Going to the movies is one of the most communal experiences you can have, provided you go alone. That may sound contradictory, but hear me out. If you go with a friend or a group, you’re there to hang, to enjoy a film as you would at a house party. If you go with a date, you’re likely spending half the time thinking about them or yourself, whether it’s early in the relationship (do they like me? Should I hold their hand? Try to kiss them?) or late (parking was expensive, I hope the babysitter’s okay). To many, going to the movies alone is as anathema as dining alone, but while that experience enhances the isolation, movie-going solo enhances one’s communal experience. And there’s no better genre to have that experience with than horror.
Case in point: I went to see Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno at Times Square on Friday night, solo of course. The theater was open a half hour before showtime as is the norm, and a handful of people had already taken their seats. The staff hadn’t yet officially cleaned the theater, however, so they made everyone get up out of their seats and stand near the aisles as they haphazardly swept the floor. While standing in the aisle, a young man came up to me and asked if I was seeing the film alone. I answered yes. He then asked if I wanted to sit with him in the back. Like any good New Yorker, I was immediately suspicious and shook my head. When he asked why, I came up with a feeble excuse of “because I like sitting down in the front.” We all returned to our seats and as the pre-show started, the man came and sat two seats down from me. “Mind if I sit here?” he asked and I shrugged. We talked a bit, and I explained about how I was a freelance writer for this very website and how “all critics have their special viewing seat” (nice cover for your lie, Bill). I asked him if he was a horror fan and he said yes, that he especially loves “watching the reaction of others around me.” I then asked why he was alone, and he replied, “I don’t have any friends who wanna see Eli Roth films.
Indeed, there aren’t many people in general who want to see Eli Roth’s films, simply because Roth has built a name for himself as a purveyor of the grindhouse exploitation movie. His first film, Cabin Fever, had a premise involving a flesh eating virus which already makes you wince. His second and third films were the first two installments in the Hostel franchise, which along with the Saw films put the “torture porn” sub-genre on the map and launched a hundred editorials on bad taste in cinema. What Roth’s films had that other “extreme” horror films of the day lacked is a real sense of humor, of depth, and of pure entertainment. There was social commentary on the level of George A. Romero alongside some vicious and visceral gore. Roth took a break from filmmaking for a few years, focusing on writing, producing, and acting. In 2013 he returned to directing with his version of the cannibal exploitation horror film, The Green Inferno, which ran into distribution issues and delays that resulted in the film finally being released this weekend. While not ideal, this delay worked in the film’s favor in building its sordid reputation: “how gross is this going to be?”
The answer is “pretty gross” but with the asterisk that it’s much more morally reputable than the films that inspired it, and that hey, it’s a cannibal movie, dummy. Despite many homages to Roth’s hero Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (an infamous rite of passage film in horror circles that acts as an endurance test with its verite violence and real life animal cruelty) The Green Inferno isn’t looking to make you use a barf bag, but rather to bite your nails from the horror you anticipate and eventually witness. The gore is plentiful, but portrayed in an artful way rather than a “no cuts-this is happening” style that provides a thrill ride for the audience rather than a punishment.
The punishment the film doles out is strictly for the characters. College freshman Justine (Lorenza Izzo) is seduced by local campus protests and foreign studies classes enough to want to sign up with an activism group led by Alejandro (Ariel Levy), who plan on chaining themselves to bulldozers about to mow down a section of the Amazon for development. The protest is harrowing but successful, and while flying back to America the plane’s engine blows and the students plummet into the jungle, where the crash survivors meet the isolated tribe they just saved, only still unfortunately clad in uniforms worn to disguise themselves as the developers. From then on its survive, escape or be eaten.
Roth treats the structure of the film in a classical horror fashion, where the kids who dare to go play in the haunted house are replaced by the activists who, according to the film, should leave well enough alone. The film’s attitude towards activism isn’t subtle (at one point a character says “activism is so fucking gay,” so yeah) but it is nuanced, with some kids doing the right thing for the right reasons and others much less so. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t demonize the cannibal tribe, treating them as simply another culture that we can never understand nor disturb. There are the requisite trappings of the traditions of exploitation cinema, such as odd tonal shifts, stilted performances, tropes and archetypes, along with a lack of sensitivity. Many people are offended by the film just by its ad campaign alone, but it’s important to remember that Roth is a huckster: he wants to offend at least some people, to push buttons and boundaries, and like the activists in the film, he’s neither altruistic nor entirely opportunist.
After all, what Roth really wants to do is entertain. And so I took a cue from the stranger sitting next to me in the theater and looked around me at certain points as the film played, and saw a variety of reaction that was never passive. One man clapped and cheered at escape attempts and moments of brutal revenge, another woman shouted advice and criticism of the characters’ actions in the classic “don’t go in there!” tradition. We were all on this roller coaster together. As the lights came up after an odd post credits scene (the film’s biggest flaw-a “Green Inferno” franchise? Huh?) I turned to the young man and asked what he thought. He threw up his hands and said he’d “have to process it,” but he’d look for my review. Well, if you’re reading, man, I hope you liked it. Even if your friends wouldn’t go, for that 90 minutes, everyone in that theater had a shared experience, and that’s worth something.
This article originally appeared on Pixcelation.com on Sept. 28, 2015.