Eli Roth explains his penchant for fabricated blood and guts by recounting his sensationally unconventional bar mitzvah party in which a magician pretended to saw the young Roth in half—a grotesque symbolic act, which was followed by a screening of the classic slasher film _Mother’s Day_. Besides foreshadowing Roth’s career trajectory, the anecdote demonstrates a key element in the 33-year-old director’s nascent success: He knows what the people want and delivers the goods, tradition be damned.
“People remembered it as the greatest bar mitzvah party of the year,” says Roth, whose feature film debut _Cabin Fever_ garnered a palpable cult following in 2003, leading to his sophomore splatterfest _Hostel_, released this past January to rousing box office success. Roth directed _Hostel_ for a budget under $5 million and was in the green after its debut weekend, opening in first place at the box office with a $19.6 million gross. He estimates his own director’s salary at roughly $10,000. “I showed them that you can be smart about how you spend your money,” Roth says confidently.
The gruesome visuals at the heart of _Hostel_ follow in step with the dystopian, suburban nightmares of the 1980s slasher flicks, which critics viewed as a metaphor for the repressed social dissatisfaction over the nation’s unbalanced distribution of wealth. Roth continues the conversation overseas in a film, which implicitly critiques the inequalities fostered by globalization and the American tourist fantasy. The film follows three young Euro-trippers on a hedonistic route through the grimiest of pleasure outlets the continent has to offer. From sleazy whorehouses in Amsterdam, the trio travel to the film’s namesake, a supposed party heaven in the Czech Republic that turns out to be an expensive playground for sadists. Tourists are lured in, kidnapped and horrifically tortured by anyone willing to shell out the dough. _Hostel_ reaches its symbolic peak during the gory final act, when the blood-soaked hallways of the human butcher shop come to bear a chilling resemblance to the whorehouses of the opening scenes. “It’s the whole idea that everybody has a price,” Roth says. “Everything is commodified. That’s what I think it’s like in a lot of these post-communist countries where the dollar has taken over. It brings out some of the worst, sickest parts of human beings.”
The tourists themselves are no less culpable. “You hear guys talking about how they go to Europe and they think they’re going to go there and just buy everybody,” Roth continues. “They think â€˜We’re Americans. We have dollars. They are poor, they’ll do anything we want.’ I think that attitude comes back to bite these guys in the ass.’”
The seething social criticism blended with the shock-inducing violence is in no small part why _Hostel_ had audiences flocking to theaters. Though _Hostel_ was produced by Quentin Tarantino and distributed by Lionsgate, no one in their wildest dreams imagined it would briefly surpass holiday blockbusters _King Kong_ and _The Chronicles of Narnia_. “You’re off in the Czech Republic making this chainsaw movie, you don’t think you’re going to open up against these other movies,” Roth says, bubbling with enthusiasm. “Suddenly, we’re pulling up ahead of _Narnia_. That’s a $200 million movie.”
“What? We beat the Jesus-lion?” he says, referencing the Christian symbology at the heart of _Narnia_.
He laughs mischievously. “The Jews killed him, after all.”