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MOVIES

A queasy-does-it guy

Grown-up kid Eli Roth says his stomach-wrenching films tackle social ills too. Tell that to the usher cleaning the floor.

June 03, 2007|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

A gore merchant isn't born, he's made.

Consider the case of Eli Roth, whose gory, lucrative films are often described as "torture porn" or with an especially pungent new term: "gorno." This Friday, Roth's latest, "Hostel: Part II," will land in theaters with a splatter -- the plot finds three nubile coeds trapped in an Eastern European sadism club where fiends on vacation pay to slowly carve up strangers. If the thought of watching that makes you nauseated, well, Roth can understand. He's been on the other side of that popcorn bucket.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 07, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
'Hostel': An article in Sunday's Calendar section about filmmaker Eli Roth said his film "Hostel" hit No. 1 at the box office in 2005. It was in early 2006.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 10, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
'Hostel': An article in the June 3 Calendar section about filmmaker Eli Roth said his film "Hostel" hit No. 1 at the box office in 2005. It was in early 2006.

Roth spent years vomiting in the middle of matinees; he threw up so often that the theater ushers near his home in Newton, Mass., would groan when they saw him coming. He was easy to spot too, because he was so young. He was all of 8, for instance, when his parents (a Harvard University Medical School psychiatrist and a New York artist) took young Eli to see a creepy science-fiction film called "Alien." In no time, the boy was racing for the lobby with his mouth covered. That also happened to be the day Roth decided that he wanted to be a filmmaker.

"That was the one, I left there and knew that was what I wanted to be when I grew up," he recalled as he cruised around the Warners lot in a golf cart. "It sort of took over my life." He started making Super-8 movies with brothers, friends and pets as stars and, by his bar mitzvah, he asked the rabbi to introduce him as a film director-producer ("I was already a hyphenate"). The cake was shaped like a director's clapper and, in case anyone thought he wanted to make romantic comedies, was splattered with red food-coloring.

All of this would be merely quaint if Roth wasn't making some of the most disturbing films in memory. He is at the forefront of a movement in Hollywood to not only resurrect the blood-and-breasts-style slasher films of the early 1980s but also take them to new heights of realistically based narrative. Many have drawn-out murders, usually of bound victims who sob, hyperventilate, shriek for mercy or (here's that word again) vomit. It seems audiences can't get enough: The three movies in the delicately titled "Saw" series cost a combined $15 million to make and have grossed $222 million in U.S. theaters.

The filmmakers are called the "Splat Pack," of course.

"We have a friendly competition, and we have to keep in touch while we're making the films just to check on what scenes everyone is doing," Roth said of the club. He added that he reworked the script of "Hostel: Part II" and a scene of a girl getting her stomach-piercing jewelry ripped out when the filmmakers of the upcoming "Saw IV" cheerfully bragged that they had already covered that creative ground. It was a shame, Roth said.

"I had been looking for stuff you could do to girls that would be awful but not so horrifying that you felt like you couldn't watch it or you felt like you had been kicked in the stomach. I want people to be scared and walk away upset, but I don't want them to feel like they need to take a shower."

It's a fine line -- but that's "gorno" for you.

Best of the worst

HERE are some choice moments from the Roth highlight reel: A half-naked cheerleader on a trampoline does a leg split and lands, crotch-first, on a knife, in a spoof scene he contributed to "Grindhouse;" in the first "Hostel," a young woman loses an eye while she is being tortured with a blow-torch, but it still dangles from the socket -- until her rescuer uses scissors to snip it off.

There's another scene in the faux trailer he made for "Grindhouse" where a young guy with fresh-scrubbed features is parked in a convertible with his gum-chewing girlfriend. He talks her into performing oral sex on him but a heartbeat later she looks up to see that his head has been lopped off. Oh, by the way, in that last scene, Roth himself played the bad-luck lothario. He kept the head prop as a souvenir.

Roth describes his films with the pride of a young man who has just won the science fair and can't understand why everybody is so upset. Understanding his movies and its audiences, he said, is as simple as understanding the difference between a merry-go-round and a roller coaster. "If you're going to see a movie like 'Cheaper by the Dozen,' at the end you're supposed to feel good. The point of a horror movie is you're supposed to feel terrible."

Mixing blood and lust is a trademark of Roth and his contemporaries, as it was for the 1980s splatter films that influenced them. That has made him the target of women's groups and media-content commentators.

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