What’s a Nice Jewish Boy from Newton Doing Making Films Like This?

Hotshot director Eli Roth is responsible for what might be the most depraved, absurdly scary movies ever. His parents couldn’t be prouder.

When it was time for his bar mitzvah, Eli Roth didn’t want to wear a suit or have the customary luncheon. He thought the usual procedures were pointless. He simply wanted to get it over with and return to what he and his friends loved: hanging out in the family basement in Newton, watching horror movies and eating pizza. That would be fine, his parents told him—after the luncheon, because that’s just how bar mitzvahs go. You become a man, then you have lunch. It’s written somewhere.

“I told them I’d agree to it,” Roth recalls, “but only if they’d cut me in half with a chain saw.”

So they did. Well, his parents didn’t do the actual sawing, but they did hire a magician. And he used a buzz saw instead of a chain saw, but otherwise it went according to Eli’s demands. Cousins, aunts, and friends all watched while a stranger took a power tool to Eli’s midsection. His name was the Great Marvello. “He had to learn the trick,” Roth recalls. “He had never done it before, and he was nervous. He told me, ‘Don’t move too much.’ Can you imagine?” The spectacle was a huge success, primarily because Eli didn’t die, but also because it cemented his love of all things ghastly.

Gore, blood, death—they’ve made Eli Roth’s name, made him rich and famous. After a half dozen years in the movie business as a nobody whose parents were helping pay the rent, Roth caught the industry by surprise. His 2005 hit, Hostel, described by critics as one of the most violent and horrifying films in recent memory, cost less than $5 million to make but earned nearly $80 million worldwide. In Hollywood, that kind of return on an investment makes Roth a very big deal indeed.

These days, Roth’s buddies with Quentin Tarantino. They regularly get together at Tarantino’s house to dissect their favorite films, and Tarantino asked him to direct a fake trailer to include in the recently released Grindhouse. Roth also runs with the so-called Splat Pack, a crew of young directors who’ve made the horror genre cool again—guys like James Wan (Saw), Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II and III), and Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects). Roth has been approached about making summer blockbusters like the latest Die Hard and a new version of The Hulk. Instead, he has chosen to focus on his own projects, namely Hostel: Part II, which opens this month.

Tarantino has called Roth “the future of horror.” Greg Nicotero, an Emmy-winning special-effects man who worked on both Hostel movies, says that’s not quite right: “He’s the present of horror now.” Either way, upon meeting Roth, it’s a bit hard to believe he’s responsible for so many nightmares. At 35, he has a tuft of messy, ink-black hair, and a scruffy beard surrounds his goofball grin; if David Copperfield and Ben Stiller could procreate, Roth would be the result. Over lunch in West Hollywood, he uses various accents (he does the classic Southie meathead perfectly), and tells a lot of jokes. He’s anything but scary.

“People are usually fucking shocked when they meet me,” Roth says. (He says “fuck” about as often as he inhales, and always loud enough so everyone hears him.) “They want Marilyn Manson or Trent Reznor. They want me to be dark and brooding and really unhappy. I’m a kid who used to hang out at the Chestnut Hill mall. I used to go to Filene’s.”

ROTH WAS RAISED IN THE WABAN section of Newton, on a tree-lined street filled with homes owned by professors and other professionals. His parents still live in their 80-year-old Tudor. Across the street is the park where he and his two brothers used to play on the tennis and basketball courts. In other words, your typical Newton neighborhood. This, after all, is the city annually named among the top five safest places in America, a community more suited to spawning bankers than horror directors.

Before Roth was a director, he was a kid, the kind that adults trust. He was the neighborhood babysitter. When the teacher left the room, Eli got put in charge. In the summer, he was a camp counselor at Meadowbrook Day in Weston. So, yeah, he was well adjusted.

Despite his surroundings, however—or maybe because he saw what they turned people into, and wanted something different—Eli was drawn to the macabre from a very young age. In grade school, he checked out the same three books so frequently—Dracula, King Kong, and The Wolfman—that Cora finally just bought them. He shot his first flick in the second grade. It was called A Clickwork Orange. He was eight years old, and already making Kubrick parodies. A few years later, the rabbi at his temple asked him what he wanted to do. “I said I wanted to be a motion picture producer-director,” Roth says. “I had a hyphen. What fucking kid has a hyphen at 12?”

In high school, while the rest of his Newton South peers were worrying about getting into Ivy League schools—so they could go to law school, so they could make obscene money, so they could settle into prefabricated lives and never leave Newton—Eli was busy filming gory movies in his parents’ basement, substituting ketchup for blood. (“I felt like an alien,” he says.) His classmates thought it was cool that he made movies—everyone wanted to be decapitated or shot or stabbed in his films. The gore never bothered his parents, either.

“Eli exemplifies what Plato often said—that the good dream of what the bad do,” says his father, Sheldon, a psychoanalyst and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Basically the imagination handles all uncomfortable impulses and thoughts. In his everyday life, Eli is extremely well behaved. We never had any problems with him. In his creative work, you see the other side of his imagination. Children’s fairy tales are often violent, too. Hansel and Gretel get eaten. In ‘Jack and the Beanstalk,’ the giant wants to chop Jack up. Eli’s movies are just adult fairy tales.”

The good people of Newton, however, were less excited by the prospect of young Eli exploring the darker side of his imagination. They worried his stories pointed to some latent mental disease, that the next thing they knew, he’d be blowing up cats with firecrackers. Eli’s teachers and guidance counselors, meanwhile, saw his potential and fretted that he wasn’t “properly applying himself.” That’s what they told his parents. They kept asking what Eli was going to do when his little movie fetish waned.

“I always thought that was hilarious,” says his mother, Cora. She’s an artist, and she could see that same ability in her child. “What would you like my son to do? Drive the T?”

A FEW MINUTES AGO, ROTH AND I were tooling around the Warner Brothers back lot in his personal golf cart. He likes to do that, especially when the lot is empty. It looked exactly the way you’d expect—a fake town here, some props and scaffolding there, all set against the gorgeous Hollywood Hills and a cloudless California sky. He showed me where the legendary Section Eight bungalow is (“G. Clooney” is stenciled on one parking spot), continuing a running commentary as we drove past the various sound studios.

Now we’re in an editing room, devoid of light, and Roth is showing me clips from Hostel: Part II. I wish he weren’t. In keeping with our arrangement, I’m only allowed to tell you a few things. I’m allowed to tell you there’s a scene in which an actress named Heather Matarazzo hangs upside down and naked above a tub. I’m allowed to tell you that the scene is every bit as frightening and gruesome as anything that appeared in the original. And I’m allowed to tell you that Matarazzo’s performance is beyond unnerving—to the point where my face contorts into a perma-cringe while watching her. It’s the scene everyone will be talking about.

“It really was an out-of-body experience,” Matarazzo recalls, explaining that Roth tried to make her feel comfortable even as he kept calling for “more blood.” “He’s really protective, and he’s hilarious, too—which is kinda funny, considering what he does.”

Funny. Yes. Especially since Roth is actually afraid of real blood. Oh, and he has an unnatural fear of ham. “It’s not a Jewish thing, though,” he says, without elaborating. Despite his own odd phobias, he gets a serious kick out of how people respond to his terrifying films. While watching those Hostel: Part II clips, I catch myself physically recoiling and literally pushing away from the television. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Roth smiling.

“I wanted to make a better scary movie,” Roth says of his latest offering. “If I want to be more violent, it’s not difficult. I wanted to do better photography, production, design, music, everything. I wanted it to feel like it’s another level of filmmaking. You don’t need a kill scene every 10 minutes.”

That isn’t to sugarcoat the carnage, because there’s lots of it in his films. Once the violence ramps up in the original Hostel, it doesn’t stop—everything from scissors to chain saws to blowtorches. After the gimp-balls and guns have been exhausted, people get run over with cars and jump in front of trains. The brutality in his movies is unapologetic. But it’s also only part of the overall effect. The first two-thirds of Hostel makes viewers uncomfortable not with actual torture scenes, but with mounting tension that foreshadows what’s to come. When Roth finally gets around to dismembering people, it’s almost a relief.

Like Tarantino and Scorsese, Roth uses excessive violence and bloodshed to hammer home his point—namely that “normal” people often lose sight of right and wrong and do very bad things. Roth got the idea for the Hostel movies when he heard an urban legend concerning businessmen flying to Thailand and paying $10,000 for the thrill of killing someone. In the first Hostel, two Americans backpacking through Eastern Europe fall prey to the murder-for-profit business. But it isn’t just the killers who are exposed as morally reprehensible. The Americans are, too. It’s their insatiable quest to drink more and do more drugs and have more sex that leads to their downfall. By the end, it’s hard to distinguish the victims from the clients who pay to torture them.

Indeed, the first Hostel reveals Roth as a talented and thoughtful filmmaker. Unlike the mindless Friday the 13th and campy A Nightmare on Elm Street flicks that previously defined the genre, there isn’t anybody running around in a hockey mask, and none of the killers have blades where their fingers should be. If you watch closely and open your mind, you’ll find hints of society’s unease over the use of torture at places like Guantanamo. (Really.) But you won’t come across many reviews that get that. Instead, you’ll see a lot of people calling his work “gorno” or “torture porn.”

Roth is used to the negative feedback. “Instead of saying, ‘There are some things in our culture that are really fucked up and people are connecting to something in this movie’—instead of that, they just immediately dismiss it,” he says. There was an uproar over the scenes he shot for Grindhouse, one of which (and apologies here to squeamish readers) shows a naked cheerleader bouncing on a trampoline before doing a split onto a knife. Recently, people have been exercised about a Hostel: Part II poster featuring an open wound and raw flesh (in reality, just boar meat). Roth shrugs off the flak, imagining how a disapproving film critic would classify his work: “It’s like, in the porn section they go: ‘There’s lesbianism, bestiality, interracial, anal, torture, and then horror.’ I think that people who use the phrase ‘torture porn’ are saying more about their limited capacity to understand the intellect of a horror film than they are about the film itself.”

Roth knows some critics roll their eyes at the suggestion that his horror movies are actually a form of social commentary. He is, after all, the same guy who’s fond of saying he likes to make movies where people “fuck with their clothes off.” That’s the kind of thing people remember about him. They forget, though, that he graduated summa cum laude from NYU film school and won a Student Academy Award. They forget that he’s something of a prodigy—that he got his first movie, Cabin Fever, made just three years after moving to L.A. It’s always been this way. Some see that he’s smart, and that his films aren’t schlock. A lot of others don’t, and never will.

“There were 1,100 other kids at my high school, and these were the kids who were getting 1400, 1500 on their SATs. I was not that kid,” says Roth. “I remember thinking, ‘God, these kids are smarter than me.’ Now I realize that’s ridiculous. They might have been smarter at algebra and math, but it’s a different kind of intelligence.”

Nonetheless, the criticism—the fact that detractors think his work is just vapid blood-and-guts instead of art—sometimes eats at him anyway. He still feels some need to justify his films. He’s left Newton, but a piece of him remains, waiting for validation.

AFTER NINE YEARS IN L.A., Roth knows the game. Hostel: Part II opens the same weekend as another sequel you may have heard about—Ocean’s Thirteen—and whatever his artistic impulses, Roth understands what that could mean for his opening numbers.

Ocean’s Twelve was fucking terrible,” he says. “I feel like the whole point of that movie was to pay for Clooney’s villa in Tuscany. The only heist in Ocean’s Twelve was them taking our money.” He goes on like this for a while. He seems worried. Clooney attracts “a different crowd than would go see our movie. But we’re still fighting for seats and bodies.”

There’s nothing Roth can do about it now. People will buy tickets or they won’t. All he can do is consider what comes next. He’s thinking about buying a house (he’s a renter) or maybe a new car. Right now he drives the same ’98 Mustang he bought when he moved to California—a beat-up white convertible with dents. (He points out that Tarantino bangs around in an ’88 Volvo.) He might make Stephen King’s Cell next. He’s a King fan, but the script hasn’t come in yet, so he’s waiting to see. There will be other opportunities, too—chances to make big-budget films that cost more than all three of his previous ventures combined. But he might just finally release the projects he’s put on hold since leaving home: One is called Massholes; you can probably guess the premise. Another is tentatively titled Scavenger Hunt, based on a Newton ritual that devolved into a sex-and-drugs orgy, demonstrating that privileged kids are more susceptible to deviant behavior than you might think.

He also wouldn’t mind making a film based on his contribution to Grindhouse—a movie featuring nothing but fake trailers for movies that don’t exist. “It would be complete, unapologetic absurdity,” Roth says. “Just total silliness. It would be like Borat or Jackass. It would be a nice transition for me. I’ve made three horror movies in a row. I know how to scare people.” Even so, Roth says he’ll never give up horror films. They’re his passion. “I just don’t want to recycle anything. I want to continue to improve. Like, with Hostel: Part II, I really feel like this one blows the first one out of the water. People will be asking, ‘How nasty was it?’ And I feel like those who have already seen it will tell them, ‘There’s some shit in there that’s just so fucking horrible, you can’t believe your eyes.’ That’ll be the highest compliment—when people are wondering if they can handle it or not.”