Ask any horror filmmaker about the influences for their celluloid nightmares and chances are they'll come back with something about their childhood fears and attempting to realize the things that scare them most. For Hostel and Cabin Fever director Eli Roth it has ultimately become a deeply disturbing mixture of the two. Roth's proliferation in the horror genre coupled with his giddy willingness to play the role of cinema outlaw came at just the time the PG-13 blues were leading many genre aficionados to wonder if there really were anymore filmmakers out there who were still willing to break the rules.
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As a young horror fanatic, the future New York Film School graduate obsessed over keeping pace with the career trajectory of Evil Dead director Sam Raimi. With a target of 21 as the age by which he should direct his first feature, the ambitious 20-year-old sat down to write a script based on a series of frightening medical incidents that happened to him in his youth. Paralyzed at 12 by a rare virus that strikes one in a million, stricken with a water-borne parasite for which he had to drink poison to stop from eating his insides at 17, and infected with a bacteria that literally caused his skin to peel from his face at 19, Roth adapted the ailments that plagued him into a script for the alternately funny and frighteningly repulsive Cabin Fever in 1995 along with a little help from friend Randy Pearlstein. An independent homage to the 1970s and '80s shockers on which Roth was weaned, Cabin Fever was shot for a paltry 1.5 million dollars in the same North Carolina woods in which his childhood idol had filmed The Evil Dead and went on to spark an unprecedented bidding war when it premiered at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival. When Lion's Gate released Cabin Fever into theaters the following year, Roth was immediately hailed by many horror fans as the true future of the genre. Though some were turned off to the humorous approach that Roth had taken to terror, the more grotesque aspects of Roth's bacterial skin-crawler hinted at a filmmaker not afraid to break from genre convention and play dirty in order to keep his audience squirming in their seats. Of course when your first film creates as big a buzz as Cabin Fever did, what's a filmmaker supposed to do for a follow-up? Armed with the knowledge that his sophomore effort could either make him or break him in the eyes of the horror community, Roth pondered a Cabin Fever sequel and pored through studio scripts in an effort to find the idea that truly terrified him. As fate would have it, friend and fellow film fanatic Harry Knowles of the popular movie website "Ain't it Cool News" contacted Roth just around this time with a story concerning a website that had been brought to his attention where, for a nominal fee, anyone wishing to experience death firsthand could personally murder another human being; the resulting profit generally going to the unfortunate participant's impoverished family. The groundwork for Hostel had been laid.
Frustrated by the American film machine and encouraged by like-minded horror fan Quentin Tarantino to press forward with the idea at all costs, Roth locked himself away to pound out the screenplay for the brutally unforgiving Hostel while still thriving on the energy of the Red Sox win at the 2004 World Series. Filmed in Prague for under five million dollars as a way for Roth to visit a place he had always loved (and deliver a notable kiss-off to American unions), Hostel told the tale of two hard-partying American backpackers and their horny Icelandic friend who, while backpacking through Europe, all fall into a grim trap after being lured to a small Slovakian town with the promise of plentiful drugs and beautiful women. By largely abandoning the humor of Cabin Fever to set a more ominous and menacing tone and not allowing his camera to flinch during some of the film's more sanguine moments, Roth proved with Hostel that he could stand alongside such genre innovators as Takashi Miike to effectively test the limits of even the most desensitized genre fan. A financial success at the box office in addition to being one of the few horror films released at the time that wasn't a sequel or a remake, Hostel truly delivered on the promises made in Cabin Fever to prove that Roth's initial success was indeed no fluke. Outside of his feature directorial work, Roth has also teamed with filmmakers Boaz Yakin and Scott Spiegel to form Raw Nerve, an exclusively horror-oriented production company dedicated to producing truly boundary-pushing genre films that never compromise the filmmaker's vision. Roth's hilariously obscene, foul-mouthed produce-howler The Rotten Fruit proved that the playful director was even fairly adept at stop-motion animation.
Of course, American horror pictures -- particularly those crafted by intelligent and intuitive directors (and Roth fits the bill on both counts) -- tend to rake in unholy profits at the box office, and Hostel was no exception. It grossed almost 20 million (from a 4.6-million-dollar budget) in its opening weekend alone, paving the way, of course, for a sequel, that picks up directly following the final shot of the original. 2007's Hostel: Part II reprised the formula of the first film, substituting an ensemble of girls for the boys of the original picture. This film follows several backpackers, visiting Rome, who discover that the torture palace from the original Hostel is actually a small part of an international "chain," and find themselves subjected to endless sadism and brutality.
Alongside that sequel, Roth juggled an overwhelmingly busy schedule. He assumed production duties on the 2006 big-screen adaptation of television's Baywatch, and helmed the same year's throwback teen sex comedy Scavenger Hunt, a madcap farce that sends a bunch of crazy adolescents on a wild goose chase for a bevy of diverse objects.
He contributed the trailer for Thanksgiving to Grindhouse, and teamed up with Tarantino in 2009 for his most prominent acting role as the Bear Jew in Inglorious Basterds. In 2011 he contributed to Corman's World, a documentary about the legendary exploitation producer/director Roger Corman, and he had a brief cameo in the jukebox musical Rock of Ages. ~ Jason Buchanan, Rovi