Eli Roth first attracted attention with his 2002 debut Cabin Fever, a horror film in which paranoia and disease wreak havoc among a group of friends vacationing in a remote cabin. Shot through with an obvious love for and knowledge of the horror genre, Cabin Fever also showcased a technical acumen that reached beyond its miniscule budget. Those skills were put to good use in 2005's Hostel, an intensely violent film about vacationing American college students whose pursuit of hedonistic extremes takes them to a remote Slovakian hostel, where the exploiters become the exploited. Hostel and its gender-reversed 2007 sequel Hostel: Part II attracted a fair share of controversy for their graphic violence, usually from those who chose to ignore the strong undercurrents of political commentary and black comedy. (Maybe all the screaming drowned out the subtlety.)
In anticipation of Halloween, we invited Roth to program a virtual 24-hour horror-film festival for A.V. Club readers. All the titles below are available on DVD, and though it may be traumatic, we suggest readers do try this at home and post their experiences in the comments section below.
The A.V. Club: What time would you start this marathon?
Eli Roth: Well, usually when you're doing a 24-hour marathon, noon-to-noon works. You can go midnight-to-midnight, but starting at midnight never really works. If you start at noon, you're kind of ready for it. You've had a huge breakfast, you slept a lot the night before, and you get the afternoon. You can start off with a couple of slower films, have a short break for dinner, then get into the harder stuff. The last two or three movies are usually pretty delirious. When we do all-night marathons, we go 8-to-8, and by 6 in the morning, you're just exhausted. You know you're gonna go 24 hours, and you get your caffeine ready. But starting it at noon is always good. Plus, if you start it on Saturday at noon and go all night, it kind of gives you Sunday to recover. You sleep a couple hours, wake up to have dinner, then go back Sunday night. Usually if you do a noon-to-noon, by Monday you can be close to recovered.
AVC: Assuming you aren't in shock over what you've just seen and can still go about your life.
ER: Exactly. So you can still leave your house.
Noon: The Thing (1982)
ER: I think you gotta start off with John Carpenter's The Thing. It really holds up as one of the best horror films of all time, if not the best. The effects are amazing. The acting is so good, Kurt Russell is just so unbelievably badass. Cabin Fever was very much inspired by The Thing. It's really a perfect guy's horror movie: There's no love story, it's just straight-up horror. And it's so well-done. It moves at a slow pace, but it's really terrific.
AVC: It seems like its reputation just gets better over the years.
ER: It was very underappreciated when it first came out. Commercially, it was not a hit, really. It was kind of a bomb. It was a huge disappointment. And what's interesting is that John Carpenter was called a "pornographer of violence" after that film came out. He went and made Starman after that. And I have been accused of similar crimes. But the film—it's got such incredible over-the-top gore, which at the time was kind of unheard of. If it was released today, it would still hold up perfectly.
2 p.m.: Zombie (1979)
ER: After The Thing, if we're gonna go for some splatter, I would follow it up with the Lucio Fulci film Zombie. Zombie is the Italian sequel to Dawn Of The Dead. Dawn Of The Dead came out in Italy under the title Zombi, so these producers said, "Quick, let's do a rip-off!" But they called it Zombi 2 to trick people into thinking it was a sequel. It's actually an amazing film. Lucio is this Italian director—they call him the godfather of gore, and the gore scenes in this movie are just unbelievable. I mean, there's one scene of a wood splinter going through an eye, shot in close-up, and it just goes on and on and on and on.
4 p.m.: The Vanishing (1988)
ER: Now that you've gone two splattery movies back-to-back, I would watch the Dutch film The Vanishing. The Vanishing is technically not a horror film. It's much more of a thriller, but it is genuinely one of the most disturbing films I've ever seen. It's horrific. And you can't watch the American version; you have to see the Dutch version. A lot of Hostel is very much inspired by The Vanishing. Just the obsessive need to know what happens. And also the Dutch businessman in Hostel was inspired by the character in The Vanishing.
AVC: Why did the American version not work? I've never seen it.
ER: In the American version, they changed the ending. They tried to make a different ending, and it's so dated now. It looks like they used Apple computers from 1993. Sandra Bullock's in it, Jeff Bridges, and Kiefer Sutherland. And [George] Sluizer's there—the same director is doing the American version—but in the Dutch version, the film looks so beautiful and so dark, and it's so much about the Europeans. It's set in Europe, in the countryside and in the gas stations. Part of what makes The Vanishing really, really work is the locations this guy used. In the American version, the director didn't really have a visual command of what would make it interesting. The ending is terrible, and it's just a much more stale, boring, plain-looking film.
6 p.m.: Pieces (1982)
ER: The Vanishing would blow people's minds, so we need something to shake it up a bit. I would go for something straight-up fun, like Pieces. It's a Spanish horror film [1982's Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche] that was released as Pieces here. It was made in Spain, but except for Paul L. Smith, it's mostly Spanish actors with some really great bad dubbing. Pieces is one of my favorite early-'80s slasher films, in that it's a chainsaw movie that gives you absolutely everything you want. It's got amazingly cheesy acting, it's got fantastic kills, it starts off right away with a flashback with a kid killing his parents. It's just a fantastic, low-budget slasher movie with a terrific ending that makes no sense. And it's become a cult film, because there's a great line where the really hot undercover police agent—who's also posing as the tennis instructor—finds a girl who's been hacked up in the school bathroom. She just shakes her fist and goes [High-pitched female voice.] "Bastard! Bastard, bastard, bastard!" If you ever watch it with an audience, everyone always cheers along during that scene.
AVC: Wasn't the tagline something like "You don't have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre?"
ER: Yeah. And it's exactly what you think it is. In fact, on my MySpace page, someone edited a whole YouTube clip of the greatest kills from Pieces and put it up. You can watch the whole movie in five minutes.
8 p.m.: The Wicker Man (1973)
ER: After Pieces, I would show The Wicker Man.
AVC: Which version?
ER: The original. The other one doesn't exist as far as I'm concerned. The Wicker Man is such a weird movie. It's honestly a musical horror film, and it's one of those things where you're going, "What crack were these people on when they made it?" But it's brilliant, and it's got this slow, weird creepiness. And you can see where a lot of movies took… I mean, the first Hostel was very much inspired by The Wicker Man—the village, and the person being the outsider of the village, and everyone else is in on something—but it gets really creepy. There is some fantastic nudity in it. Britt Ekland does this amazing dance sequence. [It's a body double. —ed.] There's an updated cover of the song she dances to that the Sneaker Pimps have done, that I used in Hostel. But the original Wicker Man, it's such a bizarre movie. You wonder how anyone would ever make a film like that today. But it holds up as probably the greatest British horror film of all time.
AVC: And very British. Part of what confounded me when they did the remake was, "Would this make sense in any other setting?"
ER: It wouldn't.
10 p.m.: Who Can Kill A Child? (1976)
ER: After The Wicker Man, I would watch a Spanish film that's just out on DVD called Who Can Kill a Child? [¿Quién Puede Matar A Un Niño?] directed by [Narciso Ibáñez] Serrador, who's like the Spanish Hitchcock. It's similar to The Wicker Man in that it's someone going to an island where something's wrong. But it is a fantastic "killer-kid" movie.
I've always dreamed of making a killer-kid movie, and I actually had an outline for one, and I saw this, and my idea was frighteningly similar to Who Can Kill A Child? The film has this great premise of these kids running amok. But how do you kill them? Because they're kids! But you have to kill them or they'll kill you! [Laughs.] It's actually based on a book. And it's kind of a slow-burn movie. Like Wicker Man, it's slow, and it builds and builds and builds. But if you stick with it, it's so unbelievably tense. It's fantastic.
Midnight: Eraserhead (1977)
ER: A great midnight movie—the midnight movie—is Eraserhead. Eraserhead is a weird, horrible nightmare, and it doesn't narratively make sense. Stuff's happening, but you honestly feel like you're in a nightmare, and it has such disturbing imagery that it stays with you forever once you've seen it. So when people are watching Eraserhead, they can't expect to logically… Don't watch this film expecting a beginning, middle, and end, but everything is done for a purpose and a rhythm and a reason, and if you allow yourself to go with it… I mean, if you're sitting there watching movies for 24 hours, then you're the patient type. You're not an ADD type, anyway. But you can see that it's a brilliant, beautiful, wonderful, surreal film. You can see how many people take things from Eraserhead. And this is just David Lynch, who spent six years making this movie, and he'd just do two shots a night. And he had this in his head. And there's no precedent for it; there'd never been anything quite like it.
2 a.m.: Suspiria (1977)
ER: A lot of people watch Italian horror films, and they go, "Why is the dubbing so bad?" But that was the style of how the movies were done. Everything was dubbed in Italy because the movie studio—Cinecittà—was right by the airport, and when the movies started getting made, they would record stuff silently and dub it, and Italian audiences just got used to it that way. So everything is dubbed. To American audiences, it seems kind of strange.
Suspiria, like all Dario Argento films, at a certain point, you realize that you don't know what's going on. But it's okay. You're loosely following this plot of the girl who goes to this dance school, and then you kind of know what's going on. But it's all this horrific imagery. Whereas Lynch uses the stark black and white to create this horrible, industrial wasteland, Argento uses beautiful, operatic color. His films aren't meant to look like reality; his films are meant to look very operatic, almost theatrical. He comes from a family of composers and photographers and opera composers, and he loves opera. It's highly stylized, where it'll be a giant wide shot of someone walking across a courtyard, but all you'll hear are the tiny footsteps. It's all designed purposely that way. After Eraserhead, you're already in the mood and expecting something that's not reality.
4 a.m.: Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
ER: Cannibal Holocaust is an Italian horror film directed by Ruggero Deodato, that The Blair Witch Project stole its formula from. These filmmakers have gone to film this cannibal tribe and they've disappeared, and this professor from NYU goes and tracks down what happened to them. The whole first half of the movie is him going through a series of tests getting to these people—the tree people, the Yanomama tribe—and he trades with them and gets the film cans. He finds the film cans and the skeletons of the guys. And the second half of the film is him going through the film. All these little clues that we've seen set up, we see exactly what happened.
It is one of the most brutal, relentless, violent, realistic films ever made. It's so unbelievably disturbing. After the movie was made, the director got brought up on charges of murdering his actors, and he had to bring them into court to prove they were still alive. But he was also smart enough to have the actors sign nondisclosure agreements that they wouldn't appear in public for a year. The actors did it! This was the '70s—he sent them to New York, so they'd disappeared and didn't do any movies, and he said that this was all real, had all really happened, but then he got brought up on charges and had to admit that it was all fake. But there are shots in this movie where people still don't know how he did it. They're convinced.
That's why I put the director of Cannibal Holocaust in a cameo in Hostel: Part II as a cannibal. He was the assistant director to Roberto Rossellini, the great neo-realist director from Open City. So it's interesting that Deodato was able to take the Roberto Rossellini neo-realism and apply that aesthetic to a '70s ultra-violent cannibal film.
6 a.m.: Toby Dammit (1968)
ER: Six o'clock is a perfect time to show "Toby Dammit," which is only half an hour. "Toby Dammit" is the section that [director Federico] Fellini did—finishing off our Italians—for a film called Spirits Of The Dead, an anthology film from 1968. Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Fellini each adapted an Edgar Allen Poe short story. I wouldn't watch the Vadim and the Malle shorts. You can get a DVD and you can just choose which one you want to watch. You can watch all three, but they're not connected, so you can just go right for "Toby Dammit." It's an adaptation of a story I believe is called "Never Bet the Devil Your Head," and it's Terence Stamp in one of the single greatest performances I've ever seen. It's my favorite short film of all time, of anything I've ever seen. He's brilliant.
Terence Stamp plays this drugged-out actor who's flown over from London to Rome to star in a movie, and all he wants is a Ferrari. The only reason he did it was because they promised him a new Ferrari, so he's just completely out of his mind. He looks like he's been up for seven days on a coke/LSD/heroin binge. Drunk, drugged-up, and he just wants his Ferrari. But he's haunted by this little girl with a white ball who he thinks is trying to kill him, and he thinks she's the devil. And it's really, really creepy. But the way Fellini shot this—I mean, this movie's 40 years old—is so beautiful and brilliant and contemporary. You've never seen anything like it. I've always loved Fellini, but I was never a fanatic. I saw this and was like, "This is hands down the best horror short I've ever seen. This is brilliant." It's so visually striking. It looks like you're on some crazy drug trip, so watching that movie when you're at this level of tired is perfect.
6:30 a.m.: Evil Dead (1981)
ER: At 6:30, we're gonna want something to pick the energy up. At 6:30, I would go for Sam Raimi's original Evil Dead. Low-budget American horror made for $350,000—well, that's the rumor. Sam Raimi was like 21 when he made it. Bruce Campbell, shot on 16mm. There's such a wild spirit to this movie right from the opening frame. Anything can happen. It's got such incredible energy, and it's so low-budget—but you love it. You could tell they were doing anything, but there are sequences that are so effective. Little weird imagery like the sockets bleeding, and then touching the mirror and having the mirror be water. All this great stuff that was just pure, raw energy and creativity, but it has the energy of a Three Stooges episode. I love it.
AVC: Didn't Raimi say if he had to do it all over again, he might not have done the tree-rape sequence?
ER: Well, the tree-rape sequence got Raimi into trouble with the British censors, and he got brought up on charges of obscenity. I saw two days ago a Member Of Parliament… I mean, Hostel: Part II's been banned in New Zealand. It's been banned in the Middle East, and you knew it was gonna get banned in Singapore, but New Zealand, I was really surprised. And then in England, a Member Of Parliament brought it up, saying that under some new law, stills of Hostel: Part II… He hasn't seen the movie, but he heard it was misogynistic and pornographic, and that this new law would make it illegal to possess stills of the movie. In London, they're pushing and pushing for that.
8 a.m.: Audition (1999)
ER: Audition is a slow-burn horror movie that slowly builds and builds and things get creepier and creepier, but the last 10 minutes are the tensest 10 minutes of your life. And there are moments where the whole audience just jumps. It's so realistic and relentlessly brutal and horrifying, but it's brilliantly done. It's a film about perfection, and about people obsessed with perfection. And the photography's perfect, and the acting is perfect. And Audition was the film that made me want to make Hostel. I saw this and was like, "This is where horror's at. This is what I wanna do."
AVC: There's a lot of Miike I haven't seen, but I've never seen him be as precise as he is in that film.
ER: Yeah, and it's a film about this guy who wants this perfect life, and wanting perfection. The photography really reflects the subject matter of the film. And the way Miike uses color, and the production design, and this beautiful girl, and everything seems so perfect. His friend's trying to warn him: "No, no, something's wrong!" And he just won't listen. It's really a film about a sexist who doesn't realize he's that sexist, and it all comes back to bite him in the ass. It's kind of what I had with one of the characters in the first Hostel. They think that they're just having fun, and they don't realize that they're just taking advantage of people and using someone—and they get used. They become everything they're making fun of. Audition is a terrifying, brilliant film. And a beautiful movie, too.
10 a.m.: Torso (1973)
ER: There's so many different ways to go, but I would end with Torso, because I know a lot of people haven't seen it, and they should. Torso is a giallo film directed by Sergio Martino with Luc Merenda made in 1973, before The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I think there's a Blue Underground DVD, and NoShame has one that's coming out. It's such a fantastic Italian slasher film. Sergio Martino was the man. I mean, this guy made so many good movies that were underrated, and Torso, I think, is his masterpiece. It's so brilliantly photographed. The shots are incredible, but what's so great about Torso is the awesome lesbian subplot. It's a very great, almost erotic thriller. It opens right away with someone taking photographs of a lesbian threesome. The whole credit sequence is done over this. There's a great scene where the killer shows up at some weird hippie orgy in the woods, and there's some girl, and all these people are naked.
It's got lots of really great '70s things in it. But it's also one of the movies where the first 45 minutes are kind of incomprehensible. As Tarantino put it, "The movie almost dares you to keep watching it." I mean, what you're watching is fun, and you can definitely see the influence of Torso—the guy who played the doctor, Luc Merenda, I had him play a detective in Hostel: Part II. He came out of retirement for me. And there's scenes in piazzas, and it starts off in an Italian school. I mean, Torso was a huge influence on Hostel: Part II. But the last 15 minutes… Once they get to this house, the movie just takes off. The whole thing is about the house. So even if you don't know what's going on, or it just seems weird, or you're confused by who's who, don't worry about it. Keep watching until you get to the house. Once you're at the house, it's on. It's just unbelievable. The last 15 minutes of Torso are just some of the best filmmaking I've ever seen. It's such an underrated movie, and so few people have seen it.
AVC: That's how you want to send people out.
ER: You want people going out on the end of Torso. And you've seen here, there's a lot of Italian stuff, but we have some classic American, more modern '70s/'80s American, old Spanish stuff, old British, Dutch, and different varieties of Italian. You'll have Fulci, Argento, Deodato, Fellini, and Martino. And these are the kinds of movies that people should watch, to inspire them to look at every movie those directors have made. That's the idea. You could program it with all modern horror films that people have seen, but I love when you discover a pocket of cinema that you never knew existed. Like, "Toby Dammit" for me is a recent discovery. I didn't even know about it, and I consider myself fairly literate in horror, but suddenly it was like this great treasure had been discovered and I can now show and tell everybody about it. It's really exciting when you see Miike or The Vanishing—it suddenly gets you excited about that whole area of cinema, and it makes you want to go and track down every film that that director's done. And there are great ones out there.