Eli Roth is strolling past gore-covered zombie soldiers on a recent evening, the sound of terrified shrieking in his ears, a look of pure joy on his face.
“Dead soldiers — wow, they sure crossed the boundaries of taste with that one,” he said appreciatively as he walked through one of the “scare zones” at Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights. “That’s awesome.”
The director of such low-budget horror hits as “Cabin Fever” and “Hostel,” Roth, 43, is a connoisseur of haunted houses and other Halloween attractions, and for him Halloween Horror Nights is the standard bearer and an annual place of pilgrimage.
Other people come to scare themselves silly in the park’s mazes as performers dressed as serial killers, ghouls and monsters burst out of dark corners wielding bloody knives and chain saws. Roth comes to experience a special kind of bliss and quiet contemplation.
“This is like my Christmas,” Roth says. “I’m completely and utterly happy. As people are screaming, I’m pensively reflecting on my year: What have I achieved? What goals do I have?”
Roth has a lot to reflect on this year. Within the space of two weeks, he has two new films hitting theaters — his first directorial efforts in eight years. The darkly satirical horror film “The Green Inferno,” which opened Sept. 25, concerns a group of young activists who fall prey to a tribe of cannibals deep in the Amazon rain forest. In the sexually charged home-invasion thriller “Knock Knock,” which was released in theaters and on VOD on Oct. 9, a pair of beautiful young women seduce a middle-aged married man and then subject him to various forms of torture.
Both films feature Roth’s trademark delight in seeing unspeakably awful things happen to sheltered suburbanites who stray out of their comfort zones. But “Knock Knock” — which stars Keanu Reeves and, like “The Green Inferno,” features Roth’s wife, Chilean actress Lorenza Izzo — marks a stylistic shift for the director. The horror is more psychological than visceral, and the level of blood and gore, compared with Roth’s earlier films, is surprisingly low.
Reeves sees “Knock Knock,” which hearkens back to erotic thrillers like “Fatal Attraction” and “Basic Instinct,” as more of a morality play than a simple fright-fest. “I’ve never thought of Eli as just a horror filmmaker,” the actor says. “There’s always a lot of subtext going on in his movies. He’s an auteur in a sense. Like his movies or not, he’s making very personal art.”
Roth’s next film, an adaptation of the bestselling 1997 giant-shark novel “Meg,” will represent an even greater leap for the director. Due in 2017, the movie will mark his first foray into the realm of big-budget studio tentpole fare.
“Your tastes change, and I don’t want to repeat myself,” Roth says. “I love horror. I live and breathe it. But I never want to be bored of it. Ten years ago, I was still very much about making a name for myself, and now I’m comfortable with that. I just want to make great movies. I want to have a career like Steven Spielberg or Ridley Scott.”
But lest any fans think that the man credited with creating the sub-genre of “torture porn” is getting soft or going Hollywood, fear not.
Asked what attracted him to “Meg,” which is in the works at Warner Bros., Roth says, “I love the idea of a shark that eats people like Pac-Man eats dots. I want to see a line of surfers and the shark just chomps five of them in one bite. It’s going to be so much fun!”
Having made his way through the “Halloween,” “Walking Dead” and “Insidious”-themed mazes, Roth is now midway through the “Alien vs. Predator” maze. He entered a room in which a woman lay on a bed, being eaten alive by an enormous alien. She screamed and writhed in agony, simulated blood and guts spilling everywhere. Roth broke into applause. “That is a work of art,” he says.
In person, Roth — who grew up in Newton, Mass., the son of a psychoanalyst and a painter — comes across as friendly and open. When fans recognize him from his directing work or his acting role as Sgt. Donny Donowitz, a.k.a. “The Bear Jew,” in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” he greets them warmly and smiles for pictures. He hardly seems like the type of person who would clap at the sight of someone being eviscerated. “He’s a nice Jewish boy,” Reeves says.
Still, for all his geniality and his talk of moving in new directions as a filmmaker, Roth maintains his core love of the sick and twisted. In the gleefully offensive “The Green Inferno,” that side of him is given full expression. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends on how much one relishes the idea of watching people being butchered and eaten. (“Finish your popcorn early if you’re going to ‘The Green Inferno,’ and save the bucket to barf in,” one critic wrote.)
After being orphaned last year because of a financial dispute between its original distributor and production company, “The Green Inferno” was picked up by Blumhouse Productions and released in roughly 1,500 theaters under a new label called BH Tilt. The film opened to $3.5 million at the box office, below what Roth’s other films have earned but a respectable showing for a splatter-filled, hard-R cannibal movie.
“‘The Green Inferno’ is not what I’d call a broad audience movie,” Blumhouse founder and CEO Jason Blum says. “It’s bloody and gory and crazy and it’s not for everybody. But I thought it was terrific and perfect for this new distribution model we were trying.”
Roth is perfectly happy to see critics and audiences divided over “The Green Inferno” — and all of his films for that matter. “There are some people that look at ‘The Green Inferno’ and call it a work of art, and there are other people who dismiss it as vile garbage,” he says. “My job is just to tell the story. You can’t control how people are going to label it.
“A lot of cinema is dead; it’s just dull and boring. There’s a bias against making a movie that’s fun and entertaining. Everyone gets so caught up in awards season, which doesn’t mean anything to audiences. No one rewards the types of movies that I make — and that’s fine. My goal is to make a movie that 10 or 20 years later people are still watching and enjoying.”
For Roth, the ultimate reward came in 2011 when “Hostel” was turned into an attraction at Halloween Horror Nights. One night during its run, Roth himself worked in the maze incognito, dressed as a torturer, terrorizing random strangers.
“To have something that was in your head and now people are walking through it … ” he says. He trails off and smiled at the memory. “That was the best.”