Whatever happened to Eli Roth as a director? In 2003, I watched Cabin Fever and was instantly smitten with the twisted new talent on the horror scene. His sense of humor reminded me of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson before they went Hollywood from their splatterfest beginnings. He directed two movies after, Hostel and its sequel, and while I found Part Two to be underwhelming in execution, I was quite a fan of the original Hostel. It further cemented that it felt like Roth was going places. Most of those places were as an actor or a producer. Roth has acted in more movies (two Quentin Tarantino flicks) than he’s directed since 2007’s Hostel: Part Two. His name was attached to and then departed other projects, notably an adaptation of Stephen King’s Cell, and then it felt like he just vanished altogether. Roth has re-emerged with two films bearing his name as director, The Green Inferno, which premiered in 2013 at the Toronto Film Festival, and Knock Knock. After having watched both movies in one day I can say neither was worth the wait.
Knock Knock concerns Evan (Keanu Reeves), an architect, a former world-famous DJ (?), and family man. His wife and children have left for the weekend so that dear old dad can finally get some work done. Then one rainy evening a knock knock comes upon his chamber door. Two soaked coeds, Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas), politely ask if they can dry off inside. They’re supposed to meet at a friend’s house and have gotten lost. Evan is hospitable to a fault and indulges with them in conversation. The girls are flirty and very interested in a sexual dalliance with Evan, and finally he gives in. The next night Evan is ready to move on and pretend like nothing happened. However, Genesis and Bel are refusing to leave, and they have a design to punish and humiliate Evan for his martial indiscretion.
The premise is a mixture of Fatal Attraction and a home invasion movie, and there is potential here for a slowly escalating thriller or a comically degenerating farce that surprises with its dips into darkness, like 2013’s Cheap Thrills. Alas, Knock Knock is an unbalanced and unintentionally funny morality play that is so poorly executed, ham-fisted, and awkwardly developed that it’s more horrifying mess than horror. The first act of the film is a bit overwrought with making sure the audience knows exactly what kind of temptation trap Evan is falling under. Every line has an innuenduous ring, every flirtatious line an extended second of awkward eye contact, and every innocuous moment begins to feel like the forgotten detail in one of those absurd Letters to Penthouse fantasies (“You’ll never believe what happened to me…”). You can see the better film that has been crushed to death under the rush to make something tawdry, complete with both girls soaping up their bodies in a joint shower and then jointly pleasuring Evan to eliminate the last of his denials. If you felt the slowly escalating sexual tension, the desire, and yearning, and then weighing the consequences, the movie would have been a far more compelling moral dilemma and character piece. Instead, the girls are over-the-top in their seduction routines and once Evan gives in it all gets even worse. It’s not so much relatable or an interesting ethical conflict as it is the in-between scenes for a soft-core porn biding its time. For what it’s worth, the gratuitous nudity is a bit shrift.
At no point do Genesis or Bel feel like actual human beings; they are unhinged one-dimensional lascivious cartoons with ridiculous and guffaw-inducing motivation. As soon as the morning comes, Genesis and Bel have transformed from seductive and coy young adults to infantilized and highly sexualized bratty teenagers. Our reintroduction involves both ladies filling the kitchen with breakfast supplies and throwing food around, laughing obnoxiously, and practically bouncing off the walls. Their initial adversarial one-upsmanship includes mooning Evan while he’s on a Skype call and drawing penises on his wife’s art. When a concerned neighbor stops by I was hoping for something a little more serious and dangerous, but they can’t even do that, which is what makes their late turn into would-be murderers to be completely unbelievable and forced. It’s so forced that Reeve’s sputtering monologue of incredulity pretty much sums up the point of view of any rational viewer. They play dress up and appear to have some psychosexual daddy issues, possibly resulting from childhood abuse or molestation, but at no point do they come across as a credible menace. Then there’s the concluding justification for their acts of retribution and it’s so lame and uninspired and a cop-out that you wish Roth had committed to the direction the film had been steering toward.
That’s the biggest failing of Knock Knock is that it could have worked as a thriller if Roth and co-writer Nicolas Lopez (Aftershock) had fully developed their scenario. There’s a fine story of events spinning out of control as one man gets in over his head trying to cover up his indiscretion. Evan doesn’t really grapple with his guilt because everything is manifested as an external threat. He becomes a literal hostage to his guests but they don’t ever turn the screws in a manner that belies a plan or even a sharper point. The first act should have been setting up storylines that would further complicate this hostage scenario with people dropping by and more opportunities to be caught. Rather than playing as a slow-boil hostage thriller or a be-careful-what-you-wish-for morality play, Knock Knock more approaches a failed farce. The film even lacks any visual polish or carefully constructed set piece to stand out from the bargain bin of cheap horror thrillers, and Chile does not convincingly double for California either.
Roth has been a filmmaker who found dark and creative ways to mix humor into his horror, but Knock Knock is one where his signature humor doesn’t feel intended. First off, the behavior of Genesis and Bel is wildly over-the-top, screechy, and just insufferable. Izzo and Armas are way too broad and way too unhinged without any sense of mooring from Roth as a director. It’s just not fun to watch. Their batty babydoll shtick isn’t funny or sexy or dangerous. The tone cannot find a balance or commitment. There are lines of dialogue that are howlers and then there are moments that are played without the right sense of pacing or delivery and they can transform something inane into something dreadfully funny. It’s hard to describe in words but Reeves’ strident yet flat delivery of “I’m a happily married man” after being bamboozled by two naked and nubile young women is hilarity in itself. Then there’s the final scene (spoiler alert) that rests upon a struggle to eliminate a damning social media post. The resulting action and Reeves’ resultant scream to the heavens left me doubling over with laughter, more so because this is part of the misguided climax to a misguided movie. Suffice to say the moments that seemed intended to be comedic fall flat and the ones that are not, at least in their primary and secondary purpose, are the ones that produce hearty derisive laughter.
At least Roth’s other 2015 release knows exactly what it wants to be, which is a stomach-churning gore-fest homage to one of cinema’s most notorious movies, Cannibal Holocaust. From an early college lecture about female genital mutilation, you know exactly where Roth is leading this story. Unlike Knock Knock, you get a sense of Roth’s passion for the material here, and while much of that material is the systematic exposure of other people’s guts, it’s at least treated with the right amount of horror and dread. In grand slasher tradition, our poorly developed characters are but bodies to be sacrificed for our sickening amusement, but at least this is where Roth comes alive with creativity. The plot is fairly bare-bones: a group of activists from a liberal arts college travel to the Amazon jungle to protest the local government tearing down acres of forest that rightfully belong to native communities. After having successfully staged their protest, the activists’ plane goes down in the jungle and the cannibalistic natives collect the survivors and do what they do best. While it takes a bit too long without layering in mystery or essential plot, or even ironic counterpoints to fold back upon, once the students meet the hungry villagers, the movie becomes everything it was intended to be, one gory torture sequence after another. There are some memorably gross and uncomfortable moments. Similar to Roth’s Hostel, sometimes the threat of torture is worse than a grisly death. When the practices of female circumcision come roaring back as a plot point, you won’t be able to stop squirming in your seat in appropriate trepidation of what’s next.
The Green Inferno might prioritize its colorful slaughter but at least Roth puts something approaching a survival story in play to fill in the gaps. The first human sacrifice is so methodical that it serves as a grandly grotesque statement to better motivate the other survivors. Izzo (Roth’s wife) appears as the movie’s version of the Final Girl, so we’re anticipating that she’ll be able to escape somehow. The villagers keep our characters locked in cages and slowly we get a greater sense of their routines and eating habits. There’s a clever use of marijuana to purposely drug their captors. While there is an overwhelming sense of doom and futility, partially just by knowing what kind of movie this is, I’ll credit Roth that the movie doesn’t feel repulsively nihilistic. It may feel genuinely repulsive for other reasons, but you still hold onto a small glimmer of hope that at least some of these college students might maybe make it out alive. Maybe.
There’s also the elephant in the room when it comes to the cultural depiction of a bunch of savages feasting upon primarily white Americans. It’s certainly not an enlightened or nuanced analysis of another culture and it brings to mind some rather ignorant and racist imagery of old where the “backwards natives” were seen as dangerous and uncivilized villains more in common with wild animals than human beings. The villagers in the movie are all bathed in a blood-red skin dye as if they were to be recognized as devils and otherworldly demons. I can’t fathom that a village of this size comes across enough wayward humans to keep itself nourished. It’s hard to get a read on what commentary Roth has in mind. Is he playing into xenophobia or is he sending up the ignorance of the college activists who think getting to the front page of Reddit is a major accomplishment? I can’t tell and this indecision on Roth’s part doesn’t help the movie. It’s easy in slasher cinema to root for the charismatic killer to mow down our gullible and dumb teenagers, but it’s also easy to find a survivor to root for against all odds. I can’t tell which side Roth was more interested in highlighting the plight of. The ending doesn’t clarify this either.
By no means am I saying that The Green Inferno is a conventionally enjoyable movie, but if you’re a gore hound looking to slurp up your next bloody feast, then this might hit the spot. It’s an uncomfortable and too often tedious film, and some of the character setbacks just seem mean-spirited or unnecessary, like a character literally defecating in a corner for what feels like a solid minute with Farrelly Brothers sound effects (even the natives point and laugh). This is not a pleasant filmgoing experience, nor is it particularly articulate with its social commentary, but the thing that The Green Inferno accomplishes is in its sense of grisly purpose. It’s not groundbreaking or even particularly artistic but for its select audience of horror aficionados, I feel like there is enough to merit watching. Unlike Knock Knock, which doesn’t know who its audience is, The Green Inferno knows all too well, beholden to their bloodlusts, and thus too limited to attract wider appeal. Then again any film that can be thematically linked to Cannibal Holocaust wasn’t exactly going to be targeting the masses. After a long drought behind the camera, these two releases have shown me that Roth’s interests have become a bit more base, his skills a bit more ramshackle, and his sick sense of humor a bit more misapplied. After Cabin Fever and Hostel, I had high hopes that Roth would follow in his mentor Tarantino’s footsteps and rise above genre trappings as an artist. With news that Roth will produce a Cabin Fever remake for 2016, well I think my hopes for the man have gone up in smoke.
Knock Knock: D
Green Inferno: C