I was going to say I’m not much of a fan of Eli Roth, but having only seen two of his movies prior to tonight’s viewing of The Green Inferno it would be ridiculous to do that. Having only seen Cabin Fever and Hostel, I approached this one with some baggage. On one hand I didn’t care for either of those movies, and on the other hand, I can’t say I’m a particular fan of mondo cinema either. I’m also particular about the genre of horror: gore isn’t enough; jump scares aren’t enough. That isn’t horror, it’s amateur Grand Guignol – where’s the excitement in seeing people killed off one by one? I don’t see it. I’m a character driven writer, and that’s what I look for in the movies I watch.
A bit of backstory: my family was the first I knew to own a videotape player – a Sony Betamax. My dad brought it home right before we sat down to dinner, back in Glasgow, Scotland in 1982. I think it might have been a Friday night. I was fifteen at the time and had already developed a healthy love for the horror genre – he and I used to sit up and watch the Saturday night horror double bill on BBC 2. The first was always an old Universal pic like Dracula or Frankenstein, the second was always one of those B movies from the 70s like The Crazies and Bug, starring Bradford Dillman. So I was pretty excited to see that not only had he brought home a Betamax, he’d also rented three movies: The Evil Dead, I remember for sure, maybe First Blood, and some movie about a professor who takes his students into the woods to dispel the legend of bigfoot, only for it to corner them in a cabin and slaughter them. In one scene I recall to this day, one of the students is pulled across one of those big two-handed lumberjack saws and the monster pulls her intestines out from the tear in her stomach. Being a fan of horror, this was a whole new experience. Over the next few years I watched just about every horror movie I could get my hands on. One of these was the infamous Cannibal Holocaust. I think I was about 17, and the movie stunned me. I hadn’t seen that style of filmmaking before – 13 years later when I first watched The Blair Witch Project in the Uptown Theater, 4,000 miles away in Minneapolis, MN, I was reminded instantly of Cannibal Holocaust. It stuck with me all that time – its graphic violence as seen through the dispassionate lens of the camera eye turns the audience from viewer to voyeur. I don’t remember if I came away from that first and only viewing with a feeling of self consciousness and secret revulsion, but I feel I would now if watching for the first time. It wasn’t horror then either, it was a different kind of cinema that I wouldn’t know until later as mondo.
Fast forward to 2016 when I decide I’m going to give The Green Inferno a go. You might wonder why. The answer is more complex than just a want. As I mentioned before I have an idea of what horror means, and what elements appeal to me. I don’t mind violence, in fact, I like violence, but it needs to affect me on a gut level. Jason’s multiple stabbings and choppings do nothing. I don’t like the laziness of lining up victims to die one by one. I want to feel the impact of death, have it resonate within me, even for just the length of a movie. Sounds weird, right? Maybe someone who reads this will understand It. As I’ve grown and found the right depth for my own work, I find that I feel things more intensely when I write in the horror genre, to live the life of someone else for the time I sit at the keyboard, to put them through the worst things I can think of … then step out of it until the next session. The Green Inferno captured my attention and I wanted to know if Roth could capture the terror of that most primal feeling of being unable to prevent oneself from dying a terrible, ugly violent death. There’s surely no greater sense of horror the human mind can comprehend as that of knowing your life is about to end like that soon, and you’re utterly powerless to prevent it. It’s the feeling the victims of ISIS must be overwhelmed by as that first cut slices across the throat, as the flames first lick up the orange jumpsuit. I’ve watched all of those ISIS execution videos, and no horror movie comes close to that. Could Roth pull that off?
The answer is no. I realize I’ve spent a lot of time on this review without actually reviewing the movie, but this has been a little bit cathartic to me, so bear with me for a few minutes longer.
The Green Inferno is the story of a group of American college students who go on a weekend mission to the Amazon to protest the deforestation of part of the rainforest. Hoping that by chaining themselves up to the machines bringing doom to the local ecosystem and its inhabitants, they hope that livestreaming, the protest will go viral and global outrage will shut operations down. Well, that’s what they believe they’re doing – I won’t discuss the reveal, but you’ll guess it and be mostly right. I’m not sure what Roth is saying in the first act. The students are uniformly privileged enough to be able to zip down to South America for this, then come back to resume studies and bask in the smug self-satisfaction of “doing something”. It’s a simultaneously bonehead and realistic depiction of people today, I think. When terror attacks happen, everyone “does something” by using a “prayfor” hashtag in their tweets, changing their profile pictures, or briefly signing on to being “I am Nice”, or “I am Charlie”. But where is the discussion, where is the real action? It’s more a case of replying with “Oh, it’s the least I can do.”
We live in a world of flashpoint outrage where “changing” the world essentially means a protest or two before signing up to the next cause. It all feels vaguely self-aggrandizing to me – then again, I have very few positions I’m passionate about. The world will turn regardless of what I do or think or say. You too, for that matter, whether or not you like to think otherwise. The students in this movie are so cluelessly idealistic that the scenes of them arriving in South America and essentially just acting like tourists on a long weekend is either frighteningly spot on, or Roth is just having a pop at them. I don’t think there is any middle ground here. Where Roth fails in this part of the movie is deciding not to use the beginning of act 2 to set up any sense of mounting dread – or perhaps as a filmmaker he just isn’t capable of it. The female protagonist, Justine (played well enough by Lorenza Izzo, Roth’s wife) is the only one of them who is given any kind of depth. The others are either dispatched too quickly to be anything other than anonymous red shirts or are so broadly uninteresting – in one case comically ridiculous, but not intentionally so – as to illicit zero empathy. I’d hoped to get a sense of that wholly selfish feeling of doom I mentioned above, but it’s all horror-movie empty here. Roth goes for fixed camera cinematography instead of shakycam, a miscalculation I feel. All it does is make it look like every other movie when it should make you feeling like you’re watching something that could be horribly real. The story takes a long time to get going, and when the action shifts to the rainforest, the story pretty much evaporates into sequences of the students getting offed one at a time. Without any kind of style, however, the movie quickly becomes dull and unsophisticated, and I found myself simply waiting for the next special effects scene. Greg Nicotero of TV’s The Walking Dead is co-listed in the opening credits and somewhat disappointingly, the scenes of biting and chewing don’t even seem as graphic as some of scenes in that show. It all feels weak, and in an odd decision, Roth chooses not to deliver the moment surely every viewer will be begging for. Remember the key reveal I mentioned so long ago? It relates to a character who turns out to be a real piece of shit, the guy you will want to see get everything that’s coming to him. Does it happen? I’ll let you see for yourself if you’re planning on seeing it. Roth could have used this character to polarize the viewer with one decision or the other, but ends up doing nothing of the sort. It’s crushingly disappointing. And the ending with Justine … again, I’m not going to say what happened, but while I kind of understood the place the character went in that final scene, it just didn’t come off as anywhere near authentic. I can’t imagine that anyone would do what she does given what she experienced. The concept of PTSD in this movie was apparently not wanted, or needed.
So, time for bed. Apologies for this rambling monologue. If you’re reading my reviews, you know I don’t do it too often, so how about cutting me some slack just this once? If you’re a TL;DR kind of reader, this is for you: The Green Inferno doesn’t try hard enough to deliver a genuine experience in personal terror, and so it gets: