The very divisive genre figurehead known as Eli Roth has never been shy about articulating his love of all things horror and the influences they have on him (hell, his debut feature is practically a collection of influences laid bare) and he’s been particularly vocal about his love for the subgenre of horror known as the “Italian cannibal” film. With their oft-repulsive depictions of extreme bodily dismemberment (and sometimes real animal slaughter), these films, best represented by the infamous Cannibal Holocaust, are the niche-iest of the niche subspecies of horror, and it’s probably no surprise that Roth the gut-slinger would try to resurrect this lost underground subgenre.
What is surprising, and perhaps a little disheartening, is that after a six-year sabbatical from directing spent acting in and producing other people’s films and working with filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino on Oscar-nominated projects, Roth has shown no signs of maturation as a filmmaker. For better and worse, The Green Inferno is exactly what you’d expect from an Eli Roth film: yet another story of American idiots who travel abroad only to find themselves brutally torn apart at the hands of the locals. Those undiscriminating Roth fans who come to see the director eviscerate his cast won’t be disappointed. But four films and more than a decade in as a director, Roth is starting to come across as a little one note.
Granted, splatter films don’t exactly trade in on storytelling ingenuity or originality, and with The Green Inferno, Roth at least tries for a bit of blatant, if ham-fisted, political commentary: once again spending a good half hour establishing the meat for his slaughter, Roth pokes fun at the type of hipster-liberal big city slacktivists who preach social causes yet who’s self-entitled progressivism is merely for show; even the film’s nominal heroine, Justine (Lorenza Izzo), is mostly in it to get closer to the hunky Alejandro (Ariel Levy), the preening, egotistical leader of a campus protest group that flies out to the Amazon to prevent a construction crew from tearing down the jungle around a remote native tribe. After successfully fending off the bulldozers, the group then suffer a well-staged plane crash that kills off half the dozen or so protesters and puts the rest at the ironic mercy of the tribe, who happen to be, yep, cannibals.
It’s from the plane crash on that Roth does what he does best, winnowing down his cast in brutal, gory fashion. Impalements, limb-loppings, eye trauma – it’s all here, rendered in grisly detail with outstanding FX work by the fine folks at KNB FX. Unfortunately, what little tension Roth manages to establish amidst the gore as the characters attempt to escape is undercut by the current of inane scatological humor Roth adds, and its hard to care about many of the flatly written characters, with the possible exception of Justine and the cuddly teddy bear Jonah (Aaron Burns), who suffers the film’s worst on-screen fate.
Roth also hangs the threat of female genital mutilation over the film, and while he (thankfully) never delivers, it comes across as an unseemly way to build suspense. Granted, the original cycle of Italian cannibal films were never exactly known for their kindness to humanity, and the general artlessness and cynicism of The Green Inferno is in keeping with the tone of those original films, which prized graphic violence and exploitative exoticism over good acting, intelligent discourse and shining camerawork (though Roth does capture some lovely shots of the jungles of Peru.)
In fact, Roth, as grisly as he gets here, never quite plumbs the depths of depravity that the early works of Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi did (there’s nothing here you haven’t seen in an average Saw film) and he smartly keeps the kind of satirical, politically sardonic through line mocking the misanthropic, venal, mercenary traits of so-called civilized culture that raised Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust a smidge above his crass, corrosive competitors. As a slick, semi-mainstream take on the kind of vicious nastiness he grew up on, Roth delivers a fairly potent, fairly flawed film for gorehounds to salivate over. But at this point in the game, one would hope he begins showing some new layers as filmmaker.
3 out of 5 stars