2001 in North Carolina but was shut down after three weeks because of union problems. They returned to L.A., and Roth had to scrape together $350,000 more to finish shooting and editing. Still short of cash to do sound editing and to convert the film into a format for mass production, he formed a limited liability corporation and sold shares to investors, raising $1.5 million and offering to repay investors before anyone on the film. Roth, who deferred a salary, ended up with a 9 percent stake, which earned him a meager $270,000.
"Cabin Fever" was shown at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival, sparking a bit of a bidding war. Roth sold the rights to publicly held Lionsgate for $3.5 million and $12 million for prints and advertising. "Cabin Fever" ended up being Lionsgate's highest grosser of 2003, pulling in $30.5 million at the box office worldwide.
Roth next penned "Hostel." The film's violence was unprecedented at the time. One scene shows an American businessman using a blow torch on the eye of a young Japanese woman. A rescuer bursts into the room, spies the woman's bloody face with the wounded eye hanging from its socket and rescues her, handily snipping off the dangling eyeball with a pair of scissors. Yuck!
Sony agreed to finance the movie, but the studio got cold feet after its execs screened the final cut. The studio approached Lionsgate, which agreed to distribute Hostel in the U.S. while Sony kept the international distribution rights.
Roth made "Hostel" for $4.5 million, and the film was released in January 2006. It grossed a total $80 million worldwide in theaters, plus DVD sales of $21 million.
By the premiere of the sequel on June 8 Eli Roth had become his own brand, the film getting heavy promotion as "Eli Roth's Hostel: Part II." This time three coeds traveling through eastern Europe are lured to the torture chamber, where the paying clients are two suburban family guys. Roth ratchets up the violence in this one, including a scene in which one of the coeds is attacked with a scythe by a naked female torturer.
But this is the end of the Hostel series, says Roth, "Too many good movie franchises have been killed by a bad third movie," he says. For his next project Roth is putting down his pen to focus solely on directing. He has been hired by the brothers Weinstein, who created Miramax, to direct the film adaptation of Stephen King's novel "Cell." "Everyone on their cell phones gets zapped and turns into a serial killer," Roth says, perking up at the premise. "It will be very much about the oversaturation of technology."