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A Disarmingly F-f-f-rightening New Horror Hero

January 5, 2006 By:
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Eli Roth

Despite all the critical hoopla and applause, Eli Roth still can’t count on his actors to give him a hand.

Most likely, they have none left.

For Roth, whose macabre and mordant new movie is set for a “Hostel” takeover of screens Friday, Jan. 6, becoming a member of his acting company is tantamount to becoming a dismember.

Blood, gore, murder, sex … is there anything he’s left out?

“Yes,” he says with a charming, boyish smile belying his battered cast syndrome. “I’m a nice Jewish boy.”

And one with an infectious insight into horror flicks that is so scary — who could forget the flesh-eating infection that scarred the characters and audiences’ dreams in his first film, “Cabin Fever” — that one wonders what his psychiatrist dad makes of all this?

“That’s how he gets it out of his system,” laughs Roth of his father’s favorite response to those who wonder if the gruesome grapes of Roth provide vintage whine.

They sure do — and a scream or two, too.

Some audience members have gotten physically ill — at least one has fainted — during early screenings of “Hostel,” which pleases Roth royally.

What does Roth hope for in this walk on the wildly graphic side? “I’m hoping there will be a number of walkouts,” he says.

That — and some dizzy spells — would spell success.

Ah, what a rave review, he says.

Is he raving mad? No, raving smart. None other than pulp-meister Quentin Tarantino is his patron producer, serving as the film’s “presenter.”

Indeed, it was the “Kill Bill” filmmaker who thought his friend Roth had a killer idea in making a flick about people so jaded and inured to life, that they got their kicks through a matchmaker service that would have Yenta yelping with disgust.

For a fee — depending on the nationality chosen — applicants get to choose a “match,” whom they proceed to meet, and dismember, depending on their fearsome fetish.

It is so … disarmingly … done and is, as the innocent Americans abroad discover in Slovakia-set but Prague-shot “Hostel,” the ultimate meat market.

The Slovakia Chainsaw Massacre? To a degree — but, then, fact can be more horrific than fiction. “I actually heard of cases in Thailand where, perfectly legal, people would offer themselves to be killed for $10,000. People would buy the opportunity, go into a room and shoot them in the head, and the [victim’s] family — the people are so poor there — would get the money.”

Sick transit glory? In adapting that scenario, Roth has scripted/directed a gore-filled film that has garnered glorious attention. Tarantino almost did a tarantella with delight over the script. “Eli’s really found a way to push the envelope,” he says. “No one’s ever seen anything like this.”

Well, the envelope’s pushed back. And if Roth is “the future of horror,” as he has been called, who knew that future would include a director with memories of a Bar Mitzvah whose entertainment was so slice of life? u

“We hired a magician to saw me in half.”

With “Saw” and “Saw II” taking up bigger cuts of Hollywood’s grosses these days, is it any wonder that gross-outs are in? But “Hostel” is at times hilarious, too, in an intended way. There are chuckles amid the chunks of human meat tossed off; humor among the hacksaws.

“I love sick humor,” says the New York University film-school alum and Mel Brooks minion who snared a Student Academy Award in 1995 — much to the chagrin of the faculty, “since they called my work ‘sophomoric, offensive and gratuitously violent.’ ”

Well … someone’s gotta do it. And in “Hostel,” where student bodies are on display — “When my parents visited the set, I introduced my mother to Prague’s biggest porno star,” who was shooting a scene — and discarded, Roth’s Big Man on (Queasy) Campus

On screen, they’re doing a bang-up tourist trade in Slovakia these days even if it costs an arm and a leg to take in the sights.

And what sights. Audiences may consider hiding their eyes — there’s one eye-gouging splash that would have optometrists opting for the exit sign if they could see their way clear to do so.

While so much depends on the visual in “Hostel,” the oral operates on its own level.

In fact, regales Roth, if you listen carefully, “the first line in the movie,” when the American students disembark in Amsterdam, “is, ‘Hey, we can go to the Anne Frank house.’ And, later, in the disco, Josh [who is Jewish] says, ‘Let’s go to the Anne Frank house.’ ”

Homing in on his roots?

“Being Jewish is awesome,” says Roth.

And if you can’t make out those lines amid the make-out disco sessions on screen, “they’ll be in the DVD.”

A Head-Turner 
Family viewing? Pass the popcorn before passing out? Consider Roth’s own early childhood inspiration; a real head-turner. He saw “The Exorcist” at age 6.

“Actually, I wanted to watch ‘Killer Bees,’ but my father said, ‘Let’s watch ‘The Exorcist’ instead.’ ”

An exercise in future fear-mongering?

“I couldn’t sleep for two years after,” says Roth.

But no one’s going to snooze through “Hostel,” which has the frightening feel of the 1930s horror classics Roth so enjoyed. Horror without the hoary; Roth has a reel feel for the fear factor.

A modern-day classic? Roth contends he has much competition for that honor. “What can be scarier than the Bush administration?”

Indeed, he relates, it’s getting “harder and harder to scare people these days.”

What’s most scary is “our own capacity for violence,” opines Roth.

No surprise there. But there are many in “Hostel,” where big surprises come in small packages — especially violent ones. One of the more chilling scenes in the film revolves around roving bands of tykes bound to maim and murder if they don’t get their wads of bubble gum and candy from strangers.

Strength — and horror — in numbers? Roth remembers his own experience with such pint-size predators. “My first memory of that is in Egypt, where we went for my brother’s Bar Mitzvah, and all these little kids would surround us, asking for things. It was scary.”

Most frightening of all, however, and an inspiration for the director — who was transfixed by Asian influences in making “Hostel” — was a horror story with roots in Jewish drama.

His favorite fear and loving? “ ‘The Dybbuk,’ ” replies Roth.

No exorcism of a green-pea spitting child needed; more like chicken soup?

“We could do that,” muses Roth, playfully and jokingly mulling over his own distinctive remake of the S. Ansky antique.

“Of course,” he adds with a sly smile, “it would be a violent ‘Dybbuk.’ ”

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