As one of his stars was winched into place, dangling upside down 15 feet above the ground, shackled and naked, director Eli Roth wondered if he had gone too far. For a moment, he wondered if “Hostel: Part II,” opening Friday, his followup to the early 2006 box-office hit, was crossing a line—even for a horror flick about businessmen who pay to inflict torture.
“Her screams were so real and so horrific that even the makeup guys couldn’t watch,” says Roth. “There was a moment where I standing there, really by myself—just me, (actress) Heather Matarazzo and the cameraman and the sound guy—and there she is just screaming her little heart out.
“And I thought, `Oh my God, what have I done?’”
But the self-proclaimed “P.T. Barnum of horror” knows exactly what fans expect of him.
Since the writer-director-producer scratched his way into the genre with 2002’s “Cabin Fever,” about a flesh-eating virus, and certainly since “Hostel,” Roth’s name has become synonymous with gruesome gore. And it’s easy to imagine the 35-year-old Boston native gleefully envisioning it staying like that, the same way “Hitchcockian” equals “suspense.” Except Roth’s films would’ve made the late Alfred Hitchcock run back to Jesuit school.
The first “Hostel,” which reportedly cost just $5 million to make, earned more than nine times that at the box office after opening at No. 1. Upon seeing it, author Stephen King wanted Roth to direct the upcoming adaptation of his best seller “Cell.”
Roth’s success is due in no small part to tireless campaigning and a knack for knowing his showman-like niche. Several years ago, when he met Quentin Tarantino at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Roth was covered in fake blood. Tarantino later “presented” “Hostel’s” release.
“I really put myself out there as the spokesman for the movies and for the horror genre in general,” says Roth, a product of New York University’s Film School. “In this genre, the director is the star, and I know that. I want fans to really connect to me and my ideas and my personality, even before they see my films.”
“People who care and know about these kinds of movies certainly know his name. It’s a brand,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracking firm Media by Numbers. “You can say it’s self-promotion, but you know what? It works.”
What has also worked is Roth’s films’ penchant for drawing controversy:
This past spring, his mock slasher trailer, “Thanksgiving,” in Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s “Grindhouse” featured a scene of a cheerleader jumping on a trampoline and landing in a split—right onto a knife. That moment threatened to give “Grindhouse” an NC-17 rating before it was edited back a bit. When asked, Roth still professes surprise that such a money shot wasn’t fit for the mainstream.
After the first “Hostel,” Roth traveled to Slovakia to meet with journalists and politicians who complained about their country being depicted as a haven of torment. Subsequently, Roth cast noted Slovakian actor Milan Knazko, former minister of culture, in “Hostel II” as the head of the group that runs the pay-for-torture ring.
And now, Roth says he is steeling himself for the inevitable outcry against his decision this time to torture female protagonists as well as the odd male.
What’s his reason for switching the main victims’ gender? “It’s the difference between hunting a lion and hunting a deer,” Roth says glibly.
But Matarazzo says Roth is really a pussycat on the set.
“As sick and twisted as it sounds, it probably was the most fun I’ve ever had,” says Matarazzo, who trained with a yoga instructor to prepare for her hanging-upside-down scenes. “Eli is one of the nicest, most playful people I’ve ever met.
“I’d be done with work at, like, 5 in the morning, and he’d send a text message saying, `Thanks for your performance.’”
For Roth, the showmanship is all part of the fun. “The goal is to build the scariest roller coaster in the park,” he says, “not to make the meanest, most violent film.”