Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Director: Eli Roth
Stars: Lorenza Izzo, Ariel Levy, Daryl Sabara, Kirby Bliss Blanton, Sky Ferreira, Magda Apanowicz, Aaron Burns, Ignacia Allamand, Magdalena Apanowicz
Running time: 103 minutes
One of these days, Eli Roth will legitimately terrify us. Until then, he seems content with simply giving genre fans nothing more than his comedy-tinged, viscera-drenched thrills. Instead of scaring you, he'd rather make you chuckle while fighting back upchuck.
Not that he's directed that many movies to begin with—Roth's latest, The Green Inferno, is Roth's fourth film as a director, following Cabin Fever (2002), the hugely successful Hostel (2005) and its 2007 sequel, Hostel: Part II. In the six years since the follow-up's release, he's kept busy co-starring in his friends' movies (Grindhouse, Inglourious Basterds, Piranha 3D) and producing indie films (The Last Exorcism) and the Netflix series Hemlock Grove. During that time, though, Roth hasn't exactly switched up his approach much. Like the Hostel films, The Green Inferno tries to find the balance between frat-boy humor and extremely disturbing scares, and, also similarly, it's not powerfully effective in either way. Which is a shame, since Roth's pulling influences here from some of the most unsettling exploitation movies ever made: Italian cannibal horror classics like Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Cannibal Ferox (1981).
Once again, Roth's characters possess only one dimension a piece. Fortunately, The Green Inferno, co-written by Guillermo Amoedo, hinges on its only truly likable protagonist, Justine (Lorenza Izzo), a college freshman who's lulled into joining an on-campus group of environmental activists, since, you know, her father's a United Nations lawyer. Led by charismatic go-getter Alejandro (Ariel Levy), the collegiate action-takers set their sights on a Peruvian jungle that's about to get bulldozed away by land developers—meaning, not just the eradication of the land itself, but also its human inhabitants. Alejandro, with Justine on-board, flies his minions out to the bulldozing site with a so-so plan: Show up with cameras, threaten the workers that the world will see what they're doing, and save the day. Unsurprisingly, his plan runs afoul quickly, and a plane crash strands the in-over-their-heads activists deep within the Peruvian Amazon, where a tribe of red-painted primitives dine on man, woman, flesh, and innards, in no particular order.
The Green Inferno's first half is a tough slog marked by Roth's storytelling trademark: juvenile humor, and lots of it. Just because it's how youngsters talk, one guy ends his sentence with "up in this bitch!" Justine's best friend, Kaycee (Sky Ferreira), thinks "activism's so fucking gay!" Like, for sure! As the kids get close to their Peruvian destination, one of them has to defecate, which gives Roth the chance to combine a penis and a tarantula for comedic effect. Or, as the character himself says, "A fucking tarantula almost bit my dick off!" Even when the film finally reaches its all-hell-has-broken-loose stage, Roth can't resist the urge to lighten the mood up, though his sense of humor works much better alongside his violence and brutality. Having the cannibals devour a victim with a bag of weed stuffed inside her is a nice touch (one soon-to-be victim's final words: "They have the munchies!"), as is what Roth does with a recently killed character's many body tattoos.
It's just too difficult to take The Green Inferno's horror seriously when its constantly diffused by middling gags. Case in point: A genuinely nauseating and horrific sequence where the cannibals carve up someone's body like a Thanksgiving turkey is immediately followed by a female character relieving herself, fart sounds and all, much to the tribe's children's amusement. That's indicative of the film as a whole—it's a playfully knuckle-headed companion piece to predecessors like the aforementioned Cannibal Holocaust. Though one with an occasionally awake brain. Roth does get his underlying message through: When people stand up for issues they don't know anything about, only bad things can happen. The film can be seen as a middle-finger in the direction of half-assed activists worldwide.
Seen that way, The Green Inferno is, at its best, enjoyably combative. It's just not forceful enough. There's a reason why people still talk about director Ruggero Deodato's 1980 film today: No matter what year you watch it in, Cannibal Holocaust will always be emotionally traumatic. It feels lived-in, like an authentic snuff film, one pervaded by an overall icky sense of dread. Deodato didn't want his audience to laugh—he wanted them to cringe at the inhumanity. Because of that, Cannibal Holocaust will forever remain horrifying.
The Green Inferno, on the other hand, might find its enthusiastic late-night screening crowds eventually, but, chances are, horror historians won't be discussing it in 33 years. Hopefully, though, they won't also be conversing about how Eli Roth—a great ambassador for horror if there ever was one—never made a truly "scary" movie. It's not like he's incapable of doing so. The film houses a scene that's phenomenally grueling: The first activist to become tribesmen chow is laid out on a large rock so that his face can ripped apart and his limbs hacked off all while he's alive and screaming and his friends have to helplessly watch. Decades from now, it'll hold up next to anything in Cannibal Holocaust.
For those few, all too brief minutes, Eli Roth is, wouldn't you know it, scary.