After a controversial debut at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, with critics decidedly divided on its worthiness, “The Green Inferno” has finally made it into local movie theaters through a new distribution deal with Blumhouse Tilt. It was supposed to be released a year ago by Open Road, but financial issues prevented that from happening. Now, it’s finally available to horror fans across the nation on some 1,500 screens. And despite the delays and controversy, Eli Roth’s tribute to cannibal films from Italy in the early 80’s is one very affecting horror movie. Indeed, its violence is hard to watch, but it’s also expertly crafted and creates a tension that never lets up throughout its 100 minutes.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about it isn’t its bloodletting, but rather the skill apparent in every frame of the film. Eli Roth’s ambitions may not extend much beyond a loving tribute to the 1980 horror exploitation classic “Cannibal Holocaust”, but every frame here shows a thorough commitment by Roth to bring his vision to glorious, and goriest, life.
The story centers on Justine (Lorenza Izzo), an idealistic New York University student looking for something more meaningful in her life than typical dorm shenanigans and her rich daddy’s expectations of his baby girl. Thus, the restless coed falls in with a group of campus protestors led by the charismatic Alejandro (Ariel Levy). She’s both attracted to him and wary of his aloof judgment of her. She wants to impress him, but isn’t sure if he’s as passionate about his causes as he is his own “too cool for school” reputation.
Rejecting the cautionary advice from her United Nations envoy father (Richard Burgi), as well as her cynical yet knowing roommate Kaycee (pop singer Sky Ferreira), Justine flies down to the Amazon with a group of collegiate do-gooders to stop the bulldozing of the rain forest. Miraculously, the youth affect change for the better down there, and without any bloodshed. But then their small plane blows an engine as they’re heading home and they end up losing half their gang in a wrenching crash. Those left alive are injured, shocked and stranded in the jungle. Suddenly, the native population they were trying to protect descends upon them and turn the college kids into their prisoners.
Roth develops his university characters quite well in the first act. He also creates an air of tension around their dynamics with each other and that adds to the palpable sense of dread that comes with their excursion into unchartered territory. Roth is particularly good in developing Justine. As played by the striking Izzo, she is smart but stubborn. Her rebellious ways lead her to miss certain warning signs, and her realization that she’s been duped draws the audience even closer to her side. When she squirms as the natives paw all over her, so do we.
Roth also has written a very clever script, along with Guillermo Amoedo, as it shrewdly foreshadows a number of plot points with deft wit. It clues us into a number of incidents and fates if we’re paying attention, and maliciously points to the first victim to be eaten by the cannibals from the moment he appears on screen. (Hint: he’s the one that looks like the biggest feast.)
The film looks like a million bucks from first frame to last. The NYU scenes bristle with autumnal chill as much as the Amazon scenes gorge on green and humidity. The sharp, colorful cinematography is by Antonio Quercia and it’s a remarkable achievement. The framing of every scene is composed well, and even the handheld shots are steady and clearly show what’s going on, even with all those native extras crowding into frame. Roth and Quercia make sure that the natives are terrifying to watch, but beautiful in their way too. Their rich red body paints suggests both the devil and a passionate tribe that doesn’t like interlopers. The film has a lot of symbolism like that, and it’s rather intellectual for what some see as only an exploitation flick.
Roth’s pacing, editing and sound design brilliantly ratchet up the tension with each passing minute. He shoots an amazing plane crash that can stand with those in “Alive” and “Fearless.” And his maturity as a filmmaker is obvious as he is letting the audience fill in a lot more blanks than he did when he dwelled on the gore in movies like “Cabin Fever” and his “Hostel” movies. For a movie that has people tortured and eaten, his presentation of such horrors are, dare one say, quite palatable. The average episode of “The Walking Dead” on AMC television is more explicit than most anything we’re shown here.
The one place where Roth stumbles a bit is in the effects in his death scenes. They seem rather fake a great deal of the time and one wonders if they were intended to be a bit on the unbelievable side to make things less nightmarish. When one character’s eyes are gouged out, the scene doesn’t look authentic and it almost is laughable. Later, some of the severed limbs have a rubbery quality that seem as much like comic props as those in “Shaun of the Dead.” Compared to the all-too realistic mutilations in “Cannibal Holocaust”, this film seems almost to be parodying that gross-out classic.
But while the rubber arms and torsos don’t wholly convince, most of the actors do. Izzo screams and acts petrified with an aplomb that could give Jamie Lee Curtis a run for her money. And everyone in the cast makes you feel each drip of sweat and rush of panic during their incarceration in the native pig pen. Special kudos to Daryl Sabara for providing such adept comic relief throughout. It’s just a shame his character doesn’t quite make it to the final reel.
Roth even manages to sneak in some political commentary here. You’d think he would side with the kids fighting against corporate villainy, or that he’d sympathize with the cannibals who merely want to protect their world from marauding intruders, but no, Roth rejects every vested party. They’re all selfish and politically motivated here. Everyone has only their own interest at heart, and by the end of it all, Justine has learned a hard lesson in trust and motivation.
“The Green Inferno” is not for every horror fan out there. If the mere idea of someone being eaten alive gives you the heebie-jeebies, you’re probably better off staying away. But this film is so much more than just a loving homage to the Italian sub-genre of horror from 30 years ago. The severed limbs are here, sure, but so is Roth’s heart. He’s made a film filled with artistic merit, genuine terror, and a welcome maturity to his oeuvre, as well as that of the genre.