Say what you will about Eli Roth’s new horror film The Green Inferno: it’s not politically correct. Most horror films give a cursory nod to the current cultural zeitgeist, but this one is a cheerfully regressive throwback to cannibal barf-bag grossfests. Here, a group of naive college students venture into the South American rainforest to save an endangered tribe, and then unfortunately find themselves terrorized by the natives, who are consumers of human flesh. And eyeballs. And tongues. And anything else you could imagine, although thanks to Roth’s penchant for delivering buckets of gore, you don’t have to imagine very much. Stories about The Green Inferno‘s unremitting violence have been circulating for years now–the film was made in 2012 and was pulled from distribution last fall. It’s now finally been released by Blumhouse Pictures. Was it worth the wait? Not really.
Roth is the shock-jock DJ of the horror world. He has a geek’s love of movie culture, and he adores slamming genres and tones together, and pilfering from his influences. He’s like a low-rent Quentin Tarantino (they’re friends). Tarantino, however, likes to internalize his inspirations, polish them, and create something altogether new. Roth prefers to just regurgitate, and he compensates by feeding a compulsive and juvenile need to offend. Tarantino, also, is incapable of writing boring characters, and that’s all Roth can do. The setup he bestows on Green Inferno is endless, and yet so perfunctory and stiff that it’s impossible to care at all about the characters he’s lining up to be hot lunches.
One character sort of stands out, and that’s Justine (Lorenza Izzo), a college freshman who means well but has a thimbleful of knowledge for how the world works. When hearing about atrocities in other countries, she says in class that a call to her father, a UN ambassador, could fix everything. She takes a shine to student activist showboat Alejandro (Ariel Levy), and eventually she’s tagging along for a weekend excursion to the Amazon, where the students will stage an anti-deforestation demonstration, against the firepower of armed militia (a detail that escapes their notice until it’s too late). Things go well enough, I suppose, until a plane crash strands them in a hostile jungle full of hungry natives.
What happens next–I’m warning you–is some of the most repellent and graphic violence you’ll see this year. This is especially true in one grisly centerpiece of horror that spares no details; the makeup work is quite excellent, if you like that sort of thing. A series of impalements, beheadings, flayings and dismemberments become the norm as the cast dwindles down, leading to a climax where a naked heroine is threatened with castration and then cannibalism, as hordes of villagers lick their chops and leer.
Does this all go too far? Absolutely. Without question. It also kinda doesn’t go far enough. Roth’s aim is to make a slick, updated exploitation picture, but he takes forever to get started (every character, even Justine, are woodenly-acted ciphers, and their setup lasts an hour), and once he delivers that disturbing set piece, his script devolves further into pointless runarounds and misjudged tonal shifts (his idea to top the horror of watching a friend be eaten is to throw in jokes about explosive bodily functions). There’s an effort, in the script, to satirize those who indulge in outrage tourism (ignorantly caring more about photo ops at an injustice instead of the injustice itself), but the film’s politics are confused at best. It’s a grisly and plotless mess, and the whole effort only serves to prove that if the violence in this film can’t get the dreaded NC-17 rating, then absolutely nothing can. Why even bother pushing the envelope, then?
Roth doesn’t help himself by shooting the film in digital video. With a story like this, we want photography that touches the mystic, and bestows a terrifying aura. Instead, the clumsy (and incessantly shaky) aesthetic flattens the wonder of the rainforest and distances us. Despite the tries at intensity, the film is not consistently scary, just gross. And if you’ve seen a cannibal horror film before, this one will just taste–sorry–stale.