By Nathan DeCorte
Director Eli Roth, notorious for the series of so-called “torture porn” films he made over the last ten years, has taken his camera out of the dungeon and into the jungle in his latest work, The Green Inferno. The story goes like this: A group of student activists fly to Peru in order to disrupt the operations of an energy company that is destroying the forests and murdering the indigenous people of the region in order to tap the reserves of natural gas beneath their settlement. The students achieve their noble goal but, their plane crashes in the middle of the jungle. The natives, mistake the students for the gas prospectors terrorizing the village, dish out brutal vengeance upon the survivors.
The Green Inferno is Eli Roth’s love letter to the so-called “cannibal boom” – a period of exploitation movies lasting from 1977 to 1981 when cannibal films reached their peak in popularity in the world of grindhouse cinema. In all the annals of exploitation filmmaking, the cannibal film subgenre is likely the most notorious. These films typically depicted acts of cannibalism perpetrated by primitive tribes living within Asian or South American rainforests and reveled in graphic, realistic violence, intense scenes of torture, rape and mutilation. At times scenes of authentic cruelty to live animals were also included. Cannibal films have long been a contentious subject, both within the horror fandom and the greater film community. Detractors condemn the genre for its wanton violence, both real and staged, and for pervasive racism found in many of the films. Regardless, a number of cannibal films have longstanding cult followings, with proponents lauding them for their unflinching realism, brutal effectiveness and for themes critical of imperialism, third-world oppression and sensationalism in the media.
It is from this divisive period in film history that The Green Inferno takes its cues. And with Roth being an avowed fan of the cannibal film, horror fans all around the world were eager to see what he would do with the genre. This makes it that much more unpleasant to type out the statement that The Green Inferno was a bitter disappointment.
Eli Roth made his first feature film in 2002. He made The Green Inferno in 2013. As such, this film shows just how much a man can fail to grow as a writer and director in 11 years. The same obnoxious characterizations and misguided attempts at humor that plagued Cabin Fever in 2002 and Hostel in 2005 return to plague The Green Inferno in 2015.
One of the strengths of the old cannibal movies was that they typically had very lean narratives. Every scene had a sense of purpose: this scene exists to develop this character, this scene exists to establish that the overall mood is getting darker, so on and so forth. It was pretty uncommon for any of these movies to set aside time to tell jokes. Once things started to get dark and gritty, they tended to stay that way until the end credits. This model stands very much in contrast to that of The Green Inferno, which in one moment takes itself deathly seriously and in the very next starts throwing a bunch of jokes at the audience that would feel more appropriate in a sophomoric frat comedy. To put it simply, weed and diarrhea jokes have no place in a film that is trying to be as bleak, vicious and hard-hitting as 1979’s Cannibal Holocaust. The presence of these jokes in the film undermines any tension in a given scene and elicits more irritated sighs then laughs. Not that laughter would be appropriate in a film about people being butchered alive, roasted and then fed to their significant others. The comedy antics here are every bit cloying and distracting as the bumbling Keystone Cops who padded out the runtime in 1972’s The Last House on the Left.
What’s more, if Cannibal Holocaust benefited from a tight, lean narrative, then Green Inferno suffers from an awkward, bloated one. A solid twenty minutes could have been cut out of this film’s runtime without losing anything significant.
In due fairness, there are aspects of The Green Inferno that are worthwhile. The gore effects provided by Greg Nicotero are well-done as always, and towards the climax Roth manages to inject some genuine suspense into a film that was coming dangerously close to running out of gas. He even manages to write a couple of the kids well enough to make the audience root for their survival.
All told though, it’s difficult to recommend paying full price to see The Green Inferno. To the casual viewer, it would be better to wait until it hits Netflix or Redbox. Even hardcore horror fans are advised to wait. The novelty of seeing a mainstream cannibal film in theaters just doesn’t justify the cost of admission.
Nathan DeCorte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.