TORONTO – Since the first time I came to Toronto for the annual film festival, I have viewed Midnight Madness as my favorite part of the entire event. I’ve managed to attend nearly every possible Midnight Madness screening each year, and some of my favorite memories of my time here come from not only the movies shown, but the people in the audience and the lunacy of the event surrounding the movies. Programmer Colin Geddes throws a hell of a party, and until I’m in the Ryerson, surrounded by the bloodthirsty fans of the madness he unveils every year, I don’t really feel like I’m in Toronto.
As a result, the first two nights of this year’s festival left me a bit off-balance because scheduling issues left me stranded, unable to get to either “All Cheerleaders Die” or “The Station.” I hope to catch up with both of them, but it won’t be the same as it would be with that audience. On Saturday night, however, I finally worked things out and I made it to my favorite aisle seat in the Ryerson in plenty of time for Eli Roth’s world premiere of his new horror film, “The Green Inferno.”
First, I would like to personally thank Eli for not making it as a found footage movie, because I am very close to my breaking point with that gimmick. I shut off a film halfway through last week because I was so annoyed by the way they shoehorned in a flimsy excuse to explain why they were doing it as found footage. Several people on Twitter told me that the filmmaker had to do that because the financiers told him it was the only way they’d make his movie, and that seems like the most pathetic excuse possible. “Hey, we’ll make your movie, but first you have to ruin it.” It is a buzzword for the money guys, but there’s no regard at all for what audiences actually want or what the best choice might be for storytelling. If Eli had done the film as found footage, though, he would have found himself competing directly with one of the movies that pioneered the approach, the infamous “Cannibal Holocaust.” Instead, he wisely eschewed that approach in order to make his own film, and while he definitely wears his influences on his sleeve here, this fits neatly into his filmography as a thematic companion piece to both “Cabin Fever” and the “Hostel” films.
Each of Eli’s films so far deals with what happens when typical middle class white American kids step out of their comfort zones into the dangerous unknown, whether that’s the archetypical cabin in the woods or a war-blasted Eastern European country or the deep dense dark jungle of the Amazon, and in each case, what they encounter is far worse than they could have expected. I find it fascinating that the way he deals with these fears is by actually going to experience these places for himself, camera crew and cast in tow, and I think it’s the strongest thing about his films, this genuine world view he seems to be chasing. His latest film is as unapologetic a gore film as I’ve seen in recent memory, with red meat provided by Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, and if that’s something you want, “The Green Inferno” will satisfy.
Justine (Lorenza Izzo) is going to school in New York, where she has noticed Alejandro (Ariel Levy), the leader of an activist’s group on campus. He’s determined to grow his group into something bigger, something that will last after he graduates from college, and he’s come up with an event that should put them on the map. He invites the rest of the group to go with him to Peru to stop an oil company that plans to bulldoze the home of an indigenous tribe, using a militia to kill the natives so they can claim their land and dig for the oil they know is down there. Justine isn’t sure she has any interest in activism, but she wants to get closer to Alejandro, and she figures it can’t be any real danger they’ll be in. We get a chance to meet some of the other kids, including Jonah (Aaron Burns), Kaycee (Sky Ferreira), Daniel (Nicolas Martinez), Amy (Kirby Bliss Blanton), Samantha (Magda Apanowicz), Nick (Daryl Sabara) and, of course, Alejandro’s girlfriend (Ignacia Allamand).
It’s sort of surreal to see how Nicolas Lopez and Eli have forged this new partnership, although I’m going to guess there are plenty of US audiences that aren’t familiar with Lopez and his work, so they won’t notice how a big chunk of the ensemble cast from Lopez’s hit Chilean films. Izzo, Levy, Martinez, and Allamand have all worked with Lopez on films including “Promedio Rojo,” “Aftershock,” and his trilogy of comedies, “Que Pena Tu Vida,” “Que Pena Tu Boda,” and “Que Pena Tu Familia.” It makes it that much weirder when things go south for the kids if you have seen those films, though.
Last year, they were here with “Aftershock,” which Lopez directed and Eli acted in, and there were definitely things I liked about “Aftershock.” I thought it took an unfortunate turn in the second half, although as I understand it, some of that was later re-edited. Still, I like the idea that Eli and Lopez have forged this relationship where they are not only working outside they system, but that they’re determined to build a brand-new system all their own. This is the kind of thinking that more genre filmmakers need to embrace if they plan to make films on their own terms. Actually, scratch that… this is the kind of thinking that ANY filmmaker should be looking at right now. The traditional models are failing us as the money people become more and more scared, as they insist on safety that really isn’t that safe, and it’s only by refusing to play that game that you’ll end up making the things you really want to make.
By calling this a “cannibal movie,” I’m pretty much giving the game away, but they’ll do that in the trailers, too. What’s obvious is that Eli has seen all of the movies in this particular infamous subgenre, and he’s made a film that almost serves as a primer on everything he loves about them. He didn’t do anything I expected in the way I expected, and it feels like he’s really pushing to subvert what people might think is going to happen in the film. If you pay attention during a classroom scene early on, you’ll have a good idea of where one part of the film is headed, and he gets the most tension in the movie out of the way he finally pays that idea off. I’ll admit… that moment was almost unbearable for me because it plays very, very dirty, but Eli is determined here to actually have fun, to keep you just on the line of where it would be too much to take, and I think he does that well.
Shooting in the Amazon gives you production value that is beyond anything you could build or even beyond special effects. The film is lush and green and dense, and the real locations seem just as hazardous as the natives. In addition to cannibals, there are black leopards and giant ants and dangerous rivers, all of which seem just as intent on killing the young cast as the natives are. The kids really throw themselves into it, and the stories they were telling after the film make it sound like it was the experience of a lifetime. The performances in the film are all over the place, but I think part of that comes from shooting in extreme conditions and shooting fast. One of the most remarkable parts of the movie is the location of the cannibal village and the actual villagers that Eli cast. He could not have asked actors to have played these roles this way, and it works to the film’s benefit. Once the movie reaches Peru, it hits a stride that it sustains for the rest of its running time, and overall, I think it really delivers on its promise.
It’s rare that I feel the need to mention credits during a review, but there are two things Eli does during the closing credits of this movie that deserve mention. When the cast’s names scroll by, their Twitter handles are listed right there beside their names, an ingenious way of giving the young audiences that turn out for films like this to reach out immediately to their favorite characters and tell them what they thought. Then towards the end of the credits, Eli actually lists all of the films from the cannibal subgenre, complete with all of the titles they were released under and all the various aliases used by the Italian filmmakers. It’s hard to holler about his influences when he goes out of his way to make it clear that this is all meant to honor those films and build from them. It is a no-apologies horror film, and definitely feels like an Eli Roth film from start to finish. Onstage at the Ryerson during the Q&A after the movie, Eli announced that they have officially started pre-production already for “Beyond The Green Inferno,” which Lopez will direct, and I suspect this back and forth is going to be a major chapter in the careers of both men, and that they’ve got plenty of nasty surprises they can spring on audiences for years to come.